20 July 2020


WWF-Australia has backed in the Federal Government's expert reviewer recommendation to put in place an independent mechanism to ensure compliance against Australia’s nature laws. Professor Graeme Samuel could not have been clearer when he said that “a strong, independent cop on the beat is required”.

WWF-Australia is alarmed that the Federal Government has rejected this key recommendation that would strengthen its flagship environmental law and warned that failure to comply with this recommendation could accelerate Australia’s extinction crisis especially after the worst bushfires in living memory.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is undergoing a once-in-a-decade review. An interim report released today outlines the review’s preliminary recommendations, which include establishing a new independent compliance and enforcement regulator to combat major enforcement issues with the Act.

The interim report went on to state:

An independent compliance and enforcement regulator, that is not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth Minister, should be established. The regulator should be responsible for monitoring compliance, enforcement and assurance. It should be properly resourced and have available to it a full toolkit of powers.

However the Federal Government swiftly rejected this proposal in its response to the interim report, calling it “additional layers of bureaucracy”.

WWF-Australia’s Chief Conservation Officer, Rachel Lowry said the government was turning its back on Australia’s most vulnerable species by ignoring the expert advice of its chosen reviewer.

“WWF sees the independent regulator model as the best vehicle to fix failing environmental laws and to call it more bureaucracy is a smokescreen,” said Ms Lowry.

“We need an independent enforcement agency, like many other federally legislated sectors benefit from, that has the resources, remit and teeth to enforce our nature laws and tackle the unauthorised and out-of-control destruction of critical wildlife habitat."

“The EPBC Act is meant to protect the homes of our most threatened species, but in the 20 years since the law was passed, more than 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed – that’s an area bigger than the whole of Tasmania."

“Of this clearing, 93% was not referred to the federal government for assessment. It’s hardly surprising that species like koalas across Eastern Australia are sliding towards extinction with so much habitat being destroyed without any consequence for breaking the rules established in law."

“Our leaders have failed to enforce our nature laws, and in doing so, have failed our wildlife.”

The interim report also called for clearer national environmental standards to support faster and lower-cost assessments and approvals and ensure everyone understands their legal requirements under the EPBC Act.

Ms Lowry said WWF-Australia supported improved standards as long as they were implemented effectively by the Federal Government and do not result in self-certification by states and territories.

“Native animals don’t pay attention to state borders. They need national protection and safeguards to ensure consistency and decision-making that places the future of Australia’s threatened species as a federal priority above state lines,” she said.

“Delegating enforcement powers to the states, who often find it harder to say ‘no’ to destructive developments, is a recipe for extinction."

“The federal government is ultimately responsible for meeting our international commitments to protect vulnerable species. The government can’t wash its hands of that responsibility.”

Since the EPBC Act was implemented in 1999, 84% of threatened species have suffered loss of habitat and the list of threatened species and ecosystems has grown by more than one-third - from 1483 to 1974.

Ms Lowry said protecting the remaining wildlife habitat was now more critical than ever.

“Australia has just suffered its worst bushfires in living memory, with flames destroying millions of hectares of vital bushland and the homes of our most treasured native animals,” she said.

“Together we can stop Australia’s extinction crisis, but we must strengthen our nature protection laws and ensure they are properly enforced, based on science and without political interference. If we don’t take action now the loss to Australia will be irreversible.”

Former competition watchdog chair Professor Graeme Samuel is leading the independent review of the EPBC Act, with a final report expected in October.

Over 26,000 WWF-Australia’s supporters sent a submission when the review was open to the public for comment.

WWF-Australia’s own submission calls on the Australian Government to:

  • Amend the EPBC Act to create an independent Federal Environment Protection Authority charged with rigorous enforcement of the Act to ensure that every person, business and industry is doing the right thing for nature.
  • Create a planning and assessment regime that actually delivers strong environmental outcomes and is more accessible, fair, transparent, efficient and accountable. This means no exemptions for special interests and sectors such as forestry.
  • Allocate additional resourcing, proportionate to the work required to implement the Act.
  • Retain Federal authority for the implementation of the Act and its standards.
  • Recognise the urgent need to power up Australia’s climate change response and require decision-makers to consider climate change mitigation and adaptation opportunities in strategic environmental assessments and planning processes.