The Commonwealth Auditor-General has published a brutal assessment of the effectiveness of Australia’s premier federal environmental law. It laid the blame not with the law itself, but with its implementation by Federal Environment Ministers.
The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) is meant to ensure protection for environmental matters of national interest. This is defined as preventing nuclear contamination, stopping pollution of water sources by coal and coal seam gas, and protecting heritage sites, significant wetlands, endangered species, the Great Barrier Reef, and other marine parks amounting to around a third of Australia’s oceans.
The audit’s critique centred on the Act’s referrals process. Any project or development that may have a significant impact on any one of these things must be referred to the Federal Environment Minister for approval.
And they are approved. Since the Act’s inception, 6,253 cases have been referred to the Minister. Just 21 were rejected. Unsurprisingly, the Auditor-General concluded the department’s “administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act is not effective.”
As neutral as the auditor’s language is, the report really is indicative of a banana republic level of incompetence and/or disregard for the law.
For example, departmental assessments “are not undertaken in full accordance with procedural guidance,” and 79% contained errors. The procedural guidance itself “does not fully represent the requirements of the EPBC Act.”
Measures to monitor compliance with approval conditions “have not been established.” Information systems “contain inaccurate data.” Key documentation “is not consistently stored on file.” The department “has no arrangements to measure its efficiency.”
Environment Ministers over the past decade have included Labor’s Tony Burke and Liberals Greg Hunt, Josh Frydenberg and Melissa Price.
The current Environment Minister is Sussan Ley. Ms Ley, the daughter of a British spy, was born “Susan” but changed her name because of her belief in numerology.
Following the report, Australians have to ask themselves a question. Are they actually trying?