Proposed changes to Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC) 1999, appear to have been shelved. The politics have shifted rapidly. Ultimately, the proposals were dumped because they were not a solution to something that was not a problem to begin with.
The EPBC was created to ensure that in “matters of national environmental significance” the Commonwealth has some authority to act to protect World Heritage areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef; endangered and vulnerable species; and internationally-important wetlands. What had been proposed was a transferal of environmental protection powers from the Commonwealth to the states.
The idea emerged earlier this year, following a concerted push led by the Business Council of Australia (BCA). In an exercise in strategic communications framing straight from the Frank Luntz instruction manual, Australia’s environmental laws were denigrated as nothing more than “green tape” by the BCA and others.
The fundamental premise behind the lobbying was the assertion that the Australian environment is over-regulated. The BCA, for example, argued it was “essential to remove the double handling of environmental assessments that do nothing to improve environmental outcomes, but risk the cost-effectiveness and competitiveness of Australia’s unprecedented investment pipeline”.
Inevitably, transferring power to the states would have reduced environmental protection. The reality of the Australian federal political economy is that the states are overly dependent on royalty revenues from the extractive sector. Hence remarks like those of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman who said earlier this year:
We will protect the environment but we are not going to see the economic future of Queensland shut down … We are in the coal business.
The Commonwealth Government seemed to have accepted the case for handing off powers to the states. However, the planned changes collapsed when it emerged that even under the BCA’s own logic, what was proposed did not make sense. As reported in the SMH, talks between the Commonwealth and the states on the proposals “were reaching wildly varying conclusions from state to state - potentially leaving businesses with a more confusing set of environmental laws than they have now”.
In addition, an alliance of major NGOs had made it clear that the inevitable decline in environmental regulation from these changes would unavoidably lead to an increase in litigation.
Some major businesses must have viewed the whole shemozzle with mystification. After all, while some primary production companies may have derived short term commercial benefit from weakened environmental regulation, it is hard to imagine that other BCA members - Australia Post, Bendigo Bank or Amcor, for example - would have relished being dragged into a protracted fight with the environmental movement.
The internal logic of the EPBC reform proposal did not add up. But the original premise behind the push was wrong too. Australia’s long term prosperity depends on a healthy environment. It requires a more effective legal, regulatory and policy response to that which currently exists.
The Commonwealth State of the Environment Report 2011 made it clear that most environmental health indicators in Australia are in decline. Earlier this year, the Australian Institute of Marine Science announced that half of the coral cover of the Great Barrier Reef had gone when measured against a 1985 baseline. In the latest Quarterly Essay, Tim Flannery writes bluntly of the abject failure of Australia’s environmental laws to halt a breaking new wave of extinctions.
Of course not all of this can be sheeted home to the EPBC, but there is no doubt that the current system is inadequate in many respects. For example, the Act does not facilitate proper assessment of the cumulative impact of projects. Most fundamentally, the EPBC contains no requirement to properly assess the climate change impact of a project.
On the other hand, whatever the protestations of the BCA, Australia is a pretty easy place to do business. “Committed investment in resources and energy major projects in Australia increased to a record $268.4 billion,” according to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics Resources and Major Energy Projects report released last week. In the most recent analysis of 131 countries set out in Dun & Bradstreet’s Global Risk Indicator, Australia is one of the safest trade and foreign investment destinations globally. It ranks alongside Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
It remains the Federal Government’s responsibility to look after the most important and precious of Australia’s environment assets. Amending the EPBC to shift the power completely to the states would have made a bad situation worse. If the genuine purpose of environmental laws is to effectively safeguard the environment in order to secure our long-term prosperity, then the national debate should be over how to significantly strengthen the existing system.