The laws designed to protect environmental heritage and biodiversity are ineffective and unfit for current and future challenges, an interim report has found.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has also failed to fulfil its objectives relating to Indigenous Australians, according to a damning report by Professor Graeme Samuel.
Professor Samuel says the nation’s natural environment is under increasing threat and “the current environmental trajectory is unsustainable”.
“The broad consensus is that the act is complex, it’s slow, it’s duplicative and it’s cumbersome, and that Commonwealth leadership is needed,” he told a media conference.
He said the Act in its current form encourages legal disputes – or “lawfare” – and there was a need for significant reform including an independent compliance and enforcement regulator with “a full toolkit of powers”.
“Community trust in the EPBC Act and its administration is low. To build confidence, the Interim Report proposes that an independent cop on the beat is required to deliver rigorous, transparent compliance and enforcement,” he said.
The EPBC is the nation’s primary national environmental legislation and, among other things, is meant to safeguard world and national heritage sites, wetlands, threatened species and the Great Barrier Reef, as well as protecting water resources from coal seam gas and coal mining development.
The review was launched last October to look at how the Act was operating, highlight any problems with the legislation and come up with proposals for reform.
A final report is due by October 31.
The interim report comes after an audit by the Australian National Audit Office in June found a similar litany of problems, as well as issues with governance, monitoring and administration of the Act.
Ineffective and cumbersome
“The EPBC Act is ineffective,” Professor Samuel said in a statement on Monday.
“It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”
He also said it duplicated state and territory laws was slow, hard to navigate and costly for business.
“Slow and cumbersome regulation results in significant additional costs for business, with little appreciable benefit for the environment,” he said.
Professor Samuel also said Indigenous Australians were entitled to expect better protection of their heritage and much more needed to to be done to respectfully incorporate traditional knowledge of country into management of country.
Current engagement is based on tokenism and symbolism rather than truly taking account of Indigenous culture and science, he said.
“Sustained engagement with Indigenous Australians is needed to properly co-design reforms that are important to them,” he said.
Professor Samuel called for the development of legally enforceable national environmental standards as a priority for reform.
He said while there was a need for independent monitoring and compliance enforcement this did not necessarily involve the establishment of a separate independent regulator or compliance body.
“What it does require is independence on the part of those vested with responsibility of compliance and monitoring,” he said.
Government moves on national standards
Environment minister Sussan Ley told reorters the government would develop Commonwealth-led national environmental standards to underpin new bilateral agreements with state governments.
“We will commence discussions with willing states … to enter into agreements for single-touch approvals, which removes duplication and accredits state processes so that they can carry out environmental approvals and assessments on the Commonwealth’s behalf under these rigorous Commonwealth-led national standards,” she said.
Ms Ley said it was too early to be looking at a model for a regulator but “we don’t support additional layers of bureaucracy, such as an independent regulator, outside the system as it is”.
She also said there would be further discussions with the Attorney-General about how to get rid of “lawfare”.
The Commonwealth would maintain its existing framework for regulating greenhouse gas and other emissions, and would not propose any expansion of the EPBC Act in this area, the minister said.
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