News - 04 May 2021

EPBC Standards & Assurance Bill Senate Inquiry: Wilderness Society Opening Statement

Opening statement by Suzanne Milthorpe, National Environment Laws Campaign Manager for the Wilderness Society tabled at the start of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee Inquiry into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people. The Wilderness Society recognises the rights and aspirations of First Nations’ peoples in all aspects of land and water management, as well as in decision-making in relation to their traditional lands, over which sovereignty was never ceded. 

I also acknowledge the hundreds of Wilderness Society members who spent hours writing submissions to the Independent Review of the EPBC Act, conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel, the thousands of members who made submissions to the inquiry into the Streamlining Assessment Bill and the over 5000 who co-signed our submission to this inquiry. I am proud to represent their concerns and views today.

In this statement, I will make comment on specific issues of interest to the Wilderness Society and its members in relation to the Standards & Assurance Bill. 

Australia is in the grip of a worsening environmental crisis. Independent reporting shows all major indicators of environmental health have declined over the two decades that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) has been in force. I note that Australia has yet to count the full cost of the ecological catastrophe of the 2019-20 bushfires, and that the full impact of that ecological catastrophe is still being assessed. 

The Independent Review is the latest in a long line of warnings that our national system of environment protections is broken, and in need of fundamental reform. 

We believe that the full package of interconnected reforms recommended by the Independent Review represents a credible, cogent and achievable pathway forward to mitigate the worst destruction and establish the robust, transparent and credible regulatory framework to support much needed future reforms.

If the Standards & Assurance Bill was the first step in a comprehensive response to the Independent Review, accompanied by a firm plan for achieving the full package of reforms recommended by Professor Samuel and aimed at effectively protecting matters of national environmental significance, then the Wilderness Society would welcome it.

However, we are disappointed that the Government has instead chosen to undertake a piecemeal series of cherry-picked reforms aimed at reviving and passing the Abbott Government’s failed 2014 push for devolution of Commonwealth decision-making powers to states and territory governments. 

The provisions of the  Standards & Assurance Bill are too weak - and subject to too much Ministerial discretion - to safeguard decisions and ensure environment assessment decisions are made in a way that contributes to achieving environmental outcomes. We have provided more detailed comment on these points in our submission. 

In addition, the Government has proposed a set of vague, inconsistent National Environment Standards that would lock in the current, failed settings of the EPBC Act. These proposed standards would be implemented without Parliamentary scrutiny or oversight in the form of the power to disallow insufficient or problematic standards. 

The Wilderness Society believes that this approach is no substitute for taking substantive action to address Australia’s extinction and ecological crises, nor for ensuring that environmental decision-making is credible, transparent and supports meaningful participation by communities, First Nations peoples and experts. 

The private discussions about the drafting of this Bill, the Streamlining Assessments Bill and the Government’s proposed standards do not seem to have been informed by the Independent Review, or the input of the scientists, lawmakers and 30,000 community members who fed into the Review calling for reformed national leadership, better oversight and effective environmental governance to deal with escalating ecological crises.

We especially note that the Government’s current response to the Independent Review does not include a commitment to undertake many of the reforms identified by Professor Samuel as necessary to restore community trust in decision-making.

Without strong, outcomes-based standards, and a firm and detailed commitment to the broader reform package recommended by the Independent Review, the Morrison Government’s focus on enabling devolution via these bills and policy is disingenuous and:

  • does not constitute a meaningful response the Independent Review;
  • does not constitute a meaningful response to Australia’s worsening environment crisis, nor to the ecological catastrophe of the 2019-20 bushfires;
  • represents a fundamental failure of leadership; and 
  • is out of line with community expectations.

On this basis, we strongly recommend that the Senate reject both the Standards And Assurance Bill and the Streamlining Approvals Bill. 

The Government should provide a full and comprehensive response to Professor Samuel’s recommendations and provide a roadmap for reform that can be supported by the states and territories, business, First Nations peoples and the community.