A roadblock for environmental one-stop shop

The Greens have secured a deal with the Palmer United Party (PUP) and Labor that effectively kills the federal government’s plan to hand its environmental approval powers to the states under its ‘one-stop shop’ policy.

The deal builds on PUP’s refusal a month ago to allow federal approval of mines and coal seam gas projects impacting on a water resource — known as the ‘water trigger’ — to be handed to the states.

If PUP’s refusal a month ago on the water trigger was a migraine for the federal handover of environmental powers to the states, the new deal is a heart attack that leaves the one-stop shop policy without a pulse.

The deal was made in return for the Greens’ support of PUP’s motion for a senate inquiry into Queensland government administration.

Despite PUP’s protests to the contrary, the inquiry is clearly all about spite and revenge by Clive Palmer in his feud with the Queensland Newman Government. It pushes the limits on the senate’s ability to probe state government actions.

The Greens appear to have played a deft hand and achieved a significant victory for environmental protection in Australia by stopping the handover of federal approvals to the states. This comes with the added bonus for the Greens of tacking an investigation into major environmental approvals in Queensland into the coming senate inquiry.

How the roadblock works

Since 2000 the federal government has possessed the power to hand its environmental decisions to the states under something called ‘approval bilateral agreements’.

The process for entering such agreements exists under Australia’s national environmental laws, which protects nine matters of national environmental significance such as World Heritage properties.

This controversial mechanism was virtually never used, although the Gillard Government toyed with it in 2012.

The only exception for matters that cannot be handed to the states is the water trigger. It was created in 2013 and included a prohibition on final approvals under it being handed to the states.

PUP announced a month ago that it would not support amendments to allow the water trigger to be handed to the states.

While the mechanism for approval bilateral agreements already exists, the process requires any agreement to be laid before both houses of parliament before it takes effect. A majority vote in either house of parliament to disallow the agreement can stop it cold.

The procedure for the senate to disallow rules and regulations made by the government is common for delegated legislation and similar things but rarely applied.

The new agreement between PUP, Labor and the Greens is exactly that — an agreement to vote together to disallow any approval bilateral laid before the senate.

Given that PUP, Labor and the Greens together comprise a majority in the senate, they can effectively stop the one-stop shop policy. This is a significant victory for the Greens in particular that will retain federal oversight for environmental approvals.

Chris McGrath, Senior Lecturer, Environmental Regulation at the University of Queensland. 
Read the full article by Chris McGrath at The Conversation.