PARK WATCH June 2020 |
VNPA Executive Director Matt Ruchel guides us through the review of the EBPC Act.
The main piece of national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is not providing anywhere near the adequate protection for Australia’s environment.
In particular, the EPBC Act is not able to cope with the increased challenges we face with species extinction and climate change.
Thankfully it is currently being reviewed.
The Act requires that an independent review be undertaken at least once every ten years. The review must examine the operation of the Act and the extent to which its objects have been achieved. The last review was completed in 2009.
The review is somewhat of a “fork in the road” – in that it could lead to the much-needed strengthening of the Commonwealth’s role in protecting nature, or conversely open doors for those who wish to weaken national environmental laws by streamlining or cutting of so-called ‘green tape’.
VNPA agrees with the position of many national and state environment groups that the EPBC Act should be replaced with new federal-level environmental laws that better protect and restore our natural environment, strengthen our democracy, and support community involvement.
For the Commonwealth to hold an effective leadership role in managing Australia’s environment, it requires a suite of regulatory tools that are fit for purpose. These include both mechanisms to avoid, control and mitigate impacts on the environment, and proactive provisions that enable protection of key environmental values.
Currently, whether by design or ineptitude, in Australia it is unclear who is ultimately responsible for ensuring our environment is managed well. The existing system distributes responsibility across the federation, but no one jurisdiction is charged with coordinating efforts.
A truly national approach to environmental protection would build on Australia’s international responsibilities and the federal government’s capacity to bring authority and resources to environmental governance.
In VNPA’s submission to the review we considered ten issues:
- The need for a stronger EPBC Act.
- Scope, role and function of Commonwealth environmental powers.
- Additional ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’.
- The use and effectiveness of strategic assessments.
- Strengthening of bioregional planning.
- Strengthening critical habitat determinations.
- Improving restoration opportunities.
- Community rights to review decisions and enforce the Act.
- The role of offsetting.
- Better recognition of cumulative impacts of individual actions to be covered by the EPBC Act.
VNPA along with other National Parks Associations through our national body the National Parks Australia Council (NPAC) are particularly supportive of adding a new ‘trigger’ for national parks and reserves under the designated ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’. This would allow the Australian Government to intervene to protect national parks and other protected areas reserved primarily for the conservation of nature, if there is a risk to their integrity or proposed development impacts.
The logic of this is relatively straightforward. The major objective behind Australia’s protected area estate is for the conservation of the natural environment and the protection of biodiversity. In line with this, most Australians assume and expect that once an area is declared a national park, or other highly protected area such as a wilderness area, it becomes a haven for wildlife – forever. But protected areas are increasingly subject to significant pressures that threaten to compromise Australia’s natural heritage.
The term ‘national’ might seem to suggest that the Commonwealth already has a role. However, this is, surprisingly to many in the community, not the case. With the exception of Territories or Commonwealth waters, the national reserve system is almost exclusively the domain of the states.
As a party to the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity, Australia (noting that being a signatory to international conventions give the government a constitutional role) has committed to designating world heritage sites and establishing a terrestrial and marine protected area network that is “comprehensive, adequate and representative”, and fulfils what are called the Aichi Targets.
Consequently, if a state government wish to approve plans to introduce potentially destructive activities such as logging, grazing, building inappropriate infrastructure, or other high-impact developments in national parks and other protected areas, there is little the federal government can do to stop them.
Australia’s protected area network has not been afforded the level of national protection required to prevent actions that may destroy, damage or degrade the very natural heritage values that prompted the inclusion of these areas within the national reserve system in the first place – and which in part help fulfil international treaty commitments, made on behalf of all Australians.
For example, when the former Victorian government proposed to allow grazing within the Alpine National Park, then federal environment minister, Tony Burke, had to resort to using the impact of grazing on a specific nationally threatened species, the Alpine Tree Frog, to intervene. It was recognised that there was a gap within the EPBC Act: national parks aren’t designated as ‘Matters of Environmental Significance’ and therefore not a ‘trigger’ under the Act. Subsequently, federal involvement could only focus on one of the values of the national park, the Alpine Tree Frog, not the whole ecosystem for which the park was created to protect.
In this case it became clear that one way to provide greater protection for Australia’s national parks was by including them as ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’ under the EPBC Act.
Let’s hope this review results in some thoughtful reforms to improve protection of nature both here in Victoria and across Australia.
For more information see Briefing Paper, National Parks – a Matter of National Environmental Significance produced by the National Parks Australia Council, of which VNPA is a member.
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