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Federal EPA will decide on developments

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has won her case.

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has won her case. Photo: AAP

The federal government has promised a seismic shift in favour of Australia’s ailing environment, with an independent umpire to decide on future developments that could make it sicker.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says Labor will rebuild public trust in the nation’s environment laws, after the damning Samuel review found they were failing dismally.

She promised a new suite of stronger laws for nature, underpinned by national standards that explicitly define what they’re trying to achieve.

Crucially, the environment minister of the day will no longer have primary responsibility for deciding if potentially threatening developments can proceed or not.

That task will fall to a new, independent environment protection authority that will also enforce new laws to better protect animals, plants, habitats and heritage places of national significance.

Two years after handing his review to the former Morrison government, the man who wrote said there was new hope for Australia’s 2000 or so endangered species.

“I don’t want to seem too effusive but let me describe it as total elation,” former consumer watchdog chief Graeme Samuel told the ABC.

Independent Senator David Pocock – whose support will be critical in getting new laws through – said the minister has set herself a huge task, including halting extinctions.

“We have to ensure that the prime minister and Cabinet back her on this and provide the sort of investment that is going to be needed every year going forward … Australians across the country are saying to the government this is a priority.”

The Greens said they would work with Labor to fix the failings in Labor’s approach, including the need for more ambition on climate action, and a lack of urgency around halting habitat loss.

Conservation groups said shifting decision making to an independent authority was a strong step forward.

But there is broad disappointment about the lack of a climate trigger that would force fossil-fuel projects to be assessed under environmental laws.

“It is deeply disappointing the minister has made no reference to adding a climate trigger to the law, allowing the climate impacts of coal and gas projects to continue to be ignored,” said Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy.

Ms Plibersek said regional plans, to be rolled out nationally, would address one of the core concerns raised by the Samuel review – a failure to properly account for the cumulative impacts of individual developments.

She said a new traffic-light style system would be embedded in regional plans, identifying areas that should be protected from development, developed with caution, or fast-tracked for development. Queensland will be first cab off the rank.

“We won’t be dealing with each project in isolation – we’ll be considering how they connect and overlap,” she told a conservation symposium in Brisbane.

“At the heart of our reform is a conceptual shift. When we reform our environmental laws, we will take them from being nature negative, where we just manage an overall decline in our environment, to nature positive, where we protect our land and leave it in a better state than we found it.”

Opposition leader Peter Dutton warned the reforms would result in more red tape for developer and there was one group who would bear the cost of that.

“It’s the end consumer,” he told Sydney radio 2GB, adding investors would go overseas because it would be easier for them to do business there.

– AAP

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