Nature in Australia is in decline. Fixing broken national environmental laws is a critical part of the solution.

The Albanese Government has committed to an overhaul of our failing national nature protection law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.

In April this year the Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek announced she was splitting the promised reforms into pieces and proceeding with what she called ‘stage 2’ of the government’s nature law reforms.

According to the Minister, 'stage 1' was the expansion of the EPBC Act water trigger and nature repair legislation introduced in December 2023.

Rather than the full overhaul of our failing national nature protection law promised, stage 2 includes only a couple of the important reforms needed.

To deliver ‘stage 2’ the government has introduced three important Bills to establish:

  • a new national environment protection authority, Environment Protection Australia,
  • a new data body, Environment Information Australia and
  • other reforms to increase penalties and add some new enforcement powers to the EPBC Act.

These Bills have just passed the House of Representatives which means they are one step closer to becoming law.

The Bills now proceed to the Senate. A Senate inquiry is already underway, and calling for submissions. The Senate inquiry will consider submissions and provide their recommendations in a report by 8 August 2024, just in time for when the Senate sits again in August.

We urgently need people to speak up for the strong new laws nature needs. Make your submission to the Senate inquiry by Monday 15 July.

MAKE A SUBMISSION

About the Nature Positive Bills

There are three Bills now before the Senate.

Here’s an overview of what they cover:

Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024

  • Establishes Environment Protection Australia, a new national environmental regulator
  • Provides for the appointment of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to be selected by the Minister
  • Allocates to the EPA responsibility for administering a range of Commonwealth environmental laws including some parts of the EPBC Act.

Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024

  • Establishes a new national environmental data body, Environment Information Australia (EIA) and a new role, Head of Environment Information Australia
  • Defines 'nature positive'
  • Provides for a range of functions for EIA including managing environmental data, developing a monitoring and evaluation framework to track progress against nature positive goals, preparing State of the Environment Report every two years, and preparing annual Statements of Environmental Accounts.

Nature Positive (Environmental Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024

  • Transfers functions and powers under a range of Commonwealth environmental laws from the Minister for the Environment to the CEO of the EPA
  • Increases fines under the EPBC Act, and introduces new compliance audit powers and new powers to issue 'stop work' orders (Environment Protection Orders)
  • Creates a mechanism for the Minister to delegate assessment and approval powers under the EPBC Act to the CEO of the EPA.

HAVE YOUR SAY ON THE NATURE POSITIVE BILLS

ACF's response to the Bills

We have welcomed the government’s commitment to an EPA and EIA, and the Bills just passed by the House of Representatives are a step in the right direction. But the Bills need to be improved to make sure that the new EPA and EIA are up to the job of delivering the sorely needed improvements to nature protection that are required.

National nature law reform has strong parliamentary support; our nature team and other conservation groups have worked closely with independents in the House of Representatives to develop a range of amendments to the government's Bills. These amendments would strengthen the independence of the EPA and increase public trust and confidence that it is up to the task of enforcing the laws and protecting nature.

Independent MPs, in speech after speech in recent weeks, have welcomed the promise of an EPA – while imploring the government to strengthen the current EPA proposed and go further by adopting other important improvements to the EPBC Act.

It’s disappointing that at this stage the Albanese Government has rejected every single amendment to improve the Bills. This means that as the Bills move to the Senate we’ll need to push even harder for the government to make changes to their Bills – so that we ensure the new laws actually deliver the strong, independent, and accountable EPA we need.

As Martine Lappin in the ACF Investigations team explains, weak compliance and enforcement of the current law has resulted in ongoing habitat destruction. When community members or environmental investigators alert the authorities, they too often sit by and let destruction in our forests unfold. 

Consider the recent example of the ACF Investigations team looking into bulldozing in likely koala habitat in northern New South Wales.

In two cases they reported in this region alone between 2019 and 2022, bulldozing was rapidly unfolding and continued even after the department was alerted. In the end, around 500 hectares of habitat were destroyed (the size of about 277 Sydney Opera Houses). 

Even when they compile all the evidence for the department – satellite images, drone footage, wildlife records, absence of approvals – they rarely hear back that the department has investigated the case, let alone put a stop to the ongoing destruction. 

Calls and emails go unanswered, or get stonewalled with empty phrases like ‘we’re making inquiries’.

Sadly, this is an all-too-common experience for the community members we speak to.

And while a strong EPA is an important step, it cannot reverse Australia’s extinction crisis on its own. Because until our national nature protection laws are fully overhauled, the EPA will be administering the current, broken EPBC Act.

That’s why we’re also pushing the government to consider a range of other amendments to deliver some immediate sorely needed improvements to the EPBC Act now. These amendments would:

  • strengthen legal protections for threatened plants, animals and their habitats
  • remove exemptions for native forest logging and other damaging activities
  • strengthen community rights and
  • ensure that the climate harm caused by new fossil fuel projects cannot be ignored, as is currently the case.

With Bills now before the Senate, we’re continuing to call on the government to discuss amendments to their Bills to ensure that they deliver sorely needed improvements to nature protection.

MAKE A SUBMISSION TO SENATE INQUIRY

We’ll also be continuing to push the Albanese Government to deliver on its commitment in their Nature Positive Plan to a complete overhaul of the laws, including urgently needed improvements to nature protections. The government has said they remain committed to delivering this 'stage 3' of their reforms, but they’ve refused to provide a timeline or details of the process for getting these laws into Parliament, which is unsatisfactory.

Speak up for nature protection now by making your submission to the Senate inquiry by Monday 15 July. 

 

Brendan Sydes

National Biodiversity Policy Adviser