Transcript - RN Breakfast - environment mismanagement and cuts

26 June 2020


SUBJECTS: Scathing ANAO report into federal oversight of the EPBC Act; Environment Department cuts.

NORMAN SWAN, HOST: The Australian National Audit Office has delivered a stinging review called federal oversight of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, finding that it's poorly administered and undermined by conflicts of interest. The audit looked at referrals, assessment and approvals for projects like real estate developments or mining, and their impact on world and national heritage sites, listed threatened species, marine areas and vital water resources amongst others. If found for example, that 79% of approvals were non-compliant or contained errors, and that there is no proper monitoring of conditions set when projects are approved. Terri Butler is the Labor Shadow Minister for Environment and Water. She joins us this morning from Brisbane. Welcome back to Breakfast.




SWAN: You had a chance to fix this problem. One of the earliest reviews of the Act was done in 2008 by Alan Hawke and he found that the Act was repetitive, complex, overly prescriptive, and suggested that it be repealed, redrafted and replaced. That was twelve years ago when Labor was in power. Why didn't you fix it then?


BUTLER: Well it's a very different set of circumstances of course, because what we've seen in the intervening period is about 40% of the funding cut from the environment department. What's actually really clear from the audit report which is a scathing report, is that it's not environmental regulation that's causing delays, it's liberal party cuts and mismanagement.


It's not green tape, it's blue tape that's causing the difficulties. I think that one of the great things about this report is it actually shows how important it is to make sure that the resourcing and the processes in the department are aligned with the objectives of the EPBC Act and the report itself didn't find any difficulties with the Act's objectives. It said the Department's work is not aligned with those objectives. They can't be confident that what they're doing is actually promoting environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.


SWAN: You're suggesting this is political, the report itself suggests that it's administrative, that it's problem's essentially are alleging, polite auditor's language, that the department is incompetent, that it's a bureaucratic problem rather than a political problem.


BUTLER: Well I mean the buck stops with the Minister and the fact is that this government has cut 40% of the funding from the department since they were first elected and that has ramifications. You can't cut out all the funding and expect not to have an administrative problems.

But the buck does stop with the Minister here and she's acknowledged that in fact by putting some additional resources into the department in the recent months to try to address these problems. The fact is, these problems have real world consequences because the delays the mismanagement, the problems in decision making the poor quality of decision making, mean the projects that are good projects get delayed, and they also mean that environmental protection is not up to scratch.


So they've managed to achieve the twin problems of both causing difficulty for economic development, and failing to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity which is particularly important when we're in an extinction crisis, which has been exacerbated by the bushfire crisis.


SWAN: Now, government's been consistently critical of what's called green tape. It looks as though from the audit report, that the audit report might agree with that, that things take too long and they're inefficient and you know, not conducted in an appropriate manner.


BUTLER: Well, green tape is just government speak for trying to reduce environmental regulation. And I don't want to cop that. I don't think this report supports any reduction in environmental protection. In fact, what it supports is better environmental protection, better processes.


And as I say, it's the reason I'm calling it blue tape because actually, the problem is not the law, the problem here is the cuts and mismanagement in the department. So for example, things like the fact that the report says that there's been an average overrun of timeframes by 116 days for approval decisions. That's a problem.


Labor has been calling out the government for the extensive delays and the massive increase in delays since they came to office in these decisions. Because what you want I think as a nation, is you want bad projects to be told no early, and you want good projects to get the go ahead, on time, rather than through a series of delays, but that can't be at the cost of quality decision making and robust environmental protection.


SWAN: I mean, have you got specifics that of projects that you think have been problematic as a result of this maladministration as alleged by the the audit office?


BUTLER: I don't go to specific projects because as the Shadow Environment Minister, it's entirely possible that at some point in time in the future, I might have responsibility in relation to specific projects.


But what I will say is that when you have this clear, increasing delays in project approvals, so if you look at the graphs, they just got on an upward trajectory, for pretty much the whole time that the Coalition has been in office, those delays mean that there's more costs for proponents, there's more difficulty for the people waiting to see whether there's going to be jobs that come out of these projects, and you actually then also undermine confidence in environmental decision making. And I think one of the things in the package that you ran just before seven was really important, one of the things the government and some of its supporters have said in the past is that there's a real problem with the so called "lawfare", with community members bringing litigation. Well actually, I think the report makes pretty clear that we need a situation where members of the community can hold the government to account through the courts in relation to poor decision making. That's absolutely necessary. And I think it also demonstrates the importance of, of the government getting their act together and finally bringing in a national integrity commission, because if there's anything prone to needing some supervision, it's big decisions about massive projects.


SWAN: The federal government talks about 15 major infrastructure projects, accelerated approval for them. And presumably, they'll be done with the cooperation of the National Cabinet. Do you think that can work under existing environmental laws?


BUTLER: Well, accelerated approval that the Prime Minister's talking about is 30 days, the statutory approval timeframes are 20, 30 and 40 business days depending on the assessment processes. So what he's actually talking about is just dealing with the delays that have flourished under his leadership and under the Environment Minister's leadership, and trying to wind them back to somewhere closer to the statutory timeframes.


I think that there can be greater cooperation between the States and the Commonwealth, that you can have joint teams working together to look at the information to work with proponents to make sure they're providing the information that's needed. But what there absolutely must be, and I think this report has reinforced that for everyone, is an absolutely strong Commonwealth role in relation to matters of national environmental significance. And there also must be high quality decision making that makes sure that very robust environmental protections are enforced.


SWAN: We did invite the Minister on, Sussan Ley, and she says, just as you've acknowledged $25 million in extra funding to reduce unnecessary delays, drive new technologies, and that they've agreed to all the audit commission, the auditors' eight recommendations. So what's the problem?


BUTLER: Well, the problem is this; they finally put the 25 million in after we, but probably more importantly, the environment sector and industry, in one voice, criticized them for their delays because of their own funding cuts over several years.

So we've had seven years of funding cuts and mismanagement that has led to jobs being delayed, poorer quality environmental decision making than necessary. They've finally admitted it, they've fessed up and said, "Oh, this was a bit of a problem, we'd better start dealing with it." But the audit report recommendations, if you read them, really go to really simple things like, get it right, do your job, get your processes working. So the devil is going to be in the detail of the implementation of those recommendations. There is some genuinely alarming parts of the report. Things like conditions not being compliant with procedural guidance in the department. Things like conditions not being monitored for their implementation, which is very concerning. And what I thought was quite alarming was the failure to properly manage conflicts of interest in the department, which of course, is a significant issue when you're dealing with, in some cases, multibillion dollar projects. So there's a range of things that they need to do. It's all very well and good to say, we're finally starting to do something about the massive funding cuts that we've been implementing over years and years, and by the way, yes, we accept all the recommendations. That's a very different proposition to restoring public confidence in the quality of decision making, making sure that environmental protections are being observed and implemented, and reducing the mismanagement and the delay that has been allowed to just absolutely flourish under this government.


SWAN: Terri Butler thanks for joining us.


BUTLER: Thanks for your time.


SWAN: Terri Butler is Labor's Shadow Minister for Environment and Water and she was speaking from Brisbane. As I said before, we invited the minister Sussan Ley on to the program, but she declined saying that our department had agreed to comply with the audit office's recommendations. Now next week the federal government will receive a draft review of the EPBC Act and we'll bring you more on that once it's released.