Role for Commonwealth in environmental regulation: expert

A LEADING expert on environmental law has hit out at a national plan to move crucial environmental laws from the Federal Government to a state responsibility.

The plan to move Commonwealth responsibility for environmental laws governing World Heritage and threatened species to the state governments will be on the agenda during COAG meetings this Friday.

A product of a COAG business forum in April, the plan has been widely panned by environmental law experts, including the University of Queensland's environmental law lecturer Dr Chris McGrath.

Dr McGrath said the justification for the plan, to reduce the regulatory burden on business, was not enough.

He said the way the federal and state environments laws already worked, was so most business could organise similar information to comply at the same time.

"I don't believe the Commonwealth laws have an extra regulatory burden on business, if you are organised, you can go through both processes concurrently," Dr McGrath said.

"I don't see the processes as very materially different - much of the same information is needed for both approvals processes, and if any delays do occur, they usually happen before approvals are imminent."

While Environment Minister Tony Burke was committed to ensuring the powers would not be watered, a draft framework of standards for environmental protections said little about the detail of the changes.

Dr McGrath said the framework document was "just a lot of motherhood statements" and it was also unclear about how state-government owned bodies would be dealt with under the new proposal.

"I think there is a valuable role for the Commonwealth in environmental regulation," he said.

"Many major developments are actually completed by state government owned corporations, so how are they going to be dealt with in the devolved system?"

Dr McGrath said he was worried state government employees in charge of environmental regulation were already low on the priority list, and could be pressured to approve any development by a government-owned company.

"The Federal Environment Department might not be perfect, but it's there for a good reason, and it gives that oversight of what the state governments are doing."

Dr McGrath said after major changes were made to state government environment laws in Queensland - including cutting the state environment act by about 12% - he was worried about the future in the sunshine state.

"I don't have any confidence in the Queensland Government to ensure the environment is properly regulated here," he said.

"I think Queensland is just going backwards when it comes to regulating the environment, and the Commonwealth devolving the laws to the state is just going to make a bad situation worse."

Topics:  coag environment federal government

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