Australia’s key national conservation law gets poor interim report card

Feral Herald |

Several weeks ago we breathed a sigh of relief when the interim report of the 10-year review of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was released.

The reviewer, Professor Graeme Samuel, has written a plain-speaking critique of the major failings of the EPBC Act (or its application) and recommended a strong focus on abating major threats to nature such as invasive species, inappropriate fire regimes and habitat destruction.

Failures

The work done by our Threats to Nature project is reflected in the report findings on the processes under the EPBC Act for managing threats – the listing of key threatening processes (KTPs) and the development and implementation of threat abatement plans. Professor Samuel found that they “are not achieving their intent and many threats in Australia are worsening”.

The Australian Government states that a threatening process is defined as a key threatening process if it threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community.

Professor Samuel accepted the specific criticisms by the Invasive Species Council (and other organisations such as the Threatened Species Scientific Committee), which include:

  • The current list of 21 key threatening processes is not comprehensive, as the process largely relies on the receipt of nominations from the public.
  • The listing process is slow and subject to ministerial discretion.
  • No new key threatening processes have been listed since 2014, and several major threats — such as inappropriate fire regimes — are not listed.
  • Even once a key threatening process is listed, action to address the threat is not required.
  • There is a tendency to focus on immediate or existing threats where strong evidence is available, rather than emerging threats.

Proposed reforms to threat abatement

Formal recognition of failings is a necessary first step but the remedies proposed by the review are not yet very clear.

Professor Samuel recommends the use of strategic national plans to address major threats to nature – “to guide a national response, direct research (for example feral animal control methods), support prioritisation of investment (public and private) and enable shared goals and implementation across jurisdictions”.

This is sensible, but how will it differ from the current KTP system, which also relies on national plans as the path to abatement?

Another proposed reform is a focus on regional plans as the means to support the management of cumulative threats, build environmental resilience, set clear rules to manage competing land uses, set the priorities for restoration and adaptation and recover threatened species and ecological communities.

The headline reform in the Samuel review is the introduction of new, legally enforceable standards for sustainable development and environmental protection that will enable devolution to the states and territories of approvals for developments and other actions significantly impacting on threatened species and other matters of national environmental significance.

Whether this system can be effective depends very much on the content of the standards and how well they are enforced. The Samuel review provides prototype standards as a starting point and recommends a “strong, independent cop on the beat for monitoring, compliance and enforcement”.

Government response

We have also sighed at the federal government’s response to the interim report – but not with relief. In the name of generating jobs for COVID recovery, the government has decided to rush madly to devolve development approvals to the states and territories. They intend to introduce legislation to parliament in August, before the review of the EPBC Act has even finished, allowing almost no time for consultation.

This is contrary to the recommendations in the interim report, which say standards “should be developed in consultation with Indigenous, science, environmental and business stakeholders, and the community” as well as the states and territories. The government’s timetable does not allow for that.

The government has also ruled out Professor Samuel’s proposal for an “independent monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance regulator”. This is essential for transparent and effective implementation of the EPBC Act and to regain the trust of the Australian community in environmental regulation.

With its focus just on devolution, the government has so far ignored the other proposed reforms. We are very concerned the government will pick and choose its preferred reforms, ignoring those likely to need more funding and government leadership.

Funding

The Samuel report recognises that lack of funding is a major constraint. For example, the limited resources for implementing the Act have meant “the Commonwealth has retreated to transactions, rather than ‘leading’ strategically in the national interest”. But the interim report shies away from making explicit recommendations for the Australian Government to increase funding for biodiversity conservation.

Professor Samuel’s interim report seems like a sincere attempt to grapple with the failings of our national environmental system. However, as a businessman, the professor knows all too well that a plan without costings is one destined to fail. We’ll know the extent of his sincerity by what the final report recommends about funding.

Next steps

The final review report is due in October 2020. In the meantime, our Threats to Nature project will be developing a detailed response to the interim report and to the development of standards and strongly advocating our position.

What you can do

Make a submission to the interim report by completing the review team’s online survey. Submissions close at 9am on Mon 17 August 2020.

Here’s some tips for your survey response:

  • Strongly support national standards, ecologically sustainable development, regional and national plans (questions 7-10).
  • Strongly support the need for an independent regulator (question 41).
  • Strongly oppose devolution to the states (question 28).
  • On the review’s deficiencies, suggest (in question 48) greater emphasis be given to systematically addressing all key threats to biodiversity including invasive species through the standards and effective national and regional plans.
  • In the same question (question 48), call for the ability for the commonwealth to intervene where states don’t address key threats like feral horses in sensitive areas.

Image: Wombat foraging at Wilsons Promontory National Park. Photo: Judith Deland | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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