From 2008 through to 2012 the federal government has committed an extra $395 million to the Natural Heritage Trust. A good deal of this money is likely to be wasted by the Regional Bodies established to administer these funds under the Regional Delivery Model.
The release of “The Auditor General Audit Report No.21 2007-08 Performance Audit Regional Delivery Model for the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality” (PDF 891KB) is an opportunity to assess the “Regional Delivery Model“ itself and the process of assessment of its success.
The audit report into the progress of the process established to “conserve, repair and replenish Australia’s natural capital infrastructure”i.e. soils, rivers and biodiversity (Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Act 1997, s3, p3) states that the program delivery arrangements have evolved and are now on the whole working well (p26). A rather positive response.
And yet a reading of the assessment gives the following recommendations:
- provide greater transparency and efficiency in the management of funds for regional investments;
- address compliance with bilateral agreements; and
- develop a performance measurement framework.
The report identifies problems with financial, compliance and assessment in the process itself and yet concludes this means it is “working well”. I fail to reach the same conclusion and contend that not only is the process itself critically flawed but also the assessment of the process.
A brief look at the history of the process reveals how this has happened.
The establishment of 56 regional bodies to administer, co-ordinate and instigate community-based action, from planting trees to protecting an entire catchment, relied on the assumption that the capacity exists outside the established government departments, educational and industrial institutions to perform these functions.
I assert that this has proven conclusively to be a false assumption based upon my observations of the inability of regional bodies to develop or undertake any meaningful natural resource management plans or actions. This is exemplified by the ever growing number of staff and constant staff turnover in regional bodies.
In an attempt to alleviate this fatal flaw the proponents of this process have leaned heavily on state governments to give information and advice to these regional bodies. This was viewed dimly by state government departments and a bribe was needed to get them onboard. Hence, bilateral agreements were born.
Bilateral agreements have led to the opposite of the supposed aims of the entire process. Under a bilateral agreement the federal government divests itself of all environmental responsibility by giving up assessment processes to the state governments.
Any activity which falls within the responsibility of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) and the federal minister is assessed, on behalf of, the minister, by the bilateral partner - the state government. Therefore, the situation arises where the proponent of a declared activity is the state government and the proponent, or state government, undertakes the environmental assessment themselves.
This opinion is based on my experience of the “Regional Delivery Model” in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia and hence my call for the model to be completely abandoned.
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