States to bear cost of federal approvals

States to bear cost of federal approvals

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Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

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ENVIRONMENT: Plan to hand more power to the states won't come with extra resources

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State and territory governments will be forced to bear the cost of taking on the Commonwealth's approval powers under national environmental laws, prompting further concerns from conservationists about the draft laws.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley introduced legislation last week to hand the Commonwealth's approval powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to state and territory governments.

The move was recommended by Professor Graeme Samuel as part of a once-in-a-decade review of the laws, and agreed to with "a great deal of enthusiasm" by state and territory leaders, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

But while the Commonwealth is handing over its approval powers, it is not handing over any extra resources.

The explanatory memorandum said the bill would not have any direct financial impacts, but would "will result in regulatory savings for business, including a reduction on administrative and delay costs associated with two separate approval processes".

A spokesman for Ms Ley confirmed the bill "does not involve additional funding for the states".

However, the devolution of powers will involve extra work to be done by state and territory governments.

An ACT government spokesman said they would seek extra money from the Commonwealth as a result of the transfer.

"The ACT government acknowledges that additional work will need to be resourced if responsibility for EPBC approvals is transferred to the territory," he said.

"We will consider and discuss this during bilateral agreement negotiations and will be requesting additional funding from the federal government to assist with any transition."

However Ms Ley's office indicated this request was unlikely to be granted.

"To be accredited states will need to demonstrate they meet the requirements of the bilateral agreements," the spokesperson said.

The revelation has been met with despair by conservationists, who were already concerned that the bill did not address other key recommendations of Professor Samuel's review. Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy said it was "more evidence that the federal government was not serious about fixing the extinction crisis".

"Instead of strengthening environmental protections, it wants to devolve its responsibilities to the states without providing extra resources," Ms O'Shanassy said.

"Federal environment department funding has already been cut 40 per cent since the Coalition won power in 2013. We're already dealing with less money. This shows the government's hand pretty clearly that they're not willing to invest in environmental protection."

The minister has been under fire since introducing the bill, after it omitted a framework to set up new, legally enforceable national environmental standards.

Professor Samuel intended these standards to be the centrepiece of the reform.

Instead, the legislation has been unfavourably compared to the Abbott government's 2014 "one stop shop" bill.

Critics of the proposal claimed it would weaken environmental protections by putting under-resourced state governments in charge.

It was ultimately abandoned after opposition and crossbench senators threatened to block the bill.

Debate on the legislation is set to continue on Tuesday.

The story States to bear cost of federal approvals first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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