12 December 2022

Labor proposes tough new environmental protection agency

| Chris Johnson
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Mountain Pygmy Possum. Photo: NSW Environment and Heritage.

Conservation standards will lift under a new proposal by the Federal Government. Photo: NSW Environment and Heritage.

A new environmental protection agency with unprecedented powers to enforce standards will be established by the Federal Government in response to Graeme Samuel’s review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The priority standard going to ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’, will insist on the protection of Australia’s most ecologically important areas.

With a goal of no extinctions, and a requirement to improve the environment and not just limit damage, the new regime will lift conservation standards to never before seen levels.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said the proposed EPA would be a “tough cop on the beat” and be able to impose legally binding environmental standards.

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The Minister announced her ‘Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business’ in response to the Samuel Review, and said it was delivering on a Labor election promise.

“We want an economy that is nature-positive to halt destruction and repair nature,” she said.

“We will build our legislation on three basic principles: clear national standards of environmental protection, improving and speeding up decisions and building trust and integrity.

“Our Nature Positive Plan will be better for the environment by delivering stronger laws designed to repair nature, to protect our precious plants and animals and places. For the first time our laws will introduce standards that decisions must meet. Standards describe the environmental outcomes that we’re seeking.

“This will ensure that decisions that are made will protect our threatened species and ecosystems. And of course, a new Environmental Protection Agency will make development decisions and enforce them.

“Our Nature Positive Plan will also be better for business by delivering more certainty, saving time and money with faster, clearer decisions. Regional plans will identify the areas that we want to protect, areas that can be fast-tracked for development, and areas where development can proceed with caution.”

A traffic light-style system will be introduced to signal red for stringent protection measures of high conservation value areas.

Ms Plibersek said a national standard on First Nations engagement would also be developed as a priority, to ensure Indigenous Australians were fully involved in decisions impacting on Country.

Standards will be legally binding and reviews will only be able to strengthen the standards.

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The Government has, however, rejected a recommendation of the Samuel Review that federal powers of approval be handed to the states.

All environment protection decision-making processes undertaken by the states and territories will be overseen by the new EPA.

In his 2020 review, Professor Samuel stated: “The EPBC act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. Australians do not trust that the act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community. Nature’s being destroyed, businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That’s bad for everyone, and it has to change.”

Labor plans to have draft legislation governing the new EPA ready by mid next year, with it to be introduced to parliament the year after.

The Opposition is describing the proposal as an “assault on the job creators of our nation” and is gearing up to oppose the legislation.

The Government is likely to need crossbench support for the legislation to pass.

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Stephen Saunders9:50 am 12 Dec 22

“Tough cop” is perhaps gilding the lily. Research shows that EPBC is very often used to green-light proposals, very rarely used to red-light them. This is likely to continue under an EPA.

In reality, the Treasurer is Australia’s main environmental “cop”. In effect, his endless-growth Budgets green-light: over-population, land clearing, habitat destruction, and water scarcity.

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