The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1998, which passed through the lower house last night, has been vociferously debated within and outside the environment movement. Amidst the hype, it is puzzling and disappointing to see that some others have chosen to ignore the sheer fact that the Act, while not a perfect piece of legislation, is streets ahead of the previous legislation - and delivers the overwhelming majority of the improvements the environment movement itself said it wanted.
WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) - the oldest and most experienced international conservation organisation - rejected the Bill when it was first tabled in July last year. The conservation movement then agreed a common set of amendments needed to the Act. WWF and other leading conservation organisations who were involved recently in providing advice on the Act can confidently say that at least 80% of those amendments have been achieved.
WWF has spent four years drawing on our practical experience and advocating our position to the Government on the basis of these agreed priority issues to achieve better national environment legislation. On the basis of WWF’s advice, the Democrats negotiated a deal with the Government which achieved this 80%.
Over the last week we have seen some highly distorted representations of the true impact that this new Act will have on the Australian environment, reflecting an obsession with the notion that this Act hands the decision to carry out environmental impact assessments down to industry driven State Governments.
Firstly, it is important to remember that the Act is not solely focussed on environmental assessment of development proposals. Put simply, the Act identifies most of the major threats to the Australian environment - including fishing, land clearing, water allocation, invasive species, and climate change - and increases the Commonwealth’s ability to pro-actively manage these threats now or in the near future.
For the first time the Commonwealth environment minister is required to play a role in the regulation of fishing and invasive species. Also for the first time the Commonwealth is able to intervene to question state decisions on water allocation, vegetation clearing and other landscape scale threats by playing a role in the protection of threatened species and ecological communities on state land.
One of the major positive effects of the new Act is to codify the development of bilateral agreements - previously ad hoc arrangements between state and Commonwealth governments to jointly progress environmental responsibilities.
Some conservation groups argue that these agreements ultimately put more power in the hands of untrustworthy State governments, that sufficient Commonwealth powers already exist, and that the Act is less desirable than the present ad hoc arrangements.
This view is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the Commonwealth was involved in only nine environmental impact statements for proposed developments in 1997-98. The most current figures from Environment Australia’s 1997-98 Annual Report indicate that of 235 proposals referred to the Commonwealth in that year, only 13 were subject to further assessment. A large number of the remaining 222 projects were effectively abandoned for the States to assess.
The lack of Commonwealth involvement was due to political decisions - usually made by pro-development industry ministers - and the requirement that the Commonwealth use indirect issues, such as foreign investment, as triggers for Commonwealth involvement in environmental impact assessments. Consequently, the Commonwealth was rarely able to address projects that could cause enormous environmental damage.
WWF seriously questions how any system for involving the Commonwealth in environmental impact assessment could possibly be more deficient. It is our belief that no government will ever voluntarily disapprove any development which will yield significant economic returns. We believe, as the new Act sets out, a process led by the Environment Minister and involving greater Commonwealth participation through bilateral agreements will lead to better conservation outcomes on more issues, and in more places of more importance.
The new legislation takes some of the political whim out of environmental decision making by specifying six matters of "national environmental significance" (NES), that may directly trigger Commonwealth intervention to assess development proposals:
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