The Morrison government will face a battle in the Senate to pass environmental protection legislation amendments, with critics accusing it of resurrecting a maligned Abbott-era “one-stop shop approval” system that will “fast-track extinctions”.
The government has not yet formally responded to the Graeme Samuel-led review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, which made 38 recommendations to address two decades of failure in environmental protection law, despite receiving it nearly a year ago.
In plaas daarvan, it has released legislation designed to streamline environmental approvals, which Labor, the Greens and the independent senator Rex Patrick have rejected after reviewing the legislation in a report released on Tuesday.
Coalition senators on the same committee recommended the legislation be passed – but with tweaks, asking the government to consider a review into the interim standard within two years of its start date.
The legislation is designed to cut down on “green tape” and streamline environmental approvals for mining and farming. The legislation has faced criticism from environmental advocates and researchers, who claim it will further weaken already weak protections.
The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation amendment was supposed to satisfy the concerns raised in the streamlining environmental approvals bill, but instead would make the current situation worse.
“The Morrison government has consulted in bad faith,” she said in the Greens’ dissenting report.
“While that is extremely disappointing for stakeholders and Prof Graeme Samuel, who have put thousands of hours into improving our environmental laws so our wildlife and natural places are protected, the result will now be more dead koalas, more pollution, more logging and more wanton destruction of environment and heritage.”
Hanson-Young said the bill ignored warnings from experts, including Prof Brendan Wintle from the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub, who told the committee the legislation would have no positive impact.
"Natuurlik, it’s very difficult to say definitely worse. I see no basis to be enthusiastic about where this would leave us,” he said during one of the committee’s public hearings. “I think it’s going to leave us, op sy beste, in the same position we’re in, which is a parlous state. We are in the middle of an extinction crisis.”
Among Patrick’s concerns with the legislation was a lack of proper oversight. The South Australian senator said there was already evidence of what could go wrong if the watchdog wasn’t given “strong teeth”.
“We have seen, through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, what happens when an environmental measure is left without a properly empowered and independent watchdog,” hy het gesê.
“So, whilst this bill proposes an Environmental Assurance Commissioner, the commissioner’s functional scope is too narrow and the position is not sufficiently empowered to properly conduct even the narrow roles assigned.
“… Aware that it has no bite, the ‘watchdog’ is unlikely to even bark when confronted with an intrusion on the intent of the Act.”
The Labor senator Nita Green said Labor senators found little difference between this offering and the Abbott government’s controversial “one-stop shop” proposal.
“Put another way, the effect of the [EPBC amendment] appears to be conferring a power on the minister that she intends to use to issue standards that merely duplicate the current law; devolving EPBC decision-making to the states while not providing any measure of additional environmental protection, and without providing assurance as to resourcing; and establishing an insufficiently independent and underpowered monitoring and audit function,” Green said.
“That being the case there is very little substantive difference between this bill’s effect, and the effect of the Abbott-era ‘one-stop-shop’ bill of 2014, which Labor strongly opposed.”
Given the opposition, the government faces a battle in the Senate to pass the legislation, needing both One Nation senators and either Jacqui Lambie or Stirling Griff to get it through.