At a time when there’s mounting evidence that Australia’s environmental planning laws are “fundamentally broken”, this very same legislation is under threat from a federal government intent on fast-tracking projects as part of its pandemic recovery plan.
“Green tape” has been in the firing line of the Covid recovery agenda at least since earlier this month when the Morrison government announced its “single touch” environmental approvals process (but it’s been mooted and touted for much longer). This involves state and federal officials getting in the same room (figuratively speaking) to assess projects in a single hit.
While the focus for the federal government is on a faster processing times, and there has been no mention of scaling back or changing the laws, opposing political parties and environmental groups aren’t convinced the new processing scheme won’t have adverse effects.
“The Morrison government wants to sacrifice environmental protections so miners and developers can bank bigger profits,” Greens Spokesperson for the Environment Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said at the time.
Labor took aim at the deep cuts to the budget between 2013 to 2019 as the cause for the slow decision making, something that was noted in the Australian National Audit Office’s uncharacteristically scathing review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), the legislation used to check the environmental impact of new projects.
That wasn’t the only damning finding by the auditor – it noted shortcomings in the way the act is enforced and delivered, including non-compliant environmental assessments being overturned in court, and a failure to regularly refer agricultural land clearing for assessment.
Perhaps most worrying in a regulatory field littered with potential conflicts of interest – such as developers in a hurry to turn projects around – the audit found possibilities that conflicts of interest were not being managed.
In conclusion, the auditor found that the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of conservation laws were “not effective” to protect the environment.
ACF policy analyst, James Trezise, told The Fifth Estate that there’s strong argument for establishing an independent regulator.
He said that there’s room for political interference to occur because the existing regulatory function sits within the department, under the direction of the minster.
“We need good regulatory design, that’s independent and can give frank and fearless advice, and regulators also need to be adequately resourced.”
It will be a big few weeks for the EPBC Act, with the conservation law’s scheduled 20-year review by professor Graeme Samuel expected to be handed down before the end of the week.
Mr Trezise said that the laws are complex and challenging to navigate, and that fewer than 1 per cent of projects that have been referred to it have been knocked back. He said that the stats show that the act is seldom used to protect the environment.
There’s also no recognition of the need to tackle climate change in the laws.
As such, it will be all eyes on Professor Samuel’s review, which Environment Minister Sussan Ley said would inform the shape and direction of the new environmental process fast-tracking scheme.
NSW’s dedicated fast-tracking unit
Also this week, the NSW government launched its new Planning
Delivery Unit (PDU), designed to work with NSW government agencies to “unblock
planning projects stuck in the system”.
“This includes ensuring appropriate resources to support assessments, fix backlogs and build capacity in councils and agencies including a ‘flying squad’ for councils and dedicated coordinators in agencies,” a spokesperson from the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment told The Fifth Estate.
The unit will tackle four priority projects – the St Leonards Crows Nest plan, the Glenfield Precinct, the Parramatta Road Corridor Strategy and the Marsden Park North (and West Schofields) Precinct – and then any planning requests that have exceeded the legal time limits permitted under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000, and delays caused by “multiple complex or significant environment issues such as flooding, bushfire, contamination, heritage, ecology, transport, infrastructure or natural/ mineral resource constraint”.
The team of 30 will be led by former Liverpool City Council CEO Kiersten Fishburn. The department spokesperson said that specialist case managers, project managers and data analysts would be included in the team.