Administrative law: like the Curate’s egg, boring in parts, but environmentally useful nonetheless

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By Peter Burnett

“Off with her head”, said the Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland, when Alice couldn’t read the values of some face-down playing cards. The word of the Queen of Hearts was law. Not a good law, actually.

In the real world, ‘Bad King John’ of England (1166-1216) wanted his word to be law as well. While he might not have been quite so capricious as the Queen of Hearts, he was arbitrary and unjust enough to drive his barons to rebellion.

And that rebellion was settled by a set of rules called the Magna Carta in 1215.

While the Magna Carta is best known for establishing the mother of Parliaments and guaranteeing trial by jury (at least for ‘free men’), it also contained a number of guarantees against arbitrary action by the King and his officials — in other words, by government.

For example, King John guaranteed not to take anyone’s corn or chattels without payment and not to appoint incompetent or corrupt judges and officials.

As a result, the Magna Carta is also known for establishing the principle that government is not above the law and thus cannot behave in arbitrary and unjust ways.

This is the foundational principle of administrative law.

Now some believe ‘law’ is dry and boring, with the very mention of administrative law enough to send you to sleep.

I’m here to convince you that administrative law is far too important to be boring, though I will concede that it can be dry and tedious in the detail. In his book The Rule of Law, one of the great modern British judges, (Lord) Tom Bingham, gives the example par excellence of a tedious regulation:

    Any reference in these regulations to a regulation is a reference to a regulation contained in these regulations. (!!)

And administrative law certainly has failings, as we shall see.

What has this got to do with the environment?

How is this relevant to the environment?

Anyone who has followed environmental issues through the courts will know that many court cases concerning the environment turn not on environment-specific principles (such as precaution or intergenerational equity), but on general principles of administrative law.

One such principle is that decision-makers should not be biased, or even appear biased.

A recent, if extreme, example of an environmental case involving that principle concerned the proposed extension to New Acland Coal’s mine near Oakey, Queensland.

This case has a history of appeals and re-hearings too long to recount, but in brief, an environmental assessment was done and a draft approval issued. However, because there were objections raised, the case was referred to the Land Court of Queensland, which had the role of making non-binding recommendations to the Minister for Natural Resources.

The key point for our purposes is that when the case eventually reached the High Court, they sent it back to the Queensland Land Court for a third hearing. This unusual outcome was required because the first and second hearings were affected by the appearance of bias, rendering both hearings invalid.

In the first hearing, the judge had apparently been deeply offended by a newspaper article on the mine extension, raising the possibility that his subsequent decision to recommend against approving the development might have been biased by his taking offence, while the reasoning of the judge in the second hearing became ‘infected’ by the apprehended bias of the first because she adopted some of his findings (at the direction of one of the intermediate appeal courts).

The High Court’s decision was hailed by the Environmental Defender’s Office as a major victory, and in one sense it is. High standards of decision-making have been upheld.

Yet the case also highlights the process-heavy downside of administrative law. Even if the third hearing is finalised without further appeal, there will have been a total of seven court hearings and a decisional timeframe spanning nine years and counting.

And we still don’t know whether the mine will be approved!

Of course, this is grist to the mill to industry and politicians running a campaign against ‘lawfare and green tape’, but the delays are more due to poor regulatory design than to administrative law itself.

A new line of attack

One feature of administrative law is that although its substantive principles are relatively constant, governments provide new ways to apply those principles by passing a constant stream of new laws.

Take for example the current challenge by the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT) to the $21 million grant by Minister for Resources Keith Pitt to Imperial Oil and Gas, to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory.

In the past, it has not been easy to bring legal challenges to government decisions to give money away. Some recent High Court decisions and federal legislation have changed this.

For example, since 2013, federal government grants must comply with the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, which requires, among other things, that the minister making the grant be ‘satisfied, after making reasonable inquiries, that the expenditure would be a proper use of [public] money’.

A ‘proper’ use of money is defined in the Act as one that is ‘efficient, effective, economical and ethical’.

ECNT’s argument is that Minister Pitt committed an (administrative) error of law by failing to make enquiries about the climate risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin, as well as the economic risks of that development as the world transitions to a zero carbon economy.

As far as I can tell this is the first time this line of attack has been used, although the Beechworth Lawn Tennis Club, which is challenging the ‘Sports Rorts’ grants made by the Australian Sports Commission, may well be using similar arguments. (Did I hear you mention ‘car parks’ as well?)

Boring in parts, but definitely useful

So, there you have it. While aspects of administrative law can be boring, overall it is far too useful in securing good environmental decisions to be ignored.

It does however have its problems, as the tortured and scandalously expensive chain of decisions in the New Acland Coal case show.

As a result, one of the challenges of environmental reform, beyond saving the environment of course, is to design decision-making processes that are not only fair and effective, but efficient as well.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

‘Practical Environmental Restoration’

The new Government mantra (and more grist from the Estimates’ mill)

By Peter Burnett

The Senate held another round of its regular environmental estimates hearings and, once again, I thought I’d share with you what emerged. As I’ve said in the past, these hearings often contain valuable evidence on Government thinking and action.

The topics covered this time were mostly grist for the mill, but one item really stood out: the Government has become focused on something called ‘practical environmental restoration’? Heard of it? Neither had I.

Practical environmental restoration

The government has a bit of a thing about taking ‘practical’ action when it comes to the environment. This theme emerged as a way of contrasting the Coalition Government’s main climate initiative, the Emissions Reduction Fund, with the complexities of the previous Gillard Government’s carbon price (which Tony Abbott had labelled, confusingly but very successfully, as a tax).

And then there was the Government’s obsessive focus on the second-order environmental issue of plastic pollution while ignoring the first-order issue of climate change because this government is all about practical solutions.

In the last budget, brought down in the lead up to the 2019 election, the Government developed this ‘practical action’ theme further, introducing two new programs, an Environmental Restoration Fund ($100 million over four years) and a Communities Environment Program ($22.6 million in one year only).

Smells like a pork barrel

On the face of it, the Environmental Restoration Fund seems respectable. However, look a little closer one and it takes on the appearance of a pork barrel. With the fund established and an election called, the Government proceeded to make election commitments covering nearly 80% of the fund. According to a non-government Senator, some of the groups nominated as recipients knew nothing about the grants coming their way until contacted by someone from a Coalition Party.

With the government re-elected, these election commitments prevented the Environment Department from giving the standard advice about holding competitive grant rounds. It had no choice but to advise the Government to hold what officials described as a ‘closed, non-competitive’, funding round. This meant that the grant guidelines actually specified the recipients as the groups nominated in the Governments election commitments.

None of this is illegal, because various policy guidelines allow for standard procedures like competitive grant rounds to be overridden by election commitments. The theory is that the Government has a mandate to implement his commitments.

So it’s not a second ‘Sports-Rorts’ affair, with attendant allegations of illegality.

It is, however, a blatant case of pork barrelling, likely to lead to poor policy outcomes because the politicians have specified the grant amount, purpose and recipient without any public service or other expert advice.

With the environment in continual decline and a desperate need for restoration, this is another example of very poor governance.

School yard stuff

And the response of Minister Birmingham, the minister representing the Government at Estimates, to Opposition criticisms of the program? ‘I don’t have to sit here and accept hypocrisy from you. You made similar promises at the election.’

In other words, you are just as bad as us, so we can get away with this. At a time when trust in government is very low and the environment in significant decline, this is school yard stuff and a very sad state of affairs.

The Communities Environment Program is not much better. The fact that the program is limited to one year, immediately following at election, is unusual and strongly suggestive of the program being another pork barrel. The fact that the money is allocated to all MPs ($150,000 per electorate) allowing non-government MPs to access to the pork, is hardly a saving grace.

Again, this is bad policy. Small numbers of piecemeal local grants in a one-off program make no contribution to the big environmental issues that face the national government.

So what does ‘practical environmental restoration’ mean? Pork barrelling, obviously.

Grist for the mill

To finish, some quick ‘grist for the mill’ themes from Estimates:

  • There was the usual manoeuvering in which the Greens asked the Bureau of Meteorology questions designed to elicit strong statements about the severity of climate change, while One Nation asked questions directed to showing that the Bureau was cooking the books.
  • The Opposition was in pursuit of Warren Entsch, the Government’s backbench Reef Envoy: why was he so focused on single use plastics in the marine environment when it is such a small component of marine waste?
  • There were the expected questions concerning the impact of bushfires on threatened species. In short, the Government has convened an expert panel and the Threatened Species Committee is reviewing conservational advice and recovery plans, but it really is too early to have much data from bushfire-affected areas.
  • Opposition and Green senators are still pursuing Minister Angus Taylor’s alleged intervention in a compliance investigation concerning his brother’s farm in southern New South Wales. Officials advised, yet again, that this long-running investigation remains incomplete.
  • Senator Matt Canavan, formerly Resources Minister and now on the back bench, asked about climate change as an issue in environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. He is clearly concerned that an environmental assessment for a large oil and gas project off the coast of WA, requires the proponent to assess the impact (if any) of greenhouse gases (including scope 3 emissions) on features such as the Great Barrier Reef, which lie on the other side of the country.
  • While on the topic of environmental assessments, officials revealed that the Environment Department had received some funding for extra environmental assessment staff under the government ‘congestion-busting’ initiative. This reverses the trend over the last few years of regular staffing reductions in this area. It’s ironic that governments cause the problem through general cuts (the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, then ‘fix’ the resulting ‘congestion’!
  • Senators pressed the government on it’s electric vehicle strategy, due out in mid 2020, particularly given pre-election comments by the Prime Minister and other ministers about electric vehicles putting an end to the weekend. Perhaps rehearsing the lines that will be used to explain these pre-election comments away when the Government starts to promote electric vehicles in its forthcoming ‘Technology Roadmap’. Minister Birmingham made it clear that the electric vehicle market was ‘obviously one that is adapting in terms of the technical specifications’ and that ‘the electric vehicle strategy will no doubt take into account how those technical specifications are evolving.’

Image: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay