Federal environmental law reforms most significant opportunity in decades

Environmental Defenders Office

The environmental law reform package unveiled by Minister Tanya Plibersek today potentially represents the most significant enhancement in federal environmental protections in more than a decade and goes a long way to addressing issues identified in Professor Graeme Samuel’s 2020 review of the EPBC Act.

The Environmental Defenders Office welcomes the Albanese Government’s response to Professor Samuel’s recommendations and looks forward to providing further input to ensure Australia has the laws it needs to arrest climate change and the declining health of many of the nation’s ecosystems.

“This is a great start but as a nation we still have a long way to go,” EDO Head of Policy & Law Reform Rachel Walmsley said.

“This package has some long overdue reforms and positive steps forward, but there are still some gaps.

“There are also some concerning proposals, such as the wider use of biodiversity offsets that could undermine outcomes for threatened ecosystems and species, and jeopardise the government’s goal of no more extinctions

“The Australian State of the Environment Report this year was very sobering. It found our environment is generally in poor condition and deteriorating due to climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction.

“A lot of critical detail will need to be negotiated to ensure the package of laws announced today is up to the challenge laid bare by that report.” 

Key elements of the reform package include:

  • Enforceable national environmental standards that development proposals must meet to be granted approval.

  • A new federal Environment Protection Authority to assess — at arm’s length from the political process — the impacts of proposed developments.

  • Making Regional Forest Agreements conform to the new national environmental standards.

“The restoration of community trust through mechanisms of accountability and transparency was a key recommendation of the Samuel review,” Ms Walmsley said.

“Community trust in the operation of the act and the functions of the new EPA is essential for the laws to work.

“In addition to the new independent EPA, we welcome commitments to improved transparency through publicly available data and reporting.

“We also welcome retaining fundamental community rights to access information, participate in decision-making processes and seek review of decisions. 

“However, it is of significant concern that merits review of decisions, as recommended by Professor Samuel, has been left out of this package of reforms.

“Merits review provides for better scrutiny of decisions and has resulted in better environmental and social outcomes, and better decisions.

“The EDO will continue to advocate for merits review as part of the suite of reforms to increase transparency and accountability of decisions made under the EPBC Act. 

“Third-party enforcement – the ability of community members to enforce breaches of the law or environmental conditions – is an important part of environmental law regimes around the country.

“Third-party enforcement mechanisms are a critical component of the package of reforms required to ‘future proof’ the new environmental law regime and EDO will support the government in developing robust civil enforcement rights.”  

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