Major developments – whether they be new roads or ports, or new open cut coal mines – can have serious impacts on our environment. Fortunately, nationally important environmental features, like the Great Barrier Reef, or nationally threatened species, are protected by Federal environmental laws, and the Federal government assesses major projects to ensure that they don't destroy or significantly impact these precious assets.
Federal implementation of these laws makes complete sense, because it is usually the State Governments that are the proponents, or strong supporters of these projects. As such, State Governments could not possibly make an objective or credible judgment on whether such projects should go ahead on environmental grounds, and what conditions should limit them – they would have a clear conflict of interest. This is why State Governments are not given the responsibility of deciding whether major projects' impact on national environmental values is acceptable or not.
And yet this is exactly what the Commonwealth through COAG is proposing to do.
A couple of examples indicate how this conflict of interest would play out in practice.
In 2008, the State of Queensland was confronted with the Shoalwater Bay rail line and coal terminal proposal, part of a $5.3 billion project to produce 25 million tonnes of coal a year for export. The project obviously had important political and economic appeal to the State Government. It was declared a significant project by Queensland’s Coordinator-General (who thereby undertook the project’s environmental assessment), but it was then subsequently approved. The proposal then went to the Commonwealth Minister for assessment of its environmental impacts – the Commonwealth Minister rejected the proposal on the basis that it would have ‘clearly unacceptable impacts’ on matters of national environmental significance. Left to the State, the project would have certainly gone ahead, environmental consequences bedamned!
There are examples closer to home, too.
The Victorian Government wasn’t even going to conduct a propoer environmental assessment of the Wonthaggi desalination plan (the largest desalination plant in the Southern hemisphere) until the Commonwealth gave them a nudge. We could also think of the Victorian Government's notorious Alpine Grazing Trial where, in early 2011, they reinstated environmentally damaging cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park, in fulfillment of an election promise. Not only did the Victorian Government fail to consider whether the Trial breached national environmental laws – they refused to even acknowledge them! The Minister eventually had to write to the Victorian Government demanding they formally refer the project to him for assessment, or stop the trial – later in the year he declared it clearly unacceptable. The State Government still isn't lying down – they promptly challenged the decision in the Federal Court, and a decision is pending.
State Governments have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to major projects – they don't have our national environmental values at heart when assessing such projects.
Read more about the COAG attacks on environmental laws.