The Law Council says the government needs to make sure it retains oversight of matters of national environmental significance if it enters into bilateral approval agreements with state and territory governments.
The council says this is particularly important for ensuring Australia still meets its obligations under some 33 international treaties and protocols to which it is signatory, including for world heritage sites.
“The point we make is that it is the commonwealth that is party to international treaties and it is the commonwealth government that has to meet the obligations in those treaties,” says Robyn Glindemann, the chair of the council’s environment and planning law group.
“If you say the states can approve under a devolved approval system … then the issue for the commonwealth is how does it demonstrate that the states are doing their job?”
Glindemann, who is the council’s representative on a consultative group working with Samuel ahead of his final report, says this is where the review’s recommendations for a set of legally enforceable national environmental standards and an independent regulator to enforce the law are important.
The government’s bill has been criticised for not including a reference to national standards, which under Samuel’s recommendations would act as an assurance framework to ensure states complied with national environmental law.Advertisement
“The agreements themselves are tools but it’s the assurance framework that is important – Graeme Samuel refers to a tough cop on the beat – to ensure the commonwealth is meeting.
its obligations,” Glindemann says.
She says it would be better for the government to wait for Samuel’s final report and to address the transfer of powers to states, the establishment of standards and a regulator in a single bill.
“The public needs that fuller picture,” she says. “If there are other things to come it would be tidier to do it all in one bill. It’s easier, then, to explain what that broader reform is.”
In response to questions, Ley repeated her statement from earlier this week that the bill was the Morrison government’s first step towards implementing the national cabinet decision to move to a single-touch model for environmental approvals.
“There will be more reforms to follow. We will develop strong commonwealth-led national environmental standards, which will underpin new bilateral agreements with state governments,” she said.