A former Environment Department official says the regulator's failures to administer Australia's key piece of environmental protection legislation efficiently or effectively stem from years of budget cuts.
The Australian National Audit Office was scathing of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's management of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in a review of its decision-making handed down on Thursday.
The audit office found the department had no mechanism to monitor the conditions it set when approving developments in areas of national significance. It also found a high error rate in its decisions and a blowout on statutory approval timeframes of an average 116 days.
However James Trezise, a policy coordinator for the Australian Conservation Foundation and former Environment Department official, said the problems were largely driven by budget cuts.
The environmental regulation budget fell around more than $70 million in 2013-14 to around $55 million in 2018-19.
In the same period, the proportion of decisions made on time has fallen from more than 85 per cent in 2012-13 to around 55 per cent in 2018-19.
This is despite the number of referrals falling from a peak of 439 in 2012-13 to 220 in 2018-19.
"I reckon [the budget cuts have] been a really significant failure, because the conversation has been very much framed on green tape and this big bad thing that's slowing the regulatory performance of the system down," Mr Trezise said.
"I can say as a person who did that work as a regulator that it is incredibly high pressure and I was there when we were getting 400 referrals a year and we actually had good resources and the pressure was huge. I've only heard that it's gotten worse in Canberra, that they don't have the resources available.
"You would expect investment in the regulator to improve the effectiveness of its regulation and I'd argue that's going to be a much more effective approach to streamlining and improving the efficiency of the regulator than some of the stuff we hear from certain sectors and certain lobby groups."
The foundation says the audit proved there was a need for stronger environmental laws and a new independent regulator.
The Humane Society also said the audit proved the department was "grossly under-resourced" to perform its role and called for an independent regulator.
"[An independent regulator] would make decision making more resistant to short term political pressures and make science based decisions in the interests of the long term public good," the society's international head of campaign, Nicola Beynon said.
Labor's environment spokesperson Terri Butler said the audit showed there was "blue tape" occurring within Australia's environmental regulation.
"Liberal National cuts and mismanagement which have delayed jobs, hurt investment and is failing Australia's environment comprehensively," Ms Butler said.
"Scott Morrison blames the law, the states and Labor, but the EPBC Act hasn't changed substantively during the Liberals and Nationals' time in office.
"Delays in project environment approvals under the Liberals and Nationals have exploded since the Liberals and Nationals came to office in 2013. Late project decisions blew out to 40 per cent on their watch, up from 14 per cent when they came to office. And the total number of decisions went backwards."