The federal government has warned that Australia risks copying the worst of the American legal system if it fails to stop vigilante litigants from blocking mining projects.
Unaffected third parties will be prevented from using environment protection laws to mount legal challenges under controversial legislation introduced to parliament on Thursday.
The changes will ensure only those who are directly and “genuinely” affected by a project, such as farmers or nearby landowners, could go to court.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt warned green activists were posing a major threat to the “sanctity” of environment laws.
He seized on a 2011 strategy document from green groups outlining plans to disrupt major projects using US-style campaigning tactics.
The minister named Greenpeace, Lock the Gate, Mackay Conservation Group and the United Voice union among its several authors.
The document was proof of a well-funded and co-ordinated strategy to frustrate one of most stringent environmental processes in the world.
“This is the direct Americanisation through the use of litigation to disrupt and delay key projects and infrastructure,” Mr Hunt told parliament.
“This is an unprecedented new development in Australia, drawing the worst features of the American litigation industry into Australia.”
It is understood the document was written by a former Greenpeace employee and was never finalised.
Greenpeace accused the government of abandoning the national interest by aligning itself with the coal industry.
“This is just another way for the government to deflect attention from the fact that its own attorney-general is trying to unravel civil rights and democracy in the name of corporate interests,” campaigns head Dom Rowe told AAP.
A key Senate crossbencher is backing the government’s legislation.
“It’s really not somebody else’s business to come along and tell you what you can and can’t do with that property,” Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm told reporters in Canberra on Thursday, citing the example of a wind farm development in Western Australian being legally challenged by someone from Queensland.
The Minerals Council said legal challenges threatened thousands of jobs in the sector and many more in related services industries.
“It is obvious legal appeals are slowing projects,” chief executive Brendan Pearson said, citing figures from a Productivity Commission report on assessment processes.
It found the time between an approval being granted and the determination of court challenges for coal projects ranged from seven months to more than 24 months.
A study commissioned by the council found reducing project delays by one year would add $160 billion to national output by 2025 and create 69,000 jobs across the whole economy.
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