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12.1 - Fundamental reform is needed

This Review has found compelling evidence that Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The country is not on a trajectory to achieving the fundamental objective of the EPBC Act to protect the environment, conserve biodiversity and ensure that future development is ecologically sustainable. Nor is the Act set up to do so. Iconic places and critical parts of the environment have been compromised and continue to be in decline. This downward trend needs to be slowed through immediate reforms and reversed through longer-term reforms.

The EPBC Act is ineffective and not fit for current or future environmental challenges, and reform is long overdue. The lack of integration of the environmental responsibilities of the States, Territories and the Commonwealth is exacerbated by the construction of the Act and the way it is implemented by governments. Accountability for achieving environmental and heritage outcomes is not clear and investment in the restoration of the environment is inadequate. The way the Act operates results in duplication in regulatory processes, which is inefficient and costly.

Stakeholders do not trust the EPBC Act, and how it is implemented, to deliver outcomes for the environment, business or the community. The Act is dated, ineffective and inefficient. Past attempts at reform have been unsuccessful, and the Act remains largely unchanged from its original form. The inaction of the last two decades is a large part of the reason why the Review recommends such a fundamental reform to the Act and its operation. It is also the reason for the urgency in in which Government should pursue reform.

A commitment to a clear pathway of staged reform, including substantial legislative changes, is required to achieve the improvements. This Review recommends a reform pathway of continuous improvement of the law and its operation – not one to ‘set and forget’. This requires ongoing monitoring and evaluation, and adjustments as lessons are learnt and new information and ways of doing things emerge. Stakeholders must be willing to accept reform. This can best be achieved through sensible incremental changes.

If fully realised, the package of 38 recommendations from this Review will ensure Australia’s future development needs are achieved in a sustainable way. This reform pathway will deliver long-term economic growth, environmental improvement and the effective protection of Australia’s iconic places and heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.

This Review is recommending that National Environmental Standards – underpinned by accreditation and independent oversight and audit – be implemented as the foundation for effective national environmental management. Standards should be supported with regional planning, improved information, strong independent compliance and incentives to encourage restoration.

Immediate legislative changes should be made to start to stabilise the current rate of environmental decline. However, these will not be enough. More fundamental reform of the EPBC Act and a longer-term, staged reform pathway that can adapt over time are also needed.

Effective administration of a regulatory system is not cost-free. The recommended reforms seek to improve the overall efficiency of the system. It is important to consider how to best fund the implementation of a reformed system, including the fair costs that should be recovered from proponents.

  • In principle, government should pay for elements that are substantially public benefits (for example, the development of National Environmental Standards).
  • Business should pay for those elements of the regulatory system required because they derive private benefits by impacting the environment (for example, assessments and approvals, and compliance).
  • Costs should be shared for elements of the regulatory system that have mixed benefits (for example, data and information).