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EPBC Act review

EPBC Act review

Recovery approach will hamper progress on environment and climate 

As our government is formulating its pathways to economic recovery the Prime Minister (PM) is making deregulation a priority. Environmental approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act and state processes have been singled out as a barrier to developments and job creation. 

EPBC review process

The review led by Graeme Samuel is likely to deliver an interim report on 30 June. The AEGN and many members have made submissions to this review.

According to the advertised review process, there will be consultation on the interim report and a final report delivered in October. Based on this timeline, it would be expected that the government would formally respond later in the year and legislation would be drafted thereafter.

Prime Minister’s State of the Nation speech

On Monday 15 June, the Prime Minister addressed the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA)’s State of the Nation conference.

In this speech, the Prime Minister outlines a strategy for economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic. Key to economic recovery is shrinking government expenditure (including scaling back pandemic related programs) and growing the economy through infrastructure investment aided, in his view, by deregulation.

Fast-tracking approvals under the EPBC Act was highlighted in the speech, with a goal of streamlining Commonwealth and state approvals to a ‘single touch’. The Prime Minister also referred to Graeme Samuel’s interim report which will inform the discussions which are already underway at National Cabinet. 

Fifteen major projects that need approval at a state and Commonwealth level have been earmarked for a bilateral fast-track model including:

  • Inland Rail from Melbourne to Brisbane;
  • Marinus Link between Tasmania and Victoria;
  • Olympic Dam extension in South Australia;
  • Emergency town water projects in New South Wales; and
  • Road, rail and iron ore projects in Western Australia.

A Deregulation Taskforce set up in 2019 has been removing ‘red tape’ as part of the COVID-19 response and this body, led by Ben Morton, Assistant Minister to Prime Minister and Cabinet, has now been shifted into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

What does this mean?

There is now a much larger hurdle in the way of achieving strong environmental laws through the EPBC Act review. If governments agree that the policy challenge is ‘removing green tape’ rather than protecting the environment or creating a balance between the environment and economic activity, it will become much harder to shift them towards better environmental laws. Even if the review delivers a final report with good recommendations, the government will be less likely to make reforms that don’t align with the deregulation frame. 

The EPBC Act has never been properly resourced and enforce and it is difficult to see this trend being reversed in the current context. There is a strong argument that delays in processing approvals are the direct result of funding cuts, and this needs to be prosecuted. 

Next steps

At our fortnightly funder catch-up on Tuesday 14 July at 11.00am – 12.30pm we will consider the interim report and our and member responses.

In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the situation and reach out to others who can help inform our thinking.

Further reading