Prime Minister Scott Morrison has indicated the federal government will push ahead with plans to "streamline" environmental approvals ahead of a major review being handed down next week, after a damning audit found the regulator was failing to administer the existing laws efficiently or effectively.
The Australian National Audit Office found the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment had no mechanism to monitor the conditions it set when approving developments in areas of national significance under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
It also found a high error rate in its decisions and a blowout on statutory approval timeframes of an average 116 days.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already flagged plans to slash environmental approval times in order to drive investment.
This is despite the interim findings of a once-in-a-decade review of the laws by professor Graeme Samuel not being due until June 30.
Mr Morrison on Friday refused to commit to ensuring the department had the resources to police environmental approvals properly.
He pointed to the $25 million the department received in last year's mid-year budget update to help it reduce the backlog in environmental approvals.
"We did [boost the budget]. That's why they've been able to reduce the backlog of the environmental approvals that postdate that report down to a handful now. That's why we had the review of the Act, which we're expecting very soon, and there will be some options we would hope that would seek to streamline those approval processes, to ensure that resources can be applied where they can be most effectively used and to do that work in concert with states and territories," Mr Morrison said.
Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe told the audit office the additional resources had seen a "rapid improvement" in meeting statutory timeframes.
"The congestion busting measures have seen a remarkable lift in our performance. For example, in the first quarter of 2020 the department was able to meet statutory timeframes for key decisions in 87 per cent of cases (up from 19 per cent in Q4 2019) and the backlog of overdue project assessments has reduced by 43 per cent since December 2019," Mr Metcalfe said.
However the audit office noted as of April, a new method of triaging approvals based on risk was still in the drafting stage.
Some within government have been keen to point out most of the failings within the audit were administrative in nature and not linked to the budget.
Environment minister Sussan Ley said the audit endorsed the actions the government had already taken to reform the department.
"The report underlines the importance of changes we are already taking in delivering $25 million in funding to reduce unnecessary delay, to drive new technologies and to ensure a comprehensive review of the EPBC Act, which is no longer meeting the needs of environmental groups or proponents," Ms Ley said.
"My focus will be on ensuring we have we have effective environmental protection, efficient processes and proper compliance in place."
Mr Morrison also said national cabinet had been due to discuss the matter of environmental approvals on Friday, but the discussion had been pushed back a fortnight due to the coronavirus spike in Victoria.