Business declares war on environmental regulations

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) today met to discuss the business lobby’s demand that the Government cut “green tape”.

Yesterday, Gillard chaired a Business Advisory Forum, at the end of which she announced this outcome:

For the first time in 112 years of federation, business representatives have been able to come face to face with leaders and talk about cutting red tape. […] We are determined to get this done. The six priority areas identified by today’s forum were: national environmental reform, the treatment of major development proposals, the rationalization of climate change mitigation programs, further energy market reform, development assessments, and best-practice approaches to risk-based regulation.

She didn’t leave much doubt about what the main focus of the cuts will be: environmental regulation and climate change policies. Talks are continuing, and it’s not clear exactly how much of the business agenda Gillard has yet agreed to, but it doesn’t look good at all. The Australian Labor Party’s website provides more details:

The Government has agreed to develop bilateral arrangements with the states to fast-track state assessments and approvals. This means states will be accredited to do certain Commonwealth assessments. […]

Business wants all federal environmental regulations abolished to fast-track environmental approvals. Gillard assures that the federal government will keep responsibility for the most risky projects, but how will that be defined?

Governments have undertaken to prioritise the completion of a review of policies and programs that are not complementary to the national carbon price and may be ineffective or inefficient.

Business wants all non-pricing climate policies to be cut now that Australia has a carbon price. Even the Renewable Energy Target is no longer safe, with the New South Wales Government recently deciding to oppose it, breaking an election promise (strangely, federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott has not commented on this evidence that the New South Wales Government is based on a lie).

Gillard went on to announce

a red tape challenge to ask Australian businesses, large and small, to identify those nuisance regulations – the ones that no longer have a purpose, the ones that are duplicating regulations in other areas, that can be done away with – so that governments can act and clear out this undergrowth of regulation that doesn’t need to be there.

You can bet the first things on the list of what businesses see as “nuisance regulations” will be even more green policies.

New Queensland Premier Campbell Newman says the agreement “will not go far enough”, arguing the agreement is only words, not action. Even if he’s right, it is still extremely disturbing that the Government has adopted those words.

Newman complains business “didn’t get what they wanted” – evidently he thinks business should automatically get whatever they want. Newman fully endorses the business lobby’s demands that “the federal Government, frankly, needs to delegate the powers of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to the states”, as well as cutting the carbon tax. In other words, Newman wants to abolish all federal environmental regulations. The Liberal Party of Australia is looking increasingly like the US Republican Party.

A lot of important environmental approvals are coming up in Queensland in particular, where companies are planning mega-mines and infrastructure to extract a billion tonnes per year of coal and coal seam gas, and ship it through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Because of Queensland’s unicameral single-member electorate system, Newman’s Liberal National Party (LNP) controls the state with no significant parliamentary opposition. A large funder of the LNP is mining magnate Clive Palmer, whose company Waratah wants to build the world’s largest coal mine. If Newman gets his way, Palmer’s projects will only have to be approved by a state government funded by Palmer.

I am very angry at politicians like Gillard and Newman, but they are merely figureheads. The real villains, I am convinced, are the faceless lobbyists who work for business groups like the Business Council of Australia, Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, and so on. Nobody voted for these business groups, yet they are setting the Government’s agenda. There has been no consultation with environmental groups or the broader public on the proposed cuts, and if there is I suspect it will be merely for show.

What we are witnessing is a two-pronged attack by big business on climate change policy. On the one hand, business groups (who are dominated by polluting industries) are lobbying the federal Labor Government to cut climate change and renewable energy policies, arguing they are redundant in the presence of a carbon price. On the other hand, mining companies are funding the federal and state Liberal parties to stop the carbon price itself. Newman is considering a legal challenge to the carbon price; Palmer has already announced he will make such a challenge.

If we the public allow this madness to continue, we could end up with no climate policies whatsoever.

Update 14 April 2012

I’ve tried to find more clarity on what has actually been agreed, but it’s still pretty muddy. The Age reported that COAG agreed the federal government would relinquish its environmental approval powers to the states, excluding “projects within its current jurisdiction affecting world heritage sites and specific areas of action, including nuclear actions, defence development and developments affecting Commonwealth waters”. It sounds like the Great Barrier Reef developments will fall in the federal category. But reading the text of the COAG agreement, I’m not sure that’s what it actually says [my emphasis]:

COAG acknowledged the Commonwealth’s existing final approval responsibilities for projects within its current jurisdiction affecting world heritage sites and specific areas of action, including nuclear actions, defence development and developments affecting Commonwealth waters.

I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think acknowledging existing responsibilities is quite the same thing as agreeing they will remain.

Whatever is or will be agreed, it can be achieved within months. The Government is currently drafting amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. According to a press release from August last year, the changes will include “a more streamlined assessment process to cut red tape for business and improve timeframes for decision making, including an option for decisions on proposals within 35 business days, if all required information is provided.” Meanwhile, the federal Liberal Party have followed Queensland in adopting the abolition of federal environmental regulations as their policy and want to work with Labor to achieve it before the next election.

At a time when our environmental problems are worse than ever, the Australian Government is backsliding at a rate matched only by the party who may succeed them. We must be vigilant.

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