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Does Australia need a National Environment Commission?  That was the subject of last week's EDO seminar.

Here are some insights that stood out to me (for considering a model here in Australia).

 

Does Australia need a National Environment Commission?  That was the subject of last week's EDO seminar.

We were very fortunate to hear from:

  • Dr Jan Wright – New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment;
  • Dr Marcel Szabo – Hungary’s Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (responsible for the protection of the interest of future generations); and
  • Professor Lee Godden – Director, Centre for Resources Energy and Environmental Law, University of Melbourne.

Dr Wright and Dr Szabo both gave us an overview of their Commissioner roles in their respective jurisdictions, while Lee Godden explored the potential form and functions of a Commission in Australia.

If there was one thing that was clear from the seminar it was that the concept of a National Environment for Australia is not such a radical idea, and certainly not without precedent in Australia.  It was very encouraging to hear two concrete examples of Commissioners realising environmental rights and the rights of future generations. 

Here are some other insights that stood out to me (for considering a model here in Australia):

  • The value of open inquiries and investigations – both New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and Hungary’s Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights have wide-ranging powers to investigate environmental concerns.  New Zealand’s Commissioner, in particular, has wide powers to investigate and report on any matter where the environment may be adversely affected.  In the Commissioners own words “it is difficult to imagine more permissible powers!”  The Commissioner’s freedom to choose priorities without interference seems to be intimately associated with the notion of independence.  And while neither body has decision-making power or the ability to compel responses, revealing facts and making recommendations appears to be having a notable influence on government decision-making, with about 60% of the New Zealand Commissioner’s recommendations being adopted.
  • The valuable position both the New Zealand and Hungarian Commissioners occupy as Officers of Parliament – a main feature of both New Zealand’s Commissioner and Hungary’s Deputy Commissioner is that both positions are attached to Parliament rather than government and therefore enjoy a greater level of independence.  Both Commissioners have strong relationships with Parliament and work widely with Parliamentarians and Parliamentary committees, providing advice and evidence.
  • We can take inspiration from the Hungarian Deputy Commissioner’s mandate to protect the interests of future generations – Hungary has demonstrated itself to be a progressive leader, recognising a duty towards the nation’s future generations in its Constitution and realising the rights of future generations through the appointment of an independent Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, who can, among other powers, pursue actions in local and national courts ex officio in cases where the interests of future generations need representation.

Read more about Hungary’s Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights and New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

While Australia might be a long way from constitutional protection for the right to a healthy environment or the rights of future generations, EDO believes Australia would benefit from an independent voice for the environment and future generations and is currently finalising a proposal for a National Environment Commission for Australia, which will be available on our website very soon.  We are very keen to hear your comments on our proposal, so watch this space!