Expert tells Senate inquiry moving powers won't be beneficial

MOVING Federal environment powers to the state governments will have no productivity benefits for business and industry, an environmental law expert has told a Senate inquiry.

University of Queensland environmental law lecturer Dr Chris McGrath on Friday spoke to a Senate inquiry looking at a Greens bill to ensure federal power was retained.

The bill and current inquiry were sparked last year by plans to devolve the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to the states.

While Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the powers would not be directly devolved, the government was still committed to streamlining the laws for business.

Such actions could include using an "approvals bilateral" process, to give accredited state governments with approval powers, with the federal environment minister able to intervene.

But Dr McGrath said under such a process, the businesses and industries, such as mining and agriculture, seeking a streamlined process, would actually still have to abide by the federal rules.

"One only has to think of the recent refusal by the minister of cattle grazing in alpine country," he said.

"Now if the Victorian government was assessing that proposal, and clearly they would tick off it, it's obvious that would be what would occur.

"Ultimately, these things are going to rest on the decision-maker - the best thing we can do is to have a semi-independent environment department at a federal level.

"He said the lengthiest part of the environmental assessment process was taken up by requests for information and complying with such rules, and under the alternative process that would remain.

Dr McGrath said the main change under the process would be the decision-maker, which would be a state minister rather than the federal counterpart.

His comments came as Business Council of Australia deputy chief executive Maria Tarrant said the streamlining was not about removing, or lessening environmental outcome, but about improving the efficiency of the process.

She told the Senate inquiry the business lobby wanted the integration of the environmental assessment process, not necessarily the devolution of the laws from federal to state level.

But she refused to give specific details of an oil and gas project which had to deal with double handling of its development application.

Ms Tarrant also said it was essential to acknowledge the reality of the need for ministerial discretion in such cases.



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