How ‘independent’ will the revamped EPA be?

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

Chief Minister Terry Mills (at left) will front media in Darwin this afternoon to talk about the new Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority Bill introduced into Parliament today. He will be accompanied by the man nominated to chair the revamped authority, Dr Bill Freeland. Formerly the Executive Director of Parks and Wildlife, Dr Freeland’s position was controversially abolished by Labor’s Minister Kon Vatskalis in 2002 as he went about creating the ‘super department’ of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment.  Leader of the Opposition at the time, Denis Burke, attempted to censure Mr Vatskalis  for the sacking of “a loyal and dedicated public servant”.

 

Will the media get any further than Independent MLA Gerry Woods did in Question Time yesterday, when he asked Mr Mills how the existing EPA is not already independent and what the cost would be of setting up a new EPA agency?

 

This is what Mr Mills said, as reported in the Daily Hansard: “The efficiencies come with more effective and open decision-making. Previously, the decision-making was excessively slow. This will be at arm’s length; it will be conducted in full view of the Territory community. One thing that I want to restore in the Northern Territory is confidence in the systems that are there, designed for the community to be engaged in, to have trust that decisions are being made in the interests of the Northern Territory, and not in the interests of a political party, as in the former government. One way to avoid that was to have very, very slow decision-making – you will see a significant change. Do not underestimate the improvements that we will see in productivity and growth in the Northern Territory at addressing our core issues if we have improved decision-making.”

 

Mr Woods questioned the relevance of the response.

 

Mr Mills replied: “What I indicated was it is independent; the commission is independent of the minister and provides in full view the advice that is provided for us all to see. The powers that the minister once had which puts the minister in the position of adjudicating and perhaps slowing down the process is now completely rested with the commission. That authority now rests with the commission and not with the minister, which provides for openness, transparency and clarity over the decision-making – and full accountability ability because every member will get to know exactly what those deliberations are before a minister has the opportunity to tick or flick on those final decisions.”

 

Mr Wood later returned to theme, asking about the process by which Dr Freeland became the nominee to chair the new EPA. “Could you say how long the expression of interest period went for; how many people sent in an expression of interest; and who assessed and recommended the final candidate for the job?” he asked.

 

This is how the answer went:

 

Mr Mills: Madam Speaker, I thank the Member for Nelson. I am on the record and acknowledge that there was a consideration of who could best fill that position. It was the view of many that there was an appropriate candidate. I will accept there was not the process you are referring to but, in this case …

 

Mr [Paul} Henderson: A CLP crony got the job.

 

Mr Mills: I will tell you, these assertions that come from those who see everything through a political prism, thinking these are all politically-motivated decisions, as I said, at the end of the day …

 

Members interjecting.

 

Mr Mills: … the fifth point [of the Country Liberals 5 Point Plan] is accountability. If this does not work, if it does not produce results, we will be accountable. I have made a decision and I accept the responsibility for that decision – judge us by the results.

 

Ms [Delia] Lawrie: You promised it in your 100-day plan.

 

 

Faster decision-making not necessarily more independent 

 

The Alice Springs News Online asked coordinator of the Arid Lands Environment Centre Jimmy Cocking (at right) about the Government’s proposed changes.

 

“We have concerns around the language being used in describing the ‘independence’ of the EPA NT,” says Mr Cocking.

 

“The EPA exists to ensure that development is ecologically sustainable. Ecologically sustainable development is based on the ‘precautionary principle’ which means if a proposed development is likely to cause irreversible damage to the environment, then it is better to not proceed with the development rather than attempt to remediate it afterwards.

 

“The concern here lies in the powers being taken away from a Minister who can be held accountable to the electorate and given to a Commission – about which the public generally knows very little.

 

“Environmental assessments do take time. Speeding up decisions is not an improvement unless the processes of decision-making are taking the environmental, as well as the social and economic implications into account.

 

“The EPA under the previous government could independently initiate environmental investigations and make recommendations to the Minister and then to the Parliament. The question is, how is a new and ‘independent’ EPA going to protect the environment and not just be a ‘tick and flick’ exercise for the mining, gas and petroleum industries?'”

 

On Dr Freeland’s nomination Mr Cocking says his main concern is the process: “There were no expressions of interest received and so we cannot assume that the best person got the job. From what I understand, Dr Bill Freeland is qualified for the job, my only concern is that without proper process it can be interpreted as a political appointment.”

 

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