THE nation's legal profession has hit out at changes to environmental laws that would protect Commonwealth project approvals made before December 31 last year from legal challenges if the Environment Minister failed to act on official conservation advice.
A Senate committee inquiry into the amendments to the Federal Government's chief environmental protection laws is underway, with a hearing on Friday told of the flaws in the amendments.
The committee heard from the Law Council of Australia's chair of the environment and planning law group, Greg McIntyre SC.
He raised a range of issues with the bill including a mass-retrospectivity clause, allowing all projects approved by the Commonwealth before January 1 to avoid any legal challenge on grounds official advice was not taken into account.
While Environment Minister Greg Hunt's office would not detail how many projects would be protected by the measure, Mr Hunt's spokesman confirmed "any EPBC decision prior to December 31, 2013 cannot be challenged" on such grounds.
But the Law Council argued in its submission that such a measure went against the entire purpose of the laws, concluding "that there are not clear and compelling reasons" for the changes.
Mr Hunt's spokesman said the amendment was to "clean up Labor's mess", but did not detail which specific issues it would clear up.
He said there were up to 30 decisions that were already made that could be challenged on this ground, and that it was "important to give industry certainty over projects that are due to commence".
It is understood approvals that could be challenged on those grounds include last week's dredging approval at Abbot Point, Waratah Coal's Galilee Basin coal mine, and a recent LNG facility approval at Curtis Island in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
The Law Council also recommended, if the government were to proceed with the changes, that Minister Hunt should complete a review of all such decisions, to identify when official conservation advice was not taken into account.
It argued that such a review would "contribute to enhancing the integrity of executive decision-making processes and the accountability of the executive to the parliament".
The amendments were backed by Labor in a lower House vote last year, but it is unclear whether the Opposition will oppose the changes when a vote comes before the Senate.
The Greens Senator Larissa Waters, a member of the committee examining the bill, said the minor party agreed with the Law Council's position that community groups should have the right to challenge such approvals.
"A number of environmentally damaging projects were approved shortly before the end of the year, including the Abbot Point coal port expansion in the Great Barrier Reef and Clive Palmer's mega coal mine in the Galilee Basin," she said.
"The government desperately wants to silence community opposition to these deeply unpopular approvals."
The Senate committee is due to report its findings to parliament next week.
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