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The precautionary principle

15 November, 2012

The precautionary principle is one of the most important foundations of ecologically sustainable development. It is a commonsense principle requiring that a lack of scientific certainty should not be used to postpone measures to prevent serious or irreversible harm to the environment.

Debate on the Precautionary Principle, Hansard, 20 November 1997, pp 4585-4591

 EDO Qld was instrumental in having the principle inserted in the State’s major planning legislation, the Integrated Planning Act (IPA), when it was passed by the Queensland Parliament in 1997. At this time, the precautionary principle was included in only one other Queensland Act and had been opposed by the Government.

EDO Qld’s Jo Bragg and Lindsay Holt of the Queensland Conservation Council (QCC) instigated a recommendation by a stakeholder group, of which they were a member, for the government to include the precautionary principle in its new planning laws. When the new Bill was presented to Parliament without its inclusion, EDO Qld and QCC recommended to Independent MP Liz Cunningham and the Opposition ALP that they propose an amendment to insert the principle into the Bill. EDO Qld wrote to and met with Ms Cunningham to explain the advantages of the precautionary principle.

With Ms Cunningham holding the balance of power, the amendment proposing the principle was passed by Parliament. While its definition was altered in ways that may have weakened it, the amendment was strong in requiring local governments to apply the principle when preparing planning schemes and assessing development applications rather than merely having regard to it.

Debate in Queensland Parliament

Political opposition to the Precautionary Principle

As I said this morning, this is planning legislation, not environmental protection legislation. While there is certainly nothing in the Bill that prevents a precautionary approach being taken in planning and development decision making, writing the precautionary approach into law in the absence of clear precedent about its application in a planning context would, in my view, be irresponsible.
Ms Di McCauley, Minister for Local Government and Planning

Political support for the Precautionary Principle

I support the need for the precautionary principle to be included in the Bill. As responsible planners, we have to look at the impacts of today’s planning on tomorrow’s generation.
Mrs Liz Cunningham, Independent

The precautionary principle simply means that we take a precautionary approach to the environment. It simply means that where we know that the consequences of taking a risk are serious or irreversible, then the fact that we are not sure about the extent of the risk does not justify us postponing measures to try to avoid the consequences.
Mr Rod Welford, Shadow Environment Minister

I thank Jo Bragg and the Office of the Environmental Defender for their constant contact, because they provide a valuable perspective.
Mrs Liz Cunningham, Independent MP

Although the precautionary principle is still contentious in some sectors because it is perceived to stymie development, it has since then been written into most environmental laws, including the Sustainable Planning Act 2009, which replaced the IPA.

EDO Qld’s success in promoting the precautionary principle illustrates the importance of our focus on policy reform. Such principles may seem abstract and are often poorly implemented, but they are a vital basis for environmentally sound decision-making.

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

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