Washing off the virus

Will we throw the environmental baby out with the bathwater?

By Peter Burnett

In canvassing our recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made bold statements about giving first priority to growing the economy through a business-led recovery. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann has deployed equally strong language about an ‘aggressive’ deregulation agenda.

The strength of such language must give anyone concerned about the environment pause for thought. There’s no doubt the economy will need some heavy duty kick-starting as we recover from the COVID-19 disaster.

However, might this crisis be used to justify a political narrative about environmental regulation being ‘green tape’? Could we, in the name of curing the current big crisis, end up accelerating the next big crisis, brought on by environmental decline?

Wrapped in green tape

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley already has a predilection for the green tape narrative. Announcing the current review of the Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) last October, she cast the review as an opportunity to cut ‘green tape’ and increase certainty for business.

The environment itself was only mentioned in the context of ‘maintaining high environmental standards’. Ley expressed no concern about the ongoing decline of the environment itself. And this was well before the COVID-19 crisis.

It is fair enough for the Government to look for increased efficiency, including in regulatory processes, as part of a plan for environmental recovery.

In federal environmental regulation, my first suggestion for efficiency would have been to fund the regulatory process properly. Successive governments have reduced efficiency by whittling departmental resources away through inflated ‘efficiency dividends’, code for general cuts. As a result, delays have gotten longer and longer, but of course they could have been reduced again by restoring the money.

But it seems that the Government is already on top of this one.

In November 2019 (ie, still before the crisis), it announced a $25m ‘congestion busting’ initiative to reduce delays in federal environmental assessments, including by establishing a major projects team ‘to ensure assessments can be completed efficiently and thoroughly in accordance with the Act.’

Recently, Ley announced that this initiative was delivering what appears to be significant progress. As of December, only 19% of ‘key assessment decision points’ were being met. But by March 2020 this had improved dramatically, to 87%. What’s more, the Minister says that figure should reach 100% by June 2020, all without relaxing any environmental safeguards under the EPBC Act.

In other words, the problem of slow environmental approvals will be solved in a couple of months.

I must admit to scepticism about this claim. I suspect that the assessments are much more superficial than they once were, more reliant now on accepting information provided by proponents and state regulators.

I also suspect that the introduction of user-charging for federal environmental assessments a few years ago, together with limited resources for compliance, mean that there are fewer projects under assessment. This is because proponents abandon a bias towards referring projects on a ‘just-in-case’ basis, in favour of a risk management approach, under which proponents weigh the costs of referral against knowledge that compliance action for failure to refer is unlikely.

However, let’s take the Government’s claims at face value for the moment and accept that regulatory delays, at least at the federal end, are on the way out. What else could they do to speed up environmental approvals?

More juice in the efficiency lemon

Even if individual statutory timelines are met, overall timelines can still be reduced, first by removing duplication between federal and state processes and also by removing delay at the proponent’s end. This latter kind doesn’t count as regulatory delay but is, of course, still delay.

Duplication is a complex issue and reform is a medium term task. But short-term gains could be achieved administratively, by forming federal-state task forces, ie by putting regulatory staff from both levels of government into a single team, tasked with shepherding the project through all processes as quickly as possible.

In the past I would have said the politics wouldn’t allow this, but I would also have said that a thing called ‘National Cabinet’ would never work. These are extraordinary times.

Proponents could also contribute to a task force model. I wouldn’t recommend direct secondment of proponent staff to task forces, as this is mixing the foxes in with the hens, but by increasing resources for their own project teams proponents could improve quality and responsiveness, both of which are essential to timely environmental assessment.

Avoiding the temptations of short-termism

So there are some gains to be had. Yet the temptation in a crisis is to grab onto anything and everything that might conceivably help deal with the problem at hand, taking a ‘tomorrow-can-look-after-itself’ attitude to any longer term consequences. And this is no ordinary crisis.

Beyond the marginal gains of efficiency, trading parts of the environment itself for a short term economic hit could look very tempting.

The OECD is alive to this issue and has come out with all guns blazing. In a recent statement, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría argues, not just against weakening environmental standards, but in favour of stronger standards. In his view, governments should seize ‘a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery … a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader well-being goals at its core, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience.’

In other words, kill two birds with one stone. Use your spending on post-virus economic recovery to advance longer term environmental recovery. Gurría has a three point plan for this:

First, align short-term emergency responses to long-term economic, social and environmental objectives and international obligations (ie, leverage your investment).

Second, prevent lock-in, not only of high-emissions activities, but also of impacts on vulnerable groups, who have been the worst affected by COVID-19. A key way to do this is through a fair transition to a low-carbon economy.

Third, policy integration. Integrate environmental and equity considerations into the economic recovery. This means that infrastructure investment, as well as government support to virus-affected sectors, should pass the test of contributing to a low carbon economy.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The OECD is often described as a club for rich nations. And rich nations, including Australia, could be expected to take a conservative view about maintaining wealth.

Yet this advice sounds rather left of centre. In fact, in an Australian context, it is redolent of the mostly unlamented Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government, which aligned its short term emergency responses to long term environmental objectives (think Pink Batts, 2008) and also pursued a fair transition to a low-carbon economy by compensating low income earners for the impact of the carbon price (think Clean Energy Future, 2011).

In my view the OECD is right but, in Australia, its advice may be cruelled by our recent political history. If the Government were to take the OECD’s environmentally-responsible but mildly collectivist advice it would be accused of taking the Rudd/Gillard path to disaster.

On the other hand, if the Australian Government follows through on its current rhetoric of a growth-led recovery and aggressive deregulation, we may be headed for solutions that throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Which will it be?

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

Review of ‘green tape’ for farmers throws up old conundrums – but also contains one gem

By Peter Burnett and Philip Gibbons

Wendy Craik’s review of the impact of national environmental law on farmers (Craik Review) was released quietly late last week by new federal environment minister Sussan Ley, nine months after it was received by her predecessor, Melissa Price. (That law, of course, is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, or EPBC Act. It’s up for review later this year and for many years farmers have been complaining it places an unfair burden on their agricultural activities.)

Craik is a former Executive Director of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and former head of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. She is well respected by government, the farm and conservation sectors.

Useful but mostly problematic

Craik has handed over a good report. The review has produced some useful proposals, including ways to improve environmental information and to align existing research with regulatory objectives.

It does however throw up some old conundrums for government. Maybe this is why its release was delayed till after the election, and then done with little fanfare.

The review recommends keeping farmers informed about what they can and can’t do on their land by investing in environment department services and systems, yet Coalition governments have cut federal environmental resources by 40% in six years (ACF 2019). You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

It also prescribes a new $1 billion National Biodiversity Conservation Trust as a remedy for biodiversity decline, an amount exceeding existing funding under the National Landcare Program. Same problem, a good proposal but requiring considerable additional resourcing.

Craik also made a number of recommendations, including nationally-aligned policies and encouraging environmental markets, that would require genuine and ongoing federal-state collaboration on policy, something that has mostly eluded federal and state governments over nearly 50 years of trying.

The conundrums are not confined to the recommendations.

The review found that only 2.7% of the 6000 referrals considered under the EPBC Act have been for agriculture.

This is a striking statistic given nearly 90% of all land clearing in Australia is for agriculture, suggesting that the EPBC Act is significantly under-applied and (from the government’s perspective) an indigestible outcome from a review originating in farmer complaints of regulatory burden.

Ley’s brief media release implies that she will defer responding until completion of a much larger review, the forthcoming second 10-year statutory review of the EPBC Act.

It is little wonder Ley is kicking the can down the road, a decision no doubt aided by current controversy concerning Minister Angus Taylor’s involvement in some of the events behind the review (Guardian 2019).

A gem of an opportunity

There is one recommendation however that presents a gem of an opportunity for immediate action.

One of the triggers for the review was complaints by farmers in the Monaro region of southern NSW about the combined effect of federal and state laws affecting the management of native grasslands on their properties (farmonline 2017).

The review prompted a ‘well-resourced’ offer from NSW that federal and state officials work together on two pilot studies, one in the Monaro, to identify what biodiversity needs protecting under both federal and state law and how to achieve this.

Craik supported the idea, proposing the production of non-statutory regional plans under an independent chair.

The NSW offer is significant. The traditional approach of the states towards federal environmental regulation has been to resist and contain, especially in regard to on-ground management, which the states have seen as their exclusive role and a major bulwark against federal jurisdiction creep.

Previous attempts at regulatory collaboration, such as the ‘one-stop-shop’ for development approvals, have focused on regulatory change negotiated between officials rather than on-ground management and service-delivery, and have been conducted in an atmosphere that was at least lacking in trust, if not adversarial.

A genuine attempt to work together on the ground, along with local stakeholders and twin aims of protecting what is ecologically significant while also making life easier for farmers and other businesses, has much better prospects of building the trust necessary for effective regulation. It would also be a valuable investment in social capital.

Cynics may regard the prospects of successful on-ground collaboration as limited. The problem is, we have tried most of the other options with limited success, especially over time.

The environment continues to decline, dramatically according to the latest UN report. The opportunity to trial collaborative regional planning is too good to leave in the in-tray.