As I reported a couple of weeks ago, we recently reached a big milestone in our campaign for new effective national nature protection laws, with the Federal government starting consultations on the detail of the reforms with selected stakeholders.

As we outlined in our initial analysis, what we saw in the consultation demonstrated some good progress, and also areas where much more work is required if the reforms are going to meet our priorities for new national nature protection laws.

Having had a chance to analyse the government’s proposals and to discuss them with our colleagues in other environmental organisations and with experts, we can provide a more detailed report on the proposed reforms.

Some of the positives from the consultations

New up-front environmental protections

There’s some good progress to report on our priorities for strong new National Environmental Standards and protection of threatened species and their habit. It’s proposed that the new legislation will rule out certain defined unacceptable impacts up front—the EPA will not be approve things like adverse impacts on “critical protection areas” for a threatened species.  Definitions of key terms and how these are applied will matter a lot in determining how effective these protections will be, but the promise of setting out some “red lines” on what ought or ought not be approved is a major step forward.

Threatened species recovery strategies  

We’ve been calling for an overhaul of threatened species recovery planning under the current EPBC Act—reforms in this area are needed to meet protection of threatened species and their habit. The government’s very welcome commitment to zero new extinctions will come to little if there’s not a good framework for protecting and improving the situation of listed threatened species. Thankfully these calls appear to be having an impact, and the reforms will include a new framework for “recovery strategies” for all listed species. Once again, the detail will be important, but we welcome to the commitment fix the problems with the current laws.

A new national EPA - Environment Protection Australia

The new EPA is a key priority for ACF—we see an independent body to implement and enforce the new laws as a gamechanger for environmental protection. The detailed design of the EPA was not part of what we saw in this round of consultations, but it was clear that EPA will have a critical role in administering the new laws, which is welcome. However, it is critical that this is not undone by other proposed changes that risk undermining the EPA's authority and independence – more on this below.

One of our priorities for the reforms is rights to information and participation in decision-making which support community trust and confidence in the new laws, so we’re pleased to see that the government is now committed to a National Environmental Standard for Community Engagement and Consultation. But there’s a long way to go to get this right – more on this below.

What needs improvement in the continued reform

Here’s four main areas based on what we have seen so far:

  • Minister’s call in powers. Unfortunately, the gains from improved environmental protections and a strong independent EPA risk being undermined by an option for the Environment Minister to call in decisions from the EPA and apply lower standards of environmental protection. 
  • Offsets are not a substitute for strong up front protection. While it’s good to see some proposals to fix problems with the current system, new proposals to allow payments instead of offsets could undermine these improvements.
  • As noted above, the commitment to a detailed National Environmental Standard for Community Engagement and Consultation is welcome, but the current draft is weak and lacks important guarantees that are necessary to make it effective. There also needs to be opportunities for members of the public to make submissions in relation to development proposals which concern them—it is important that the new EPA receives and considers submissions directly to inform their decisions.
  • As noted in our initial media release, the failure to explain how the new laws will tackle climate change is a big gap in what is currently proposed, and something that will need to be addressed as the package of reforms is developed.

What’s next?

ACF will continue to engage with the government on the reforms, and there is a further round of consultations proposed later in December.

The government has now also released details of two online information sessions in the coming weeks which will provide an opportunity for interested members of the public to find out more about the changes proposed to our national environmental laws. 

While welcome, these information sessions are not a substitute for the opportunity the government previously indicated they would provide for interested members of the public to see the draft reforms and provide their views on the package.  So it's now, more than ever, that people who care about nature need to make our voices heard


Brendan Sydes

National Biodiversity Policy Adviser