Last week our wildlife came closer to another disaster as the Morrison Government raced a Bill to weaken our national environmental law through the House of Representatives, not even allowing a debate on amendments to it. All this happened whilst a critically important 10 year statutory review of the law is underway. It is a review that will still be incomplete when this dangerous Bill goes to the Senate for debate – its last hurdle before becoming law. Here follows Humane Society International’s view of the events.
As we’ve previously reported, 2020 was always going to be an important year for wildlife, with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) undergoing its statutory independent review, required every ten years. The last review in 2009 was never acted upon, and since that point we have witnessed further decline as budgets and habitats have been slashed and questionable decisions made on wildlife. This, together with the devastating impacts of bushfires and other manifestations of climate change. Our hope remains that the review will recommend comprehensive strengthening and modernising of Australia’s environment laws to tackle these significant challenges.
An interim report from Professor Graeme Samuel released on 20th July did a good job of identifying many of the challenges and suggested some possible pathways forward. However, whilst we await the final report, due to be handed to the Minister by the end of October 2020, the Government rushed ahead seizing on just one element of proposed reforms – the handing over of approval decisions for developments impacting Matters of National Significance to state and territory governments. Whilst these amendments are in theory only ‘technical’, their consequence is not so. The so called ‘devolution’ of approval powers is of enormous consequence and great concern to HSI. It is a threat we have been fighting against for the past eight years.
This issue raised its head in 2013 after the Abbott Government set in motion its ‘One-Stop Shop’ process seeking to get legislation through Parliament then to amend the EPBC Act. Ultimately, thanks to the work of HSI and our partner organisations in the Places You Love alliance, that Bill stalled in the Senate and was never passed, with the Bill lapsing in 2016.
History has shown that without robust safeguards in place the process of devolution away from the Commonwealth has significant risks. It has led to poor environmental outcomes as state and territory laws are simply not up to the same standard as Commonwealth legislation. It also leads to significant conflicts of interest as state and territory governments could be the proponent, sponsor or beneficiary of the projects they assess and approve.
Fast forward to 2020 and Samuel’s interim report once again proposes devolution as a model. He does however propose safeguards be developed for devolution to reduce the risks, these included a proposal for legally enforceable National Environmental Standards and an independent regulator.
HSI has been engaging in the review of the EPBC Act in good faith, putting in significant time and resources into proposing solutions to strengthen environmental laws and responding to the initial proposals put forward in the interim review. We have a seat on Samuel’s Consultative Group, convened to discuss his proposals and assist with the development of detailed National Environmental Standards. We are doing everything we can to provide solutions and ensure we get laws that actually protect nature.
Despite all this hard work by the Consultative Group, on 27th August the Government introduced the rehashed ‘One-Stop Shop’ Bill with none of the proposed safeguards. No standards and no independent regulator.
However even worse was to come. With many members of Parliament concerned by the legislation a long speaking list was set in the House of Representatives and amendments drafted to put some of the much needed safeguards into a Bill lacking any. Unbelievably last Thursday, in the last ten minutes of parliament before the break the Government extended sitting hours in the House of Representatives in order to pass legislation to devolve environmental approval powers to State and Territory governments.
The move was criticised by the cross bench and Labor in the House of Representatives, following some strong speeches. Amendments proposed by Zali Steggall and Labor were not able to be voted on. No Government members were permitted to speak to the Bill.
The Senate, where the Bill next heads, adjourned before considering the legislation, leaving it to be dealt with at a future sitting.
We expect the Bill to be introduced to the Senate as soon as the first week of October, which is when the federal Budget will also be dealt with. Members of the Senate Crossbench have been concerned about the Government’s refusal to refer the bill to committee, and the fact that the Samuel Review is yet to deliver its final report. HSI and our Places You Love Alliance colleagues have been reminding the Parliament to keep faith with the 30,000 Australians who submitted to the review and who want to see the recommendations identified in the interim report implemented.
HSI has joined forces with five other leading members of the Places You Love Alliance to advertise the need for stronger environment laws in our ‘Before Its Gone’ campaign which you may have seen on billboards or in social media. We call for stronger laws to prevent Australian nature being erased. The Australian community is rallying for nature. The Australian Conservation Foundation handed a petition to the Government with over 400,000 signatures – equivalent to the population of Canberra. Australians love nature and understand what is at stake.
You can add your voice to the campaign by writing to your Federal MP and Senator. It is critical that MPs and Senators continue to feel pressure on this issue in the lead-up to the Bill being debated in the Senate. We have only weeks to act. Australia’s unique and precious wildlife is depending on us.
Alexia Wellbelove is HSI Australia's Senior Campaign Manager who has worked closely with the legislation since 2009 and was a co-founder of the Places You Love alliance in 2012 following threats posed then to devolve approval powers to states and territories under the Act.
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