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The Australian National Audit Office today released a report which is heavily critical of federal environmental impact assessment and approval decision making. Its findings support arguments for an independent regulator and substantial increases in funding to do the job properly.
The report concludes that, despite multiple reviews, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is “not effective”.
The report highlighted that 116 days was the average overrun of statutory timeframes for approval decisions in 2018–19 and that an astonishing 79% of the approvals assessed contained conditions that were non-compliant with procedural guidance or contained clerical or administrative errors.
“The criticisms of the Department listed in the report indicate it is grossly under-resourced to perform its role,” said Nicola Beynon, Humane Society International’s Head of Campaigns.
“Resources are critical for effective environmental decision making and the Federal Department of Environment has been chronically underfunded for decades. More efficient and effective protection of the environment requires a quantum leap in the resources allocated,” Ms Beynon added.
From the commencement of the EPBC Act to 30 June 2019, 6,253 proposed actions have been referred to the Minister, with 5,088 of those actions approved and 21 actions not approved.
“The Audit Report also confirms HSI’s criticisms that decision making under the EPBC Act has been too permissive with decisions all too often weighted against the environment. Projects are rarely refused even when their impacts are significant. Conditions placed on approvals to mitigate impacts are unenforced or unenforceable,” said Ms Beynon.
“It is no wonder that trajectories for threatened species are in free fall in Australia and we face an extinction crisis.”
The Audit report states that “the implementation of conditions is not assessed with rigour. The absence of effective monitoring, reporting and evaluation arrangements limit the department’s ability to measure its contribution to the objectives of the EPBC Act.”
Parallel with the Audit, the EPBC Act has also been undergoing a statutory review undertaken by Professor Graeme Samuel. Humane Society International has recommended an independent regulator be created to undertake decision making and compliance functions under the Act or successor legislation.
“Humane Society International has recommended reforms to federal environment laws which would make decision making more resistant to short term political pressures and make science based decisions in the interests of the long term public good. An independent regulator at arms length from the government would help achieve this,” said Ms Beynon.
Humane Society International looks forward to the release of Professor Samuel’s independent review of the EPBC Act expected early next week.
“Australia has a chance to recalibrate our priorities as a nation with laws and institutions that properly protect the wildlife and places we all love,” concluded Ms Beynon.