The urgent law reforms nature needs

The urgent law reforms nature needs

Key findings from the Independent Review of our national environment law

The Final Report from the Independent Review of Australia’s environment law by Prof Graeme Samuel AC, has now been released. Here are the urgent reforms needed to safeguard nature.

Australia’s biodiversity is magnificent, unique and rightly treasured by us all—it’s a huge part of what makes Australia, Australia! More than 80% of the continent’s animals and plants are found nowhere else on Earth.
Main image: Walls of Jerusalem NP; Jimmy Cordwell.

But our environment laws, (the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act), are failing to protect these unique treasures.

We will fail our rare animal icons like the numbat without urgent reforms to our national nature laws.

We’ve been campaigning since 2013 to reform these laws so that we can tackle our climate, extinction and deforestation crises with a clear and cohesive national approach. For years we’ve advocated for clear standards that set much clearer guidelines on what is permissible, and what is protected, with a new expert environmental watchdog with the teeth to enforce them. 

Read our submission into the Review.

This once-in-a-decade independent review is a major opportunity to gather expert and community perspectives and build momentum for government action to reform our failed national environment laws.

Over 30,000 scientists, law experts and community members, including hundreds of Wilderness Society supporters like you, made submissions into this review.

The Review sets out a road map towards national environmental laws that work to protect our unique wildlife and iconic natural treasures, and ensure communities have a say in how governments make decisions about the places and species we love.

The top three findings

  • Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat: The Review found that 'Australians care deeply about our iconic places and unique environment', that 'environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change' and that 'the current environmental trajectory is unsustainable'.
  • The EPBC Act is ineffective, outdated and is contributing to environmental decline: The Review found that, because of two decades of failing to continuously improve the law and its implementation, the EPBC Act 'does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters important for the nation', that 'it is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges', and that 'good outcomes for the environment, including heritage, cannot be achieved under the current laws'.
  • The EPBC Act requires fundamental reform: The Review found that 'the EPBC Act needs fundamental reform to ensure that future generations can enjoy Australia’s unique environment and iconic places and heritage', that 'an interrelated and interdependent package of reforms is required' and that 'the reforms recommended by the Review will deliver greater environmental protections in the future'.

The key reforms needed

The wilderness of South-West WA. Image: Glenn Walker.

The question is: will the Government listen to community and expert voices and make the changes required to protect our iconic wildlife, forests and natural places?

It’s been over 100 days since the government received the report and so far it has yet to respond. This opportunity is too important for it not to act.

The Samuel Review makes 38 recommendations for a package of reforms to the EPBC Act. Below we set out the most important recommendations, what they mean and what action the government has taken to put these reforms in place.

Key reforms recommended by the Samuel Review:

  1. Legally binding National Environment Standards are the ‘centrepiece’ of Samuel's proposed reforms. These would clearly say what is acceptable and what is not. Governments would need to make decisions in line with these standards, and they would clearly set out what corporate actors could and couldn’t do before a project got to the assessment stage.

    In February 2021, a draft copy of proposed Government standards was released. These draft standards are vastly inadequate, not in line with what Samuel recommended and not consistent with what Minister Ley said she was trying to achieve with these reforms.

    Also in February 2021, the Government introduced a bill ostensibly aimed at supporting national environment standards and an assurance commissioner into Parliament. The bill does not require governments either to make or follow robust and effective National Environment Standards, and is therefore not in line with Samuel’s recommendations.

  2. A range of new independent bodies. While stopping short of recommending a completely independent Environment Protection Agency, the Samuel Review recommends the Government immediately sets up:
    A new Assurance Commissioner, free from political interference, who will oversee the performance of all Governments and report publicly on how they are implementing the national standards, and an Office of Compliance & Enforcement to act as a watchdog that enforces the law.

    GOVERNMENT RESPONSE? In February 2021, the Government introduced a bill ostensibly aimed at supporting an assurance commissioner into Parliament. The Government’s proposed assurance commissioner lacks the necessary powers to investigate individual wrongdoing or fix ongoing failures in the major project approval system, and so is not in line with Samuel’s recommendations.
    No action on independent compliance and enforcement. Environment Minister Sussan Ley has previously ruled out an independent watchdog.

  3. Strong and legally supported Community Participation. Samuel is clear that “limited access to information about decisions and the lack of opportunity to substantively engage in decision-making under the Act erodes trust” and “the ability of the public to hold decision-makers to account is a fundamental foundation of Australia’s democracy". 

  4. Indigenous-led reform to significantly improve Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making, protection of cultural heritage and land management.

    GOVERNMENT RESPONSE? No actionMinisters Ley and Wyatt chaired a round table of Ministers with responsibility for Heritage and Indigenous Affairs in September 2020, but no commitment to take action on the Review’s recommendation.

  5. End dangerous exemptions for destructive practices like native forest logging. 
    The Review has found that Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) had lower environmental outcomes, and that their reliance on states to undertake monitoring, compliance and enforcement did not “provide for equivalent protections for (matters of national environmental significance) and strong Commonwealth oversight”. 


  6. Vastly improved data and information systems to ensure everyone has access to information to make better, faster and more effective decisions.


  7. The Commonwealth can hand their decision making powers to the state and territory decision-makers… if they’re able to demonstrate they can meet the full suite of national environmental and assurance standards.

    GOVERNMENT RESPONSE? The Government has so far cherry-picked this recommendation, pushing a bill to roll-back Commonwealth environmental responsibilities through the Parliament where it’s stalled in the Senate. Despite repeated promises by Sussan Ley to enact other key reforms, this bill currently does not support strong national standards, an independent watchdog or any of package of reforms put forward by the Review.

What's next for the Government?

Admiring the Great Western Woodlands, WA. Image: Glenn Walker.

The Government has repeatedly promised action but so far they’ve only delivered a bill to roll-back Commonwealth environmental responsibilities, without any of the package of reforms put forward by the Review, and a bill ostensibly aimed at supporting national environment standards and an assurance commissioner.

These bills are not in line with the Review’s recommendations (see above) and not in line with community expectations.

The Morrison Government must act to reform the EPBC Act and related national environment laws so that they protect our iconic natural places and end Australia’s extinction crisis. The basis of that reform should be strong, binding national standards in line with those recommended by Professor Samuel, independent assurance and enforcement and guaranteed rights for communities to have a say in how we protect our environment.

The Final Review is clear: if the government doesn’t act now to implement the fundamental reforms recommended by the Review, it's effectively accepting the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems.