Opposition plan to surrender environmental approvals a messy backward step

Tony Abbott might think his approvals plan will simplify things, but it will unleash new complications. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

While the political focus in Australia was on the Labor Party leadership challenge, the Opposition released its policy for “a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals”.

The policy claims that handing Commonwealth decisions on environmental approvals to the states will “dramatically simplify the approvals process across federal, state and local jurisdictions, while maintaining environmental standards”.

When something sounds too good to be true it normally is.

A scrambled egg of government

Australia’s federal system of government is more like a scrambled egg than a neatly layered cake. Many of the roles aren’t clear, so any proposal to simplify and improve the system is welcome. But an immediate problem for the Opposition’s plan is that state, territory and local governments handle the vast bulk of day-to-day environmental decisions.

For example, there are around 250,000 applications a year under state and territory planning laws. In contrast, the main Commonwealth environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, deals with only around 400 referrals each year.

Commonwealth environmental laws to remain

The EPBC Act was enacted by the Howard Government, so it is odd in this context that the Opposition claims “Labor has increased environmental regulation”. The ALP recently added a new water trigger but the vast bulk of the law comes from the Howard-era.

Some important and controversial decisions to protect the environment have been made under the Act. For example, in 2008 it was used to reject a large coal terminal in a wetland area on the central Queensland coast.

While the Act is not a panacea, the Opposition can justifiably be proud of its passage under Howard. And they do not propose to repeal it, merely to hand the decisions under it to the states.

But will that really speed up matters? Assessments under the Act are already integrated with state and territory assessment systems to avoid duplication. Assessments rarely delay a project as state, territory and local government approvals typically take considerably longer.

It is hard to see how merely changing who makes the decision will “dramatically simplify the approvals process across federal, state and local jurisdictions” as is claimed.

The proposed policy

Saying that state and territory governments will be given the opportunity to act as a “one-stop-shop” for environmental approvals sounds like a complete handover of all decisions. But the Coalition’s environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, qualified this in earlier statements reported in the Weekend Australian by saying, “some matters would be reserved where the Commonwealth would be the one-stop-shop but overwhelmingly it would be the states”.

The areas where the federal government would retain ultimate control were reported to include offshore Commonwealth waters, nuclear matters and projects for which the state was the proponent. The last of these alleviates the most significant concern about surrendering Commonwealth environmental approvals to the states: where the state is the proponent they’ll have difficulty making an independent assessment.

But if the Commonwealth keeps its role approving projects that a state government is the proponent for, it significantly complicates the proposed “one-stop-shop”.

“Projects for which the state is the proponent” presumably will include projects where a government-owned corporation is the proponent or a joint venturer. This should mean that a project like the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, which led to Tasmanian Dam dispute, would still be assessed by the Commonwealth.

It should also mean that the Commonwealth will still assess projects like the Queensland Government’s Traveston Crossing Dam and the Victorian Government’s trial of alpine grazing.

Gunns Pulp Mill

An example of a Commonwealth approval for a controversial project that might be surrendered to the state government is the Gunns Pulp Mill. This project was proposed by a private company, Gunns Ltd.

It illustrates some of the complexity and uncertainty that the new system would generate. One of the major impacts of the pulp mill was the discharge of its effluent into Bass Strait off Launceston. These are offshore Commonwealth waters.

That is one of the issues that the Coalition says would be retained for Commonwealth approval. Would the state of Tasmania or the Commonwealth, therefore, assess it under the Opposition policy?

Messy backward step

Despite the grand claims of “dramatically simplifying” environmental approvals in Australia, the Opposition policy is more likely to be messy and throw up its own complexities.

It would also be a backward step after the Commonwealth won the ability to oversee state environmental decisions 30 years ago in the Tasmanian Dam dispute.

The Commonwealth has a legitimate and important role in environmental protection in Australia. Surrendering the Commonwealth’s role in environmental approvals to the states is unlikely to either simplify or improve government in Australia.