The Commonwealth Government long ago decided to exercise its Constitutional powers to stamp its authority on the custodianship of our natural environment and in particular, the protection of threatened species, ecologies, and other natural assets of national significance. This is a good thing.
Since 1999 the centrepiece of our national environmental laws has been the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Act (the EPBC). More than a decade ago, a Labor Government legislated for a review of the EPBC every ten years to ensure the now 21-year-old Act remains robust, effective, and fit-for-purpose in a rapidly changing world.
As required by law, a little more than a year ago the Federal Government commissioned former ACCC boss Professor Graeme Samuel to lead the review. After prompting further discussion and consultation with an interim report in June 2020, Professor Samuel delivered his final report in October last year.
The report declared the EPBC was delivering for neither the environment nor the economy. Indeed, it declared it “not fit to address current or future environmental challenges”. We need to urgently fix it.
Professor Samuel also warned the Act was not delivering for Traditional Owners, saying amongst other things, the architecture and resourcing of the EPBC are insufficient to support effective inclusion of Indigenous Australians in the approval processes. That needs to change.
The Report offered thoughtful criticisms of the complexity of the EPBC, its failure to protect our natural environment, the brake it has on jobs growth, and its vulnerability to protracted, vexatious legal actions. Samuel noted the EPBC was trusted by neither industry nor the environmental movement and that compliance and enforcement under the Act is weak.
Particular attention was given to the problems of a two-step system which requires investors to seek state government approvals in the first instance and then Commonwealth approval before a project can proceed. These high jumps are economy-wide but have particular application in the agriculture and resources sectors, two important employers and export-income earners.
The report found that Commonwealth environmental approval for big resources projects takes on average, three years. That of course, is in addition to the significant time it takes to secure state approval.
The Minerals Council of Australia estimates that the EPBC process can cost companies developing greenfield resource projects up to $47 million every month. The Productivity Commission has also sounded alarm, saying the total cost of a one-year delay for a project is between 7 and 18 per cent of its net present value.
On a let’s say, $2 billion project, that’s a lot of money! That’s a big risk for investors to take. The risk to the broader community is the potential loss of jobs, and the royalties and taxes we use to fund our schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure.
Graeme Samuel recommended the current system’s job-destroying duplication should be addressed by improving, strengthening, and streamlining the capacity of the Federal Government to delegate Commonwealth approval functions to state governments under new bilateral and independently supervised agreements between the two levels of government. He has further recommended projects be tested against new stringent and enforceable national environmental standards.
A year on from the release of the Interim Report, it’s time to get on with the reform needed to both better protect our iconic natural assets and to deliver a much-needed boost for our economy. The impacts of COVID-19 demand a new urgency and should generate strong and timely multi-party Parliamentary support for the legislation needed to introduce interim National Environmental Standards that reflect the existing requirements of the Act, so that legal effect can be given to both them, and the new bilateral agreement model. The legislation should ensure the interim standards have a life of no more than two years.
In July last year the National Cabinet embraced the one-stop-shop, national standards model. Five of our state and territory leaders are of course, Labor Premiers or Chief Ministers. Three of them run the big northern resource regions and the Western Australian Government in particular, has been energetically urging the embrace of green-tape reform.
In the Parliament last year, I argued that extensive Parliamentary scrutiny would be necessary to build community and industry trust in the Samuel model. Since then, a Senate Committee has scrutinised the proposal and the Government has introduced legislation for the establishment of an Environmental Assurance Commissioner with the necessary powers to ensure the states are complying with terms of bilateral agreements and complying with the new National Environmental Standards.
Jobs versus Environment, it’s not a new battle. One or the other it need not be, we can protect our natural environment and create jobs too.
The mission would be challenging enough if it were only about arriving at the right policy position. But sadly, too many environmental activists are too rarely interested in evidence-based policy.
By contrast, our elected representatives must deal with the facts. The Samuel review has provided us with them and it’s time to get on with it.