The Greens have secured a deal with the Palmer United Party (PUP) and Labor that effectively kills the federal government’s plan to hand its environmental approval powers to the states under its “one-stop shop” policy.
If PUP’s refusal a month ago on the water trigger was a migraine for the federal handover of environmental powers to the states, the new deal is a heart attack that leaves the one-stop shop policy without a pulse.
Despite PUP’s protests to the contrary, the inquiry is clearly all about spite and revenge by Clive Palmer in his feud with the Queensland Newman Government. It pushes the limits on the senate’s ability to probe state government actions.
The Greens appear to have played a deft hand and achieved a significant victory for environmental protection in Australia by stopping the handover of federal approvals to the states. This comes with the added bonus for the Greens of tacking an investigation into major environmental approvals in Queensland into the coming senate inquiry.
How the roadblock works
Since 2000 the federal government has possessed the power to hand its environmental decisions to the states under something called “approval bilateral agreements”.
The process for entering such agreements exists under Australia’s national environmental laws, which protects nine matters of national environmental significance such as World Heritage properties.
This controversial mechanism was virtually never used, although the Gillard Government toyed with it in 2012.
The only exception for matters that cannot be handed to the states is the water trigger. It was created in 2013 and included a prohibition on final approvals under it being handed to the states.
PUP announced a month ago that it would not support amendments to allow the water trigger to be handed to the states.
While the mechanism for approval bilateral agreements already exists, the process requires any agreement to be laid before both houses of parliament before it takes effect. A majority vote in either house of parliament to disallow the agreement can stop it cold.
The procedure for the senate to disallow rules and regulations made by the government is common for delegated legislation and similar things but rarely applied.
The new agreement between PUP, Labor and the Greens is exactly that — an agreement to vote together to disallow any approval bilateral laid before the senate.
Given that PUP, Labor and the Greens together comprise a majority in the senate, they can effectively stop the one-stop shop policy. This is a significant victory for the Greens in particular that will retain federal oversight for environmental approvals.
What might the senate inquiry find out?
The deal to block the one-stop shop and the senate inquiry into Queensland administration are different but related things.
The terms of reference for the senate inquiry focus on Queensland’s use of Commonwealth funding but also include examining Queensland’s development approval processes.
Green’s senator Larissa Waters said this included looking at coal seam gas approvals of the previous Labor Bligh Government, which a whistleblower revealed on ABC’s Four Corners program were issued subject to political and industry interference.
The whistleblower, Simone Marsh, was employed in early 2010 by the Queensland Coordinator-General’s office conducting the environmental impact assessment for large CSG projects.
She said that when she raised concerns about the lack of information provided in relation to groundwater for one project:
I was taken into a meeting room, sat down and told that there wasn’t going to be a chapter on groundwater and I was … stunned. I said “What are you talking about? What do you mean there’s not going to be a chapter on groundwater? It’s one of the biggest issues for the project”. And he just repeated the words that there was not going to be a groundwater chapter in the Santos Coordinator General’s report and wouldn’t give me any reason why or why not.
The senate inquiry might call witnesses such as this whistleblower to testify about poor environmental decisions in Queensland even though this particular case pre-dates the Newman Government that PUP wants to target.
There is a clear link to the one-stop shop in such cases because under the proposed Queensland approval bilateral federal decisions for major projects would be handed to the Queensland Coordinator-General – the very person for whom the whistleblower worked. The Coordinator-General has a poor track record for environmental approvals so there are potentially fertile grounds for the inquiry if it chooses to dig.
How far the inquiry might dig is another matter as the senate has very limited powers to compel evidence from state government officials.
Exactly what the inquiry might find is uncertain. It might be a complete dud.
The inquiry is clearly driven by PUP rather than the Greens or Labor. For the Greens, the main game appears to have been stopping the handover of federal approvals to the states. Assuming the agreement with PUP and Labor holds, that appears to have been achieved at least for the life of the current senate.