Gas consultation legislation tweaked after backlash inside Labor movement

Dan Jervis-Bardy The West Australian Mon, 25 March 2024 1:41PM

New legislation aimed at curtailing “lawfare” against major gas projects was tweaked amid a lobbying campaign from grassroots Labor members, who feared the Bill could undermine the party’s environmental credentials and leave it exposed to Greens attacks.

Resources Minister Madeleine King on Monday introduced an amendment to her contentious offshore gas Bill, clarifying that any changes to consultation requirements would require approval from both her and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.

The Government is committed to clarifying the rules of engagement to avoid a repeat of the legal fights with Traditional owners that stalled Santos’ Barossa venture and Woodside’s Scarborough project.

The original idea of handing Ms King sole power to adjust the requirements ignited a political firestorm, with the Greens, independents and environmental groups accusing the Government of trying to bypass environmental laws to fast-track new gas projects.

Ms King has repeatedly denied this, insisting there would be no change to the “rigorous” environmental assessments for projects.

It has now emerged the proposal has caused significant unrest inside the Labor movement.

Labor’s influential grassroots environmental activist group – known as LEAN – wrote to Ms King, Ms Plibersek and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Friday to express its grave concerns with the Bill.

In a letter, LEAN co-convenors Felicity Wade and John Della Bosca claimed the legislation would effectively divorce offshore gas approvals from environmental laws.

This would create “uncertainty and unfairness for business, further erode social licence, and diminish trust in government to protect Australia’s precious natural environment,” according to the letter obtained by The West.

The pair warned the Greens would seize on the change to claim Labor was creating an “easy pathway” for gas project approvals and “cannot be trusted on the environment”.

“Labor’s superior environmental credentials depend on all new projects meeting the highest environmental standards,” the letter read.

One of the underlying concerns was that the Federal Government was pressing ahead with the change despite still working on its re-write of federal environmental protection laws.

LEAN members voiced their anger last Tuesday night during a webinar with Ms Plibersek about the Government’s environment agenda.

The West understands Labor backbenchers – including Fremantle MP Josh Wilson – privately sought clarity on the Government’ intention.

Ms Wade said the proposed amendment was a “workable solution” to what was shaping up as a “huge own goal” for Labor.

“As the Environment Minister is reforming the country’s environment laws, you don’t pre-emptively undermine the system of environmental governance,” Ms Wade told The West.

“This relies on the laws and the Environment Minister maintaining oversight of all environmental approvals.

“LEAN doesn’t have a problem conceptually with reconsideration of the consultation rules, rather we are concerned about the fundamental governance question of not decoupling approvals for offshore gas from compliance and oversight of environment laws and Minister.

“We think these amendments fix that.”

Clarifying the consultation requirements is critical to the Government’s hopes of securing the Opposition’s support for its changes to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax.

The opposition accused Labor of “folding to the Greens” with the amendment – but won’t oppose the wider Bill.

“It is telling that despite the Government having bi-partisan support from the Coalition for this Bill in its original form, when (Greens leader Adam Bandt) said ‘jump’, Labor couldn’t help itself by watering down those parts of the Bill,” Liberal MP Gavin Pearce said.

The concession failed to sway Mr Bandt, who attempted to halt the Bill’s progress until after the planned overhaul of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – which is still being drafted – had passed the Federal Parliament.

Mr Bandt described the Bill as a “dirty deal” designed to “silence” First Nations people.

get updates