While he did not specify any changes to the existing protections in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is used to check the impact of new projects, he put forward a plan to reach decisions faster.
“At the end of 2019, approval decisions took 90 days on average. Today they take 40. That is what we’ve achieved this year in 2020,” he said.
“Our goal is to cut these times by a further 25 percent by the end of this year – to 30 days for major projects.
“Ultimately, our objective is the streamlining of Commonwealth and state processes to a point of single-touch approvals.”
Labor environment spokeswoman Terri Butler said the plan was an admission from the Prime Minister that the government had allowed approval times to blow out when decisions had been faster when Labor was last in power.
“We welcome his belated action to fix his own government’s mess,” Ms Butler said.
“Labor would welcome responsible moves to speed up approval times, without reducing environmental protection.”
Ms Butler blamed Coalition funding cuts for overloading officials and slowing decisions, while the Australian Conservation Foundation said the new approach would be a threat to habitats and native animals protected by the EPBC Act.
“Without stronger nature protection, fast tracking approvals will simply fast track extinction,” said ACF chief Kelly O’Shanassy.
Greens spokeswoman Sarah Hanson Young accused the government of seeking to sacrifice environmental protections so miners and developers could make bigger profits.
While the government has complained about the time taken to approve projects that create jobs, it has said the decisions can be made more quickly without weakening any environmental protections.
Some within the government liken the new plan to Mr Morrison’s attempt to gain a consensus on industrial relations reform by asking all sides of the debate to lay down their weapons.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the federal government’s push to speed up project approvals under a so-called one-touch approval system would not downgrade the Commonwealth’s role in the project approval process.
“When it comes to matters of national environmental significance, of course the Commonwealth will have a leadership role in the one-touch system,” Ms Ley said.
The new approval system, Ms Ley said, would be developed using recommendations from the Samuel Review into the EPBC, which is due by the end of the month.
Ms Ley said the one-touch system was aimed at reducing “repetition and duplication” between state and federal bureaucracies for project proponents, but would not “just hand control to the states”.
“We are not going to cut corners. The environment is protected under the EPBC Act and Commonwealth leadership on that protection will be maintained,” Ms Ley said.
In 2014 the Senate blocked the Abbott government’s proposed reforms to major national environment laws, which would have handed final approval decisions on projects to state governments.
Under the EPBC Act the Commonwealth regulates projects that impact World Heritage areas, listed threatened species and other “matters of national environmental significance” – which tend to be large mining, agriculture, or property development projects.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.