Terri Butler
Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Environment law review: Cuts and mismanagement at heart of Morrison Government failure

The second 10-yearly review of Australia’s most significant environmental law, which commenced last week, must not be an opportunity for misdirection.

The Liberals and Nationals have not increased the amount of environmental regulation during their time in office, but under their government, delays in project approvals have got much worse.

The department’s own annual reports for 2017-18 and 2018-19 show that delays have been increasing ever since this government was elected. Over their time in office, the total number of decisions made has shrunk, but the number of late decisions has significantly increased. 

In 2018-19, the proportion of late project decisions – that is, decisions made outside statutory time frames – reached a high of 40%. In the government’s first year of office, 2013-14, the figure was down around 15%.

The department itself has pinned the increasing lateness of project approvals on two things: needing more information from proponents, and, bluntly, “high workloads”. The former implies better and clearer communication is needed. The latter is unsurprising given reports that the environment department’s funding has been cut by almost 40% since the government was first elected.

The government’s environmental law review must not attribute blame for delays where it does not belong. If there are genuine improvements that can be made to environmental regulation, without losing important protections for conservation and biodiversity, let’s hear about them. But this review cannot be misused, by conservative politicians, as a figleaf for a conservative agenda of reducing protections. Scott Morrison’s use of the term ‘green tape’ should sound alarm bells for anyone who remembers former conservative Queensland Premier Campbell Newman calling koala protections ‘mindless green tape’

The review panel itself comprises eminent Australians with expertise in regulation and the design and processes of regulators. It will be interesting and useful to see what recommendations the panel makes. Having said that, it is passing strange that the central piece of environmental law is being reviewed by a panel that does not count amongst its members an ecologist, environmental scientist, or someone from a similar discipline, a point made recently by University of New England ecologist Dr Manu Saunders. This raises concerns about whether the inquiry will be in a position to place sufficient emphasis on assessing how best to “address current and future environmental challenges”, as the terms of reference require. 

It is to be hoped and expected that the panel members will overcome this omission through deep and strong engagement with ecological and environmental scientists. This will be needed as in assessing the extent to which the legislation’s objects have been met, the panel will no doubt hear some grave concerns about Australia’s record in “promot[ing] the conservation of biodiversity,” which is the third of those objects. Having lost the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the Bramble Cay melomys and the Christmas Island forest skink, Australia now needs to face up to the looming tragedies of further extinctions. 

The day before the review was announced, more than 240 conservation scientists published an open letter telling Scott Morrison that Australia is amid an extinction crisis, and calling on the government to “fix our laws in order to protect and restore nature across Australia.”

Environmental destruction – from the bush to the beach and beyond, is putting jobs at risk, in tourism, agriculture and natural resources. Australia needs environmental laws that will protect the environment for the benefit of future generations, and for the benefit of the economies of today and tomorrow.

The review panel must now do its work. Many Australians will be looking forward to the release of its discussion paper, due this month, and the opportunity to make submissions directly.

But the issue of delays in approvals can be considered in the meantime. The adequacy of agency resourcing is a separate question to that of the design of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Control Act. Reviewing regulatory design should not be a means of misdirecting attention away from the real pressure that the department has come under, because of this government’s failure to deal with the trend of increasing delays in the face of fewer decisions being made in total. 

The Morrison Government should take on board industry’s legitimate concerns about delay, and tackle the root cause of the problem. The Morrison Government needs to make sure the department is equipped with the resources needed to improve communication with and clarity for proponents, and to stem the worrying trend towards ‘high workloads’ contributing to ever-increasing delays. 

Australians will not stand by and watch while the koala, the platypus and other vital species are put at risk, without a fight. And we won’t stand for a government undermining the effectiveness of the nation’s environment laws by failing to devote the resources needed for those laws to work better, in everyone’s interests.

About Terri Butler:

Terri Butler is the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, and the federal Labor Member for Griffith, Queensland.