Next week, Prof Graeme Samuel, the former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, will deliver interim findings of his review of the effectiveness of Australia’s national environment laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
The review will be delivered in the context of a devastating critique by the auditor general of the effectiveness of the federal environment department in administering the laws and with a backdrop of the environmental devastation caused by years of drought and a horrific summer of bushfires.
The crippling drought and the fires are the markers of real-time climate change and have demonstrated the inadequacy of our existing environment laws, policies and political leadership to respond to both the impacts of past overdevelopment and the environmental impacts of a rapidly changing climate.
The auditor general’s report is a consequence of years of public sector funding cuts, ineffective and dysfunctional laws and a lack of national planning and leadership.
Even before the drought and the fires, Australia’s environment was under siege.
One of the requirements of the EPBC Act is the production every five years of the national State of the Environment report, the most authoritative independent assessment of the health of Australia’s environment.
The findings of the most recent report in 2017 were stark; concluding that “the main pressures facing the Australian environment today are the same as in 2011 – climate change, land use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species; and much of Australia’s unique environment is declining across a range of aspects and indicators” and that without “substantial changes, there is doubt about the capacity of our natural capital to continue to provide the services required to support Australia’s economy and wellbeing in the longer term”.
The report also said that “meeting these challenges requires national leadership”.
The auditor general’s report is a dispassionate but blistering assessment of the failed administration and enforcement of the EPBC Act by the environment department.
The report found, “The department’s regulatory approach is not proportionate to environmental risk. The administration of referrals and assessments is not effective or efficient. Conditions of approval are not assessed with rigour, are non-compliant with procedural guidance and contain clerical or administrative errors. The department is not well positioned to measure its contribution to the objectives of the EPBC Act.”
These findings come as no surprise to those of us who have spent years advocating for root and branch legislative reform, national political leadership, genuine cooperation between all tiers of government and the creation of powerful and independent regulatory watchdog to undertake the mammoth task of halting and reversing the systemic decline of Australia’s rich natural and cultural heritage.
The EPBC Act is a complex piece of law that has a vast array of often poorly defined objectives.
At its heart, the act has the goal of protecting so-called “Matters of National Environmental Significance” (NMES). These include the protection of species threatened with extinction, world heritage and national heritage values, and important wetlands and marine areas, including the Great Barrier Reef.
The act also provides a process against which the minister must assess the impacts of major development proposals. These proposals are often controversial, high profile and involve multibillion dollar projects such as Gunns Pulp Mill, the Olympic Dam mine expansion or the Adani coalmine.
These proposals almost always are subject to political campaigning from within government and from outside by development interests, placing the relevant minister in an invidious position of having to manage what’s best for the government’s political fortunes against what’s best for the environment.
And the environment almost always comes second, with the auditor general finding that since the commencement of the act in 2000, 5,088 projects have been approved with only 21 knocked back.
This is why project assessment and approval decisions need to be given to an independent regulator; a strong National Environment Protection Agency that can provide transparent and arms length assessment of the impacts of major developments and provide frank and fearless advice to the government and the public.
Australia also needs a clear and well-funded national plan to reverse the decline of all environmental indicators which binds all levels of government and which can be independently monitored and assessed. In the absence of such a plan we instead are delivered a steady stream of buck passing, finger pointing and hand wringing from those entrusted with the protection of our shared heritage.
There is a lot riding on Prof Samuel’s report. We must demand that our leaders are up to the challenge ahead or we will lose what is most precious about this beautiful and fragile wide brown land, of which we are but stewards.
o Lyndon Schneiders is a former National Director of the Wilderness Society