‘Crucial environmental bill shouldn’t be rushed’

By Tony Zhang|07 September 2020

Legislation to change Australia’s environmental laws has swiftly passed through the lower house by the Morrison government, prompting outrage from the opposition and the Law Council calling for caution.

The government’s bill would amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, clearing the way for the transfer of development approval powers to state and territory governments.

The current bill has been criticised by conservationists, Labor and the Greens for failing to include promised national environmental standards, which were the key recommendation of the interim report of a review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Labor says it will vote against the Morrison government’s proposed changes to environmental laws to transfer development approval powers to the states and territories.

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The Law Council of Australia has warned that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 (the bill) must not be rushed through the Senate and has called for its referral to a parliamentary inquiry.

The Law Council said that it maintains its longstanding view that the Commonwealth should be demonstrating leadership in biodiversity conservation and environmental protection, given its unique role sitting at the apex of government in Australia and its independence of particular state and territory interests.

“Australia is a signatory to some 33 key treaties and protocols regarding the environment. The Commonwealth [government] must remain at the helm in ensuring that Australia’s obligations under those treaties and protocols are met,” Law Council president Pauline Wright said.

“Bilateral agreements should not operate without robust and comprehensive Commonwealth oversight which is necessary to ensure that Australia’s obligations under international treaties are met and public confidence and trust [are] maintained.

“This assurance framework must be clear, transparent to the public and properly developed. We have an independent inquiry that has not even had the chance to complete its final report and reflect on over 3,000 unique submissions by concerned people and organisations. We must let that run its due course before embarking on this significant change.”

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Previously, partners in Clayton Utz’s environment and planning team told Lawyers Weekly that the proposed reforms to improve the operation of Australia’s environmental laws will require federal and state and territory governments to work together and set clear parameters for decision-making against national environmental standards.

The bill is intended to streamline environmental approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the act) by facilitating “the legally robust devolution of environmental approvals to the states and territories”.

The changes to the national environment protection laws pave the way for states to take over approvals.

The states would have to abide by a set of national environment standards, which have not been developed.

‘Crucial environmental bill shouldn’t be rushed’
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