Canberra Report - Getting the Right Balance - Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Canberra Report - Getting the Right Balance - Wednesday, 16 September 2020 Main Image

A State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) apparently designed to protect our koala population, brought the NSW Government to the brink of extinction last week. I’ve not yet seen the draft SEPP, but it has certainly created a fuss and is a reminder of the need for policy balance.

It’s also a reminder that most of the responsibility for planning, project approvals, and environmental protection lies with State Governments. However, in recent decades the federal government has also found the necessary legal pathways to allow it to have a say in matters of national environmental significance. They include the natural assets which are listed under international treaties and those of national biodiversity or heritage significance.

The primary Commonwealth Act of Parliament that the federal government uses to manage matters of such significance, is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 (EPBC). A legacy of the Howard Government, the EPBC must be reviewed at least every ten years. That process is now under way and it has the potential to be far more controversial than the NSW Government’s koala SEPP.  

The current review of the EPBC is being led by former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) boss, Graeme Samuel. The interim Samuel review makes one point absolutely clear; that the EPBC Act, as it stands, is serving neither the natural environment nor industry. It’s neither protecting our biodiversity and all those things that make Australia such a beautiful place, nor serving our economy well. In other words, it’s not offering our natural environment the protection it deserves and in a lose-lose outcome, it has become a barrier to sensible investment, development and job creation.

An effective EPBC Act is one which strikes the right balance between the protection of our natural environment and the need to encourage economic growth and sustainable jobs.

The interim Review concluded that the EPBC Act’s terminology is not clear and concise and is driving confusion and therefore suboptimal outcomes. The Review describes the EPBC Act as archaic and says the interrelationships between the EPBC Act and other laws are not clear.

Our biodiversity continues to deteriorate, that’s true. But the Minerals Council of Australia tells us delays on green-fields projects can cost an applicant up to $46 million every month. Further, big resources approvals critical to the Australian economy and to sustainable jobs are waiting three years on average for an approval or knock-back. All of that is in addition to the state-based approvals processes they must negotiate first.

One of the options Graeme Samuel has canvassed is a process which allows the federal government to set the standards for state governments to follow, so that we don’t necessarily have to have two (and in some cases three) levels of government involved in the development approvals processes. That sounds like a good idea.

But it will take strong federal government leadership to build a convincing case for delegating to the states the federal government’s power to say “yes” or “no” to job-creating projects.

The EPBC review is unlikely to generate the headlines the koala SEPP did. But trust me, the stakes are much higher, both for our environment and for jobs. The next review is likely to be in 2030, we need to get this one right and to strike the right balance. Our COVID-19 recovery is depending on it.