Australia’s natural heritage betrayed by environmental law referral

Bear with me, this is rather dry topic, but has seismic implications for Australia’s natural heritage. Don’t worry; this will be a short one.

After over forty years of generally bi-partisan cooperation to increase federal involvement in environmental matters, the Abbott government now plans to hand over environmental approval powers to state governments.

The key law this involves is the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). The approvals relate to projects and matters that have potential impact of national significance, including world heritage icons (like the Great Barrier Reef), internationally protected wetlands, endangered species, activities in Commonwealth marine areas (like the one the Abbott government plans to abolish), nuclear matters and water-affecting activities (like coal-seam gas).

What the federal government plans to do is hand over planning authority to state governments, through bi-lateral agreements, under the spurious guise of reducing “green tape” and creating a “one-stop-shop” for environmental approvals.

Handing over planning powers to state governments, many of whom are beholden to fossil fuel interests, amounts to a betrayal of Australia’s natural heritage and environment.

The federal government’s role in major environmental matters dates back at least to the Franklin Dam case in 1982-3, where the Commonwealth government used section 51 of the Constitution to make laws with respect to external affairs; over 50 environmental Acts rely on these (and other) powers.

It is common sense why this is the case, and why it is desirable. Australia has many continent-spanning natural features including the Great Artesian Basin, the Murray Darling Basin and of course our oceans. We are also blessed with natural features that are of international significance, including the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and many so on.

Historically, state governments have been unable to effectively manage these natural assets. This is due both to disagreements between states for natural features that cross borders (like river systems), and because state governments are not well equipped to act in the national interest. To me, these two reasons embody the betrayal of Abbott’s environmental law referrals. Thus we have a system set of laws that, while not perfect, allow the federal government to act in the national interest to protect Australia’s natural heritage.

It is obvious that we have (and have had in the past) state governments who care very little or not at all about Australia’s natural heritage.

The Liberal-National Queensland government for example is rushing head-long towards dredging the Great Barrier Reef, and has been put on notice by UNESCO over its negligence. Abbott has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Queensland premier Campbell Newman that effectively hands environmental approval power to the Queensland government. This is a government that has been infiltrated by coal mining interests, and the Newman administration operates largely to advance the interests of big miners.

The basis of Australia’s environmental laws is to uphold high environmental standards. This has resulted in successive environment ministers overruling state approvals on the basis of unacceptable or unsustainable impacts on a matter of national environmental significance.

The enormous environmental risk is that state governments are given the power to make decisions of national significance when they lack the capacity to adequately consider the national interest, or have a reasons to act in their own interest. This is exemplified by the controversial rise of coal-seam gas, where “fracking” has the risk of injecting toxic chemicals into the Great Artesian Basin, and where state governments receive royalty payments from fracking companies.

On a practical level, state planning, industry, and environmental public service departments have neither the resources nor the scope to consider major and complex issues. This has been demonstrated with the debacle of the Murray Darling Basin; successive state governments and their departments from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have been incapable of developing a policy that extends beyond their own borders. This is for any number of reasons, including lack of resources. Simply, history and common sense have shown that we need a national government to consider and manage national issues.

Prior to the centralisation of our environmental planning system (and even recently) Australia experienced inter-state “warfare”, and enormous legal and political conflict between state interests. The utterly false argument used by the Abbott government is that referring federal powers to states will reduce bureaucracy and regulatory costs for industry. In fact, the referrals will increase complexity and legal costs for businesses.

The alleged costs trumpeted by Abbott and his ministers are either exaggerated or entirely spurious. The majority of delays in the past involving environmental approvals are due to state government delays. Additionally, there is greater likelihood of conflict and litigation between states when projects have major environmental impacts that potentially cross states.

“Green tape” is a vexatious furphy, conjured up by conservative business interests who find that anti-pollution and environmental protection laws prevent them from making a quick buck. In Australia, this is manifested in the fossil-fuel addiction of the Abbott government, and the infiltration by the mining industry into the Liberal-National Western Australian, Queensland and New South Wales governments. Cash-starved state governments are much more susceptible to blustering tactics by big business, especially in the field of environmental protection. What the Abbott government and big business call “green tape” is often essential safe-guards to stop environmental disasters or health crises.

Ross Garnaut noted in a lecture on 20 May 2014: “Big business has never been so directly influential with government and senses that it might be a winner which takes all on environmental matters.”

Abandoning our national heritage to governments with shameful track records like in Queensland is a betrayal of Australia’s natural heritage; Abbott’s actions are  understandable when you realise that the four businessmen that he has appointed to senior advisory roles are climate skeptics or outright climate deniers.

We should have a single-desk for major environmental approvals, but it must be the Commonwealth.

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