States get say in Abbott 'green tape' plan
"I have always regarded myself as a conservationist" ... Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo: Penny Bradfield
A COALITION government would give states greater control to grant environmental approval of major projects such as mines and ports, under a policy outlined by Tony Abbott in a speech proposing sweeping plans to cut ''green tape''.
But the Greens have accused Mr Abbott of being two-faced about the environment and have called for existing environmental regulation to be maintained.
Declaring ''I have always regarded myself as a conservationist'', Mr Abbott announced at an Australian Industry Group conference in Brisbane that he would strike deals with willing state governments to delegate decision-making to states and territories in a single approval process.
The plan goes considerably further than the deal the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, struck with the states last week, and would accommodate the wish of the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, for the states to be given virtually unilateral control of environmental approvals.
State governments would still be bound by federal laws, meaning they would not have complete power to approve any project they wished. But, critically, it could be state government officials who decide whether a project such as a mine meets the standards set by the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act .
Business groups have raised concerns about duplication and delays in decisions about environmental approvals.
''Investors invariably accept that projects should comply with best environmental standards,'' Mr Abbott said. ''The standards aren't the problem. It's the indecision, imprecision and inconsistency which is killing new projects.
''The Coalition will maintain high standards but seek to simplify the approvals process.''
Mr Abbott said the deals with states would set up ''one-stop shops'' where state officials would administer a single approval process, including the federal EPBC approval. This would mean one lot of paperwork and a single lodgment.
States that sign up would have a competitive advantage in attracting investment, he said. The streamlined process would include deadlines for decisions with penalties such as partial return of the fees if bureaucrats don't meet deadlines. This one-stop shop approach would also be offered to local councils where possible.
Mr Abbott added that for some projects such as major offshore developments, states and territories ''may prefer to have the Commonwealth as the sole, designated assessor''.
The speech follows calls last week from Mr Newman for the federal government to hand over to the states all responsibility for assessing projects on environmental grounds.
Ms Gillard struck a compromise a week ago with premiers handing more responsibility to the states. But the Commonwealth would keep the power for final approval of projects world heritage sites and developments such as nuclear reactors and water management.
But Mr Newman's demands could be met by an Abbott government. ''Too often, public debate assumes that generating wealth is incompatible with preserving the environment,'' Mr Abbott said. ''There's no doubt that economic returns aren't always worth their long term environmental costs. Still, the wealthier a country is, the more readily it can afford to judge money-making opportunities against exacting environmental standards.''
This afternoon in Sydney, the Greens said Mr Abbott was being two-faced about the environment and that existing environmental regulation should be maintained.
"Tony Abbott coming out saying he is a conservationist whilst going out of his way to get rid of every environmental law that has protected the icons, the great things about this country, is nothing less than being two-faced,'' Greens Leader Christine Milne said, rejecting Mr Abbott's claims that cutting green tape was necessary to boost the economy.
Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters said that both the Labor Party and the Coalition were racing to the bottom on the environmental approval process.
''We've got the two old parties competing with each other as to who can shed the most responsibility for the environment the quickest," she said.
''This is a sell-off of the environment from this one-stop shop,'' Senator Waters said
with Judith Ireland
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