The aim of reducing so-called green tape via a “one stop shop” for environmental approvals is counterproductive and likely to result in a more rather than less complexity for Australian business. While faster approvals will undoubtedly stimulate the economy, an inadequate level of community consultation is predicted to result in legal action from communities and groups pursuing other avenues to protect their land and wildlife. This makes no sense for businesses, individual people, communities or the natural environment.
Biodiversity is the variety of life forms including different animals, plants and microorganisms, the genes they contain and ecosystems they form. Diversity means richness and resilience to threats. All biodiversity indicators were assessed as being in a poor state in 2011 State of the Environment Reports. 1,340 plants and 445 species of animals are listed as National Threatened Species. Despite the efforts undertaken, there are recovery plans for only 10% of species. Sadly only one species has been taken off the endangered list since 1993, the saltwater crocodile..
Australia is a signatory to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) an internationally binding treaty. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) fulfils Australia’s international obligations giving legal protection to eight matters of National and international importance, among them threatened species, wetlands of international significance and migratory species.
But the amendments to the EPBC Act will have far reaching consequences for Australia’s biodiversity. The changes involve Bilateral agreements whereby state or territory governments will both assess and approve, on the Commonwealth’s behalf, projects and activities such as land clearing that potentially impact on plant and animal species. Unfortunately most state governments have a poor track record of safeguarding the environment against environmentally destructive development.
Take Gladstone Harbour in Queensland for instance. The EIS guidelines fail to answer a fundamental question: how can further port expansion, millions of cubic meters of dredge spoil dumped in marine habitat and thousands more coal ships travelling through the already stressed Great Barrier Reef every year not adversely impact biodiversity?
An independent report commissioned by commercial fishermen seeking answers to long-running disease issues in fish stated “the epidemiological pattern is suggestive of a common water-borne irritant across all groups…one (cause) is exposure to dredge spill and associated toxicants” (Source: The Courier Mail April 20, 2012).
There are two features of Australia’s environmental regulatory framework to consider here. Firstly, that the Federal government has, up to now, effectively vetoed state developments that would have been environmental devastating. Well known examples are the Franklin Dam and polluting pulp mills in Tasmania; Sandmining on World Heritage Fraser Island in Queensland; and uranium mining at Coronation Hill in the Northern Territory. There is good reason to maintain a healthy separation of powers between the assessment and approval process so that vested interests at state level do not overshadow the goal of biodiversity protection.
The second feature of environmental law in Australia to consider is the sheer complexity of different environmental legislation in every state. A person fulfilling the role of National Health, Safety, Environment or Sustainability Manager must be across 8 sets of legislation, each with slightly different legal ramifications.
If reducing complexity, costs and delays is the genuine aim of legislative reform, then a more effective strategy would be greater harmonisation of environmental law across the Australian states and territories. This would do a lot more to ease the compliance burden for Australian business than the “one stop shop”.