The federal government is under fire from Labor, key Senate crossbenchers, environmentalists and even one of its own MPs over plans to limit legal challenges to big mining projects.
The government will ask parliament to amend environmental protection laws to remove the power of indirect third parties from taking ministerial approvals to the courts.
The decision follows a Federal Court challenge that exposed the government’s failure to properly consider two endangered species that could have been threatened by the $16.5 billion Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland.
The government has labelled such challenges “legal sabotage” and “lawfare”.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane says the environmental movement is doing anything it can to stop new coal mines and thousands of jobs.
He said the “good faith” Howard government provision in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act needed to be fixed.
“We’re just saying if people live 1600 kilometres away from a coal mine … what right do they have to prevent that proposal providing an economic boost to the region?” he told ABC TV.
Labor dismissed as “outrageous” the claim environmental protection laws were costing jobs, accusing the government of being “all over the shop” on the announcement.
“This is a pathetic thought bubble devised, it would appear, by the government to distract from their current political woes,” opposition environment spokesman Mark Butler told ABC Radio.
At least one government MP – senior Liberal Philip Ruddock – expressed concerns about the move when it was put to the coalition partyroom on Tuesday.
The former attorney-general said if there were problems with abuse of process it would be best left to the courts, The Guardian reported.
Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins rejected suggestions green groups were acting like vigilantes by taking legal action against mining projects.
“It’s not lawfare, it’s fair law,” he told ABC radio.
Mr Cousins argued the Carmichael delay was down to the environment minister failing to properly consider two threatened species.
“The government’s like a lot of little schoolboys who’ve been caught making a mistake and then get angry with everybody else.”
Mr Cousins accused the government of trying to silence any voices that have a contrary view to their own.
Analysis from The Australia Institute has found just a fraction of approvals have been challenged under the provisions the government wants to change.
It found in the law’s 15 years of operation, fewer than 0.5 per cent of the projects referred had been affected by the third-party appeal rights.
The Queensland Resources Council is backing a change to the law and challenged Labor to back the government.
“At a minimum they need to fix the technical legal loophole that brought down the Adani (Carmichael) decision,” chief executive Michael Roche told ABC radio.
Independent Queensland senator Glenn Lazarus says he won’t be supporting any change.
“I just see this as another attempt by this government to have full control and give the people of Australia no rights,” he told ABC radio.
Another crossbencher Nick Xenophon has some “real reservations” as well, but is open to fast-tracking all legal disputes.
“That would be a sensible area of reform,” he told reporters in Canberra.
Mr Abbott said both his cabinet and partyroom had given very enthusiastic support to the changes.
“All projects in this country have got to pass strict environmental standards but once they’ve passed those standards they should be allowed to go ahead,” he told reporters in Yass.
“They shouldn’t be subject to endless legal sabotage because the law gives green groups an unusual level of access to the courts.”
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said it was perverse that “a special snake and a skink is going to put at risk the working conditions of men and women”.
“How someone can have standing in the courts when they’re not actually standing in the mine is beyond me,” he said.
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