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
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020
Friends of Grasslands (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.
For the last twenty years, FOG has been making submissions on referrals under the EPBC Act about development proposals that threaten our threatened natural temperate grassy ecosystems and dependent flora and fauna species. Having made close to 100 such submissions, we are well aware both of problems with the procedures used to administer the Act and of a number of cases where the Act failed to protect biodiversity. Consequently, we made substantial submissions on the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) review of the Act’s administration and the independent statutory review of the Act undertaken by Professor Graeme Samuel AO.
Earlier this year the ANAO found that the federal government's administration of the EPBC Act was neither effective nor efficient. One area of inefficiency is the long timeline for the approval process. Streamlining legislation in this way is not the only solution to this: others are addressing staff cuts within the areas administering the Act, and acknowledging the increasing difficulty in justifying the destruction of biodiversity assets when they are becoming rarer each year.
Samuel’s interim report on his review states that “Fundamental reform of national environmental law is required, and new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation.” It seems to FOG that, by implementing his recommendation that “efforts made to harmonise and streamline with the states and territories” without first implementing national environmental standards, this Bill will weaken national environmental protections in Australia and exacerbate our growing extinction crisis. It will enable the federal government to hand over its powers to protect matters of national environmental significance, such as threatened species, world heritage areas and water resources, to the state and territory governments. It relaxes the requirements for approval of bilateral agreements, which is of particular concern in the ACT where the government will be both proponent and approver. The legislation as currently written contains no safeguards to establish or enforce national environmental standards; it does not establish a national regulator; nor does it increase transparency or accountability of decision making.
Samuel reports that “the community and industry distrust the EPBC Act, and there is merit in their concerns”. Under the EPBC Act, the government’s approach appears to be to approve proposed developments with conditions rather than to rule them out, despite impacts on Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES). As well, FOG is aware that the community (including experts in the relevant MNES) is sometimes excluded from presenting their views on particular issues and is not able to obtain clarification from the Department concerning these.
We are also writing to express our concern in relation to the exceptionally short timeframe for this committee to undertake its work. This is a complex issue involving every state and territory government and their various planning, assessment and conservation legislative frameworks. The government has yet to release the final report of the independent statutory review of the EPBC Act, which was handed to it in October 2020 by Professor Graeme Samuel AO. The government should not be moving legislation prior to the public release of the final recommendation of the Samuel review.
The timeframe available to submit comments to this inquiry is also extremely short (even shorter than the usual EPBC comment period). If we had more time to make a more considered submission, our arguments on the detail of the proposal could have been more clearly researched and articulated.
FOG’s view is that the government should withdraw this Bill and prepare a complete reform package that addresses the decline of our biodiversity and protects Australia’s incredible natural and cultural heritage, including our critically endangered natural temperate grassy ecosystems and species.
17 November 2020