Aaron Morey: Commonwealth green tape is putting productivity in a tangle

Article by Aaron Morey courtesy of the West Australian.

The Cook Government’s announcement this week on environmental approval reforms reflects the power of economic leadership.
Faced with a growing body of evidence that our environmental approvals regime is harming our capacity to grow and diversify our economy, it took incisive steps to mitigate any potential damage and strengthen WA’s reputation as a place to invest.
It’s now time for Canberra to follow suit.
That’s because many of the projects that stand to benefit from the State Government’s decisive action could be caught up in a gathering storm of Federal regulatory overreach.
The Federal Government’s reforms, what it calls its “Nature Positive Plan”, includes yet another layer of approval — a national Environmental Protection Agency — to duplicate work already happening at a State level. And just as concerningly, it appears that it will become increasingly less likely that the social and economic benefits of a project will be considered as part of Federal approvals processes.
The Federal Government has talked a strong game when it comes to our State’s potential to play an oversized role in the transition to net zero, thanks to our abundant critical minerals and clean energy potential.
The word “potential” here is important, since we will be facing fierce competition to attract the investment needed to secure the industries of tomorrow and the jobs they promise.
That is why the announcement in WA was so crucial, and equally why all Australians should be concerned by the Federal Government’s agenda.
WA has more skin in the game than other States, with opportunities not only in critical minerals but also in space and defence, agriculture, fisheries and tourism.
A report by the CCCIWA laid bare exactly what’s at risk: up to $318 billion in current and future investment in the pipeline in WA alone could be at risk from a needlessly complex and inefficient environmental approvals process.
The report, titled “Green Web: How Environmental Approvals Could Trap Australian Investment”, was developed through comprehensive consultation with businesses spanning multiple sectors. And it exposes a bureaucratic net ensnaring the ambitions of our country.
The frustration of businesses with the current approvals system cannot be underestimated.
One cited profound frustration with the Federal Government for altering vegetation offset requirements midway through the approval process without consultation or warning.
Others highlighted the rise in environmental activism, which sees projects tied up in court processes for years.
The recent delay to the Scarborough gas project exemplifies how such activities, indirectly supported by the Federal Government through its funding of the Environmental Defenders Office, hinder progress.
The consultation also revealed about 40 per cent of projects in WA with pending environmental approval are at risk of abandonment, and another 25 per cent may face significant scale-backs.
This translates to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and a missed opportunity to help kids and their families escape intergenerational disadvantage.
Ironically, green tape could even jeopardise the green transition by impeding the construction of offshore wind farms, as well as transmission infrastructure for connecting new renewable energy projects to local grids.
To limit the damage, the Federal Government must give industry sufficient time to review the nature positive proposals and provide genuine input. It must also ensure the social and economic benefits of development are formally considered when decisions are made on projects.
Australia stands as a frontrunner on the world stage, uniquely positioned with crucial resources, natural gas and iron ore, as well as possessing the geostrategic advantages that position us strongly in space and defence.
Additionally, our rich reservoir of natural resources provides a solid foundation for us to flourish in agriculture, fisheries and tourism.
However, these inherent advantages — as well as this week’s announcement from the State Government — will count for nothing if the Federal Government creates new obstacles. We’ll be all dressed up with nowhere to go.
We possess the tools for success, but we must stop entangling ourselves in a web of regulation, and instead create an environment that fosters investment, competitiveness, and sustainable growth.
The good news is it’s not too late for the Federal Government to ensure its nature positive agenda sensibly balances the environmental, social and economic benefits of major projects.
This is vital to ensuring WA is in a better position to convert our potential into real economic progress.

Aaron Morey is the chief economist at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA.