It is only fair, after all, that those who put forward profitable but environmentally risky proposals should pay some of the cost of having them assessed.

It is only fair, after all, that those who put forward profitable but environmentally risky proposals should pay some of the cost of having them assessed. Photo: Reuters

On Thursday it was reported that the Commonwealth was putting on hold proposals to cut so-called green tape by giving the states the final say on environmentally risky projects.

It's still worth asking why Australia's top business groups were suddenly up in arms about this green tape. The nominal answer, that national environmental laws are duplicative and burdensome, doesn't hold much water.

Until recently, national environmental law was a non-issue for the Business Council of Australia, among others.

In 2008-09, when the government commissioned Dr Alan Hawke to lead a thorough independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the business council didn't even bother making a submission. The council makes dozens of submissions every year; not putting anything in at all on the review of the act is a good indication this simply wasn't a problem for it just three years ago.

And little wonder. Most of the council's members have no interaction at all with the act. Only a minority have ever had to file for Commonwealth environmental approval under the act, and only a handful have ever been put through the full wringer, usually for highly contentious projects. The act applies to a tiny fraction of new development proposals, certainly less than 1 per cent of new business activity. Council members spend vastly more on compliance with occupational health and safety, workplace, consumer, corporate and tax laws than on the act.

Yet now so-called streamlining of the act is a priority for the council, among other business groups. So what changed?

One possible answer is a proposal by the Commonwealth in October last year, little noticed at the time, to introduce cost recovery arrangements for Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation project approval processes. Under cost recovery, businesses submitting projects for environmental approval would have to make some financial contribution towards the administration of the act.

It is only fair, after all, that those who put forward profitable but environmentally risky proposals should pay some of the cost of having them assessed.

But the business council didn't agree. Only a few months later, it spearheaded a move to remove environmental approval responsibilities from the Commonwealth entirely. In April this year, in a secretive Council of Australian Governments business advisory forum to which no representatives of the environment groups were invited, it lobbied hard for the Commonwealth to hand over its responsibilities to the states.

Then in a submission in June, senior council staff lobbied the government to ''reconsider'' last year's cost recovery proposal, arguing that cost recovery should not be introduced by the Commonwealth because responsibility was about to be handed over to the states.

And just last month, and with little in the way of explanation, the government deferred environmental law reform legislation that would have implemented the cost recovery proposals.

To recap: when faced with a fee increase, the council sought to engineer a policy shift that made the increase impossible.

Turning over environmental protection entirely to the states might not have been intended to reduce environmental standards, but you would have to be terribly gullible to think that wouldn't have been the inevitable outcome.

For their part, none of the states have indicated any intention of introducing cost recovery to cover the increased burden of regulation they will shoulder. Industry would no doubt fiercely resist any such proposals. And so state environment departments, already reeling under budget cuts in most jurisdictions, would have been expected to do even more with fewer resources.

The good news to come from all this is that, assuming COAG does indeed abandon this ill-conceived policy, there is an opportunity to refocus on how we can best restore Australia's damaged ecological systems to good health. This is the question that has been missing from the debate entirely.

Are our governments up to the task?

Charles Berger is the director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Foundation.