‘Recipe for extinction’: why Australia’s rush to change environment laws is sparking widespread concern

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Anger over proposed changes to national environmental laws is escalating, with legal, health and conservation groups urging that they not pass the Senate, with some warning it would increase the extinction rate.

The government rammed its legislation to change Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act through the lower house on Thursday night, prompting outrage from Labor, the Greens and crossbench.

WWF-Australia says the bill in its current reform is a “recipe for extinction” and lacks standards that would ensure strong protections for nature, as well as a commitment to an independent regulator to enforce the law.

“There is more than just wildlife at stake here,” Rachel Lowry, WWF-Australia’s chief conservation officer, says. “If approved, this bill will fail Australians at this critical moment in time because it fails to incentivise win-win solutions that stimulate our economy and protect the places and animals we love.

“Shifting approval powers to the states without an independent regulator to ensure enforcement would be the most damaging environmental decision to occur within Australia in recent decades.”

The government’s bill would amend Australia’s environmental laws, clearing the way for the transfer of development approval powers to state and territory governments.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the environment minister, Sussan Ley, have argued the changes are necessary to aid Australia’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The proposed changes passed the lower house on Thursday night after the government used its numbers to gag debate on the bill and amendments proposed by Labor and the crossbench.

No member of the government spoke on the bill, which still has to pass the Senate and will likely be debated during the October budget sittings.

Rachel Walmsley, the policy and law reform director at the Environmental Defenders Office, says the government is trying to avoid scrutiny.

She warns the bill has the potential to undermine the statutory review of the EPBC Act, chaired by the former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, which is not due to table its final report until the end of October.

The key finding of Samuel’s interim report was that Australia’s system of environmental protections had failed and the decline of wildlife and habitat was unsustainable.