PARK WATCH September 2020 |
The reveal of the failures of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (see previous article) comes right at a time when the Morrison Government is reviewing our national environment laws, writes Matt Ruchel.
The review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is being carried out by Professor Graeme Samuel, who has now released an Interim Report.
However, the Morrison Government has flagged that it may move ahead to legislate changes before the review is even finished.
The federal government should not repeat the mistakes made with the Melbourne Strategic Assessment by entrenching similar ‘strategic assessments’ as a ‘streamlining tool’ in a reformed EPBC Act.
The interim report notes that:
“The legal arrangements for strategic assessments are complex … but the strategic assessments that have been conducted have led to more streamlined regulatory arrangements. However, some have been criticised for not achieving their intended environmental outcomes.”
So in the same breath, the failings of Melbourne Strategic Assessment are acknowledged as “not achieving their intended environmental outcomes”, but is dismissed in praise for the success of ‘streamlining’.
“Strategic assessments and other approaches have resulted in some streamlining, but there are opportunities for further efficiency gains.”
“Opportunities for further efficiency gains” – yet no mention of achieving better outcomes for the environment.
Some of the regulatory or legal failings identified for ‘strategic assessments’ in the interim report include the state of being ‘frozen in time’ – an inability to vary a program once endorsed or respond to changes in information and circumstance, such as the listing of new species. This also means assessments that operate for long periods of time, such as the Melbourne Strategic Assessment which could be in place for 60 years, are unable to be adjusted to better achieve the environmental outcomes envisaged.
Interestingly, the report also notes that “it is unclear whether a person
can rely on a strategic assessment approval if a commitment has not been fulfilled” – a key question for the very much unfulfilled Melbourne Strategic Assessment.
The interim report did call for “a strong, independent cop on the beat … that is not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth Minister” and that “it should be properly resourced and have available to it a full toolkit of powers”. However, this was quickly dismissed by the Morrison Government.
The interim report largely ties itself to developing a system of national environmental standards and giving states jurisdiction for assessment processes and potentially approvals under Federal law. Without a strong independent regulator, this will be catastrophic. There are significant probity issues of state governments potentially approving projects under national environmental laws, when many of those projects are state-run. It would also likely increase the cost and complexity for state government assessment processes.
It is shameful that the Commonwealth seems in such a hurry to wash its hands of the environment and devolve its powers to the states. A disastrous situation, as shown in both the Victorian and federal government’s appalling handling of grassland protection.
This review is heading for national environmental laws with a focus on streamlining at the expense of actual protection for nature. If the experience of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment is anything to go by, nature will continue to be put at the bottom of the list when up against property developers, as well as miners and loggers.
Read previous article on the failures of the Melbourne Strategic Assessment in ‘Going, going, gone?’
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