Since 1996, the review of Commonwealth environmental laws has been the subject of a wide-ranging and often confused public debate. Everyone agreed that the laws, dating back to the early 1970s, were long past their use-by date.
Industry was faced with a maze of environmental approvals, never certain which level of government was required to give the final tick. The Commonwealth, meanwhile, was forced to rely on ad hoc reasons, such as foreign investment approval, to trigger its involvement in environmental approvals.
After endorsement by the Council of Australian Governments, and lengthy consultation with stakeholders, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill emerged. Suddenly, opinion divided along the old ideological lines of "industry versus the green movement".
The old guard of the green movement branded the laws a sell-out of Commonwealth responsibility, claiming they were a blanket handover of Commonwealth power to the States. Industry and some State governments, meanwhile, were claiming the new laws were a power grab by the Commonwealth.
At different times, the proposed law has been attacked in the media along both of these opposed lines.
Industry, to its credit, remained "inside the tent", choosing to argue its case and seeking to have its concerns addressed.
The old guard of the green movement chose to remain completely opposed to the bill. It argued that the whole process, now three years old, should start again.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Senate. Respected green groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Humane Society International, and some State conservation councils recognised that the bill embodied goals for which they had been campaigning for years.
The result was significant improvement to the bill negotiated by the Democrats, with the support of those green groups.
Groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation claim they were locked out of the process by the Democrats, when the reality is that the ACF effectively locked itself out.
The ACF leadership was twice offered briefings by my office on the proposed changes in the weeks leading up to the finalisation of the agreement with the Democrats. If it had taken up the offers, the ACF might have been better informed on what the bill had to offer.
For example, existing Commonwealth endangered species laws apply only on Commonwealth land - approximately 1 per cent of the continent. Since 1992 the ACF has described this as a "crucial flaw" with ACF president Peter Garrett saying the existing law was "weak, discretionary and unenforceable".
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