January 23, 2021

Key crossbench senators say they won’t support bid to change Australia’s environment laws

The Coalition plan to hand development approval powers to the states hits a further roadblock after Senate inquiry

A Morrison government plan to change Australia’s environment laws to allow development approval powers to be handed to the states has hit a further roadblock, with three key crossbench senators saying in a report they will not support them.

The crossbenchers’ opposition means that, together with Labor and the Greens, the Morrison government’s laws would be voted down in the Senate. But one crossbench senator told Guardian Australia he could change his mind once he had seen details in documents that the government has so far withheld.

A rushed Senate inquiry into the controversial changes delivered four reports late Friday, with Labor, the Greens and a crossbench group all confirming their opposition.

The government had gagged debate to push the legislation through the lower house – a move that outraged the Greens and Labor.

A final report from a major review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, carried out by Prof Graeme Samuel, was handed to the environment minister, Sussan Ley, in early November.

That report supported a move to devolve powers to the states, even though Guardian Australia has revealed the government was making moves to devolve powers months before the Samuel review.

Samuel’s interim report, released in July, found the environment was in unsustainable decline and the EPBC Act was not fit-for-purpose.

In their dissenting report to the inquiry, the crossbench senators Rex Patrick, Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff said they could not support the bill while key information was withheld.

Patrick told Guardian Australia: “We will not be voting uninformed. The government has to stop treating the Senate like a rubber stamp.

“It is inexcusable that the minister withheld the Samuel review from the Senate. It is on her desk and it’s required to be tabled. There’s no logical reason in my mind why she did not make that available to the Senate.”

The crossbench report also says two other documents were withheld. One would have provided detail on the agreements between the states and the commonwealth and another would have given some detail on how state authorities would be accredited with the commonwealth to make decisions on its behalf.

Patrick said it was was unreasonable to ask the Senate to pass responsibilities to the states without the state’s obligations and capabilities being fully understood.

“We could come back in three or four months time and relook at it. I may well be agreeable to the bill if I’m satisfied that the states have the capabilities,” he said.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said the bill was “bad for jobs, bad for the environment and bad for Australia”.

The Greens’ environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, declared the “environment-wrecking laws” as “dead in the water”.

“The government shamelessly tried to smooth the path for their big mining and developer mates to get their environment-destroying projects approved even faster while completely ignoring the independent review of environment laws that was under way,” she said. “These laws are nothing more than a rehash of Tony Abbott’s 2014 bill which failed to pass the parliament then and will fail again now.”

Suzanne Milthorpe, the national environmental law campaigner at The Wilderness Society, said: “It’s hard to see the substantial concerns of the crossbench being allayed in time for it to be passed this year.

“It appears the government has infuriated the Senate with their rushed consultation process and unwillingness to provide basic information about the safeguards they intend to put in place to prevent these changes being a massive leap backwards in environmental protection.”

She said the government should retract the bill, release the Samuel review and bring forward reforms “to help better protect our precious places and turn around the extinction crisis”.

Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the crossbench, along with Labor and the Greens, had “stood up for integrity and proper process in the face of a government looking to jam through Abbott-era legislation” which she said would do nothing to protect the environment.

She said: “The Morrison government should heed the message, release the final independent review and bring a full package of reforms to the parliament that genuinely address Australia’s extinction crisis.”

WWF-Australia’s head of policy, Quinton Clements, said the government’s laws “would have done nothing to fix the epidemic of non-compliance.”

He said the government should now release the Samuel report and take time to “deliver proper reforms”.

“This bill should come as a package – as recommended by the government’s own independent review. It should include proper environmental standards, an independent regulator and additional funding to properly manage and protect our remaining wildlife and their homes.”

A spokesman for Ley said in a statement: “The government will continue to support strong environmental laws, backed by binding national standards and bilateral approvals and will continue to work towards this outcome.”