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Reviews and audits ignored as environment faces existential crises

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The Federal Government, along with state governments, have failed to implement recommendations designed to protect the environment (image by Dan Jensen)

In 2009, the first independent review of the Federal Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was undertaken.

Known as the Hawke review, its recommendations were wide-ranging, demonstrating considerable foresight.

The recommendations included:

  • Establish an independent Environment Commission to advise the government on project approvals, strategic assessments, bioregional plans and other statutory decisions;
  • Streamline approvals through earlier engagement in planning processes and provide for more effective use and greater reliance on strategic assessments, bioregional planning and approvals bilateral agreements;
  • Set up an Environment Reparation Fund and national "biobanking" scheme;
  • Create a new matter of national environmental significance for "ecosystems of national significance" and introduce an interim greenhouse trigger;
  • Improve transparency in decision‑making and provide greater access to the courts for public interest litigation.

Professor Hugh Possimgham took part in a scientific workshop providing expertise to the independent review. In a recent interview on ABC radio's Late Night Live, Professor Possingham focused on the current independent review of the EPBC Act, the second review as required under the legislation. He advised that none of the recommendations of the first review have been undertaken.

In mid-June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to fast track 15 major infrastructure projects, including the inland rail project from Melbourne to Brisbane. This project is massive and the environmental concerns raised are also immense with the potential to destroy critical areas of habitat.

The1800-kilometre Inland Rail link proposes to get freight by inland rail between Melbourne and Brisbane within 24 hours and to reduce national freight costs by $10 a tonne.

It estimates it will create 16,000 jobs and inject more than $16 billion into the Australian economy.

The $10 billion project has been met with strong opposition from the farming community, scientists and environmental organisations.

Aside from major flooding risks, wildlife will once again lose out.

More koalas will be sacrificed on the altar of economics and economic growth. According to a report in the Brisbane Times, University of Queensland koala researcher Dr Bill Ellis said the Inland Rail project runs through the Queensland Government’s new preferred koala conservation zones, south-west of Ipswich.

Dr Ellis said these were areas where the latest Queensland government koala management plan was trying to preserve koala habitat, rather than the coastline:

'Having a state government that seems to be going down that path, to then find a federal government project might then build a rail track through there, it just undermines the Queensland plan.

 

It will just strike another nail in its coffin.'

Under these new infrastructure project plans, approval times will be cut in half. 

An ABC report indicates that:

'As well as the infrastructure approval and spending announcements, the Prime Minister outlined plans to speed up deregulation, arguing Australia had benefited from agile and flexible regulation practices during the coronavirus crisis.'

An interim report on the second review of the EPBC Act is due to be tabled with the Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley in June. Thus far, it has yet to appear.

However, on June 25 the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released its audit of the EPBC Act. The report is damning:

'The purpose of the EPBC Act:

 

 

... [P]rovides for the protection of the environment, in particular those aspects of the environment that are matters of national environmental significance.'

The audit objective and criteria are defined as:

'... to assess the effectiveness of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

To form a conclusion against the objective, the ANAO adopted the following three high-level audit criteria:

  • Are governance arrangements sound?
  • Is the administration of referrals and assessments effective and efficient?
  • Are conditions of approval appropriate and assessed with rigour?

The first recommendation of the audit sums up the failures of the EPBC Act:

'Despite being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since the commencement of the Act, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act is not effective.'

Back in 2014, the ANOA conducted a similar audit of the EPBC Act. The conclusions included the following:

The Department of the Environment (Environment) is responsible for regulating controlled actions approved under Part 9 of the EPBC Act. Environment’s regulatory activities involve the monitoring of proponents’ compliance with conditions attached to approved controlled actions, including the assessment/approval of management plans, reports and compliance returns submitted by proponents, supplemented by monitoring inspections and compliance audits.

 

Any allegations of, or incidents relating to, non‑compliance may be subject to investigation by the department and may result in enforcement action being taken, such as the issuing of infringement notices, against non-compliant proponents.

 

However ... Environment is yet to establish mature administrative arrangements to effectively discharge its regulatory responsibilities in relation to approved controlled actions.

 

As a consequence, the assurance that the department has regarding proponents’ compliance with action approval conditions ... is limited.

 

In particular, Environment is not well placed to demonstrate that it is effectively targeting its compliance monitoring activities to the areas of greatest risk. 

Another ANOA audit was undertaken in 2017. The primary conclusion was that:

'As was also highlighted by previous ANAO audit coverage, the project identified that Environment is yet to undertake a structured departmental-wide risk assessment of its regulatory activities to inform its regulatory settings and resourcing decisions.' 

With an interim independent review ready to be submitted, questions need to be raised.

What exactly is the purpose of reviews and audits if no recommendations are undertaken? Are they simply futile exercises?

Why is the Morrison Government, together with state governments, ignoring the conclusions of these important audits?

What is the purpose of the duplication of the audit and review?  How much have both projects cost?

The reports and audits make it clear that the EPBC Act is not functioning thanks to massive funding cuts and government policies that might very well lead to the extinction of important species and habitats. 

In an exclusive IA interview with Greens Senator Janet Rice, Chair of the Senate Inquiry into Faunal Extinction, detailed some of the findings of the inquiry’s interim report.  

Her words are prophetic:

The most important issue to arise from the Inquiry thus far is how totally inadequate our current Federal legislation is in terms of protecting the environment. We’re dealing with the drivers of extinction. The EPBC Act is totally inadequate to deal with the situation — the problem is there’s no framework for protection.

 

So many developments are not referred to the federal government for approval. There are no actions to minimise impacts, a lack of monitoring and compliance.

 

We have a situation where Federal legislation leaves it up to the states to implement approvals and no mechanisms for follow up. Offsets are a total joke — they don’t work. They’re accepted as the mechanics to ostensibly deal with impacts but incapable of doing the job.

As no legal challenges are capable of forcing the Federal Government to implement recommendations of Senate inquiries, reviews and audits, Australia’s wildlife and environment are in critical danger.

There has never been a more urgent need for a Royal Commission with extensive powers to investigate the role of the Federal and state governments’ policies of extinction. The ramifications to future survival and the economic impacts of this extraordinary rejection of the necessity of such life support systems must be a national priority.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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