Built environment and green groups have welcomed commitment to a new national Environmental Protection Agency put forward by the Australian Labor Party at the 11th hour, before Australia headed to the polls to cement the ALP’s victory on the weekend. 

Key to the opportunities for the new agency was the upcoming international negotiations on a new Global Deal for Nature. But Total Environment Centre’s Jeff Angel cautioned on the potential of the new EPA to become mired in bureaucracy and to succumb to the “forces of environmental destruction – whether they be in the mining, development, or agriculture” that might make it a “toothless tiger”.

The proposed EPA follows a review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act by Professor Graeme Samuel in 2020.

The final report, handed to government in January 2021, concluded that Australia’s environmental framework was inadequate, and the natural environment is “in a state of overall decline”.

“The impact of climate change on the environment will exacerbate pressures and contribute to further decline. In its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats,” the report found.

Labor’s Terri Butler – who was then pegged to be likely environment minister  – said Labor’s decision was informed by the Samuel review. Ms Butler has since conceded defeat in the Brisbane seat of Griffith to Greens Max Chandler-Mather.

The Greens environmental policies include to stop extinction, clean up the environment, transition to renewables and to employ more Indigenous Australians in land management. 

It also called for stronger Environment Protection Laws to protect the environment and wildlife from land clearing, pollution and destruction, and an independent watchdog to enforce them. 

Labor’s proposed EPA model would have two divisions: a compliance and assurance division and an environmental data, information and analysis division.

The data division would aim to increase knowledge about the plight of Australia’s environment, as multiple official reports have found environmental protection has been held back by major gaps in information and monitoring.

The watchdog would ensure that major projects comply with development restrictions, and was one of Samuel’s recommendations last year.

Most other regulations already have independent compliance mechanisms set up, such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority.

Groups within the built environment have welcomed the promise, with the Australian Institute of Architects saying that it would help ensure sustainable practices within the built environment. 

AIA national president Shannon Battisson told The Fifth Estate: “The Institute supports a strong environmental regulatory framework that protects and enhances Australia’s natural environment, and ensures sustainable practices in the built environment.”

Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) also flagged its support, with advocacy and campaigns manager Audrey Marsh stating: “We are interested in what a federal environment regulator could achieve for Australia. Recent policy debates, particularly in relation to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, have demonstrated the need for stronger action on national environmental standards.”

Managing director of community housing provider Common Equity Housing Limited Liz Thomas gave her support to any initiatives that will improve the environmental sustainability of housing.

Environmental groups have welcomed the commitment to establish an independent EPA.

“An independent environmental regulator is a very good idea. In particular, it enhances accountability and early warnings about emerging problems and the need for effective policies,” said Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre.

Mr Angel welcomed the removal of the Coalition which he said will “open the door for better environmental policies. 

Greenpeace also welcomes the announcement, which it says is long overdue.

David Ritter, chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific said: “There has been a historical lack of interventions to protect ecosystems to address the extinction crisis. Furthermore, there’s been a failure to address one of the most egregious failings of our system which is to evaluate cumulative impacts of projects on the environment as opposed to a license by license approach.

“A new approach is sorely needed, and an independent environmental watchdog is long overdue.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy said that the ACF looks forward to the changes. 

“For too long these laws have not been properly enforced and ACF has long argued that we need a well-resourced independent regulator. The EPA’s proposed data custodian role would also help to address the deficiencies identified by Professor Samuel and ensure that decision-makers, business and the community have access to the best available data, information and science.”

The ACF also welcomes Labor’s commitment to strong international environmental leadership ahead of the upcoming international negotiations on a new Global Deal for Nature.

But green groups are waiting for these promises to be delivered before celebrating. 

“We will have to be very careful it doesn’t become too bureaucratised and maintains contact with what’s actually happening on the ground. We also need a set of national environmental standards to which state government and private development decisions can be benchmarked,” Mr Angel told The Fifth Estate

“Environmental groups will have to remain in close contact with the new government, as undoubtedly the forces of environmental destruction – whether they be in the mining, development, or agriculture – will be making their arguments.

“We certainly don’t want it to be a toothless tiger.” 

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  1. The Greens had nothing to do with the promise of an EPA and reform. The internal environment lobby within the AlP, the Labor Environment Action Network (LEAN) campaigned for environmental law reform and an EPA through 2018-22. 500 local ALP branches backed the policy and it was taken to the National Conference of the ALP in 2019 and 2021. It has been in ALP’s policy platform since 2019.