In a major address given to the Australian Industry Group, the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has promised to cut a swathe through the process of environmental approvals which has delayed many national development projects over the past 20 years.
Since the early 1990s, the federal government has duplicated the environmental approval process of state governments, adding a new layer of Canberra-based bureaucracy and politicising the process of environmental approval.
The Opposition has promised to end this wasteful and damaging process by proposing a “one-stop shop” for environmental approvals, including federal, state and local government.
In the process, it will reduce the extent to which radical environmental groups are able to stymie approval processes through Canberra-based lobbying.
In his address, Mr Abbott promised a new approach to environmental protection.
He said, “Abolishing the carbon tax will be the Coalition’s biggest single contribution to reducing the regulatory costs on business, but we won’t stop there.
“Over time, the proliferation of federal, state and local environmental approvals has vastly added to the complexity, cost and uncertainty of investment. The proposed Bell Bay pulp mill in Tasmania is probably the most notorious example of a big, job-creating investment that’s been jeopardised by approvals processes that can take not just months but many years.”
The Opposition leader pointed out that obtaining environmental approvals for one major project had cost $25 million and involved 4,000 meetings, briefings and presentations, and the preparation of a 12,000-page report. After two years, 1,200 state and 300 Commonwealth conditions were imposed with a further 8,000 sub-conditions.
He added: “In another notorious case, a marina in Victoria that had spent $1 million to gain state approval was indefinitely delayed under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act because it might threaten the orange-bellied parrot that had not been seen in the area for 25 years.
“Investors invariably accept that projects should comply with (the) best environmental standards. The standards aren’t the problem. It’s the indecision, imprecision and inconsistency which is killing new projects.
“The Coalition will maintain high standards but seek to simplify the approvals process.”
Tony Abbott said that the Coalition would offer state and territory governments the opportunity to act as a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals.
Should they accept, the states and territories would administer a single approvals process, including approvals under Commonwealth legislation such as the centrepiece Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, carried by the Howard Government in 1999.
For some projects, such as major offshore developments, the states and territories may prefer to have the Commonwealth as the sole, designated assessor.
Mr Abbott said: “In addition to a single assessment process, a Coalition government would seek to create a single lodgement and documentation process for environmental approvals.
“States and territories that agree to be part of this one-stop shop process should have a significant advantage attracting investment. Engendering competition between the states would be a way to make Australia’s federal system work for us rather than against us. The one-stop-shop process could also be extended to councils that choose to be involved.”
This one-stop shop process would also be accompanied by deadlines for decision-making with penalties if these were breached, such as partial reimbursement of lodgement fees.
Mr Abbott added that the states should aim to have up to 70 per cent of applications for residential and light industrial developments that comply with planning criteria exempted from the development assessment process.
He said: “Certainly, the proponent of a residential development in Mission Beach, for instance, should not need Canberra’s go ahead just because there are cassowaries in North Queensland.
“The next Coalition government will work with the states to bring about these reforms. Environmental standards should be clear, assessment processes should be swift, and decisions should be unambiguous.
“Approvals have to be final, subject to an equally clear and consistent formal review mechanism. They can’t be at the mercy of last-minute lobbying by campaigners, lest Australia start to lose the investment, the jobs and the wealth upon which lasting and sustainable environmental outcomes depend.”
Not surprisingly, the proposal was denounced by the environmental lobby which has turned the approvals process into an industry.
However, the NSW Liberal Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, Brad Hazzard, described it as “excellent”, saying that the present system is “horrific” and a drain on the economy.
He told the Sydney Morning Herald, “It’s not just duplication, it’s triplication, quadruplication.”