For years there has been criticism of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act because of its failure to protect Australia’s natural environment - a failure highlighted in a recent report from the Auditor-General.
In commenting on this report, James Trezise, an analyst for the peak environment group the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said, “This report is a scathing indictment of the Federal Government’s administration of our natural environment law and highlights why we need a stronger law and a new independent regulator.”
“Worryingly for an area of public policy in which commercial interests are constantly trying to influence, the Auditor-General found ‘conflicts of interests are not managed’.” Trezise referred to the ACF’s concern about the capacity for political interference under the way the Act has been administered. He referred specifically to the development on an internationally significant wetland at Toondah Harbour in Moreton Bay and the approvals of Adani’s groundwater plan.
Another major criticism related to the deep budget cuts to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment between 2013 and 2019 which contributed to its poor performance in administering the EPBC Act.
The Act is currently being reviewed by Professor Graeme Samuel. His interim report , released on Monday July 20, called for fundamental reform of the law.
Samuel says that the Act “does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”
He said, “The foundation of the report was that there is too much focus on process and not enough on outcomes and that should be changed entirely.”
He confirmed the health of Australia’s natural environment is in dire straits and proposed a number of ways to address this.
A significant proposal was for the establishment of “an independent compliance and enforcement regulator that is not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Government Minister.”
“The regulator should be responsible for monitoring compliance, enforcement and assurance. It should be properly resourced and have available to it of full toolkit of powers,” Samuel said.
Unsurprisingly, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, immediately ruled out an independent regulator referring to it as an “additional layer of bureaucracy”.
What she actually means is that the Federal Government wants to continue to exercise political influence to ensure that environmentally-damaging projects are allowed to go ahead if it sees them as being in the short-term economic interest. If the government gets its way, the EPBC Act will continue to be neutered by politicians and the degradation of our natural environment will escalate.