Federal Government risks creating an 8-stop shop of fragmented rules

30 April 2014

The Federal Government's handover of environmental approval powers to the states and territories could lower environmental standards and produce a confusing 'eight stop shop' of environmental regulation, the Australian Network of Environmental Defender‟s Offices (ANEDO) told a parliamentary inquiry.

Delegating project assessment and approval powers to the states, the so-called 'one stop shop' approach, and 'streamlining' State and Territory major project assessments, are the two pillars of the Federal Government‟s 'green tape' agenda, the network of environmental legal centres said in a submission to the Federal parliamentary inquiry into environmental regulation.

“If States seek to further fast-track major projects by reducing assessment processes, public participation or judicial scrutiny, this will lower environmental standards,” ANEDO said.

“ANEDO strongly opposes moves to reduce environmental regulation merely to ease perceived pressure on business and fast-track major development.”

Faster approvals that deliver poor quality, high risk or unsustainable development are not in the public interest. They may lead to water and air pollution, plant and animal extinctions, and erode community trust in government decision-making.

It is striking that the two sectors where the community perceives regulation as being 'too lax' in a 2012 NSW government survey – mining and property development – are the same sectors that are pushing the green tape agenda, the ANEDO submission said.

The Federal Government has signed memorandums of understanding with all States and Territories, for the formal handover of federal project assessment and approval powers to be agreed by September 2014. This will give States the power to approve projects which have impacts on matters of national environmental significance. These matters include world heritage areas, nationally threatened species and internationally protected wetlands.

An ANEDO audit of threatened species and planning laws in all Australian jurisdictions in 2012 found that “no State or Territory biodiversity or planning laws currently meet the suite of federal environmental standards necessary to effectively and efficiently protect biodiversity”.

The failure of State and Territory laws to protect threatened species is most apparent in relation to 'fast-tracking' of environmental impact assessment for major projects. “These provisions effectively override threatened species laws in all jurisdictions,” the ANEDO submission said.

State planning ministers and their departments should not be put in charge of national icons such as the Great Barrier Reef, the World Heritage forests of Tasmania, or threatened species that are specially protected under Federal law. For example, there are serious conflict of interest issues where the State (or State-owned corporation) is the project proponent, or a royalty recipient, and is also responsible for assessing and approving the project instead of the Federal Environment Minister.

ANEDO said the Federal role in environmental regulation does not „duplicate‟ State roles. The major Federal environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 specifically regulates impacts on nine Matters of National Environmental Significance which are not given special consideration in state assessment or
approval processes, as the EPBC Act requires.

Hasty bilateral agreements to delegate Federal government powers to States and Territories may, in fact, create a confusing 'eight stop shop' as Federal requirements are bolted on to the different State and Territory legislative structures, ANEDO said.

Instead of lowering environmental standards, ANEDO would welcome a mature examination of how our environmental laws can best respond to pressing 21st century challenges, such as climate change impacts, development pressures on sensitive and iconic areas, and the ongoing loss of threatened species at an unprecedented rate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: jon.walter@edonsw.org.au (02) 9017 3915 or 0404 647842