Documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws show Scott Morrison
told the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, in February he wanted to introduce a bill to transfer environmental approval powers to state governments by midyear.Scott Morrison
The documents, covering months of correspondence between the federal and WA governments, show McGowan pushed for the change and stressed it should not be delayed by ... review of Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The two governments drew up a timeline and originally planned to reach “in principle agreement” on a bilateral approval agreement by 5 October that would then be signed by mid-December, allowing WA to take responsibility for decisions under national environment laws.
The 5 October deadline has not been met, with legislation that would make the transfer of environmental approval powers to state and territory governments less open to legal challenge still to be debated by the Senate.
The letters and emails show the federal and WA governments have been discussing the transfer of environmental approval powers for about a year.
Suzanne Milthorpe, of the Wilderness Society, said the documents showed that every step taken by the government in relation to the review of national environmental laws had been “aimed at delivering a predetermined outcome”.
The review of Australia’s environmental laws by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel received about 30,000 submissions.
“None of these private discussions about the drafting of the bill that is currently before parliament or what a Western Australian bilateral agreement might encompass were informed by the evidence from the independent review,” Milthorpe said.
Morrison has signalled the government’s desire to speed up environmental approvals and cut so-called green tape since last year, but the potential for changes to Australia’s laws was first mentioned by the environment minister, Sussan Ley, in April.
desire to speed up environmental approvals last year Ley said at the time she would be prepared to introduce early pieces of legislation if an interim report by Samuel review indicated “sensible changes” could be made before his final report.
said at the time In a speech in June, Morrison said there had been early discussions in national cabinet about moving to a “single touch” approvals process and it would return to the subject at a later date, informed by the Samuel review.
The documents show McGowan wrote to Morrison on 22 November 2019 to say an agreement between the governments would “significantly reduce major project timeframes, duplication and costs”, the same date the Rio Tinto sent a similar request to Ley.
similar request The premier said he was confident WA’s existing systems were adequate to protect endangered species, habitats and heritage sites.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Morrison replied to say he had asked Ley to consider whether a bill “could be introduced in the middle of this year”, given McGowan’s support for bilateral approval agreements, but stressed that any such bill would need bipartisan support, given the government “cannot preempt the outcome” of the Samuel review.
On 10 March, McGowan wrote to Morrison again to say businesses and industry groups had welcomed the proposed bilateral approval agreement and believed it could be finalised “in the immediate term”.
“It is particularly important that this matter does not get caught up in the wider, long-term independent review of the EPBC Act,” he said.
Ley, and the assistant minister to the prime minister, Ben Morton, were also corresponding with Ley’s counterpart in WA, Stephen Dawson, about the matter.
Ley wrote to Dawson on 26 May, again stressing the importance of not preempting the review, which would be “critical in determining the most effective ways to streamline environmental approvals”.
“This is a once in a decade opportunity and bipartisan support will be key to implementing a balanced and substantive package of reforms.”
But by 19 June the government had begun preparing legislation to change Australia’s environmental laws, 11 days before Samuel delivered his interim report, which found the country’s environment was in unsustainable decline.
19 June found the country’s environment was in unsustainable decline A briefing prepared ahead of a meeting between Ley and Dawson shows the federal environment department advised Ley on 23 June that Samuel would probably recommend the transfer of approval powers should be supported by clear standards that specified what environmental outcomes state governments would be expected to deliver.
Officials wrote this was “underscored by recent events in WA” where questions had been raised about the adequacy of state-level protection of Indigenous heritage and the commonwealth’s role in protecting the national interest – presumably a reference to Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site in Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.
Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Indigenous heritage site in Juukan Gorge By 25 June, the federal and WA environment departments were discussing a bilateral approval agreement, and by 16 July the departments had begun meeting to “map out the process and timing”.
Samuel’s interim report was released on 20 July, recommending that transfer of approval powers to states should occur under a framework of national environmental standards, with an independent regulator to enforce compliance with the laws.
Ley rejected the proposal for an independent regulator, but said the government would introduce a bill in August to transfer approval powers and would “commence discussions with willing states”. She said interim national standards would be introduced at the same time as the bill.
By August, the two departments had developed a timeline that included passage of a bill to streamline environmental approvals by 2 September. A draft approval agreement had been written by mid-August.
The timeline refers to a plan to have interim national standards enshrined in national law by 3 September. But the bill the government ultimately introduced in late August contained no standards and was a near replica of the Abbott government’s 2014 one-stop shop laws.
bill no standards According to the timeline, the governments planned to put a draft bilateral approval agreement with WA out for public exhibition during September, with an “in principle” agreement to be reached by 5 October.
This has not occurred. The government’s bill passed the lower house in early September but the Senate still has to debate it.
passed the lower house The Wilderness Society’s Milthorpe said there was an “urgent need to restore credibility to this whole process”.
She said the “only way I can see that is possible now” was if the government pulled the bill before parliament and retracted its offer to develop the agreement with WA until Samuel’s final report was tabled and the government produced a response that would turn around Australia’s record on extinction.
extinction A spokesman for Ley said the government’s support for “streamlining regulation” was well known and the proposed changes to the law that were before the parliament had remained government policy since the one-stop shop legislation was voted down in 2014.
“Passing these amendments has remained government policy since that time,” he said. “Discussions with Western Australia earlier this year were within that context and the context of the existing legislation.
Western Australia “They coincided with negotiations on renewing the state’s agreement on bilateral assessments.”
The government’s bill is listed for debate in the Senate this week. Ley’s spokesman said it was “the first tranche of legislative changes expected to follow the Samuel review”.
A spokesman for the WA government said formal negotiations between the two governments began in August, after Ley issued a notice of intent to reach an agreement. The spokesman said WA “already has the nation’s highest environmental standards” and Samuel’s review had “confirmed the important role that bilateral agreements can play”.
“The state government has made no secret of its desire to secure a bilateral agreement. We are committed to reducing duplication and unnecessary delays in project approval timelines,” he said.
Labor, the Greens and the crossbench have raised concerns it has not been put to a committee for inquiry, was brought to the parliament before Samuel’s final report is released, and does not contain a reference to standards.
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