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'Everything is made into a political issue': rethinking Australia's environmental laws

6 Feb 2018
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Environmental lawyers and academics have called for a comprehensive rethink on how Australia’s natural landscapes are protected, warning that short-term politics is infecting decision-making and suggesting that the public be given a greater say on development plans.

The Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law has launched a blueprint for a new generation of environment laws and the creation of independent agencies with the power and authority to ensure they are enforced. The panel of 14 senior legal figures says this is motivated by the need to systematically address ecological challenges including falling biodiversity, the degradation of productive rural land, the intensification of coastal and city development and the threat of climate change.

Murray Wilcox QC, a former federal court judge, said the blueprint was a serious attempt to improve a system that was shutting the public out of the decision-making process and failing to properly assess the impact of large-scale development proposals.

“We found the standard of management of the environment is poor because everything is made into a political issue,” Wilcox said. “Nothing happens until it becomes desperate.

“We need a non-political body of significant prestige to report on what is happening and have the discretion to act.”

The legal review, developed over several years and quietly released in 2017, resulted in 57 recommendations. It was suggested by the Places You Lovealliance, a collection of about 40 environmental groups that was created to counter a failed bid to set up a “one-stop shop” for environmental approvals by leaving it to the states. The panel undertook the work on the understanding it would be independent and not a piece of activism.

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