Australian government gags debate to ram environmental law changes through lower house

The move outrages Labor, the Greens, crossbench MPs and conservationists with the legislation now headed to the Senate

Legislation to change Australia’s environmental laws has been rammed through the lower house by the Morrison government prompting outrage from Labor, the Greens and the crossbench.

The government’s bill would amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, clearing the way for the transfer of development approval powers to state and territory governments.

The proposed changes passed the lower house on Thursday night after the government used its numbers to gag debate on the bill and amendments proposed by Labor and the crossbench.

No member of the government spoke on the bill, which still has to pass the Senate and will now likely be debated during the October budget sittings.

“To just gag that debate, to prevent people from having their say, I think is a real disgrace,” Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said.

“This isn’t minor legislation, this is significant legislation that affects what happens to our natural environment, what happens with jobs and what happens with investment.”

Butler said the government was trying to rush changes to the laws through parliament under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Now is a time for more scrutiny. Now is not the time for us to be putting up with the government rushing things through in the dead of night in a situation when there’s not that attention focused on them,” she said.

The independent MP, Zali Steggall, had proposed an amendment that would have added a reference in the bill to promised national standards recommended by the interim report of the review of the EPBC Act.

“This is appalling conduct by government minister [Sussan] Ley, the prime minister and every coalition MP that is supporting this,” Steggall said.

“The conduct of the government today in parliament had nothing to do with this pandemic. It had nothing to do with measures around the welfare or the health or the long-term benefit of Australians. This was about abrogating your rights, all of you, in having a voice in this parliament and knowing that you will actually have an environment that is going to be protected.”

The Greens MP, Adam Bandt, said the government was “trashing the environment and trashing democracy”.

“No government MP wanted to front up and defend the indefensible, but the rest of the country is entitled to have its say on such a crucial bill,” he said.

Andrew Wilkie, another independent MP, called the bill “environmental vandalism in the extreme”. He said it ignored the recommendations of the interim report handed down by the former competition watchdog chair Prof Graeme Samuel.

By blocking debate the government had shown “complete contempt for democracy”, Wilkie said.

The government introduced its bill, a near replica of Tony Abbott’s failed 2014 one-stop-shop policy, last week. It has argued deregulation of its decision-making powers under the EPBC Act is necessary to aid Australia’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill had been criticised by conservationists, Labor and the Greens for weakening environmental protections and failing to include promised national environmental standards, which were the key recommendation of the interim report.

Labor also wanted the government to commit to another of the review’s recommendations – an independent regulator that would enforce the law if approval powers are devolved to state and territory governments.

In a statement on Thursday night, the environment minister said moving to a “single touch” approval system would “reduce regulatory burden, promote economic activity and create certainty around environmental protections”.

“The Labor party, which turned its back on environmental reform after its own review of the EPBC Act a decade ago, today attempted a day of cynical misrepresentation in the House,” Ley said. The minister said there would be more reforms to follow.

“We will develop strong commonwealth-led national environmental standards which will underpin new bilateral agreements with state governments.”

Conservation groups reacted angrily to the rushed vote on Thursday.

“This has been an ugly week for the government and they couldn’t have done much more to erode community trust in their supposed commitment to improve environmental protection via the Samuel review,” said Tim Beshara, the federal policy director at the Wilderness Society.

Beshara said by not speaking on the bill the government had failed to argue why the reforms were even necessary.

“This seems like the action of a government that is either not proud of what they are trying to do or one that believes that what they are trying to do isn’t well supported by the community,” he said.

The key finding of Samuel’s interim report was that Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable decline.


Lisa Cox

The GuardianTramp

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