Friends of Grasslands
supporting native grassy ecosystems
PO Box 440
Macquarie ACT 2614
Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications
PO Box 6100
Canberra ACT 2600
Dear Committee Members
Submission: Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015
1. Friends of Grasslands (FOG) asks you to recommend against this Bill that would repeal section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which currently extends standing to seek judicial review of decisions to certain individuals, organisations and associations.
2. FOG is a community group dedicated to the conservation of natural temperate grassy ecosystems in south-eastern Australia. FOG advocates, educates and advises on matters to do with the conservation of grassy ecosystems, and carries out surveys and other on-ground work. FOG is based in Canberra and its members include professional scientists, landowners, land managers and interested members of the public.
3. It is in the interest of good policy and ecologically sustainable development that legal avenues are available to protect the environment against bad decision-making and potentially damaging developments. The option of third party appeals creates a stronger incentive for proponents and the government to adhere to the law – improving the quality of environmental assessment of major projects. It is not the actual exercise of the power to enforce public rights that matters most but the threat that they will be exercised that brings improved accountability to an approval system that can be dominated by vested interests.
4. Third party rights have been found to improve decision-making, including by the Independent Commissions Against Corruption in NSW when looking at the quality of planning decisions, who commented that “Merit appeals provide a safeguard against biased decision-making by consent authorities and enhance the accountability of these authorities. The extension of third party merit appeals acts as a disincentive for corrupt decision-making by consent authorities.” They state the benefits include:
- Building community confidence in the planning system;
- Guarding against corruption;
- Enhancing environmental assessments and outcomes.
5. FOG’s view is that environmental protection legislation should be both rigorously applied and enforceable. The Commonwealth government, in its administration of the EPBC Act, stands one step removed from many of the economic and other drivers of development impacting on our grassy ecosystems. Because of this, it is often more able to make the hard decisions needed to protect our endangered grassland communities, and to insist on adequate offsets where it proves impossible to avoid an impact. State and Territory governments are more likely to gain from particular projects impacting on high conservation value areas. Political and economic drivers can exert a strong pressure on State and Territory governments, leading to them being more likely to compromise at the expense of the environment.
6. One issue specific to the ACT is the different roles of the ACT Government in relation to environmental regulation and decision making. The Government owns most of the ACT’s land and, via its Land Development Agency, is the proponent in many development proposals affecting threatened natural temperate grasslands (NTG), box-gum woodlands and grassland-dependent species. If the ACT Government evaluates environmental impacts and has the power to make decisions about approvals under the EPBC Act, this is a clear conflict of interest. There is significant pressure on the ACT Government to release land for housing, both to provide “affordable housing” and to generate revenue for the Government. While the Government has shown some willingness to consider environmental values, avoid destruction of some areas of NTG and box-gum woodlands and (more recently) to offer offsets, there are many examples of either destruction or encroachment on these areas in the ACT. Examples include:
- Proposal to put buildings on a small but stable NTG area and threatened golden sun moth population in Campbell;
- Development at Ngunnawal impacting on a small golden sun moth population;
- Bushfire asset zones being within Mulligan’s Flat Nature Reserve rather than in the adjoining development footprint.
7. Consequently, the effective implementation of the EPBC Act by the Commonwealth is vital to the conservation of threatened biodiversity of the ACT. The last resort option for third parties to challenge poor decisions is vital to uphold high standards of conservation.
In conclusion, FOG supports any move to retain decision-making powers under the EPBC Act with the Commonwealth, and opposes delegation of such powers to the State and Territory governments.
9 September 2015