Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who introduced the bill, said politics and big business interests had gotten in the way of the bill.
Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who introduced the bill, said politics and big business interests had gotten in the way of the bill. Allan Reinikka

Committee rejects claims environmental laws cause delays

A SENATE committee examining the Federal Government's environmental approvals process has rejected claims by business interest that the laws were causing inefficiencies, delays or loss of income for industry.

The Environment and Communications committee released its report into a Greens bill to retain environmental approval powers at the federal level.

While the committee recommended against passing the Greens bill, it warned against any handover of laws which could threaten Australia's international obligations to the nation's environment.

Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who introduced the bill, said politics and big business interests had gotten in the way of the bill.

Senator Waters also urged the federal government to legislate to prevent any future handover of the environmental powers by a conservative government.

"The opposition has said it will hand off environmental powers to the states and today the Labor-dominated senate committee has confirmed it won't lift a finger to stop Abbott handing off responsibility for national icons to his state cronies," she said.

"Throughout the inquiry, lawyers, scientists, sustainable businesses and environment experts all expressed grave concerns about the severe consequences of handing federal environmental approval powers to state governments."

The handover of such powers was likely to be the subject of further Council of Australian Governments negotiations, as part of the Federal Government's plan to streamline the process.

While Environment Minister Tony Burke would not be drawn on the status of such negotiations, he said on Tuesday there would be more to say on the issue in the near future.

Various interests including the Business Council of Australia were instrumental in getting the issue on the COAG agenda, through a business advisory forum early last year.

But the basis of the BCA's case for giving state control of environmental approvals rested on the lobby groups claims the federal process duplicated state assessments and was the cause of inefficiencies and delays to various projects.

In its report released on Tuesday, the committee flatly rejected such claims, writing "there was no empirical evidence to substantiate claims the Commonwealth involvement was hampering approval processes".

Rather, committee chair Senator Doug Cameron wrote the committee was persuaded by the evidence that any delays were actually caused at the state level, not by the Commonwealth.

The committee also recommended the federal government act now to deliver recommendations made in the Hawke Review of the Environmental Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation of 2009.

Senator Cameron wrote it would serve Australia's interests to create a new, independent National Environment Commissioner to carry out oversight of environmental laws, including monitoring, auditing and enforcing the law.

The report also confirmed the department was not investigating any possible hand over of federal environmental law to the states, despite continued negotiations at a political level.

An assessment of the state governments reduced resources in state environmental department was also recommended, including how state planning departments were dominating over state environmental departments.



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