Since then, resources companies and environmental groups alike have been eagerly awaiting details about Labor’s plans, including whether the new protection agency would be a truly independent statutory body, how it would be funded, and whether the minister would retain powers to overturn or trigger investigations .
In the interview, her first since becoming minister, Ms Plibersek said Labor would “properly” respond to the 2020 Graham Samuels review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, which found chronic delays and errors and called for tougher compliance and assurance functions.
“We’ll be looking at what we need to do to make sure we’ve got faster, cheaper approvals and stronger protections for the environment,” Ms Plibersek said of the planned changes, which should be focused on outcomes rather than the “process oriented” nature of the EPBC Act.
Environment laws failing
“We still have worse environmental outcomes … and we’re doing worse for proponents of projects by using the system that we’ve got at the moment,” she said.
“This is an area that absolutely needs to be updated. This is not a competition between environment and jobs. It’s not a competition between protecting the environment and approving development.
“This is a way to make sure that we can have faster, more cost-effective approvals at the same time as we better protect our natural environment and cultural heritage. At the moment, we’re not satisfying either side of the equation.”
Pressed on the specifics about how the Environmental Protection Agency would function – including how independent of ministerial intervention it would be – Ms Plibersek said: “I’m not going to start making announcements without extensive consultation. I’ll talk to people about a model, we’ll design a model, we’ll consult on a model.
“This is not something I’m going to come up with in a few weeks in my office. It’s a big important change. We want better protection for the environment, and we want to do it in a way that makes approvals processes faster and cheaper and less complex.”
Report card due
Ms Plibersek indicated the government was looking at pursuing those who fail to live up to promises about protecting the environment under approvals granted through the EPBC Act.
“One of the things we’ll need to tackle is people doing the wrong thing – people who’ve made commitments to look after the environment in a particular way who are not doing it, but I’m honestly not going to start designing this stuff without extensive discussion with stakeholders.”
The last election sent a “very clear message from Australians that the environment matters”, she said, adding that the government would release the long-overdue State of the Environment report on July 19 at the National Press Club.
“We’ve got some real challenges ahead of us,” she said.
“The previous government didn’t release the state of the environment report – there’s a reason for that. I’ve been looking through it, and it tells a pretty damning story of the last decade of neglect under the previous government, with all the markers of how our environment is going backwards.”
Asked whether Labor would continue the previous government’s policy of opposing any move by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to list the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, she said: “I absolutely would say to the UN [that] listing the reef as in danger is the wrong thing to do.”
She added it would be “unfair” for UNESCO to ignore the new government’s efforts to address threats to the reef, including water quality and climate change.
“We are once again rejoining the international community as a serious actor in the fight to reduce the risks of climate change – I think it would be unfair of UNESCO to ignore those efforts, both the climate change efforts and the money that we’ve set aside for reef protection, rehabilitation, and restoration,” she said.
“We are absolutely deadly serious about better protecting the reef. And I hope the [next UNESCO] report will acknowledge that.”