Laying new foundations for environmental decisions: the fourth transformation

By Peter Burnett

My recent blogs have argued that there are five transformations implicit in Professor Graeme Samuel’s review of national environmental law*, to which the Albanese government will respond in early December.

The first three transformations were to:

  • pursue pre-defined environmental outcomes rather than simply following legal process
  • take Indigenous knowledge and values seriously
  • simplify the processes of environmental regulation and harmonise regulatory outcomes between federal and state systems.

This blog concerns the fourth transformation, which is to lay new foundations for quality environmental decisions.

Money is the root of all … problems

One of the biggest problems with the EPBC Act is that it is a ‘jumbo jet’ of an Act run on a budget fit for a propeller-driven plane.

It has been like that during most of the 20+ years in which the Act has operated.

The original problem was that the environment minister behind the Act, Senator Robert Hill, pulled off something of a coup in getting the EPBC reforms through Cabinet and the Parliament. Many of Hill’s colleagues would likely have opposed the Bill if they had fully understood its scope and power.

As good as he was, Hill was not a magician and scoring a bucket of ‘new’ money to operate a new law with a much wider scope than the laws it replaced was a bridge too far.

The EPBC Act has had some particular financial ups and downs.

In 2007, after the Auditor-General criticised the poor implementation of provisions for protecting and conserving threatened species, the Act received a healthy injection of funds.

On the other hand, over the period 2013-2022, and especially following the notorious Abbott/Hockey ‘horror budget’ of 2014, resources for the environment portfolio, including the EPBC Act, were cut by around 40%.

The new Albanese government has just put some money back in, but it has started from a very low base. The Act remains significantly under-resourced.

Every Act has its consequences (or not) …

The consequences of this long-term underfunding, compounded in some cases by lack of political vision or will, are that many of the foundations of the current system of protection and conservation provided for by the EPBC Act are either significantly under-done, or not done at all.

Three of the most important identified by Professor Samuel were environmental information, compliance and enforcement, and environmental planning.

He described the collection of data and information as ‘fragmented and disparate’, while compliance and enforcement had been ‘limited’ and lacked transparency.

As for planning, while the Act includes a full suite of planning provisions, Samuel found that these provisions had yielded only piecemeal approaches and ad hoc efforts at coordinated national action.

For example, ‘bioregional plans’ prepared for four of Australia’s marine bioregions have never been updated, while no bioregional plans had been prepared for any of Australia’s 89 terrestrial bioregions.

In many respects such ‘under-institutionalisation’ is a perennial problem in Australian environmental policy. So perennial in fact that (ANU) environmental policy expert Professor Steve Dovers even had a name for it: ‘policy ad-hocery and amnesia’.

Of course, this doesn’t excuse such failures.

Samuel’s fix

As we’ve seen, Professor Samuel’s proposed fix is built around the new concept of national environmental standards.

If we are to avoid the ‘on paper, but not in practice’ problem of the current law, the standards will need to be complemented by a range of supporting institutions. Samuel made a number of recommendations in that vein, including:

  • Extending the concept of national standards beyond on-ground environmental outcomes, to deal with requirements for transparent processes and robust decision-making, including environmental data and information; and compliance and enforcement
  • A national data supply chain, managed by a supply chain ‘Custodian’, guided by a strategic plan and supported by adequate investment in new information systems
  • Independent compliance powers for the environment department, with increased transparency and accountability; and adequate resources
  • A new set of planning tools which emphasise strategic approaches at national and regional levels

To go beyond regulation and encourage investment in restoration, Samuel also recommended establishing a central Trust to coordinate public and private investment. While he didn’t mention money every time he made a recommendation, there is a clear sense in his report that none of this will work unless properly funded.

Over to you Tanya

Although environment minister, Tanya Plibersek has spoken positively about implementing the Samuel reforms, there remains a significant risk that this government will repeat the mistake of the Howard government by enacting laws that are strong on paper but weak in practice.

Putting a stop to the long-term decline of Australia’s environment will take a political courage, persistence and (last but not least) major investment.

It is notoriously difficult to obtain ‘new’ money in a government Budget. The lion’s share of expenditure is already baked-in and there are many competing commands for any remaining Budget ‘headroom’.

Plibersek is about to announce the government’s design for the next generation of environmental regulation. Even if it looks very different to the EPBC Jumbo, I’m guessing the design will still be in same ‘heavy lift’ Jumbo Jet class.

But will there be provision to fill the fuel-tanks and a hire a full complement of crew?

* Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, 2020.

Banner image: Australia’s national environmental law was sold to us as a ‘jumbo jet’ set of protections… but then they only provided enough funds to run a propellor driven plane.
(Image by Anja from Pixabay)

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