Australian environment department failed in planning oversight role, says auditors

By on 29/06/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Australian environment: not effectively protected

Campaigners have called for the creation of an independent environmental protection agency in Australia, after the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) released a report condemning the government’s implementation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The responsible department has regularly failed to set or monitor conditions on developments that pose a risk to the environment, or to demonstrate that any conditions set would be effective, it found.

The Act is Australia’s primary national environmental legislation, under which developments which are identified as of national environmental significance must be approved by the minister for the environment. This process is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, which must refer potentially damaging proposals to a minister for decisions on how to assess schemes’ impact, whether they should proceed, and any conditions that should be attached. Proposals controlled under the act can include anything from residential and tourism developments to large-scale mining operations.

Previous audits by the ANAO have identified shortcomings in the department’s administration related to timeliness, consistency and effectiveness. The department requested the latest audit to feed into a wider assessment of the act by professor Graeme Samuel, the interim findings of which are due this week.

The ANAO found that the department’s administration of referrals was “not effective or efficient”, while conditions attached to approvals were not assessed with rigour. Some 79% did not comply with procedural guidance or contained clerical errors.

Auditors also found that a document the department is required to produce to demonstrate that conditions proposed for approvals would prove effective was, in most cases, not being delivered. From a random sample of 29 approvals from 2015 to 2018, the document had not been provided in 26 cases, they found.

Since the department did not effectively monitor, report or evaluate these conditions, it was not well positioned to measure its contribution to the objectives of the act, the auditors concluded.

Campaign group the Wilderness Society’s Suzanne Milthorpe said the findings show a “catastrophic failure” to administer the law and protect the environment. “This report shows that the natural and cultural heritage that is core to Australia’s identity is being put at severe risk by the government’s unwillingness to fix problems they’ve been warned about for years.

“It shows that even when the department is aware of high risks of environmental wrongdoing, like with deforestation from agricultural expansion, they are unwilling to act,” she said, adding that the only credible response was the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency.

In a statement included in the report, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment agreed to implement all the recommendations in the report, adding that it would establish and strengthen sound governance arrangements to ensure that improvements were successfully implemented.

In May, former Australian civil service leaders lambasted successive governments’ failure to tackle climate change, saying it was “incoherent” and “like watching a train wreck in slow motion”.

However, prime minister Scott Morrison is consistently dismissing the concerns of environmentalists. Last month, he outlined plans to slash approval times for major projects, saying that they cost industry A$300 (US$206m) million last year, according to the Canberra Times.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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