International agreements and their implementation must remain the responsibility of the Commonwealth.
The matters that our national environmental laws seek to protect largely reflect international obligations that Australia has assumed under agreements dealing with areas such as threatened species, migratory species, wetlands and world heritage areas.
So it is appropriate that our national government has primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with these obligations. It is our national government that undertakes these international responsibilities and it is our national government that is answerable for failure to fulfill them.
The prospect that the States, through the bilateral agreements, will effectively become responsible for discharging our international obligations is quite bizarre. This is especially true since the State’s have demonstrated that they are unable or unwilling to uphold important national and international environmental values.
For example, in 2009, a proposal to develop a major tourist resort on Great Keppel Island in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was declared to be a significant project by the Queensland Government and was intended to be fast-tracked for review and approval under the State law. Fortunately, however, the proposed resort, which included up to 1700 low-rise tourist villas and up to 300 tourist apartments, was rejected by the Commonwealth on the grounds that it would ‘clearly have unacceptable impacts on’ world heritage properties and national heritage places.
This is precisely why responsibility for meeting our international obligations ought to be the direct responsibility of the Commonwealth.
Also, the Commonwealth Government could potentially find itself in the unenviable position of being held to account in international fora for failure to fulfill obligations it has assumed but has delegated to the States and thus has little real control over. As Brendan discussed, though the Commonwealth Government will require the States to commit to minimum environmental standards, the Commonwealth cannot guarantee that the States will meet these standards.
The effective discharge of Australia’s international environmental obligations requires national leadership and management. No standard will be able to replace the protection that can be provided directly by the Commonwealth Government for Australia’s most important and precious wildlife and places, which are of international significance.