Ranking traffic lights and a new 'hard cop': Australia's new environmental policy

Ranking traffic lights and a new ‘hard cop’: Australia’s new environmental policy

The federal government has committed to a historic overhaul of Australia’s environmental laws in a move that Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says will reverse the decline of Australia’s environment and “leave it in a better state. than the one in which we found it”.

The sweeping changes were proposed as an official response to a review of Australia’s 23-year-old federal environmental laws, led by former ACCC boss Graeme Samuel and handed over to the former Morrison government.

The reforms will include the creation of a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to act as a “hard cop on the beat”, and impose legally binding standards for all environmental decisions.

The overhaul will also strengthen the protection of areas of national environmental significance and strengthen standards for harvesting native forests.

Labour’s commitment to law reform is a centerpiece of its environmental agenda and will be key to delivering its goal of zero further extinction.

He expects to have a full bill by the middle of 2023, ready to be presented to parliament before the end of this year.

man forbes flood
Australia has been hit by a series of natural disasters which some say have been exacerbated by climate change.(AAP)

Environmental groups have described the moves as “a good start”, “a first step” and “promising”, but also have concerns about some aspects.

The opposition called the move an “assault on our country’s job creators”, while MPs, likely bound to push the policy through parliament, called for some aspects of the changes to be strengthened.

Plibersek says EPA will ‘restore confidence’

All decisions of the new EPA will be underpinned by a set of “National Standards” that will dictate the expected environmental outcomes of those decisions.

In addition, all conservation plans, policies and strategies developed under environmental laws will need to conform to national standards.

Shifting responsibility from politicians to a legislated body meant the public would be able to have more confidence in decisions about Australia’s environment, Ms Plibersek said.

The first standard developed will govern the protection of Australia’s most significant places – known as ‘Matters of National Environmental Significance’.

The government says this standard will require all decisions to be made to improve the environment, not just limit damage.

A person snorkeling near a turtle
Environmental groups, while welcoming the proposals, asked for a series of additional details.(WA Tourism)

A national standard on First Nations engagement will also be developed as a priority, ensuring that Indigenous peoples are properly and fully involved in decisions relating to their country and their ways.

These standards will be legally binding and will have a built-in ratchet mechanism in which revisions can only strengthen them, not weaken them.

Introduction of “traffic light” ratings

While the Samuel review recommended that federal powers of approval be returned to states in accordance with a longstanding Coalition policy, Ms. Plibersek rejected that recommendation and instead retained existing arrangements under which states could be accredited to assume decision-making powers.

But such delegation of powers will have to comply with the new stricter national standards.

In addition, all state decision-making processes must be transparent and will be overseen by the new EPA.

Laying downed trees in a pen
New laws are introduced to protect native forests.(Provided: Australian Conservation Foundation)

Labor will also institute a ‘traffic light’ grading system, incorporating very strong protections for areas of ‘high conservation value’ which will be marked ‘red’ for protection.

These areas will be determined by a new regional planning system, which will ensure that the cumulative impacts of multiple developments on a site are considered when projects are assessed.

The government said the regional planning process would also speed up development decisions by providing clear guidance on where different types of development would be appropriate.

Compensation fund for restoration

In a move that should please businesses and developers, the government has expanded options for how developers can pay compensation for the environmental damage they cause.

Currently, when a project is approved subject to compensation — or “offsets” — the compensation must be “of equal value”. So if koala habitat is cleared, koala habitat somewhere nearby must be protected.

But the Labor Party’s proposals would allow developers to simply pay money into a compensation fund, which would be used for environmental restoration.

The government says the payment must be ‘sufficient to achieve a net positive environmental outcome’.

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