Australia’s 20-year-old national environmental laws need to be modernised to address climate change as part of the statutory review now under way, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Andrew Barr, has said.
Speaking in Canberra on Friday, Barr also called on the Morrison government to increase funding for agencies responsible for environmental assessments for major projects, saying budget cuts had caused delays to assessments.
“There is and has been quite an important review of that piece of legislation that’s now 20-odd years old,” Barr said. “[The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act] has no reference at all to climate change, for example, which it absolutely has to as part of a review and modernisation of that act.”
An interim report from the review, chaired by the former competition watchdog chairman Graeme Samuel, was published in July and found governments had failed to protect Australia’s unique native species.
The government is now planning to establish bilateral agreements that would devolve national environmental approval powers to the states and territories.
Samuel’s review has recommended this occur under a new set of national environmental standards that set legally enforceable rules for environmental protection.
The Morrison government has said devolving approval powers to the states would streamline environmental assessments and cut bureaucracy, a reform it is pushing as part of its economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It intends to put legislation to the parliament in late August.
Last month the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said there had been “a great deal of enthusiasm” from state and territory leaders at a national cabinet meeting where the plan was discussed.
Barr said on Friday it was “a sensible reform that should be talked about” but lengthy assessment times were not necessarily due to the design of the assessment process.
“One of the ways to address some of these potential delays is around resourcing for the commonwealth agencies that need to undertake the relevant assessment,” Barr said. “I think it’s pretty well documented that the National Capital Authority has been stripped of resources over the years.
“It’s also clear, given the number of major infrastructure projects that will need to go through the EPBC process, that the relevant commonwealth departments there also need some additional staff.”
The ACT has major infrastructure projects, including the next stage of the city’s light-rail construction through the parliamentary triangle, that require assessment by multiple government agencies.
Its government already has a bilateral agreement with the federal government for EPBC Act assessments but it does not cover projects such as the light rail which occur partly or entirely on commonwealth land.
If it were to enter a bilateral agreement with the commonwealth for EPBC Act approvals, major projects including the light rail would still require additional federal signoff, including from both houses of parliament, agreement on land licences, and a works approval from the National Capital Authority.
A report by the national audit office found a correlation between funding and staffing cuts in the environment department and a blowout in the time it was taking to make decisions.
Guardian Australia has previously reported that the budget for the divisions of the department responsible for these assessments has been cut since the Coalition won government from $63m in 2014-15 to $56.4m in 2018-19.
Barr’s comments follow remarks by the New South Wales environment minister, Matt Kean, last month that the Morrison government should not “smash through” changes to national conservation laws.
Kean said it was also premature for the government to rule out an independent regulator that would be responsible for monitoring compliance and enforcement of national laws.
The federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, declined to comment on Barr’s remarks.