The EPBC Act is the Commonwealth’s key environmental legislation. It also supports the Commonwealth in meeting its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status. Since the introduction of the EPBC Act, we have lost nearly 8 million ha of threatened species habitat. Clearly the Act is not fulfilling its most basic purpose. There have long been concerns about the passive approach of the Environment Department to the management of non-compliance with the Act, and these questions remain. The Act needs major reform, as was argued, apparently to little effect, ten years ago in the last (Hawke) Review of the Act:
- we need to see proper enforcement to address the fact that most land-clearing activity for agriculture is never referred for approval,
- we need the Federal Government to be accountable for extinctions, as is the case with the Endangered Species Act in the USA,
- we need the Act to include triggers to address climate change and land-clearing, and
- we need a national system of environmental monitoring and evaluation, not only for compliance, but also to determine the efficacy of the Act in achieving its objects.
We note that the terms of reference for the inquiry include the sentence: “The Australian Government is committed to delivering improved national environmental laws to ensure a healthy environment and a strong economy.” We do question how the Australian Government’s central piece of environmental law, at this time of a dramatically deteriorating environment, can be expected, not only to protect the environment, but also to improve the economy. Furthermore, these terms are vague and ambiguous. The term ‘healthy environment’ provides no guidance. The protection of biodiversity should be explicit, as should the meeting of Australia’s international commitments relating to the environment. The ‘strong economy’ phrase is ambiguous: it could be taken to mean that economic health relies on environmental health; alternatively, it could be referring to a trade-off, with the environment coming off second best. The Act does not work in an integrated sense. Actions such as the implementation of species recovery plans act completely independently of impact prevention (e.g. avoiding negative impacts of development). The Government and community can invest significantly to support the Act’s implementation such as the recovery of threatened species, but this can be completely wiped out by lack of compliance or regulation of development. Lastly, there is no system in place for measuring effectiveness of the Act, or decisions made under it.