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Law Reform · Nature & the Reef

Queensland Government changes laws to reduce standards for environmental approvals

05 June, 2014

Instead of the Commonwealth deciding approvals under the stronger legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (EPBC Act), the changes will allow the Qld Coordinator General to use the major development legislation to approve impacts on matters of national environmental significance, using inferior criteria compared with the EPBC Act.

Yesterday the Queensland Government passed amendments to the major projects legislation, the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (Qld) (SDPWO Act). 

The Act is part of the ‘one stop shop’ model of delegating approval powers from the Commonwealth to the States, to approve destructive impacts on the places you love, such as World Heritage Areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and other federally-listed species and matters of national environmental significance.

Our main points of concern are:

  1. This Bill, according to the draft Qld Approval Bilateral, would apply to all matters of national environmental significance, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage. The Bill does not even meet the standards of the EPBC Act.
  2. The Coordinator General, responsible for promoting development, is proposed as decision-maker yet has an insolvable conflict of interest, whereas under the EPBC Act the Federal Environment Minister makes decisions. For further information on the way the Coordinator General approves conditions, see the allegations reported by Four Corners here.
  3. The Bill includes inferior public access to information compared to the EPBC Act and falls below standards for transparency.
  4. The Bill includes inferior accountability provisions as less people qualify to go to Court to remedy illegality compared to the EPBC Act, and the declarations power is too narrow. The Bill falls below basic standards of accountability for public interest environmental legislation. For example in 2003 and 2004, the Nathan Dam Federal Court case was successful in correcting serious legal errors that impacted on the Great Barrier Reef but the applicants would not have qualified to go to Court under the inferior proposed rules in the Bill.
  5. Weakened rules apply in the Bill as to if an action must undergo assessment and approval as a ‘bilateral project declaration’ compared to a ‘controlled action’ decision by the Cth. Nathan Dam again is an example of the existing EPBC Act working.
  6. The existing SDPWOA includes inferior provisions to outlaw supply of false and misleading documents compared to EPBC Act. For an example of Cth legislation working, see the current Abbot Point T3 EPBC 2008/4468 investigation.
  7. The Bill lacks any power to reject clearly unacceptable project whereas such efficient powers exist under EPBC Act. This risks wasting public time and money. For example of how this works, see the ‘clearly unacceptable’ decision in GKI Resort EPBC 2009/5095.

Last month, EDO Qld presented our concerns to the Parliamentary Committee considering the Bill. Read EDO Qld’s tabled supplementary submissions here.

The changes are also relevant to the Draft Approval Bilateral Agreement, which is open for public comment until 13 June 2014. The approval bilateral agreement is the instrument giving effect to the one stop shop model and the full delegation of approval powers to Qld. EDO Qld is currently preparing public information on this which will be released shortly.

Environmental Defenders Office Queensland (EDO Qld) gives a strong legal voice to the environment when needed most.

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