Nature Positive: Federal EPA will be unaccountable, secretive and expensive, says Institute of Public Affairs

Dan Jervis-Bardy
The Nightly
nature legislation run by faceless bureaucrats
nature legislation run by faceless bureaucrats Credit: The Nightly

Labor’s proposed Federal nature watchdog risks being an expensive, bloated bureaucracy that is unaccountable and highly secretive, a conservative think tank has warned.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has unleashed on the Federal Government’s planned independent environment protection agency in a submission to a parliamentary committee examining laws to set it up.

It comes as the committee faces criticism for not scheduling a public hearing in WA — despite the “oversized impact” the new watchdog would have on the powerhouse mining State.

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Concern is growing in the business and mining sectors about the scope of the federal EPA, which represents the second plank in Labor’s controversial Nature Positive Plan.

Under the Government’s model, bureaucrats inside the independent agency would make decisions on most approvals with the environment minister retaining the power to “call-in” projects for assessment.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the IPA argued ministers — not “unaccountable bureaucrats” — were best placed to make “informed decisions” on environmental policies.

“This is because the minister must factor in the views and priorities of other ministers in the elected government and, in theory, should be considering the other important elements of regulatory decisions, such as the economic value that could be lost due to approval decisions made or regulatory actions taken,” the submission read.

The think tank raised concerns about “vague” and “arbitrary” secrecy provisions contained in the draft Bill, including a clause allowing documents to be kept under wraps if it “endangers public safety” or could “damage security, defence of international relations”.

The IPA claimed the new watchdog would develop into one of the Commonwealth’s biggest and most expensive agencies once it was fully set up.

The agency could employ up to 4760 people and cost $1.8 billion per year to run, according to IPA analysis that used data from State EPAs to calculate the cost of a Commonwealth equivalent.

A Federal Environment Department spokeswoman said the think tank’s numbers were inaccurate.

The spokeswoman said $121.5 million over four years had been budgeted to stand up the agency, which would primarily be staffed by existing employees.

A further $51.5 million has been set aside to establish the new environment information agency.

The department spokeswoman said the draft laws struck an “appropriate balance” in giving powers to the EPA and minister.

The parliamentary inquiry into laws to establish the federal EPA is planning to hold just one hearing — in Canberra on July 26 — before handing down its findings in early August.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA had implored the Senate committee to travel to WA given the “oversized impact” the laws would have on the mining powerhouse.

“When you consider that almost 30 per cent of projects requiring Federal approval in 2023 were located in WA, it’s disappointing that members of the committee will not be visiting this state to hear directly from the businesses and industries that will be impacted,” CCIWA chief economist Aaron Morey said.

“WA will be impacted by these proposed changes more than any other jurisdiction.”

Mr Morey said the peak body held serious concerns about the design of the new nature cop, including the fact its boss would not be answerable to a board.

“The CEO of this new body will be the most protected public servant in the country, and they’ll hold in their hands the fate of every major project,” Mr Morey said.

“There is very little scope for the social or economic benefits of a project to be considered when deciding on an approval.”

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