Review of EPBC Act recommends sweeping changes

updated: 6 August 2020

28 July 2020


Laws set up to protect unique species and habitats are ineffective, according to a major review of the national environmental framework.


Image © Wyco from Getty Images.

The first draft of Professor Graeme Samuel’s review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), released last week by the Commonwealth Government, has highlighted the many shortcomings that have led to Australia’s natural environment getting worse.

“Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable,” the Interim Report begins.

The 124-page Interim Report, which sets out Professor Samuel’s preliminary views on the EPBC Act and how it operates, pronounces federal environmental protection laws to be ineffective and recommends sweeping changes, including the establishment of a set of legally enforceable national environmental standards that set clear rules for environmental protection while allowing for sustainable development.

“The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation,” Samuel said.

“It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.”

The Interim Report also recommends the establishment of an independent environmental regulator to monitor and enforce compliance with environmental laws.

Des Boyland, Policies and Campaigns Manager at Wildlife Queensland, said the organisation welcomed the notion of robust national environmental standards but “does not support the recommendation by Professor Samuel to devolve certain powers to the State to simplify bureaucracy and facilitate approval processes for development”.

“Changes to both the EPBC Act and the processes that should support the legislation are needed,” says Boyland.

“Ineffective management and enforcement of the Act has permitted development in areas across South East Queensland resulting in significant habitat loss and a subsequent major decline in many native species, including the vulnerable koala and greater glider.”

Recent reports have revealed that:

  • Almost three-quarters of South East Queensland’s koala habitat has been cleared since 1960, and the population of the endangered species in the area has declined by up to 80 per cent in the past two decades. On top of that, an estimated 30 per cent of remaining koala habitat was destroyed in last summer’s bushfires.
  • The destruction of identified greater glider habitat in New South Wales and Queensland has soared by 52 per cent in the past four years.

“The EPBC Act should prevent any clearing of habitat likely to have a significant impact on vulnerable and threatened native species,” says Boyland.

Summary of Interim Report recommendations and Wildlife Queensland’s comments

The Interim Report calls for a comprehensive redraft of the EPBC Act in the long term and legislative amendments in the short term to address known inconsistencies, gaps and conflicts in the current EPBC Act. Wildlife Queensland supports this approach as a step in the right direction and trusts that time-bound targets are provided in the final report to quantify long term and short term recommendations.

Ignoring that the devil is always in the detail which is not available, several of Wildlife Queensland’s asks are reflected in some of the broad recommendations but we are gravely disappointed with certain recommendations at this stage.

National environmental standards

The Interim Report recommends: National environmental standards developed by the Commonwealth and applicable to all States; establishment of an independent environmental regular to monitor and enforce compliance with environmental laws; bilateral agreements.

Wildlife Queensland’s responds: 

Wildlife Queensland strongly supports the recommendation that national environmental standards are developed by the Commonwealth and applicable to all States.
Wildlife Queensland opposes devolving Commonwealth functions and streamlining processes to the States by bilateral agreements.

Climate change

The Interim Report recommends: The Interim Report rejects calls to broaden MNES to include a climate change trigger in the EPBC Act but indicates that development proposals must explicitly consider the effectiveness of their actions with regard to climate change. The Report also recommends modification to the use of the MNES water trigger.

Wildlife Queensland responds:

Wildlife Queensland opposes the Report’s rejection to broaden MNES. Wildlife Queensland advocated a new MNES trigger addressing climate change and is disappointed.
Suggested changes will limit the water trigger to developments that risk irreversible depletion or contamination of cross-border water resources. This is certainly a retrograde step from Wildlife Queensland’s perspective.

First National Peoples traditional knowledge

The Interim Report recommends: Promoting the use of  Indigenous knowledge.

Wildlife Queensland responds:

Promoting the use of indigenous knowledge has merit. Currently, the EPBC Act fails to promote the respectful use of First Nation Peoples traditional knowledge. Wildlife Queensland has no right to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples but can advocate their aspirations should be listened to and acted upon appropriately by Government.

Extending standing

The Interim Report recommends: Extending standing to bring legal challenges against decisions made under the EPBC Act but the applicant should be required to demonstrate there is a case to answer.

Wildlife Queensland responds:

 Wildlife Queensland supports extending standing.
There is insufficient information for Wildlife Queensland to determine whether to support or oppose the applicant having to justify the case.

Compliance and enforcement programs

The Interim Report recommends: Strengthening compliance and enforcement programs.

Wildlife Queensland responds:

The penalties are not commensurate with the harm caused and not an adequate deterrent. Wildlife Queensland certainly supports this finding.

Biodiversity offsets

The Interim Report recommends: Biodiversity offsets be considered only as a genuine last resort.

Wildlife Queensland opposes the use of biodiversity offsets that enable development to proceed in totally inappropriate places. At least if strictly administered this is a step in the right direction.

Environment Minister’s response to Interim Report recommendations

The Hon. Sussan Ley the Commonwealth Environment Minister has indicated that the Commonwealth is committed to developing national environmental standards, addressing the needs for First Nation peoples traditional knowledge to be incorporated into the legislation and exploring bilateral agreements with the States.

The Minister also advised there would be no independent EPA established as recommended but supported that no climate change trigger would be incorporated. Furthermore, it has been indicated that amendments to the EPBC Act will occur prior to Prof Samuel’s Review being finalized and presented to the Commonwealth Government.

Have your say on the Interim Report

You still have an opportunity to comment on the EPBC Act. Wildlife Queensland urges its members and supporters to read the Interim Report and provide feedback by completing the online survey.

The survey closes at 9.00 am on Monday, 17 August 2020.


Related articles


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This