We Can Protect Our Natural Environment And Create Jobs Too

We Can Protect Our Natural Environment And Create Jobs Too

Jobs versus environment: it's not a new battle. One or the other it need not be, we can protect our natural environment and create jobs too.

The mission would be challenging enough if it were only about arriving at the right policy position. But sadly, too many environmental activists are too rarely interested in evidence-based policy.

Since 1999 the centrepiece of our national environmental laws has been the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Act (the EPBC). More than a decade ago, a Labor Government legislated for a review of the EPBC every ten years to ensure the now 21-year-old Act remains robust, effective, and fit-for-purpose in a rapidly changing world.

A little more than a year ago the Federal Government commissioned former ACCC boss, Professor Graeme Samuel to lead the review. After prompting further discussion and consultation with an interim report in June 2020, Professor Samuel delivered his final report in October last year.

The review concluded the EPBC was delivering for neither the environment nor the economy. Indeed, it declared it "not fit to address current or future environmental challenges". We need to urgently fix it.

Professor Samuel also warned the Act was not delivering for Traditional Owners, saying amongst other things, the architecture and resourcing of the EPBC are insufficient to support effective inclusion of Indigenous Australians in the approval processes. That needs to change.

The review offered thoughtful criticisms of the complexity of the EPBC, its failure to protect our natural environment, the brake it has on jobs growth, and its vulnerability to protracted, vexatious legal actions. Samuel noted the EPBC was trusted by neither industry nor the environmental movement and that compliance and enforcement under the Act is weak.

Particular attention was given to the problems of a two-step system which requires investors to seek state government approvals in the first instance and then Commonwealth approval before a project can proceed. These high jumps are economy-wide but have particular application in the agriculture and resources sectors.

The review found that Commonwealth environmental approval for big resources projects takes on average, three years. That of course, is in addition to the significant time it takes to secure state approval.

The Minerals Council of Australia estimates that the EPBC process can cost companies developing greenfield resource projects up to $47 million every month.

Graeme Samuel recommended the current system's job-destroying duplication should be addressed by improving, strengthening, and streamlining the capacity of the Federal Government to delegate Commonwealth approval functions to state governments under bilateral agreements. But only where state processes are of acceptable quality and projects will be assessed against new, stringent, and enforceable National Environmental Standards.

In July last year the National Cabinet embraced a "single touch", national standards model. Five of our state and territory leaders are of course, Labor Premiers or Chief Ministers. Three of them run the big northern resource regions and the Western Australian Government in particular, has been energetically urging the embrace of green-tape reform.

A year on from the release of the Interim Report, it's time to get on with the reforms needed to both better protect our iconic natural assets and to deliver a much-needed boost for our economy. The impacts of COVID-19 demand a new urgency and should generate strong and timely multi-party Parliamentary support for the legislation needed to introduce interim National Environmental Standards.

Joel Fitzgibbon

Federal Member for Hunter