Prime Minister Turnbull urged to put improving our national environment laws back on the table and to abandon the disastrous “One-stop-shop” Bill
Humane Society International Australia (HSI) today called upon Prime Minister Turnbull to call a halt to the disastrous and seriously faltering program to hand the Commonwealth's environment powers to the states and territories, and to remove the Bill that would permit such devolution. "It was the Howard Government, in which Mr Turnbull served as Environment Minister, that worked so hard to strike a sensible balance between national and state roles and responsibilities for environmental issues and it's time to restore that balance,” said HSI Australia Campaign Director Michael Kennedy.
The intervening Abbott Government's 'One-stop-shop' agenda would see the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) gutted, with the Commonwealth Government abdicating its oversight of critically important endangered species, threatened habitats, internationally renowned wetland sites, World Heritage sites and other Matters of National Environmental Significance.
Mr Kennedy said that, "As a previous and effective Minister for the Environment, Prime Minister Turnbull knows well the critical role played by the EPBC Act in maintaining this country's clean air, clean water, productive farm lands, healthy ecosystems and the continent's irreplaceable biological diversity.
"Mr Turnbull has made it clear that any and all policies should be on the table for debate, and we can see no more serious a matter, relevant to the long-term future and well-being of all Australians, than the retaining of Commonwealth control over national environmental laws. We therefore call upon the Prime Minister to call a halt to this struggling and environmentally dangerous 'One-stop-shop' processes, retain Commonwealth powers of project approval, and instigate a new and focussed legislative effort aimed at improving national environment management and protection, based on amendments to the EPBC Act as it currently exists, and associated regulations.
"While HSI is keen to see the introduction of ‘next generation’ best practice environment laws as soon as practicable, there is an immediate opportunity for a suite of simple interim legislative changes aimed at reasserting the Commonwealth's responsibilities. These should take into account the previous recommendations of the 2009 Hawke Report's Independent Review of the EPBC Act performance, and assess what amendments and enhancements need to be made to fully implement the environmental obligations under the emerging Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement (TPP).
Indeed, the recent conclusion of the TPP provides a perfect trigger for such legislative amendments. But any interim legislative arrangements must be predicated upon the understanding that the Commonwealth will retain its national approvals’ powers. It would be quite unacceptable to Australians to have foreign corporations arguing with state governments over environmental standards.”
A regressive Government Bill to amend the EPBC Act which would allow states and territories to approve their own projects has, thankfully, been stuck in the Senate for a very long time and should be immediately abandoned by the Turnbull Government. An equally regressive Bill to restrict NGO access to the courts is also stalled in the Senate and should be abandoned.
Add to this mess that the Victorian and Queensland ALP Governments are on record stating that they are not going to progress approvals bilateral agreements, which are required to put in place the Abbott Government's 'One-stop-shop' plans, and it's clear that abandoning the ill-conceived initiative can be done at little political cost. Queensland has specifically stated in correspondence with HSI that they believe the Federal Environment Minister should retain oversight of developments impacting Matters of National Environmental Significance under the EPBC Act. Without these two states agreeing to the devolution of Federal environmental powers, the 'One-stop-shop' will not be 'One-stop' at all.
It is clear that the 'One-stop-shop' process would never raise the bar of state environmental laws, but would put in place a patchwork of different legal regimes that are far weaker than current Commonwealth conservation law, and inevitably trigger a new round of NGO legal challenges at the state and territory level. Expecting states to assess and approve major developments such as mining to which they have already given their political support, and expecting to be beneficiaries of royalties associated with those projects, in effect legislates to entrench conflicts of interest.
Mr Kennedy concluded, "We are sure that Malcom Turnbull does not want to go down in history as the Prime Minister that finally and catastrophically dismantled Australia's long evolving national environmental legislative and management base that has taken some 40 years to mature.
“We would urge the Prime Minister to put the fate of the EPBC Act and its essential national management regime back on the table for discussion now, and commit to retaining Commonwealth approvals powers to protect our environment, eventually leading to ‘next generation’ environment laws.
“HSI is committed to working with a Turnbull Government to develop a vastly improved national environmental management scheme that will fully protect Australia's globally important environmental values, while at the same time providing industry with far more certainty than a myriad cumbersome and ineffective state and territory assessment processes.
“HSI is currently working with legal experts to prepare progressive legislative provisions that will significantly improve the EPBC Act in the interim; spell out the requirements for fully adequate public access to the courts; propose new ideas for laws that will better protect endangered species and places; and recommend how the TPP's new environmental provisions can be implemented through the EPBC Act and other legislation. HSI will provide this advice to Prime Minister Turnbull as soon as it is completed.”