Reforms to Australia’s environment and heritage laws will give the federal environment minister more discretionary power to reject public nominations to protect areas of natural and cultural significance.
Under proposed amendments, tabled in Parliament yesterday, to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999, the minister would be able to fast-track environmental assessments and approvals of major developments, allowing the Government to “make quicker decisions on more straight-forward proposals”.
The changes would “benefit industry and the economy” and redefine the roles of the Australian Heritage Council and the Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
Greens leader Bob Brown urged Australians to “react with outrage” to the changes, claiming they would “slam the gate” on public ability to nominate protected areas.
The Australia Institute has also warned the proposed changes were designed to “gut and hollow out” environmental protection laws, and would “legalise abuse” of the heritage and conservation listings process.
Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell issued a 414-page document yesterday, detailing a lengthy list of “common sense amendments” to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999.
The Act is Australia’s most crucial environmental legislation, setting out terms for national environmental assessment and approvals processes, protection of biodiversity and management of places of natural and cultural significance. “The Australian Government is streamlining the Act with a series of amendments that will improve environmental protection …,” he said.
According to a Department of Environment and Heritage brochure, the amendments would cut government red tape, provide “certainty for industry” undertaking significant development projects and make environmental decision making more efficient.
They would enable developers to make financial contributions to offset the impacts of developments, strengthen compliance and enforcement, protect whales by identifying important cetacean habitat and broaden the powers of the minister to intervene in threatened species listings.
Senator Brown said the changes were undemocratic and would create “a horror Bill for environmentalists”, significantly weakening environmental protection. “While most other countries are strengthening green laws, this Bill means Australian environment protection will be weaker than at any time since the Whitlam government,” he said.
“Under these laws, Fraser Island would be mined, the Franklin River dammed and the tropical rainforest logged,” Senator Brown said.
The deputy director of the Australia Institute, environmental lawyer Andrew MacIntosh, said the amended Act would remove the “few existing restraints” on the minister’s powers.
“We will be left in a situation where the environment minister is a law unto himself,” he said.
“The recent decision regarding the Bald Hills wind farm illustrated what can happen when ministers in this Government believe they have unrestrained powers.”
Australian Conservation Foundation campaigns director Denise Boyd said the proposed amendments to environment and heritage laws had “significantly weakened third-party rights and appeared to undermine the process of public consultation”.
The amendments also ignored calls to include climate change as an environmental threat. “At a time when public interest in climate change is growing, the Government has chosen to ignore its impact on the environment,” she said.
Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett also voiced concerns that the amended Bill was being “rail-roaded through the parliamentary committee process” with insufficient time for debate and public submissions.
“It is a massive document and the most important piece of environmental legislation in Australia, yet only two weeks has been allowed for the public to read it and make written submissions.
“This is a matter of grave concern,” Senator Bartlett said.
Federal Opposition environment spokesman Anthony Albanese said he had not had sufficient time to thoroughly scrutinise the proposed amendments, but it should have included measures to cut greenhouse gases and encourage energy efficiency.
By Rosslyn Beeby
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