Tanya Plibersek unveils Labor’s new nature cop as doubts surround future of Nature Positive plan

Headshot of Dan Jervis-Bardy
Dan Jervis-BardyThe Nightly
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersekhas introduced the contentious Nature Positive legislation to Parliament.
Camera IconEnvironment Minister Tanya Plibersekhas introduced the contentious Nature Positive legislation to Parliament. Credit: AAP/TheWest

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has unveiled Labor’s new nature cop to a storm of criticism, as doubts surround the future of the third and most contentious piece of her Nature Positive plan.

Ms Plibersek introduced legislation on Wednesday to set up a Federal environment agency that will be charged with policing nature laws and assessing projects.

The Federal EPA will be able to issue “stop-work” orders to halt projects while courts will have the power to impose beefed-up penalties — including fines of $780 million or up to seven years in jail for serious and intentional breaches of environmental law.

The agency will initially be housed inside the Federal environmental department before it becomes an independent body from July 1, 2025 — if the legislation passes.

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The Federal EPA, along with a new environment information agency, is being described as the “second” stage of the Nature Positive plan after Ms Plibersek decided to split up the package.

The carve-up put the most contentious parts of the promised overhaul, including new national environmental standards, on the backburner.

Ms Plibersek said she was committed to further consultation with industry and environmental groups before the third tranche is put to Parliament.

But she hasn’t put a specific timeframe on that process, leaving open the possibility it could happen before or after the next Federal election due in May 2025.

Under questioning at Senate estimates on Wednesday, Environment Department deputy secretary Dean Knudson said public servants were working as “quickly as possible”.

“But as the minister has said, that is a process that needs to bring both the environmental groups .. and the business groups to try and see whether we can achieve, ideally, agreed positions on reforms that deliver both better outcomes for the environment and better outcomes for business.”

The decision to push ahead with the Federal EPA while delaying the new nature laws prompted the Greens and Coalition to accuse Ms Plibersek of breaking a promise to deliver the reform in full.

Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the new watchdog was nothing more than a rebranded government department.

“This is about environmental protection and what we’ve got is a policy to rebrand and refresh a bunch of bureaucrats,” Senator Hanson-Young told the hearing.

Shadow environment minister Jonno Duniam warned the new agency would create extra green tape, driving more investment offshore without guaranteeing the protection of nature.

Ms Plibersek said the changes introduced on Wednesday would speed up project approvals and strengthen environmental protections.

“We want a country in which nature is being repaired and is regenerating rather than continuing to decline,” she said.

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable was wary of the potential for duplication given states and territories already have their own EPAs.

“The Government simply cannot afford to shackle its industry with more green tape, especially if it wants to see a Future Made in Australia,” she said.

Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive Warren Pearce said adding “another level of bureaucracy” would not streamline the approvals process.

“Changing titles and creating new departments just creates busy work and doesn’t lead to better environmental outcomes,” he said.

“If Australia wants to achieve its goal of being a global critical minerals powerhouse to drive us to net zero, we will need faster approval times. Not more roadblocks.”

Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief economist Aaron Morey said WA would be the biggest loser if the laws were rushed through without property scrutiny.

Mr Morey said any parliamentary inquiry into the changes must hold hearings in WA.

“It’s important to note that these changes won’t just impact the mining industry, but any project that requires environmental tick-off – including housing, electricity transmission, roads and ironically even clean energy projects like battery storage and windfarms,” he said.

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