Ministers will no longer be forced to consider formal conservation advice for endangered species in projects approved before the end of this year, under changes to the national environment law agreed on by the Coalition and Labor.
The pact between the two major parties effectively eliminates implications of a landmark case earlier this year in which the Federal Court overturned an approval by the former Labor government for a mine in Tasmania’s Tarkine wilderness.
The Greens opposed the changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which were passed in the House of Representatives on Monday night.
“Labor and the Coalition buddied up to change the law so that the community can’t take the government to court over past development approvals that ignore expert advice on threatened species,” Adam Bandt, deputy Greens leader, said.
Although decisions from next year will still have to consider expert advice, “the community has been silenced on all previous decisions, locking away any skeletons in the closet,” Mr Bandt said.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt has also been given “legal immunity between now and the end of the year, which is very worrying”, he said.
The amended act, though, does provide higher penalties for the poaching of sea turtles and dugong, a move backed by all three parties.
‘The Greens also welcomed federal Labor’s decision to oppose the Abbott government’s plan to transfer Commonwealth environmental power to the states, in the so-called “one-stop shops” aimed at streamlining project approvals.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt attacked the decision “to vote against slashing regulatory red and green tape, and increasing jobs and investment”.
“The Gillard-Rudd governments wanted to streamline environmental approvals,” Mr Hunt said in a statement. “Now Labor is back-flipping to please the Greens.
“This is about maintaining standards, making swift decisions and delivering certain outcomes.”
The Greens, though, said the states have often shown they can’t be trusted to preserve nationally important species and eco-systems.
“It’s the federal environment minister’s job to check whether major developments impact our nationally protected environmental icons – not to sit back and leave it to the states so that big business only has one level of government to lobby their way through,” said Greens Senator Larissa Waters, the party’s environment spokeswoman.
“If state governments had this power in the past, there would be oil rigs on the Great Barrier Reef and grazing in the Alpine national park and the Franklin River would be dammed.”
The Abbott government has given the states 12 months to sign up to the “one-stop shop” plan.
Federal Labor support for a Greens amendment may discourage ALP governments in the ACT, SA and Tasmania from signing up, particularly before this Friday’s Council of Australian Government meeting. Queensland and NSW have already signed up.
“Any state that signs up will also be taking on more work at a time when many states are slashing their environment departments,” Senator Waters said.
Environment Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald