Nature Repair Market bill may repair the environment, but is it the Budget that will need repair?

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By Peter Burnett

Environment minister Tanya Plibersek’s draft Nature Repair Market bill, currently out for public comment, appears to form part of a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy on nature repair.

Right from her first domestic speech as Minister last July, Plibersek has said consistently that the environment is in a bad way and getting worse. And — citing an estimate of more than $1 billion a year to restore landscapes and prevent further degradation— that the cost of repair is beyond the capacity of governments alone.

Plibersek believes the answer lies in finding industry and philanthropic partners. She says that markets can put a value on improvements in biodiversity, enabling landholders to be paid for their services to nature and allowing businesses, among others, to invest in the biodiversity credits that landholders would produce.

The Nature Repair Market bill certainly aligns with this framing, but I don’t think the investors will come, at least not without inducements.

Let me explain.

Nature Repair Market Bill

The bill itself is very similar to the Agricultural Biodiversity Stewardship Bill introduced by then-Agriculture minister David Littleproud before last year’s election. It addresses what can be regarded as the five foundations of efficient and effective markets in nature:

  • standards, to guarantee that any credit given for repairing nature delivers genuine ‘additionality’ — ie, that nature really is enhanced by the action concerned and that the ‘benefit’ produced wouldn’t have happened without the action
  • methodologies, to allow experts on a Nature Repair Market Committee, including conservation biologists and ecologists, to spell out exactly what must be done to enhance nature in particular cases, whether by preparing the soil in a certain way, planting native species in a particular mix, or controlling for particular pests
  • certification by a Regulator, to ensure that repair projects are following the methodologies
  • implementation and compliance, to ensure the repair projects deliver the intended additionality in a measurable way
  • good governance, to ensure that all aspects of the scheme comply with the standards and are seen to be doing so; this requires strict role separation between minister the methodology experts and the regulator, as well as full transparency, so that market participants can see that the elements that give the credits their value are present at all times.

But the bill needs strengthening if it is to lay these five foundations in full. In particular, it comes with some ‘mutant DNA’ inherited from one of its forbears, the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011. This DNA was injected by the Abbott government in 2014 and blurs some of the boundaries between the policy role of the minister and the independent expert role of the Nature Repair Market Committee.

The bill also needs more transparency. The underlying principle should be that everything the Committee does should be publicly available, with a few narrow exceptions such as confidentiality while methods are under deliberation.

No doubt the government will make some changes itself to reflect its recent in-principle acceptance of the recommendations of the recent Chubb Review into the integrity of carbon credits, but the underlying principle is that integrity must not only be achieved but seen to be achieved. Anything less rests on a slippery slope towards greenwashing and impaired value.

Then there is the task, once the bill becomes law, of getting a swag of methods approved. This will be much harder for biodiversity than for carbon: a tonne of carbon is a tonne of carbon, but a unit of biodiversity has dimensions in structure, composition, geography and even history, and so may need to be defined in ways specific to a bioregion, ecosystem or area.

Take for example a site that has undergone pasture improvement with the application of fertiliser over time. This site will be more difficult to restore to its original condition than a similar unfertilised site, and sowing seeds and planting native trees on both sites will lead to different biodiversity outcomes.

Come hither, philanthropists, investors, one and all …

At the end of the day though, the biggest challenge is not building the scheme, but getting investors to come.

Philanthropy in Australia is limited, while the business case for companies to invest in biodiversity to build social licence is also very limited. And companies that invest in biodiversity certificates to deliver offsets are compensating for losses they are causing elsewhere — so overall, they deliver no additionality.

I think the government is wedged. If the investors do not come, it could look at some form of compulsion, such as a development levy with an exemption for companies that purchase biodiversity certificates. Any measure of this sort would be political poison without an election mandate.

Alternatively, the government could do what other governments have done over the years — fudge their way through by failing to collect comprehensive data and funding small tree planting programs to apply a veneer of greenwash. Apart from the policy failure this represents, I think Plibersek has already nailed her ‘no fudging’ colours to the mast.

The final option is for the government to stump up a billion or so each year to buy certificates itself. A billion against the Budget as a whole is not much, but a billion from the much smaller pile of ‘new money’ that the government puts on the table each year is a big slice.

Any large biodiversity certificate purchasing program the government did consider would likely come at the expense of either another portfolio or the Budget bottom line, because the environment portfolio was so run down by successive Coalition governments. It would represent an embarrassing, though survivable, retreat from ‘build it and they will come’.

Keep an eye on the coming May Budget for a response to the wedge. Or a cupped hand to the ear for the sound of raised voices emanating from a certain room deep in a well- known Hill in Canberra.

Banner image: Tree plantings and shelterbelts on agricultural land near Canberra. Defining what a biodiversity unit consists of is only part of the challenge in establishing a market for nature repair. (Image by David Salt)

New ‘Big Agenda’ for Nature faces many hurdles

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By Peter Burnett

This is a version of an article published on 12 December 2022 in The Conversation; it contains some additional material.

The Albanese Government’s ‘Nature Positive Plan’ reform package last week, announced by Environment minister Tanya Plibersek last week, is a much-anticipated response to Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. It will be a major plank in the Albanese government’s 2023 agenda.

The plan is packed with policy announcements, most of which stick close to Samuel’s recommendations. Major stakeholders have welcomed the package, none more so than Samuel himself, who expressed ‘complete elation and unqualified admiration and respect’ for Plibersek.

The heart of the plan is a bold decision to drop the current ‘box-ticking’ approach to development approval. Instead, decisions must deliver environmental outcomes that reflect new national environmental standards.

As Plibersek puts it, the government now has a ‘big agenda’ supporting a vision of ‘net zero and nature positive by 2050’.

Dauntingly for her, the path of this big agenda stretches far over the political horizon and is littered with hurdles.

Here are ten hurdles the minister will have to jump, just for starters.

1. Climate trigger

The Greens and several cross-benchers have already criticised the absence of a ‘climate trigger’ in the reforms. This would expose large developments to having their carbon emissions limited as a condition of approval. Developments might even be refused for excessive emissions.

The government argues that regulation should not duplicate other measures, especially the safeguard mechanism, which already limits emissions from major facilities. Fair point, but so is the concern that Australia’s primary environmental law, designed to protect matters of national environmental significance, does not deal with the most significant environmental threat of all.

There is scope for a limited climate trigger, to fill gaps in climate regulation, so perhaps a deal will be done. Large-scale land clearing is climate-significant, but not regulated for carbon impacts. Similarly, Australia does not regulate large developments for their ‘scope 3’ downstream domestic emissions (eg, domestic gas production). Now that we have a Climate Change Act and an emissions budget, there is a case for a reserve power not to approve projects on the ground that there is no room left in this budget to accommodate these omissions.

2. Weasel words in the standards

Setting standards for nature-based decisions is cutting edge; the idea is to spell out exactly what a healthy environment looks like, and how much environment we need.

Samuel worked with stakeholders to include some draft standards in his report; in doing so he rightly counseled against ‘weasel words’ — words that rob the standards of their punch, like ‘as far as possible’.

But one person’s weasel words are ‘flexibility’ to another. It won’t be easy keeping the devil out of the detail.

3. Sell standards to states

To eliminate duplication, a major bugbear for business, the reforms provide for states to be accredited to take decisions that are otherwise for federal government, provided they meet the standards. If the states agree to meet the standards for federal decisions, environment groups may push to apply the standards to state-only decisions. States will resist being driven by federal policy.

4. Get into bed with states on regional planning

Regional environmental plans sit alongside national standards at the heart of the reforms. Standards will define what needs to be protected, while plans will say where protected values lie and how much protection is needed, on a traffic light system: red for irreplaceable, orange for values that can be offset, and green for minimal restrictions.

Federation makes it almost essential that the federal government partner with states in preparing regional plans. Plans could be based on Australia’s 56 Natural Resource Management regions or 89 bioregions.

Plibersek has moved early, signing an MOU with Queensland to work together on regional plans on the day she announced the reforms. Even so, this is a long and winding road — time-consuming, expensive and politically challenging.

5. Forest deal

Regional forestry agreements (RFAs) are exempt from the EPBC Act, though both have been criticised for similar failings: inadequate conditions on development, inadequately enforced.

The Rudd government dismissed a similar recommendation pre-emptively. Labor still remembers the 1995 ‘siege of Canberra’, in which logging trucks encircled Parliament House.

One can almost feel the rumble of logging trucks in the cautious language of the plan to ‘begin a process of applying’ the new national standards to RFAs, in consultation with stakeholders.

6. Respect Indigenous views and values

Professor Samuel was rightly passionate about bringing true respect for Indigenous views and values into the EPBC Act. The challenges however do not stop with respectful engagement.

The Rudd Government endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and a Parliamentary Committee is considering its domestic application. A key UNDRIP principle is free, prior and informed consent. If we listen respectfully to Traditional Owners, but are told ‘no’, will this translate this into a veto?

7. Kick-start nature repair markets

The Albanese government has placed significant emphasis on the environmental role of the private sector, through ‘nature repair markets’. The plan promises to establish the functional components of these markets.

The government says it cannot foot the repair bill alone. That may be so, but the private sector is motivated by profit, supplemented at the margins by social licence and philanthropy. The government may build a market but with these motivations only a few will come. Often, there just is no business case for voluntary action.

It would be different if we put a price on biodiversity, as we briefly put a price on carbon but, thanks to Tony Abbott, that idea is ‘dead, buried and cremated’.

8. Offsets

Offsets seek to compensate Nature for approved loss, eg clearing habitat for construction. The compensation should be ‘like for like’, eg growing new koala habitat to substitute for cleared habitat. The bottom line is that if offsetting is not possible, nor is the development.

The plan will replace this last restriction with a rule that if offsetting is not possible, pay cash and proceed. Government will spend it on something else, applying a ‘better off overall test’ (BOOT).

If we run out of koala offsets, would feral cat reduction, which benefits quolls but not koalas, leave nature better off? Does the offset need to save two quolls for every koala lost, or is one for one enough? Tricky.

This policy would fit better with a policy goal of conserving whole ecosystems rather than individual species.

9. Build not just trust but support

Samuel found that all sides had lost trust in the EPBC Act. Some things are easily fixed. Full transparency, clear policies, reasons for decision given routinely.

Ironically, things that restore trust will tend to box decision-makers in, just as magicians would find it much harder to perform their tricks if we could see into the magic box.

10. Buckets of money

Of the many hurdles confronting Plibersek in the near term, the highest sits in her own Cabinet room, where she will seek funding in the 2023 Budget. One recent study found that federal and state spending, on threatened species alone, was 15% of what was needed.

Whatever funding is announced, history suggests it will fall several zeros short of what Nature needs.

Endurance race

The biggest problem with the EPBC Act has not been what sits within it, but what does not sit behind it. It has been chronically under-resourced and under-implemented. EPBC is a story of unrealised vision.

We cannot afford a repeat of the EBPC story — better to dig deep and make the Nature Positive Plan work.

Banner image: Image by Christel SAGNIEZ from Pixabay

The fifth and final transformation: Restoring trust in decision-making

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By Peter Burnett

This is the last of my series of blogs arguing 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 four transformations were to:

The fifth and final transformation is to restore trust in environmental decision-making.

Trust makes the world go round

It’s true, trust makes the world go round.

Democracies in particular depend upon it. Just look at the polarisation, indeed tribalisation, that has occurred in the United States, culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington on 6 January 2021.

Trust in government has declined in Australia as well. According to the respected Scanlan Research Institute, trust in the federal government (measured as people saying that they trusted the government at least most of the time) reached a low of 27% in 2013.

This recovered dramatically with the pandemic — trust in the federal government had more than doubled by 2020, to 55% — but it started to drop back again last year (48%). Even if trust were to stabilise around 50%, which seems unlikely, that’s not a great result.

There is no trust in our nation’s most important environmental law

Against that backdrop, it is not surprising that one of the main findings of the Samuel Review of the EPBC Act was that it was not trusted, either by business, who are regulated by the Act, nor by the wider community, who rely on it to protect the environment.

Business views the EPBC Act as cumbersome, involving duplication between federal and state systems; slow decision-making; and as facilitating legal challenges intended to delay projects and drive up costs for business (sometimes called ‘lawfare’).

Businesses are concerned in particular by long delays — for business, time is money.

A major project, such as a mine, can take nearly 3 years to assess and approve. For a business, this is far too long. Most people would acknowledge this.

The community on the other hand, are frustrated by the Act, viewing their participation as limited and process-oriented.

Often, people cannot see how the various environmental, economic and social considerations are weighed by the environment minister and are left with a general perception that outcomes are unclear, if not unsatisfactory. Compliance and enforcement are seen (rightly) as weak and environmental monitoring ineffective (also, clearly correct).

According to Professor Samuel, environmental groups often bring legal challenges because of these frustrations. They have the sense that decisions are out of step with community values, but do not have sufficient ready access to information to know exactly why.

Samuel’s recipe for restoring trust

Happily, Samuel had a recipe for restoring trust in the EPBC Act (or its successor).

His most important recommendation supporting trust is the fundamental shift from process-based decision-making to outcome-based decisions, applying the new national environmental standards (which I discussed as the first transformation). Standards would be supported by regional plans and stronger institutions, including information systems and compliance regimes.

If we had a set of environmental standards spelling out just what we need to protect and conserve, and knew that the environment minister was a) required by law to take decisions reflecting these standards and b) properly supported in taking those decisions by well-designed and well-funded systems, we could all sleep more easily.

But it’s not just the results that matter, but how we get there as well.

Professor Samuel’s other recommendations for restoring trust relate to efficiency, transparency and accountability in decision-making processes. He proposed:

  • Giving the community much more access to information, including Plain English guidance; opportunities to participate; access to information being considered; and routinely-given reasons for decisions.
  • A new and more influential set of statutory advisory committees, including an new and overarching Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) Committee to provide transparent policy advice to the minister on overall progress towards the outcomes set out in the standards
  • Adding ‘limited merits review’ (explained below) of development approvals to the existing broad standing of community groups to seek ‘judicial review’ in the courts (also explained below).

Judicial review, which is currently available for EPBC decisions, is the right to ask a court to overturn a decision, but only on the legalities — eg, that the minister failed to follow due process by not consulting everyone affected — and not on the merits, which concern the pros and cons of the final decision itself.

Merits review, often sought through a tribunal rather than a court, but not currently available for the most significant EPBC decisions, would get down to the pros and cons of the decision. Samuel’s ‘limits’ to this kind of review include confining merits review to decisions that have material environmental impacts and good prospects of success.

This is designed minimise review of minor decisions, or those that lack merit and promote delay.

For constitutional reasons Samuel could not simply recommend that the Parliament block all delaying actions by prohibiting access to the courts.

Will the cooks follow the recipe?

You have no doubt guessed from my description of Professor Samuel’s recommendations as involving ‘five transformations’ that I think his approach is ground-breaking.

As he himself hinted, the switch to a standards-based decision-making alone is transformative.

In this context, his further recommendations for increased transparency and accountability are icing on the reform cake. That’s not to say they are not important or long overdue.

But will the government go down this track? We’ll know very soon.

I think they will go for the general approach. However, the devil will be in the detail, especially in the detail of the standards.

The Morrison government pretended to start down the Samuel track by proposing an initial set of draft standards that simply repeated various process-based requirements from the existing EPBC Act. These ‘standards’ added nothing to existing rules and so would not have changed decisions. It was an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes.

If the standards-based approach is to work, it is essential that they spell out, in unqualified detail, exactly how much of the ‘matters of national environmental significance’ we must protect and conserve, if we are to maintain quality of life for ourselves and for future generations.

This will not be easy to do — hopefully our ecologists are up for the job!

We’ll also need some good lawyers — it is essential that the standards contain no ‘weasel words’, as Professor Samuel likes to say.

At the end of the day, people will only trust environmental laws that truly protect and conserve the environment. Transparency and accountability are important, but cannot carry the day by themselves.

Banner image: Trust makes the world go round. If the government wants trust restored in its national environmental law it’ll need to ensure it is efficient, transparent, accountable, but most importantly, that it delivers real outcomes. (Image by Tahlia Stanton from Pixabay)

Laying new foundations for environmental decisions: the fourth transformation

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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)

It’s ‘business as usual’, but at least there actually is plenty of business

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Senate Budget Estimates on the environment, November 2022

By Peter Burnett

Australia’s environment department has been run down over the past decade. I’m pleased to see from this month’s Estimate hearings that it’s getting extra resources. What does that mean? Let’s consider two areas, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

2022 is unusual in that the new Labor government has handed down a Budget, even though the previous government had already tabled the ‘normal’ Budget in March. The main objective for this extra October Budget was to fund election commitments and to de-fund programs from the former government that Labor did not support. Larger reforms have been held off until the next (normal) Budget, due in May 2023.

Some funding was redirected from old to new programs. For example, most of the money from the old ‘single touch approvals’ program, under which the former government wanted to accredit States to take environmental approval decisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, was redirected into reforming the Act itself, in response to the Samuel Review of 2020.

The environment department has been run down over the last ten years. It has lost core capabilities as well as programs. The budget put $275 million over four years into strengthening corporate areas of the department.

This sounds like dull stuff, but it bodes well for building capacity to get things done. However, it’s impossible to tell how close this amount goes to enabling the department to do things it needs to be doing, like putting boots on the ground to deliver programs.

Environment is such a big agency now — covering climate and energy as well as biodiversity, water and heritage, that it’s impossible to cover everything here. So, I’ve picked just two topics of interest for a closer look, biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

Endangered possum ‘on notice’

To illustrate just how low is the base from which the government is starting in this area, take Senator Rice’s attempts over 9 successive years to pin the government down on a credible recovery plan for the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, the faunal emblem of Victoria.

Senator Rice pointed out that a 1997 recovery plan for the possum had expired in 2002 — 20 years ago. A draft replacement plan had not been sent to the Victorian government for comment until 2019; moreover, it remains a draft.

Officials assured Senator Rice that things had changed under the new government and that ‘we’ve really been asked to give this priority’. Unfortunately, however, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee had identified the need for further research as to exclusion zones for possums in forestry areas.

Apparently, funding had been identified and ‘we’d expect that the research would start quickly’. How long would it take? ‘We will be able to take on notice the exact timeframe’ said the official. ‘I’m not sure how long it needs to …’

Aargh! Leadbeater’s possum may be a particularly bad example, but it is by no means unique. Things are crook.

Modelling pathways to goals?

David Pocock is a new Independent Senator for the ACT. He displayed both a strong interest in environment and a good policy brain by asking about two government commitments, ‘no more species extinctions’ and its ‘30-by-30’ commitment (to have 30% of land and sea in reserve by 2030).

Had the government done its homework? Specifically, could the government deliver on these commitments with the $56 million p.a. it had allocated to threatened species, and the zero new funding it had allocated to the National Reserve System?

Senator Pocock pointed out that a recent academic study suggested that it would cost $1.7 billion p.a. just to save threatened species.

And another senator asked, had the government modelled the path to these goals?

‘Have you modelled this?’ has become something of an easy (but often valid) question in Estimates, asked mostly in relation to economic policies, but now it is being asked of environment policy.

For the record, no, the department had not modelled these outcomes.

The threatened species money was an election commitment — ie, the Labor Party came up with the amount while in Opposition, though we don’t know how, and Senators did not ask. So we remain in the dark about why $56 million p.a. is the right number.

On the 30 by 30, officials told the Committee that existing proposed reserves, including Indigenous Protected Areas, would get the government to 27%, leaving a 3% gap, unfunded but possibly met through no-cost additions, including Defence land (which, counter-intuitively, is often of high biodiversity quality) and State-owned land that they might be persuaded to place in reserve (presumably at their own cost of maintaining).

While modelling may not always be useful, we do need to move away from this kind of ‘a-wing-and-a-prayer’ approach.

Both major parties tend to announce modest yet very specific amounts for environment programs. The specificity implies that budgets have been carefully costed, while the modesty of the amounts involved often points to the opposite — that the calculations involved were probably based on a political calculus (‘this sounds credible’) rather than technical assessment of the costs of reaching the policy objective.

To be fair to the government, a target such as preventing threatened species loss can be delivered through multi-pronged approaches, including tighter regulation of development. Direct on-ground spending may be only one string to their bow.

The point remains however, that serious environmental policy needs to be taken more seriously than it is, and grounded in detailed strategy, fully and transparently costed.

Indigenous heritage

In 2020 Rio Tinto demolished, with state heritage approval, a 46,000-year-old Indigenous site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The site was probably of global cultural and archaeological significance. The outrage at this destruction was global; it was made worse by the fact that national safety net mechanisms to protect Indigenous heritage failed to trigger.

As part of its response to the resulting crisis, the previous government began a process of co-designing a new national First Nations’ cultural heritage regime.

The new government has allocated $14.7 million over the next four years to continue this process. Officials described an ongoing process of detailed consultation:

“It’s very much our intent to talk not only with bodies and representative bodies but actually with communities and community members in order to get feedback about, if we are going to have a structure or approach which potentially gives First Nations people and traditional owners a much greater role in decision-making about heritage protection, understanding their concerns and approaches around all of that.”

All of this is welcome, though decades overdue and prompted by an unmitigated and avoidable disaster.

As an indication of the long-term neglect of this area, one of the national safety net laws, enacted in 1984, was intended to be interim, and included that word in its title to make this clear. The Act was amended several years later — not to insert a permanent mechanism but to remove the word ‘interim’!

Also welcome is the attention the government is giving to include sites with significant Indigenous heritage values in its World Heritage program, with nominations under development for sites in Cape York, the West Kimberley, and Murujuga (also known as the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, the site of over a million ancient petroglyphs of unknown origin.)

A small down payment

The Indigenous heritage processes in train are a rare example of good news in the environment portfolio.

On biodiversity, I think we could say that the new government has made a small down payment, but on a veritable mountain of environmental debt. The repayment schedule will be taxing and stretches out into the far distant future …

As to the rest, it’s a case of ‘watch this space’. Officials told Senators that the government was on track to announce its promised overhaul of national environmental law by Christmas and to legislate next year.

Here’s hoping the reforms are bold and innovative, because as Prince (now King) Charles has pointed out, we’ve been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.

Banner image: “So, I see the Australian Government is back in the business of resourcing environmental management. I’ll believe it when I see the outcomes.” (Image by David Salt)

Simplicity, harmony and the third transformation

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By Peter Burnett

My recent blogs have argued that there are five transformations implicit in Professor Graeme Samuels review of national environmental law, to which the Albanese government is about to respond.* The first transformation was to be driven by environmental outcomes rather than processes, while the second was to take Indigenous knowledge and values seriously.

Today I write about the third transformation, which is to simplify the processes of environmental regulation and harmonise regulatory outcomes between federal and state systems.

No more picking cherries

Proposals for regulatory streamlining, and for the alignment of federal and state environmental assessment laws, have been floated at various times over the last 30 years. Yet this goal remains elusive. Most recently, the Morrison government tried to pass streamlining amendments to the EPBC Act, but failed in the Senate.

The problem with the former Prime Minister’s proposals was that he picked the cherries (as he would have seen them) from the reforms proposed by Professor Samuel and pushed the other reforms out into the never-never. One of the messages from the (previous) Senate was that a majority of Senators wanted action that was comprehensive, not piecemeal.

Morrison’s reforms were dressed up as streamlining; however, they were better described as a devolution of responsibility from the Commonwealth to the states. Vacating the field is not a solution to duplication (at least, not here).

To my observation, the former Prime Minister didn’t have an environmental bone in his body. I’m convinced that he wanted to achieve ‘single touch’ approvals by simply extracting the Federal government from environmental decision-making as far as possible, rather than by negotiating a genuine compatability of different systems.

Officially, maintenance of environmental standards was part of the deal. In practice, it was a hollow promise: Morrison’s initial set of draft ‘standards’ were just a collection of process-based words taken from the existing law. They would have guaranteed nothing in terms of outcomes.

Easy as 1, 2, 3 …

In contrast, Graeme Samuel recommended a harmonising of both environmental processes and outcomes between federal and state jurisdictions. This is a much more ambitious proposal, although it’s easy enough to summarise.

In effect, Samuel wants to transform not just federal environmental regulation, but state regulation as well. His template is easy as 1, 2, 3:

  1. Develop national standards for ecologically sustainable outcomes and give these standards shape locally through regional environmental plans
  2. Build a leading edge, risk-based decision-making system, including comprehensive environmental information, extensive policy guidance, streamlined processes and strong quality control
  3. Accredit states to take most of the decisions, which should be easy because everyone will be singing from the same song-sheet!

But in practice …

Step 2 is perhaps the easiest of a difficult bunch. With enough time and money, information systems can be built, processes automated, helpful policy guidance prepared, and so on. All this would speed up decision-making but alone it doesn’t remove duplication or guarantee improved environmental outcomes.

It’s the harmonised standards that holds the most potential. If the standards were sufficiently high to stop environmental decline and the environmental planning processes met the standards, the feds really could accredit the states and then drop back to a ‘trust but verify’ brief.

The major challenge lies with securing the necessary genuine federal-state partnership to deliver on this ambition. The underlying problem is that, constitutionally, Federal and state environmental responsibilities overlap and, with the possible exception of the Morrison proposals above, neither side wants to play second fiddle to the other.

At first glance, the states are responsible for managing the major components of the environment — land, water and air.

However, environmental problems have been recognised increasingly over the last 50 years as ubiquitous and broad-scale — often national, sometimes global. As the pioneering ecologist Barry Commoner put it in the 1970s, ‘everything’s connected to everything else.’

Federal responsibilities for international matters, along with the federal government’s ability to use non-environmental powers such as its power to regulate corporations, have enabled the Commonwealth to deal with concerns such as the extinction of species, by overlaying State land-management responsibilities with internationally- and nationally-driven policy imperatives.

In response, the states have pushed back against what they see as creeping federal control, and continue to do so.

Another problem is that although Samuel’s proposed national standards are, on their face, for federally-protected matters only, if the states were to sign up to them to secure federal accreditation, it would be hard for them to apply lower standards to the rest of the environment.

To adapt Alfred Deakin’s famous 1902 prophecy about Commonwealth dominance in fiscal matters, the states could find themselves, ‘legally free but environmentally bound to the chariot wheels of the central government’.

Hardly a recipe for success, is it?

Yet I think Samuel’s policy prescriptions are the right ones. The threats posed by environmental degradation operate at landscape, if not global, scale and are, ultimately, existential, as is becoming increasingly obvious as more and more ordinary Australians feel the impacts of extraordinary natural disasters.

And the solution is …

We simply have to find a way to unravel this impossibly-intricate Gordian knot of a problem. These problems are wicked enough without adding inconsistent and even conflicting regulation to the mix.

Tradition has it that Alexander the Great solved the problem by drawing his sword and cutting the knot. Might Tanya Plibersek turn out to be a modern Alexander?

Stay tuned for my own Alexander-like solution in a forthcoming blog.

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

Banner image: So much complexity, so much variation in the manner in which the federal government and state governments regulate the environment. What would it take to wipe the slate clean and start afresh? (Image by David Salt)

Taking Indigenous knowledge and values seriously: The second transformation of national environmental law

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By Peter Burnett

In an earlier blog I argued that Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the EPBC Act amounted to a call for five transformations in national environmental law. Last time I wrote about transforming a system that is focused on process to a focus on outcomes. Today I write about the second transformation.

Something really struck me about Anthony Albanese’s election-night victory speech last May. After the usual ‘humbled by victory’ thank you, and the standard ‘bring Australians together’ call for unity, Albanese launched into what sounded like the passionate policy speech he had wanted to give all along, but couldn’t, because of Labor’s ‘small policy target’ strategy.

Warming up as he tripped across our future as a ‘renewable energy superpower’ and a more ‘just society’, Albanese reached full voice with:

And together we can embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We can answer its patient, gracious call for a voice enshrined in our constitution. Because all of us ought to be proud that amongst our great multicultural society we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world.

After the frustrations of weeks of restrained ‘don’t frighten the horses’ language (central to their election campaign), it was a relief to hear this leadership.

I also felt that the ground had shifted. Just as the election of the ‘Teal’ independents expressed our national desire, finally, to address climate change properly, Albanese’s confident commitment to the 2017 Uluru Statement marks, in my opinion, our desire to take the next major step towards reconciliation with our First Nations people.

When the ground shifts, everything moves

The implications of this commitment don’t stop with a referendum on an Indigenous ‘voice’ to Parliament. Or even with the other elements of the Uluru statement, truth-telling and treaty.

With Rio Tinto’s 2020 destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves still fresh in many memories (an act done with the ‘consent’ of the Traditional Owners), Graeme Samuel’s strong criticism of Indigenous tokenism in his review of the EPBC Act, and his implicit call for a transformation in environmental policy to take Indigenous knowledge and values seriously, now feel mainstream.

Mainstream such sentiments might now be, but integrating them into our national environmental law is still complicated and challenging.

Providing for ‘respectful consideration of Indigenous views and knowledge’ will take time and investment. Indigenous knowledge doesn’t grow on trees and respectful engagement will have to move at a pace with which Indigenous people are comfortable.

It is the same with our Indigenous heritage protection laws, which don’t just need to protect Indigenous values and set national standards, but fully resourced; and that includes building capacity for extensive and respectful engagement.

This is where the 2020 Juukan Gorge disaster showed up major weaknesses in the existing system. The caves in the gorge were probably eligible for protection under a National Heritage listing, but no-one had nominated them.

There was also a safety net: an old and supposedly temporary law from the 1980s allowed the environment minister to issue an Aboriginal heritage protection order, provided the place was under threat. But when lawyers for the Traditional Owners called the minister’s office about invoking that law to save the Juukan Gorge caves, the minister’s staff failed to put them onto the right officials.

So, no application was made.

We can’t let important values fall through the cracks because we were waiting for Indigenous people to fill-out a white-culture nomination form, or because someone rang the ‘wrong’ phone number.

Finally, Samuel recommended a move to true joint management of federal national parks on Indigenous land, such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Again, this will require significant capacity building. As he put it, ‘the magnitude and significance of a transition to greater decision-making for Traditional Owners should not be underestimated.’

It doesn’t stop with EPBC

Taking Indigenous knowledge and values seriously in environmental policy is not limited to the transformation recommended by Professor Samuel under the EPBC Act.

Now we need to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

When UNDRIP was first adopted by the UN in 2007, Australia was one of only four countries to vote against it. Thankfully, we reversed our position only two years later.

Now, belatedly, a parliamentary committee has started looking at UNDRIP’s domestic application.

This declaration raises a lot of issues, but I’ll zero-in on the clause that links most strongly with the EPBC Act.

Article 32 states that Indigenous peoples have the right to control development or use of their lands and other resources. Specifically, for development projects such as mines or roads, it requires governments to:

consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources. [Emphasis added]

The implication is that, in addition to the respectful engagement proposed by Professor Samuel, Traditional Owners should have a right to veto developments.

The brings in the Native Title Act, which gives native title holders a ‘right to negotiate’ but not a veto.

This Act is complex but, in general, if negotiations over, say, a proposed mine, are unsuccessful, the matter will go to arbitration. In theory, an arbitrator such as the Native Title Tribunal could stop a mine from going ahead, but the more likely outcome is that development will proceed under conditions, which might include negotiated compensation.

Where is all this going?

The Indigenous affairs agenda for 2023 is looking packed.

In addition to the referendum on the Voice to Parliament, the government’s environmental package based on the Samuel Review will, hopefully, transform environmental law concerning Indigenous knowledge and values, as Samuel recommended.

We may even see a change to the Native Title Act to give native title holders the right to veto proposed developments.

These reforms are not just politically ambitious, but resource-intensive. The political passion the Prime Minister displayed on election night will need to extend to opening the national wallet!

Banner image: Kata Tjuta in the Northern Territory. Graeme Samuel recommended a move to true joint management of federal national parks on Indigenous land. (Image by sgrabus from Pixabay)

Getting results: the first transformation of our national environmental law starts with ‘standards’

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By Peter Burnett

‘All that’s gold does not glitter’.

So opens the poem that Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, wrote to his cousin Frodo, the hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In my last blog I argued that, underlying the definitely non-glittering recommendations of the Samuel Review of Australia’s main national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, lay policy gold, a call for five major transformations in law and policy.

The first of these was to shift from a regulatory regime that was prescriptive and focussed on processes, to one built around the setting and pursuing of national environmental outcomes.

In doing so we would get away from our current ‘box-ticking’ approach to regulation, under which decision-makers (typically the environment minister) consider various factors such as biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle but, at the end of the day, decide pretty much anything they want to.

The main driver of this shift in Professor Samuel’s recommended reforms is the creation of statutory ‘national environmental standards.’

Standards both old and new

We are already used to environmental standards in dealing with certain issues. We have, for example, had standards for ambient air quality and contaminated site remediation for decades.

But we have gone down a different track with nature conservation. Early battles focused on saving precious places from development and indeed the environment movement in Australia was built on some of these, such as the (unsuccessful) fight to save Lake Pedder in the 1970s and the (successful) fight to save the Franklin River in the 1980s.

These were more battles of the heart than the head.

Things shifted in the 1990s. Under the banner of ‘sustainable development’, or, in Australia, ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ (ESD), we became more focused on conserving entire landscapes and ecosystems.

But we struggled to pin down exactly what we were trying to achieve. Unable to answer the question, ‘how much environment is enough?’, something we could have worked out if we had done enough science and environmental monitoring, we defaulted to a legalistic approach in which we asked decision-makers to ‘consider’ or ‘have regard to’ certain principles such as precaution or intergenerational equity.

The trouble with such principles is that they are too general to serve as standards and instead become ‘mandatory considerations’ in discretionary decision-making (ie, boxes to be ticked).

The only real limit on this discretion-based decision-making is the ability of the courts to strike down a truly egregious decision on grounds of ‘irrationally’.

The first transformation

Discretionary, bottom-up decision-making is no way to achieve a consistent and ecologically sustainable outcome. Professor Samuel therefore recommended flipping the system on its head: spell out what an ecologically sustainable environment looks like, partly through National Environmental Standards and partly through a comprehensive environmental planning regime, and then require that individual development decisions comply with these standards and plans.

Although transformative, this change seems straight-forward enough; why haven’t we been doing this all along?

One reason is ‘path dependency’. Because many conservation problems first emerged as place-based or issue-specific concerns, we started dealing with them on a reactive, case-by-case basis. This is how our system deals with most issues, environmental or otherwise. As such it was as comfortable as a pair of old slippers — and in we slipped.

Another reason is that we haven’t had the comprehensive environmental information or the deep ecological understanding we needed to draw a line between harm that ecosystems can absorb without losing their identity (resilience), and harm that they cannot absorb. We still can’t do that precisely, although technology and good science have brought us a long way.

More significantly, it is only now that most members of the political class, and indeed a majority in society, are coming to understand and accept that if we don’t act soon, it may be too late.

What would these standards look like?

If standards are central to halting environmental decline, what would they look like? Well, the devil is in the detail, but Professor Samuel included some draft standards in his report, so I’ll use elements of the threatened species standard to give you a brief taste.

In part, this draft standard just repeats some existing formulae, for example that approved developments should not be ‘inconsistent with’ relevant recovery plans.

On the other hand, it also introduces new requirements. One of these is that decisions must take cumulative impacts into account. Another is that decisions must avoid adverse impacts to critical habitat and ensure ‘no net reduction’ of critical habitat.

Note the use of the word ‘net’, which implies that environmental offsets could be used.

So, would they work?

My general view is that Samuel’s draft standards would deliver significant marginal gains, but are not worded tightly enough to halt further major environmental decline.

Just looking at the examples above, I think the following changes (and complementary measures) are needed to make the standard strong enough to halt decline:

  • it is not enough that developments ‘not be inconsistent with’ recovery plans — they need to comply with plans; moreover, the plans themselves must spell things out with much greater precision than existing plans, eg by mapping critical habitat to be protected
  • taking cumulative impacts into account is a significant advance, but doing so requires a major national exercise in gathering and maintaining environmental data over time
  • if a species is to recover, decision-makers must not approve impacts to critical habitat, rather than simply ‘avoiding’ them
  • further, if there is to be ‘no net reduction’ in critical habitat, then offset rules would have to be so stringent that I doubt whether they can be met in practice, which probably means that the word ‘net’ should go from this requirement.

And will standards become reality?

Having National Environmental Standards would be truly transformative for environmental decision-making and in my view they could indeed be policy gold, as long as we get the detail right.

By the same token, standards lack lustre for a reason. As you can see from these brief examples, formulating the right words of protection is not that hard. The real challenge is to build political support for the tough decisions that strong standards imply.

Banner image: Good clear environmental standards could provide a pathway to transform our national environmental law into something that makes a real difference. (Image by David Salt)

Five transformations: Breathing life into Australia’s national environmental law

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By Peter Burnett

I often write in these blogs about Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). My excuse is that the EPBC Act is the most important environmental law in the country, but it doesn’t work. This is something we all should be worried about, and, as you’ve heard before, this is a piece of legislation that badly needs reform. Australia’s new federal government is making hopeful sounds here but, again as you’ve heard before, talk is cheap.

The job of reform is big, complex and challenging. However, if you reflect on the basic aims of what the EPBC Act was established to achieve, I think it’s possible to envisage a simple pathway forward. And that pathway involves five basic transformations on how the Act currently performs.

The story so far …

The new Australian government has promised to overhaul the EPBC Act and to establish a independent federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In pursuit of this reform, environment minister Tanya Plibersek has promised to respond to Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the Act by the end of this year and to table proposed new laws in 2023.

Plibersek has hinted strongly that the government will follow Samuel’s recommendations, so that provides a clear starting point for discussion while we wait for the detail of the government’s plan.

From great green hope to great green flop

Looking back over the history of the EPBC Act — three years in development and 22 years in operation — it is clear that few of the high hopes held for the Act have been realised. While it expanded federal government involvement in environmental regulation significantly, the evidence suggests that the benefits of this have been marginal. Worse, when we look at the whole picture, the limited benefits achieved are partly offset by the resulting regulatory duplication.

The fundamental reason for this failure to deliver is not poor regulatory design, but gross under-implementation, mostly the result of under-resourcing and a lack of political will.

The EPBC Act can be seen as a three-legged stool on which most of one leg, dealing with environmental planning, is largely missing. (The other two legs protect the so-called ‘matters of national environmental significance’ and provide for environmental impact assessment.)

Most of the plans envisaged by the Act, and essential to its operational, are either vague in content, sitting unimplemented on the shelf, or simply not done.

Meanwhile, as Professor Samuel put it in his review, ‘Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat.’

What should we do about it?

The EPBC Act is highly complex. It is over 1,000 pages long and there are hundreds of pages of supporting regulations and determinations.

And the Act in turn sits within a complex set of roles, responsibilities, laws and agreements that govern the environment in Australia’s federal system.

Understanding the system is no mean thing, let alone fixing it. So, where to start?

When I went through Professor Samuel’s 38 recommendations, it struck me that he was calling for a complete transformation, in fact five of them. These are:

First, to change from prescriptive regulatory processes to setting and pursuing national environmental outcomes

  • the EPBC Act (and its state counterparts) focus on following due process, a ‘box ticking’ exercise that requires consideration of various factors such as biodiversity loss and the precautionary principle but, at the end of the day, allows governments to decide pretty much anything they like

Second, to shift from Indigenous tokenism to full use of Indigenous knowledge and a full recognition of Indigenous values

  • Samuel was highly critical of the tokenism of current arrangements, while recent events, especially the Juukan Gorge disaster in 2020, have generated considerable impetus for change

Third, to simplify regulatory processes and harmonise environmental processes and outcomes between federal and state jurisdictions

  • this isn’t just about ‘streamlining’ which has become almost a cliché, but a call for harmonisation of processes and outcomes across the nation

Fourth, to lay new foundations for quality decision-making

  • many of the foundations of the current system are either significantly under-done (eg environmental information, compliance and enforcement) or not done at all (eg bioregional planning across the continent)

Fifth, to restore trust in decision-making

  • damningly, Samuel found that none of the key stakeholder groups — business, environment groups and the wider community — trusted the current arrangements.

The reform process going forward

I’ll take a closer look at each transformation in a series of blogs over the next two months, in the lead up to Tanya Plibersek’s response to Samuel.

The reform debate will last right through 2023 and into 2024, as, once the response is on the table, there’s a large reform Bill to draft and an extended Parliamentary process to navigate as Plibersek seeks to shepherd her reforms through a Senate in which the balance of power, for the first time, lies with a cross-bench that is tinged a fairly dark shade of green.

Among other things, she will have to deal with very strong pressure to extend the EPBC Act by including a ‘climate trigger’.

My aim in the lead-up to that debate is to offer some points of focus in a discussion that always risks getting lost in its own complexity. (If you prefer to watch rather than read, I presented these transformations in a Parliamentary Library Seminar on 30 August.)

The problem is enormous and policy ambition needs to be high — bring on the reform!

Banner image: The job of reform is big, complex and challenging. However, it’s possible to envisage a simple pathway forward involving five basic transformations. (Image by David Salt)

Down into the weeds again – the new government announces a return to bioregional planning

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By Peter Burnett

In a recent speech at the National Landcare Conference, still-honeymooning federal environment minister Tanya Plibersek announced what she called the ‘third arm’ of the government’s environmental agenda, regional planning.

(The first two arms, by the way, are an overhaul of national environmental law following the Samuel Review (2020) and setting up a federal Environment Protection Agency.)

A little history

More correctly, Plibersek was announcing a return to regional planning. Federal and state governments first signed up to bioregional planning in 1996 as a key action under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity.

This National Strategy was our first attempt to meet our commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 that each country should have such a strategy.

In 1995, in the run-up to adopting the strategy, then-environment minister Senator John Faulkner convened a national conference on bioregional planning.

But with the conference done and the National Strategy signed-off, momentum dissipated. This was no doubt due to the change of government that followed.

Although the new Howard government remained committed to bioregional planning, and in fact legislated for it as part of its big and shiny new national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, there was a problem.

The EPBC Act was seriously under-funded. With available funds sucked up by the day-to-day business of project-based environmental assessment and approvals, there was simply no money left for bioregional planning.

Eventually, in 2012, a later government found enough money to prepare bioregional plans for four of Australia’s marine bioregions. But there have never been plans for Australia’s 89 terrestrial bioregions.

What’s on the table this time?

Fast-forward to the present.

Following a recommendation for regional planning in the Samuel Review (NB. no longer bioregional planning, although the name change is not that significant) the Morrison government put its toe in the water by announcing $2.7m in the 2021 federal Budget for a pilot terrestrial bioregional plan.

By the time Morrison lost government in May 2022, this pilot program had not translated into on-ground action. Instead, Morrison had put more money on the table in the 2022 Budget (tabled in the lead up to the May election).

This time the government announced some $63 million for up to ten regional plans. However, this Budget didn’t pass the Parliament before the election of the Albanese government and so we must wait until next month (October) to see whether Treasurer Jim Chalmers keeps this measure in his replacement 2022 Budget.

In the meantime, Plibersek has announced the government’s commitment to regional planning and laid down some markers. She acknowledges that the idea is not new and says she will build on good work already done.

She says regional plans will improve federal environment protection by providing insight into cumulative impacts and enabling threats to threatened species to be addressed more effectively.

Plibersek wants to cooperate with states and territories and she wants the plans to be integrated across land uses, programs and tenures. She also wants the plans to improve resilience to climate change.

And, significantly, she wants to start now, so that ‘regional planning will be well underway by the time we pass our improved environmental laws next year’.

It’s complicated

This is an ambitious agenda, particularly from the low base of a fragmented environmental information base and a depleted environment department.

What challenges will Plibersek face? To borrow the title of one of my favourite Meryl Streep movies, ‘It’s Complicated’.

Plibersek needs to partner with state governments, who traditionally resist federal government involvement in land management, which they see as both their backyard and their bread and butter (excuse the mixed metaphors).

She will need to offer incentives, and in this context ‘better environmental outcomes’ doesn’t cut it. If I were a state I’d be after money for environmental restoration, by the truckload.

Assuming one or more partner governments step forward, regional planning would need to integrate with a myriad of other plans which, depending on location, could include metropolitan plans and strategies, state environmental plans and policies, catchment management plans, town plans, local environment plans and so on.

Then there are other federal plans to fit in with, including the Murray Darling Basin Plan and Regional Forest Agreements.

Once the government gets into the planning itself, it will need a full suite of supporting policies. What are the planning objectives? Do they include creating reserves for areas of high environmental value, such as critical habitat? Should zoning for development be done on the basis of maintaining ecological function? Would development be allowed in areas containing significant environmental values and if so, would an environmental-offset policies such as ‘no net loss’ apply?

Then there’s the need for appropriate governance. There’s no point in doing these plans on a one-off basis. They would need to be revised regularly, say every five years. Climate adaptation will make this even more complex.

Finally, how would public consultation be undertaken and who would undertake it?

Climb lower mountains

I could go on but I’m running out of space. I think there’s a real risk here of taking up mountain climbing and choosing Mt Everest as one’s first summit.

Given the minister’s determination to move on this front ahead of her major reform package next year, the risks of this could be avoided by treating the early regional plans as experiments — by confining the exercise to two or three regions and focusing on skill acquisition and capacity-building rather than aiming to take a full suite of plans through to legal adoption and operational use.

I know it’s hard in a political context, but with something this ambitious I think it’s important to allow for failure.

Rather than tackle Mt Everest straight up, a little practice in the foothills could be just the thing. That way, injuries from the inevitable falls will be minimal; and the whole process won’t be discarded when the going gets rough.

Banner image: Image by Joshua_Willson from Pixabay