“What can be more important for a conservative government than upholding the rule of law?”
Professor Samuel said in his review a regulator “not subject to actual or implied direction from the Environment Minister should be established”. “This is important to address significant community concern about perceived conflict of interest, which is undermining trust in the EPBC Act,” he said.
Not only should compliance be properly funded, all actions taken by such a regulator should be made public, Professor Samuel wrote, adding: “[T]he regulator needs to establish a culture that does not shy from firm action when needed.”
Mr Kean agreed: “Businesses that want to harm or put people’s health at risk or pollute our environment should face the full force of the law.”
Planning Minister Rob Stokes said while the government broadly welcomes the proposed changes, he was “on a unity ticket” with Mr Kean, and had told Minister Ley that an independent regulator was “a good idea”.
Ms Ley, who was yet to speak to Mr Kean as of midday Friday, reiterated her rejection of an independent regulator, emphasising the “process” instead.
“To be accredited under proposed bilateral approvals, states will need to be able to demonstrate that they can apply the national standards being developed,” she said. “They will also be accountable through a strong assurance and compliance process.
“The government will take steps to strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring.”
Environment groups have also backed the call for separate independent oversight, noting the issues often involved matters of national environmental significance, such as the Great Barrier Reef.
“It’s a good, powerful point that an environment minister supports one of the key recommendations of Graeme Samuel’s interim report,” David Morris, head of the Environmental Defenders Office, said.
Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation said she “hopes Minister Kean’s federal counterparts are noting his support for an independent environmental regulator”.
“Environmental law reform across the federation must be accompanied by strong accountability mechanisms and independent bodies,” she said.
Mr Kean’s forthright comments came ahead of both federal and state Labor, both of which are reviewing their positions.
Labor went to the 2019 federal elections with a policy of backing a federal EPA, a policy under review.
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Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.