By Paul Karp/Guardian News & Media
The government plans to reintroduce controversial laws to limit the legal standing of conservation groups mounting court cases if it thinks the new Senate will support them, Malcolm Turnbull has revealed.
At a press conference in Sydney yesterday, Prime Minister Turnbull expressed concern that “systematic, well-funded” environmental campaigns were targeting major projects and flagged a renewed attempt to pass the law.
In August 2015 the Abbott government announced that it would remove the right of most environmental organisations to challenge developments under federal laws unless they could show that they were “directly affected”.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act allows any Australian citizen or resident who has engaged in conservation activities in the previous two years to bring a legal challenge to government environmental decisions.
The proposed changes followed a federal court decision that the then-environment minister, Greg Hunt, had not properly considered all advice in his approval of Adani’s $16.6bn Carmichael coalmine.
After becoming prime minister, Turnbull unexpectedly retained plans to introduce the laws limiting legal standing.
Yesterday Turnbull said: “We have a robust democracy and people are entitled to bring their cases before the courts.
“But there is no doubt there has been very systematic, very well-funded campaigns against major projects so it’s right to express concern about that.
“We did present some legislation in the last parliament but it was unsuccessful and we’ll obviously reassess the tenor of the new Senate to see whether it would have the appetite for supporting it in the new environment.”
The Greens environment spokeswoman, Senator Larissa Waters, said: “Stopping ordinary Australians from enforcing our environment laws would be a capitulation to the hard right inside the Coalition and yet another win for (former PM) Tony Abbott.”
She added: “Gutting public enforcement of environmental laws is an attack on democracy and the rule of law.
“When governments fail to enforce or comply with their own laws, it falls to community groups to hold them to account.”
Waters said there were already strict rules that limit which cases go to court and frivolous or vexatious claims could be struck out.
Last Tuesday a United Nations special rapporteur, Michel Forst, criticised the proposed law after a two-week visit to Australia investigating protections for human rights defenders, including environmentalists.
Forst noted that the push to limit access to courts by environmental organisations seeking to enforce the law and said it was “fortunate” that it had been blocked.
He said government officials had used “vitriolic language” to “unjustifiably” paint environmental organisations as “radical activists” engaged in “vigilante litigation”.
Abbott accused environmental groups of engaging in “sabotage” of investment and jobs and the government dubbed the use of the courts to challenge mining projects as “lawfare”.
Forst said there were already significant obstacles to environmental litigation including complexity and the risk of a costs order if a case was unsuccessful.
An Australian Conservation Foundation campaigner, Basha Stasak, welcomed the UN rapporteur’s findings that environmental campaigners had been “vilified” for legitimate legal action.
She called on the government to “take on board the recommendations that environmental groups have a legitimate interest in decision making and in the courts” and withdraw amendments to deny them standing and deprive them of tax-deductible status.
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