Approvals reform can protect natural assets & boost economy

Article by Joel Fitzgibbon courtesy of the West Australian.

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. More than a decade ago, a Labor government legislated for a review of the EPBC every 10 years to ensure the now 21-year-old Act remains fit-for-purpose. The Federal Government commissioned former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Graeme Samuel to lead the review. 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 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. Professor 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 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 — 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. Professor Samuel recommended the job-destroying duplication should be addressed by improving, strengthening, and streamlining the capacity of the Federal Government to delegate approval functions to State governments.

It’s time to get on with reforms to better protect natural assets and deliver a needed boost for our economy.

Joel Fitzgibbon is Federal ALP member for Hunter

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