The Federal Government will develop Commonwealth led national environmental standards to underpin new bilateral agreements with state governments.
The commitment follows the release of an interim report into Australia’s environmental laws, with Environment Minister Sussan Ley suggesting new national standards would streamline approval processes with state governments.
According to Ley, Professor Graeme Samuel’s interim report establishes that the existing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) has become “cumbersome,” and does not serve the interests of the environment or market.
“Not surprisingly, the statutory review is finding that 20-year-old legislation is struggling to meet the changing needs of the environment, agriculture, community planners and business,” she said.
“This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy.”
In the forward to his report, Samuel said the operation of the Act is dated and inefficient.
“It is not fit to manage current or future environmental challenges, particularly in light of climate change,” he said.
“It is unlikely that everyone will agree on all problems or support all the proposed reform directions. Complete agreement by everyone would be a mission impossible.”
In accordance with Samuel’s findings, Ley will commence discussions with willing states to enter agreements for single touch approvals.
This will work to remove duplication, she said, by accrediting states to carry out environmental assessments and approvals on the Federal Government’s behalf.
Additionally, the Federal Government will launch a national engagement process for modernising the protection of indigenous cultural heritage, commencing with a round table meeting of state indigenous and environment ministers.
This will be jointly chaired by Ley and Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt.
The Federal Government will also establish an environmental markets expert advisory group to explore market based solutions for better habitat restoration, with the aim of improving environmental outcomes while providing greater certainty for business.
In line with the interim report findings, Ley said the Federal Government will maintain its existing framework for regulating greenhouse gas and other emissions.
She added that government would not propose any expansion of the EPBC Act in this area.
“The Commonwealth will take steps to strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring,” Ley said.
“It will not, however, support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator.”
The report raises a range of other issues and reform directions, Ley said, with further consultation to be undertaken in those areas.
“As he [Samuel] works towards his final report, we will monitor its progress closely, while we continue to improve existing processes as much as possible,” Ley said.
“It is time to find a way past an adversarial approach and work together to create genuine reform that will protect our environment, while keeping our economy strong.”
Environmental Justice Australia co-CEO Nicola Rivers, who made a to the review, said it is critical that any changes to the EPBC Act prioritise better protecting the environment, not facilitating big industry.
“Given the federal government’s neglect, inefficiencies and inadequate processes in administering the Act, EJA supports the review’s recommendation of national protection standards, but not as a way for the Commonwealth government to withdraw from its responsibilities,” she said.
“We have no confidence that the national standards approach will improve protection of the environment without an independent regulator to ensure standards are being complied with.”
The final EPBC review is expected to be released in October.