Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
A year and a half ago I spoke about the statutory review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. I reflected on the previous review from 2010, which identified a number of issues with the act and made a series of recommendations. Unfortunately, those findings were not acted on and the recommendations were not implemented. It was very much a missed opportunity for reform. That speech called on the government to learn the lesson of 2010, to take the 2020 review seriously, to use the opportunity to build on the strengths of the EPBC regime and to fix whatever issues were identified. Since that time, Professor Samuel has concluded his review and found Australia's environment is in a state of unsustainable decline. The review found the act is failing to protect the environment or conserve our biodiversity. It showed the EPBC Act is not fit for purpose.
Fortunately, the review does not just set out the many problems with the act but also provides a comprehensive reform agenda, changes that would facilitate economic development while properly protecting our environment. This review is exactly what we needed, a clear look at what is broken and how it can be fixed. But the government response, unbelievably, makes it difficult to have confidence this review will be more successful than the one back in 2010. Transparency is essential for any genuine reform process, but it has been conspicuously absent so far. They spent months delaying publication of the review. They spent months obstructing a Senate inquiry into the streamlining bill. They proposed an inquiry of just two weeks for the standards bill and, after five months, they have still not responded to the review. Their plans are a mystery to us all. We don't know where they agree with the review and where they disagree. We don't know which recommendations they will act on and which they will totally ignore. We don't know what changes they want to make now and what changes they will make in the future or just completely disregard.
The government wants us to support its reform bills. But how can anyone support legislation without understanding the effects? How can we support legislation without knowing the broader policy context? All we know is that the government wants to accelerate project approvals by devolving assessments to state and territory governments. There is merit to such policy as long as it is done in the right way with effective environmental standards and an independent regulator very much being part of a broad reform agenda. But where are the effective standards? Where is the independent regulator? Where is the broad reform agenda? Until these questions are answered, we cannot have confidence that the government intends to follow through and fix the many issues with the EPBC Act.
Centre Alliance will not support the government abandoning its responsibilities. A serious policy problem has been identified and it is the government's duty to resolve it. The very first step must be the release of a comprehensive response to the review, something we would have thought would have been well and truly out by now. We need a review and a response which sets out the government's plans and priorities and provides a road map for the implementation of its reforms. After they respond we can consider our next steps, but if there were ever a need for government to take action, an agenda for reform and an opportunity for change, this is it. I can only hope that this review will not be another missed opportunity.