An independent watchdog and new national standards are immediately needed to stop Australia’s environment being further destroyed, a major review has found.
Former competition watchdog chairman Graeme Samuel’s final report into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has been released on Thursday, highlighting the need for fundamental reform.
As in the interim report, the once-in-a-decade review has concluded Australia’s environmental trajectory is currently unsustainable.
“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat,” the report says.
“The environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change.”
Key recommendations include the need for legally enforceable national environmental standards, an independent environment assurance commissioner, and better use of Indigenous knowledge and data use.
The report finds that decision-makers, developers and the community don’t have access to the best available data and science.
“There is insufficient capability to understand the likely impacts of the interventions made, particularly in a changing climate,” the report says.
“Unacceptable information gaps exist, and many matters protected under the EPBC Act are not monitored at all.”
The legal framework aims to protect areas of national environmental and cultural significance, but have faced backlash from business groups for putting a brake on projects.
Business Council president Tim Reed says the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
“These reforms represent a way forward. We all agree, lifting environmental standards and promoting economic development is a win-win,” he said.
The oil and gas industry has also welcomed the report for its push to reduce regulations while delivering equivalent or enhanced levels of environmental protection.
Environmental groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society, are urging the government to address the dire warnings in the report.
The watchdog was raised in the interim report, with the federal government saying the role could exist within government, rather than establishing a dedicated office.
Instead of developing new standards or setting up an environmental watchdog, the federal government has first moved to shift its decision-making powers to the states in order to avoid doubling up.
The draft laws are now being considered by the Senate after clearing the first hurdle of parliament late last year, when the government used its lower house numbers to push the bill through without proper debate.
The proposal faces stiff opposition from Labor, the Greens and independents, who are worried the flagged standards and watchdog won’t eventuate.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has discussed the issue with state and territory leaders at national cabinet.
They recently agreed to press on with shifting decision making to the states and to develop national environmental standards based on existing laws.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said other changes could happen later.
“Further phases of reform would build on these streamlining efforts and address any further changes and improvements, including to environmental standards, taking into account the recommendations of Professor Samuel,” she said.