Opinion Piece - Speed up Green Decisions - Terri Butler, Matt Keogh

Opinion Piece  

TERRI BUTLER MP 
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER 
MEMBER FOR GRIFFITH 

MATT KEOGH MP 
SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY 
SHADOW MINISTER FOR WA RESOURCES 
SHADOW MINISTER ASSISTING FOR SMALL AND FAMILY BUSINESS 
MEMBER FOR BURT 

We currently find ourselves at a unique moment in history where both the West Australian State and Federal environmental assessment and approval regimes are being reviewed at the same time.
 
This is a great opportunity for both levels of government to seize the moment, work together and develop an approach that can unlock value, growth and job opportunities for future projects.
 
Both reviews also occur while the Productivity Commission is reviewing resources sector regulation across the nation.
 
Currently, major project proponents are required to obtain separate State and Federal environmental approvals to proceed. This can mean different information is needed, and different time frames apply.
 
The common refrain from industry is that a swift “no” is better than a drawn out and delayed “maybe”, which they often get now. Federal project assessment timeframe delays from a lack of proper funding and administration by the Federal Coalition shouldn’t be allowed to hamper projects and economic prosperity.
 
The Federal Government’s recent statement that it will bring the applications process into the 21st century by providing a digital portal is welcome, if underwhelming. A single-entry portal, better sharing of data and easier updating will all bring benefits to the process. Making the admin processes work better is hardly a big announcement — it’s just a basic responsibility of government.
 
The WA Government is calling on the Commonwealth to enter into a bilateral agreement about environmental approvals, in addition to the existing agreement about environmental assessments.

It is up to the two governments to work together to see if such an agreement can be struck, on terms that will be acceptable to them and, more importantly, to the public. And, of course, the agreement should be about best practice environmental protection, not finding the lowest common denominator.
 
But, longer term, the present concurrent environmental protection regime reviews provide the opportunity to ensure that assessment processes complement each other where possible as well as avoid duplication and undue delay, even where a bilateral agreement isn’t in place — especially since agreements of that nature rely on the two jurisdictions remaining in harmony.
 
An approach that sought greater consistency in the law would allow for a consistent approach in the way regulators approach their tasks and the conditions that they may place upon a project.

Improving our environmental regulatory arrangements doesn’t necessitate a reduction in our environmental protection requirements.
 
Rather than taking the axe to laws designed to protect our environment, and importantly laws which preserve Australia’s world leading tourism destination, the Federal Government should improve its project assessment funding and performance. The WA Government increased resourcing for Environmental Protection Authority assessments and is increasing funding again, but since 2013 the Federal Government has reportedly cut Environment Department funding by almost 40 per cent.
 
Since the Coalition came to office, while the amount of environmental regulation has not increased, the delays in project approvals have blown out. Over its time in office, the total number of decisions made has gone backwards, but the number of late (delayed) decisions has significantly increased.
 
In 2018-19, decisions made later than statutory time frames reached 40 per cent, up from 15 per cent when it came to office. Cuts and mismanagement by the Morrison Government are at the heart of delayed approvals.

It must recognise industry’s concerns about delay, and tackle the true cause of the problem. It needs to ensure the Federal Environment Department is equipped with resources needed to improve communication with and clarity for proponents and stop the spiral of “high workloads” contributing to ever-increasing delays.
 
Swift answers by Federal and State governments make it easier for proponents to amend projects or redeploy capital to more feasible alternatives. This is preferable to tying up money, time and effort for a project that is ultimately unsuccessful or, worse, results in lost job opportunities. If we can get this right for WA, which represents over half our nation’s resources industry, we will be setting an example for Australia.
 
First published in the West Australian Newspaper