Environmental protection overhaul hangs in balance after Rex Patrick halts talks

Independent senator Rex Patrick has ended talks with the government over its contentious overhaul of environmental protections laws. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Independent senator Rex Patrick has ended talks with the government over its contentious overhaul of environmental protections laws. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A contentious overhaul of federal environmental protection laws hangs in the balance after a key senate crossbencher pulled out of negotiations with the Morrison government in protest over its refusal to publish data on JobKeeper recipients.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley had been in talks with Independent senator Rex Patrick in a bid to secure his vote for reforms which would see states and territories handed responsibility for environmental approvals on major projects.

But Senator Patrick has abruptly halted those negotiations, citing the government's refusal to disclose information on companies which turned a profit while on JobKeeper.

Labor and the Greens oppose the environmental protection reforms, meaning the Morrison government needs the support of three of five crossbenchers to pass the changes through parliament's upper house.

Senator Patrick told The Canberra Times that the federal government's position on JobKeeper had shown it was willing to support businesses at "any cost", even it was at the expense of "everyday mums and dads".

He said it was "reasonable to conclude" that the government would be similarly willing to prioritise business interests over environmental protection when it came to fixing laws designed to protect Australia's flora and fauna.

The Morrison government has so far framed the changes primarily in economic terms, spruiking the proposed new "single touch" approval process as the key to speeding up major job-creating projects.

Ms Ley has previously described the proposal as "good for the economy, good for the environment and ... particularly good for jobs", as part of attacks on Labor's opposition to the reforms.

The proposed overhaul has attracted heavy criticism from Labor, the Greens and environmental groups, which all agree the draft legislation doesn't reflect the recommendations from Graeme Samuel's scathing review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Environment minister Sussan Ley Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Environment minister Sussan Ley Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The government wants to sign bilateral agreements with states and territories to allow them to make environmental approval decisions, in line with a set of new national environment standards.

A new commissioner would audit the agreements, but it wouldn't have the power to rule on individual projects.

Senator Patrick, who has been highly critical of the draft legislation, said prior to last week he had been involved in "good faith" negotiations with Ms Ley in an attempt to resolve key differences.

His wish-list included replacing the proposed commissioner, which has labelled a "toothless tiger" by some opponents, with a powerful inspector general.

Asked if the government could do anything to bring him back to the negotiating table, Senator Patrick said it had to "do the right by the Australian people" in relation to JobKeeper.

Senator Patrick's stance means the fate of the legislation hangs in the balance.

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Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie has signaled that she would only be prepared to support the legislation if it was brought into line with the Samuel review recommendations.

"If the government wants to come to the table with strong [national environmental standards] and an independent commissioner, Jacqui's prepared to support the bill," the senator's spokesman said.

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff did not respond to The Canberra Times' request for comment on Monday. His lower house colleague Rebekha Sharkie has previously expressed strong opposition to the government's proposal in its current form.

The two bills to implement the new regime have sat idle in the Senate for weeks, with the government deciding not to bring them on for a vote while negotiations continue with the crossbench.

A spokesman for Ms Ley said the government remained committed to the "vital environmental reform" and the passage of the bills through parliament.

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This story Environmental protection overhaul hangs in balance after Senator halts talks first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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