After a year of negotiations between the Commonwealth and the business community over the laws, Prime Minister Julia Gillard shelved the hand-over at a Council of Australian Governments meeting in December.
After a year of negotiations between the Commonwealth and the business community over the laws, Prime Minister Julia Gillard shelved the hand-over at a Council of Australian Governments meeting in December. Inga Williams

Federal Govt ready to hand environmental powers to states

THE nation's peak council of lawyers has urged the Federal Government not to hand over its environmental powers to the states.

But the Law Council of Australia warning comes as Environment Department documents, filed in recent weeks, reveal the government is considering moving forward with the process.

After a year of negotiations between the Commonwealth and the business community over the laws, Prime Minister Julia Gillard shelved the hand-over at a Council of Australian Governments meeting in December.

That meeting revealed "significant challenges" lay in the process, with Ms Gillard describing different approaches by state governments as the regulatory equivalent of a Dalmatian dog.

She said some states were looking for control of 25% of environmental approvals while others wanted 90% of the control in such deliberations.

A Senate inquiry is looking into the pros and cons of a Greens bill which aims to prevent such a hand-over happening in the future.

In an Environment Department submission to the inquiry, the department revealed the transfer of powers could still go ahead if state and territory governments were able to meet the Commonwealth's regulatory benchmarks.

The submission also said the department would continue to work to improve environment approval processes for business, while ensuring adequate protections remained.

But a submission from the Law Council of Australia warned such a hand-over would "remove any role for the Commonwealth government" in nationally-significant environmental approvals.

It also said the transfer was not in line with the principal of "non-regression" - a long-standing international law principle - where changes to existing laws could reduce the available protections.

The LCA said consistent with such principles: "It is essential that any streamlining not be achieved at the expense of protection of Matters of National Environmental Significance".

"Without any assurance that state legislation will achieve the same level of protection as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Law Council does not support any devolution of approval powers to the state or territories," the submission reads.

"The Law Council, therefore, urges the Federal Government to retain the current approval powers in relation to actions with the potential to significantly impact on MNES."

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has not yet responded to requests for more information.


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