Our national environment laws and institutions do not protect the environment ... and now our Labor Federal Government is working on reforming them
An update on the state of play - June 2023
- Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and her Department are due very shortly to release for consultation draft national environment Standards, and principles for the reform of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act,
- LEAN welcomes Minister Plibersek's commitment to nature positive laws that actually protect nature and promote environmental restoration. LEAN will continue to advocate for laws and institutions which achieve these goals.
- We have clear and unequivocal positions on the issue of environmental law reform in our policy "bible", the National Platform. (That's thanks to you and the 500 local branches and other party units who used the Party's democratic processes to ensure Labor has good policy on environmental laws). Read the relevant paragraphs here.
- LEAN's focus in the law reform process, as with our national environment laws and institutions campaign, will include
- improving environmental democracy, transparency and accountability;
- ensuring that cumulative impacts are properly considered;
- ensuring that climate change is properly taken into account in environmental planning and decisions
- LEAN will also argue for reform of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as a major vehicle for ending native forest logging and land clearing in the light of extinctions, climate change, depleted timber resource, bushfires and loss of community license. LEAN will continue to argue for increased action by governments to create jobs for forest workers in managing forests for carbon and expanding plantations.
- The Federal Budget included funding for a federal Environment Protection Authority, which LEAN successfully advocated for as a Labor National Platform commitment and which Labor committed to as part of its 2022 election policies.
- The Budget also included funding for improved environmental data collection and transparency. LEAN welcomes this but will continue to argue that this function should be combined with proactive national environment planning through a National Environment Commission - a "Climate Change Authority for the Environment" to make sure Australia's approach matches the environmental crisis facing us.
Background: The Samuel Review
Once every decade, the country's federal environment law called the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) is reviewed. The most recent statutory review was undertaken by former ACCC chief, Graeme Samuel and on July 20 2020 the Government released his interim report and recommendations.
These laws underpin Australia's entire approach to protecting the environment. Of all the environmental challenges facing us, most are rooted in these laws' inability to offer protections or stop destructive impacts.
The current laws are HOPELESS. Not one animal has reversed its march toward extinction since the laws were introduced in 1999 and we have lost 7 million hectares of critical habitat... and that's not to mention plastics, air quality or struggling rivers. What's more the laws don't even mention climate change.
The Morrison Government wanted to use the review to deliver for business at the expense of the environment. Fortunately, the Australian people showed them the door last May. The good news is that if we strengthen and clarify the laws' environmental outcomes and build institutions that can efficiently administer the law, business will benefit through clarity and certainty.
The final report of the Graeme Samuel independent review of the EPBC was released on January 28 2021. You can read it here.
CAMPAIGN MATERIALS - July 2020
Graeme Samuel's interim report is a mixed bag, it does include a number of ideas on important issues like indigenous and other cultural heritage. The Executive Summary is worth a read.
Fundamentally however, when it comes to environment protection he has come up with a proposal to change the laws that has three inter-connected elements.
Make protecting the environment mandatory. Currently the laws are process driven and do not obligate anyone to actually stop the environment decline. Samuel has recommended that strong national standards make environmental protection a legal obligation. This provides certainty for the environment and for business in knowing if their development proposals are likely to gain approval.
What Labor's Platform says, what the Government says
This is a great reform and was central to LEAN's campaign for environmental law reform and is in our National Platform. Our task is to make sure they are strong.
On the basis that the laws criteria are much clearer, Samuel has proposed that the federal government hands over its decision making role to the states. This is of particular concern as the states have a woeful history of defending the environment and applying high standards. What's more the federal environment laws are about delivering on our international treaty obligations, you can't hand these over! As ex treasury boss, Ken Henry said, “The big one, the really tough one, is environment. There I can see the sense in leaving it to the states. But their record has been so bad, I would not. It’s just terrible."
What Labor's Platform says
This is a bad idea and is explicitly rejected in our National Platform. It has been proposed again and again by business interests and Labor has stood firm against handing decision making to the states.
Our Platform couldn't be clearer: Labor will not support handing approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 to state and territory governments and will terminate any arrangements that give states these powers (ALP National Platform 2018, Chapter 4, paragraph 47, p 80)
To ensure we can trust the states to actually deliver the national standards, Samuel has proposed an independent EPA (Environmental Protection Authority). He says “a strong, independent cop on the beat is required.” The current laws are not only inadequate, they are seldom enforced. Samuel's proposed EPA would keep an eye not only on the states as well as the developers.
Since 2010 there have been only 22 fines issues for breaches of EPBC development conditions, totally $230,000. That is about the same as Dubbo Council levies in parking fines every year.
What Labor's Platform says
Our platform explicitly supports the creation of an EPA and confirms its importance. For the purposes of managing matters of national environmental significance, [Labor will] create strong, well resourced, science based institutions to administer the law: including a federal Environmental Protection Agency...
Key points for your advocacy with the Labor Party
Stay tuned for more from us when the draft national environment Standards and EPBCA reform principles are released for consultation. As food for thought, we've left here below what we said to assist members' advocacy late in the term of the Morrison government:
1. We have a legacy to defend: Labor has always been the party for the environment. We have shown again and again that Commonwealth leadership matters - Labor Federal governments protected the world's largest marine sanctuary, the Franklin River, Kakadu and the ancient rainforests of the Daintree. It's time for Labor to stand up again.
2. We have clear policy to inform our response: The ALP National Platform matters! 500 branches and many rank and file members of the ALP supported the adoption of strong policy to better protect the environment through Federal environment laws. LEAN worked hard to deliver good policy through the party's democratic processes in establishing the Platform.
3. Labor should adopt three bottom lines:
1. Labor supports creation of National Standards, but insists they are strong.
2. Labor does not support devolving the federal government's responsibilities for protecting the environment to the states. Labor does not support development approval bi-laterals.
3. Labor insists that the reforms include creation of an EPA. Samuel's proposals will fail without an EPA to make sure they are robust. Without an EPA Samuel's model collapses, it is not negotiable.
Actions you can take to effectively influence the Labor Party
1. A reminder letter to your Federal Labor MPs/Senators
The power of party members engaging with their Federal reps is not to be under-estimated. Write or ring the office, explain and ask they advocate in the caucus for the three bottom lines. Contact your local Labor MP or Senator. Here's a draft letter you might like to work from.
Additionally please write to or cc the following key Federal Labor Parliamentary members:
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese: [email protected]
Deputy Leader Richard Marles: [email protected]
Treasurer Jim Chalmers: [email protected]
We need Labor to do what the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government would not and defend the environment and our amazing natural and cultural heritage.
Since colonisation, Australia has lost 34 mammals, which is about the same number as the rest of the world combined over the past 200 years. (quoted from SMH, July 20,2020)
More details and resources
PS. More on why the current laws don't work
We all agree that with the impacts of COVID19 undermining our economy, it is important that the laws are reformed to make them simpler, providing clarity and certainty for business. But most importantly they must be reformed to mandate protection of the environment. This story from the ABC is a good explainer of the key reasons the laws currently fail to protect the environment:
All images used in LEAN's Environment Laws for the 21st Century campaign, bar the bunyip with teeth are images of now extinct Australian animals as illustrated by John Gould.