Legal experts say the Federal Government’s plan to stop environmentalists “sabotaging” major projects could actually result in more time being spent in the courts.
Earlier this month, legal proceedings by a Queensland environment group forced the Government to reconsider its approval of Adani’s $16 billion Carmichael coal mine because Environment Minister Greg Hunt had not properly considered the impacts on the yakka skink and ornamental snake.
Now the Coalition is set to introduce a bill later this week proposing to repeal a section of national environmental law that allows green groups to mount legal challenges to environmental approvals.
The Government wants to change the law to only allow people directly affected by a development to challenge approvals.
Attorney-General George Brandis has accused green groups opposed to the mine of resorting to “vigilante legislation” and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has accused environmentalists of using the courts to “sabotage” mining projects.
But respected barrister Stephen Keim said the Government’s desire to tighten third-party appeal rights could actually result in more time in the courts, as parties debate who should be given the right to challenge, which is known as standing.
“What would happen if we got rid of those liberalised standing rules is that we’d spend a lot of time in court arguing as to whether a particular group had conducted enough walks or sold enough T-shirts in order to give them standing to raise a particular issue,” he said.
But Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane defended the Government’s move, saying green groups were waging war on economic development.
“The alarming thing about the case of Adani is it’s showing environmentalists are taking this war against economic development in Australia to a whole new level,” he said.
Mr Macfarlane said the recent court win was just the start of a “very well orchestrated and highly funded campaign that will see the end of coal-mining development in Australia”.
“We’re just saying if people live 1,600 kilometres away from a coal mine or from a development proposal, what right do they have to prevent that proposal providing an economic boost to the region?” he said.
“We’re saying if there are environmental issues, there are plenty of people adjacent to the project who can raise those concerns.”
‘Pathetic thought bubble’ unlikely to receive crossbench support
But the planned changes appear doomed without crossbench support in the Senate.
The Greens have rejected the idea and Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler said the Opposition would not support weakening environmental protections.
“This is a pathetic thought bubble devised, it would appear, by the Government to distract from their current political woes,” Mr Butler said.
“[These laws] were put in place in the 1990s by John Howard. We managed to have strung together the largest mining construction boom in Australia’s history under these laws, so for the life of me I can’t see where the particular problem is.
“What’s quite clear from that [Adani] judgment is the Government was not able to apply its own laws properly.
“Now if the Government can’t get its act together, it’s simply irresponsible for them to tear up an arrangement that has been in place for more than 15 years.”
The ABC also understands that one Queensland Labor minister feels he has been misrepresented over his support for any shift.
In the Senate on Monday, Attorney-General George Brandis referenced Queensland Mines Minister Anthony Lynham’s wish for the Commonwealth to quickly resolve the Adani situation.
“We are expecting Dr Lynham’s political colleagues from the Australian Labor Party here in the Senate to support us in doing the very thing that the Queensland Mines Minister has asked the Federal Government to do: to sort it out so that this provision does not constitute a permanent blockage for the capacity to develop the great coal mines of Queensland,” Senator Brandis said.
But it is understood Dr Lynham felt the Federal Government took his views out of context and he said he did not support any watering down of environmental protections.
Less than 0.5pc of approvals challenged under law in 15 years
Analysis from The Australia Institute has also found that just a fraction of Commonwealth environmental approvals have been challenged under the provisions the Government wants to change.
The Australia Institute has reviewed the legal action undertaken under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and found in the law’s 15 years of operation, fewer than 0.5 per cent of the projects referred had been affected by the third-party appeal rights.
The Institute’s executive director is Ben Oquist, who used to be a senior adviser to former Greens leader Bob Brown.
“In only 22 projects out of 5,500 has such an appeal been made, and only in six occasions have those appeals been in any way successful, and only in two projects have they been stopped,” Mr Oquist said.
“In fact, what we’ve got is pretty weak environmental laws.
“And as those farmers who’ve been complaining about the Shenhua coal mine on the Liverpool plains and Barnaby Joyce know, the environmental laws really aren’t very strong.”
Originally Published at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-19/legal-experts-weigh-in-on-coal-mine-laws/6707170