Environment Minister accused of 'recycling' Tony Abbott-era bill

Environment Minister Sussan Ley during question time on Thursday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley during question time on Thursday. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley has been accused of resurrecting Tony Abbott-era laws to create a "one-stop-shop" for environmental approvals.

The minister has also been accused of "breaking faith" with environmental groups, after the bill excluded provisions to create new, legally binding national environment standards, as recommended by Professor Graeme Samuel.

Ms Ley tabled draft legislation on Thursday to devolve the Commonwealth's approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to state and territory governments.

It came after the findings of an interim review from Professor Samuel recommended handing states and territories the power to reduce duplication.

However Professor Samuel also called for new, legally enforceable national environmental standards to be the "centrepiece" of the reform.

Ms Ley said those new standards would be introduced in August.

But Australian National University environmental law expert Dr Peter Burnett said the bill included no provisions to create those legally enforceable national environmental standards.

Ms Ley's office confirmed the Commonwealth-led standards would instead be part of the bilateral agreements being negotiated with states and territories.

This is a really sad day. We'll look back on this day and the MPs who agreed and know this was the day we decided not to protect our wildlife.

ACT chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy

However Dr Burnett said this would mean they did not have "the force of law".

Dr Burnett also said the bill was "very similar" to legislation introduced by the Abbott government in 2014 that tried to hand environmental approval powers to the state.

"It's recycling previous legislation," Dr Burnett said.

"It's very close. There are a few minor differences but there's certainly nothing new or different in there."

The 2014 bill also tried to devolve approval powers under the EPBC Act to the states and territories.

It lapsed after the Palmer United Party, Labor and the Greens struck a deal to block the bill.

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy said if the government was "hellbent" on doing devolution properly, it would have used this bill to set up a framework for legally enforceable standards and an independent "cop on the beat".

Without those elements, the bill was simply a "fast-track to extinction", Ms O'Shanassy said.

"This is a really sad day. We'll look back on this day and the MPs who agreed and know this was the day we decided not to protect our wildlife," Ms O'Shanassy said.

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Labor's environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the government had squandered an opportunity for real reform with this "backwards-looking failed Abbott law rehash".

WWF-Australia's chief conservation officer, Rachel Lowry, called it a "recipe for extinction"

"A decision to shift approval powers to the states without an independent regulator to ensure enforcement, would be the most perverse and damaging environmental decision to occur within Australia in recent decades," she said.

Humane Society International head of campaigns Nicola Beynon said the government had "broken faith" with environmental groups, by ignoring the call for better environmental standards.

"All this bill does is push the limitations of the EPBC Act down to states and territories without fixing any of the problems," Ms Beynon said.

Ms Ley said this was only the first tranche of legislation.

"There will be more reforms in the months ahead," she said.

This story Environment Minister accused of 'recycling' Tony Abbott-era bill first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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