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Environment and Communications References Committee
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

HO, Ms Gabrielle, Policy and Law Reform Solicitor, EDO NSW

WALMSLEY, Ms Rachel, Policy and Law Reform Director, EDO NSW

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the EDOs of Australia. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, and at the end of that we will ask you some questions.

Ms Ho : The biodiversity of Australia is extraordinary. It is diverse, spectacular, often unique, and vital for ecosystem health, human health and wellbeing, and productive landscapes. It has immense intrinsic value as well as commercial value. It is also under threat. Extinction of fauna species is a national tragedy, and it is a national embarrassment that we are world leaders in fauna extinction rates. We need laws in place to prevent extinctions, laws that effectively address the threats that cause extinctions.

EDOs of Australia, EDOA, is a network of community legal centres that specialise in public interest environmental law and policy. Based on our practical experience, we have advised and written extensively on biodiversity and law reform at the national level and in each jurisdiction. A strong legal framework to protect biodiversity and build resilience is essential for reversing the declining trajectory towards extinction facing many of our unique species.

EDOs are all about protecting the environment through law, and so our contribution to this inquiry focuses on legal solutions to the extinction crisis. Australia's laws are sometimes accused of merely cataloguing extinction rather than preventing it. Unless laws and government policies require decision-makers to address the causes of extinction risk, genetic and evolutionary lineages that exists nowhere else on earth will continue to be extinguished forever. We have international obligations to protect our unique biodiversity, and our own audits of threatened species law in each Australian jurisdiction have found no state or territory laws meet best practice standards for biodiversity protection. National leadership is critical.

Noting that the EPBC Act is due for statutory review this year, our recommendations focus on the opportunity for comprehensive review and reform. We recommend a new environment act for Australia is needed, not just to address the faunal extinctions but to comprehensively address the contemporary interlinked challenges of extinction and biodiversity protection, natural resource management, land use, human settlements, production and consumption systems, and climate change. The environment act must be underpinned by renewed national leadership, independent and trusted institutions, high levels of environmental protection, strong community engagement and access to justice.

Our submission refers the committee to our Next generation biodiversity laws report, which we prepared with HSI, which details best practice biodiversity provisions for a new Commonwealth environment act. Key elements for reform include the following. The first is strong institutions to steer proactive and evidence based environmental policy advice, development, coordination, oversight, and compliance activity, namely a national sustainability commission and a national environment protection authority, the EPA. The second is duties on decision-makers to exercise their powers to achieve the act's primary objects of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation and to apply objective criteria and clear standards. The third element is new triggers for environmental protection, including a national reserve system. That includes terrestrial and marine protected areas; ecosystems of national importance such as significant wetlands, key biodiversity areas and high conservation value vegetation, whether or not they are under threat; vulnerable ecological communities, which currently receive less protection than listed species, populations, ecological communities and critical habitat; significant land-clearing activities; significant greenhouse gas emissions; and, lastly, a trigger for significant water resources that goes beyond coal and gas project impacts.

The fourth element for reform is a dual focus on protection and recovery of threatened species and ecological communities and on landscape-scale conservation plans and programs guided by national environment and sustainability plans. The fifth is simpler, timely and accountable listing processes for nationally protected matters, backed by strengthened protections. The sixth is a new framework and emphasis on integrated multisector bioregional plans to coordinate action, protect natural and cultural heritage places, achieve biodiversity goals and ensure ecologically sustainable development. The seventh is a national ecosystems assessment to identify important natural assets, their status and the ecosystem services they provide. The eighth is greater emphasis on Indigenous leadership, land management and biodiversity stewardship, including formal recognition of Indigenous protected areas to enable greater access to ongoing funding and legal protections. The ninth is strong public participation through greater community engagement, transparency and reasons for decisions. The tenth is improved access to justice via merit review of decisions that affect the environment, open standing for the public to take breaches to court, protective costs orders for legal proceedings in the public interest, and a modern compliance and enforcement toolkit to deter misconduct and improve public trust. The last element for reform is a national environmental data and monitoring program that links federal, state and territory data on biodiversity, strategic planning and environmental impact assessment to ensure strong biodiversity outcomes. The role of law will be critical in reversing biodiversity declines across Australia and preventing any further fauna extinctions.

CHAIR: Ms Walmsley, did you wish to add anything?

Ms Walmsley : No.

CHAIR: Terrific. I understand that you would like people to take photographs of you and us here today. Is the committee happy with that? Yes, they are. Ms Ho, you outlined a really comprehensive list of the legal changes that you would like to see. How feasible do you think having environmental legislation that is as comprehensive as that is? Is it something that we can realistically be striving for in Australia? And how does it compare with environmental legislation in other jurisdictions?

Ms Walmsley : I think the EPBC Act review is an opportunity to comprehensively look at what we've got. But what we can see is pretty strong evidence that, over 20 years, the EPBC Act hasn't actually prevented extinctions and hasn't actually functioned to fully implement our international obligations. The Hawke review—the last statutory review in 2009—concluded that we needed a new environment act. That concluded even then that it wasn't working. Yet again, another decade on, we've got even more evidence that our laws are not working, notwithstanding the international obligations that we have, so I think it's a real opportunity, with this statutory review, to address these issues.

A lot of people will say that we can simply do this by tinkering with the EPBC Act by making a few amendments here and there, but, if you look at the legislation, it is large, unwieldy and complex. It's unclear for developers and proponents. It's unsatisfactory for the community. It's not really delivering effectively, so I think starting from scratch would actually be more comprehensive. A lot of the tools and the processes are in the legislation at the moment, but actually refining those, giving them legislative force, and putting in place institutions and a framework to implement them properly needs to be done afresh.

You mentioned other jurisdictions. There's a lot that we can actually learn from the US Endangered Species Act in terms of their national leadership. They have mechanisms like, when a species is listed, actually mapping the critical habitat needed for that species at the time of listing so from the start you know what habitat needs to be protected. Their act applies to actions of government agencies, and, if you look at some of the results under that legislation, they've invested in recovery planning. Once birds are listed under that legislation, I think there's a 624 per cent increase in their populations over the years. That is evidence that, if you have strong national legislation, you can actually recover listed threatened species, so there's certainly a lot to learn from other jurisdictions, and there's certainly an opportunity now for comprehensive review.

CHAIR: A lot of the resistance to having strong environmental laws is the fact that it's going to have too much of an impact on economic development in agriculture and mining, for example. How would life go on for economic activities in agriculture, mining and forestry under stronger environmental laws?

Ms Walmsley : It's interesting to look at the evidence. If you look at the recent inquiry into the impacts of the EPBC Act on agriculture, I think some of the finer detail there was missed. There was evidence that most farmers only encounter the EPBC Act once or twice in their life of managing their farm. The idea that it's a huge regulatory burden that actually prevents any farming activity is actually a myth. If you look at state laws on land clearing and the federal law, a lot of routine activities can be done without requiring legal approval. The actual threshold for the EPBC Act to apply is 'significant impact', and that's not actually met. Very little is actually referred from the agricultural sector under the act, so there's no evidence to really support the idea that it's this great burden that's holding farmers back. In terms of other industries like the mining industry, there are more referrals for that sector.

But, again, there are benefits for proponents in some of the things we're suggesting in getting stronger, clearer environmental laws. For example, we suggest better use of strategic environmental assessments and bioregional planning up front. If those things were done properly up front, before you got to the stage of project EISs, for a proponent half the work would have been done by the government in the strategic assessment. You'd have a lot of data and analysis, so when you came to do your project proposal you could draw on all the work that had just been done in a comprehensive strategic assessment. That would help you in preparing your project.

The second benefit for proponents is that you would have far greater certainty. You'd have really clear parameters. If you had laws that actually said 'critical habitat, the last remaining population' and that that was a red light under the law then a proponent would know that that was the parameter and that you would be wasting time if you put in an application that would get knocked back at that early stage. So it would actually create efficiencies to have greater certainty and clearer parameters up front for proponents. Another thing we are proposing is better guidance on what the act means. There have been problems with defining 'significant impact' under the EPBC Act, when it applies and when it doesn't, so you would actually have far clearer national standards, far clearer parameters, and that would create certainty for proponents.

CHAIR: Can I take you to the strategic assessments that you'd like to have done. Essentially the regional forest agreements are a form of strategic assessment, and, certainly from my perspective and the evidence given to this committee by multiple stakeholders, the regional forest agreements have failed to protect forest biodiversity. How would you see strategic assessments overcoming the problems that have been inherent in the regional forest agreements?

Ms Walmsley : I think that's absolutely correct. When we talk about strategic environmental assessment we're talking about a more holistic approach that's done properly and is evidence based. We're not talking about the strategic assessment tool as it is currently used. Currently under the EPBC Act, as you would have heard, strategic assessment is seen as a streamlining tool to basically switch off requirements for individual project assessments. It's a broadbrush thing. The strategic assessments we've seen so far in Melbourne and Western Sydney have all had flaws in them. They have not been best practice strategic environmental assessments. What we're talking about is a proper evidence based one that is linked to proper bioregional planning where you get the evidence and the baselines in and do the proper planning.

I think the processes we've had to date, like the regional forest agreements, show the danger of doing strategic assessment poorly, where it's not evidence based and where you lock it in for a really long time, like 20 years, with very few mechanisms, or even when you've got statutory requirements for review—for example, the five-yearly reviews under the RFAs weren't performed on time, and there were no consequences for that. They've now been done in a hasty manner, and those agreements have been renewed for further years. I think that's an example of exactly how not to do strategic environmental assessments. It shouldn't just be a mechanism for switching off individual project requirements; it should actually be a mechanism for gathering the data and doing that strategic planning so you know exactly what environmental assets and services need to be protected across a landscape and what areas are good for development. Again, that's another thing that would give proponents certainty about where they can develop.

CHAIR: In your submission you identified a lack of resourcing and a lack of formal independence from the executive and ministers as the two key problems with our existing laws. Could you provide some specific examples of where political pressure has influenced the outcomes and influenced compliance failure.

Ms Walmsley : In terms of the resourcing issue—and this is common in a number of jurisdictions in Australia—really important mechanisms like recovery plans used to be mandatory, but due to the lack of resourcing in the environment departments there is a backlog of recovery plans that have not yet been done. So a species might be listed but go several years with no recovery plan. Instead of investing more money in doing proper recovery planning, the strategy in Australia tends to be to just make it not mandatory any longer and to streamline it down to conservation advice that's quicker and cheaper to produce but less effective in the long run. So instead of putting the money back into resourcing these things it's been about giving more discretion and removing mandatory requirements.

In terms of compliance and enforcement, one of the things we've strongly recommended, based on our experience in a number of jurisdictions and nationally, is that there needs to be independence of decision-making that is based on science and expert evidence. That would be part of the role of the new institutions that we're talking about, a national sustainability commission and a national EPA, so you would take the politics out of the decision-making and make sure that listing decisions, for example, were made first and foremost based on the science. In terms of examples of where that's gone awry under the current system, there are things like the listing of species. There are no commercial fish species like southern bluefin tuna listed, even though there is very clear evidence that they're threatened, because of other considerations. Those decisions aren't currently being made just on the science. We've also seen in the media examples of where listing decisions have come under pressure after they've been made, in terms of the impacts they're going to have socioeconomically.

What we say is we understand that there are implications of making a listing. It can constrain land use, absolutely. But, for example, if you have a critical habitat listing or a mapping, you would have the determination, but then you would have really strong covenanting mechanisms in the law and a requirement that if critical habitat is identified, for instance, on private land then the government would need to go into a stewardship agreement with that landholder and make sure that that landholder can access income and get payment for managing that site for conservation. So there are ways to address economic impacts that needn't interfere with the scientific process of making a listing.

CHAIR: And then providing resources to support the community as a benefit for protecting those values.

Ms Walmsley : Absolutely. Private stewardship funding will be essential in addressing extinction risks. We work with a lot of landholders across Australia who are brilliant stewards of their land, and investing in those stewards and giving them those income streams on productive landscapes is going to be essential.

CHAIR: Finally from me, I'd like you to comment a bit more about community access to justice and open standing, and the importance of communities being empowered to be involved in our legal processes.

Ms Walmsley : An absolutely essential element of any best practice legislation is to have the accountability checks and balances. Just because there are rights in legislation for communities to bring action doesn't mean that there's going to be a court case every second week. EDO clients across Australia face great challenges in bringing a case. You have to have a good case. You have to have time and resources. It's never done lightly. But public interest cases are an absolutely fundamental check on a system, both in terms of whether decisions are being made lawfully and, where possible, giving an opportunity, having a chance, to properly review the merits of a decision. I think third-party rights are absolutely essential. It's not just EDOs saying that. The ICAC in New South Wales, for instance, has said that they're an absolutely fundamental safeguard against corruption risks in decision-making. The Hawke review reached a similar conclusion that just having the rights there is really important.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator Marielle SMITH: Recommendation 12 on page 4 of your submission is around a national environmental data monitoring program. I was wondering about the adequacy of current datasets at the federal, state and territory level. Do you think there is sufficient data at the moment to be monitored, or do those datasets need to be expanded?

Ms Walmsley : We'd say there's certainly insufficient coordination at the moment. There are various datasets in different jurisdictions, but they don't necessarily talk to each other, they're not complete in each jurisdiction and there are massive data gaps, and we haven't seen the levels of investment required to actually get that baseline data. One of the things we suggest is also a system of environmental accounting to be established at the national level, because you can't manage what you can't measure. We need that baseline data to see whether our laws are actually working or not. We need the baseline data for strategic assessment, for bioregional planning and to measure against the outcomes that need to be in legislation. So we'd certainly support investment in improved monitoring. One of the roles of a national sustainability commission would be to collect and analyse that baseline data so that, when you've got a threatened species, you can see the extent of that species, the condition of that species and the trends, so you can track whether it's recovering or whether it's actually declining.

Senator Marielle SMITH: Are you mostly focused on improved monitoring of the current collection of data, or would you like the federal government involved in the collection of data as well?

Ms Walmsley : I think the federal government definitely has a role to fund it and coordinate it across jurisdictions. It's not just monitoring. As we said in our opening statement, we don't want laws to just catalogue extinction. We monitored the Bramble Cay melomys to extinction and concluded we knew the threat was climate change, and it is now extinct. We don't want to just have monitoring that confirms that trajectory; we want monitoring that is then tied to actual action and interventions that would help recover those species.

Senator FAWCETT: The CSIRO had an EPBC proponent data project where they proposed a model that had institutions and processes and data and systems and various stakeholders. Are you familiar with it? Do you support their contention of how that model should look?

Ms Walmsley : I'm only familiar with it broadly speaking; I haven't examined it in detail. I think that's a brilliant idea, but a lot of what we come across is that a lot of the data is held by proponents but it's commercial-in-confidence because it relates to their projects. So there's not that data-sharing between government and proponents and the public and ecologists; there are still gaps in that. I think that's a great linkage to have, but I think we need to take it a step further and make sure that we have comprehensive datasets. Again, that would be a benefit to proponents if the baseline data is gathered and there is shared data that they can use when they're coming to design a project or to develop their own EIS. I think that's certainly a good initiative, but there's room for further improvement.

Senator FAWCETT: Perhaps you could take on notice to have a look at the CSIRO proposal. I think the report that had that came out in 2018.

Ms Walmsley : Yes. EDO has a scientific expert register, so we can consult them and get some feedback on that kind of thing and get back to the committee.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to the critical habitat and your recommendations around that, you talk about including the critical habitat and extending those protections beyond the Commonwealth areas. How do you see that working? What would be the process for that?

Ms Walmsley : At the moment, critical habitat is an excellent tool, but it is just not used. There are very few listings recorded on the register. The implications for enforcement only really apply to Commonwealth land or water. So it is a very, very narrow tool. If you look at the US critical habitat, as its name suggests, it is the most important thing that needs to be protected to help that species. I don't know if you've seen our full report. That was appended to the submission. This goes into more detail on critical habitat. It's got a section in there that talks about it. What we're seeing is that the new laws should look at ways to make that broader than just Commonwealth land. I think when the EPBC Act was first drafted, constitutionally everyone was very careful. It could only be on Commonwealth land, given that a lot of states and territories also regulate.

On that point, I'd like to say that we've done audits of state and territory biodiversity laws. We've done a couple of audits now, and we've found that no state or territory actually has best-practice laws, and a lot of the state and territory laws have actually removed protection recently. So the idea that the Commonwealth legislation should only really apply to Commonwealth land or Commonwealth water is impractical if you look at the object you're trying to achieve in that act. We've got to take a more holistic, landscape based approach—so that is protected areas; that is private land; that is across all land tenures. And, across jurisdictions, there needs to be that national leadership and coordination. We believe there are sufficient constitutional powers for the Commonwealth to take on that role and make it far more comprehensive and effective.

Senator URQUHART: Your summary of recommendations is very similar to what we heard from the previous two witnesses this morning around the issue of the new bodies, the statutory environment authorities. Why two? Why couldn't one do as good a job? If you're going to establish new bodies, why not, instead of two, have one that deals with both the issues?

Ms Walmsley : You may have heard of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law. They did a next-generation law blueprint. I was part of that panel, and we looked in detail at governance and federalism in Australia and how it would best work. You may be amused to know that they originally came up with seven new bodies, including an equivalent of the RBA, and all sorts of innovative ideas. There are so many things that need to be addressed that the starting point was seven new institutions. But you're right: in terms of funding and resourcing, you need to get it down to what's most efficient. The idea with the commission and the EPA is that they do have different roles. The EPA would be the regulatory institution. It would be them doing the assessments and the approvals, and the EPA doing compliance and enforcement. That's the day-to-day part of it. The sustainability commission is a bit more overarching. They would be responsible for doing national environmental plans across a range of issues, from clean air to marine plastics to biodiversity, and taking that overarching strategic approach. They would set the national standards that would then be enforced through law by the EPA at the project level. But they're very different roles, needing different types of expertise. There are models from other countries, where other countries have established environment commissioners and environment commissions and also had EPAs, but they're very different kinds of roles. One is the strategic thinker, and the other one is the enforcer. We see a need to have both. They're related, but there is a separation between those activities.

Senator URQUHART: Which countries are good models that we could look to?

Ms Walmsley : Again, the US EPA, in terms of national leadership, is a good model for that style of body. In terms of a commission, I understand New Zealand has one. But we'll take that on notice. I think we've got a list here that we can send to you. But we have looked at institutions in other countries as well.

Senator URQUHART: What are the linkages between the two bodies? How do they interact? Is there a linkage, and does there need to be a linkage?

Ms Walmsley : Yes. The sustainability commission would set the national plans and the national standards and take that kind of overarching approach. I think we talked about the monitoring, the data management. They would be responsible for that high-level monitoring of trends. The way that would then link is through legislation. When the EPA came to assessing a project, they would need to check that that project applied with standards as set by the commission and that that project was consistent with any relevant national plan as developed by the commission. So there'd be linkages that would be made clear in legislation. You could design it in a way to ensure there was no duplication between what a commission did, what an EPA did and what a department would do. In this space, there's always concern about duplication and efficiency. At EDO we certainly do not support regulation for regulation's sake; it's got to be the most efficient and effective tool to intervene. What we've seen from our experience is that there does need to be that legislative innovation at the federal level, because it's not working currently.

Senator URQUHART: You talked about a lot of farmers encountering the EPBC Act maybe one or two times in their farming life. What is the general knowledge of the requirements around that out in the general population who maybe need to be more aware of the act and the requirements around it?

Ms Walmsley : I think the understanding can be really low, and that's a problem, because, as I said, a lot of land-clearing laws have exemptions and allowable activities that allow the day-to-day farming work to continue with no approval required. Sometimes there's been scaremongering about environmental law—that it's going to constrain every little activity—but that's not actually true. So increased education is really important so landholders know exactly what's required. It's the same with proponents: if you increase the certainty about what information is required and what the parameters are, that would make the system more efficient. Certainly, there are groups like Landcare that we work with that are about empowering landholders with knowledge, and we do environmental law workshops with landholders to say, 'This is actually what the law requires; this is what you can carry on doing with no interference from the law at all, but these are the basic things, and there's a public purpose to having some parameters set.' As I said, we work with great landholders across Australia, but there are certain areas where the knowledge is low and the scepticism is high, and I think that can be addressed.

CHAIR: Great. Thank you.

Senator FAWCETT: I'm really glad to hear that you're not supporting seven new institutions! You've talked about the dangers of duplication and overlap even within a federal structure of what you're proposing between the department and a commissioner and an EPA et cetera. What's your vision of how the federal nation—states and Commonwealth—would end up looking, in terms of the responsibilities, if both the legislative authority and enforcement were still held at a state level versus at a federal level?

Ms Walmsley : The way I think it could be made more efficient is if you had your national sustainability commission that sets national standards and that functions to lift the bar on states and territories. State and territory legislation then has to meet national standards. The idea of that is not new. Under the EPBC Act, the idea of accreditation of state laws exists, but, in our experience, that hasn't worked; that hasn't resulted in a lifting of state standards. We've actually seen wind backs of protection at the state level, so that mechanism as it's currently drafted doesn't work. Under a new system, the national leadership would actually drive improved laws at the state level. There would need to be a lot of cooperative work, and whether that's through COAG or—that needs to be worked out. Actually having consistent systems and consistent standards put in place across Australia would also help the proponents who work in a number of jurisdictions and have to deal with different sets of laws. It's about raising the standards. The idea that the federal government can deal with a few things but leave everything else to the states hasn't worked for biodiversity. So it's about raising the standards across Australian jurisdictions but in a coordinated way, not a duplicative way.

Senator FAWCETT: In Wendy Craik's report, recommendation 14 recommends that the government still use COAG in the meeting of environment ministers, and her words were:

…enhancing harmonisation between the operation of the EPBC Act and each state and territory's … environment protection and land management legislation.

What I'm hearing, without wanting to verbal you, is that you broadly agree that we should still use the COAG process and lift or harmonise but still have the states with their head of power and their own enforcement obligations?

Ms Walmsley : So long as 'harmonise' doesn't that mean lowest common denominator approach; harmonise as in raising the standards—

Senator FAWCETT: Sure.

Ms Walmsley : Under the COAG model I think the previous natural resource management ministerial councils were repealed, so bringing back a specific environment focused element to COAG could assist in that. Certainly it's about raising standards. But, for an issue as nationally important as fauna extinctions, you need to have that cooperation across jurisdictions, because the federal government could put in place really robust legislation, but unless it actually engages with the state-level legislation you're not going to achieve what your goals are in your act. On Friday we gave evidence at the New South Wales parliament on their koala inquiry. When you're talking about something as iconic as koalas, if New South Wales cannot save even them from extinction, what hope do we have for other threatened species? There needs to be that cooperative approach.

Senator FAWCETT: I completely accept that there will be loads of dialogue about where that harmonisation is set. What I'm looking at mainly is the framework, because my experience over a number of years in the parliament is that lots of people have very lofty aspirations but that our job is actually to make the machinery of government work. So I'm just keen, given that we've had some witnesses say—almost to quote them; I'm paraphrasing—'Well, the state government hasn't worked, so we should push them aside, and the federal government should take primary responsibility.' That ignores the whole constitutional construct of the country. So we need to find a way to make it work and make it effective that balances the interests of the different groups. What I'm hearing from you is that, albeit you want to lift the standard of harmonisation, you support the existing construct where we use COAG, we get harmonisation and the Commonwealth has a leadership role in terms of leading our international obligations but that the states still have that role the states and territories have always had of the actual day-to-day management, if you like, of compliance and enforcement around those agreed standards.

Ms Walmsley : I'd agree, with two qualifications: that there would be a role for the federal EPA to step in or call in if there were failures in that harmonisation system—there needs to be stronger powers there. And my second point has left me at the moment; it'll come back to me.

Senator FAWCETT: You can always give us a supplementary submission.

Ms Walmsley : My second point is: I think the important thing is that the Commonwealth government retains approval powers. There are ways to streamline it so that you can accredit assessment processes in a state if they meet the high standards, but the federal government has to maintain that role in approval. I agree with what you're saying about the machinery having to be efficient. We worked with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. They put forward a model whereby you still have your state process and you still have your federal assessment process but there are ways to make those efficient so a proponent can actually address the standards that would satisfy both those processes in one process. So, if you have a proponent that needs to meet state legislation and EPBC legislation, you can design a system so that they can do one EIS and one application that addresses both. But then you still need a state approval and a Commonwealth approval so the Commonwealth isn't divesting itself of its international responsibilities. It's the Commonwealth that signed on, so the Commonwealth has to still have that responsibility, but there are certainly ways of ensuring that the state responsibilities and federal responsibilities are met in a more efficient manner. But I don't think leaving it to the states is the answer. I think there are ways to design it so it can be more efficient and those responsibilities can be met.

CHAIR: In terms of those standards and the accredited processes to meet those standards, they would be the standards that would be set by the sustainability commission.

Ms Walmsley : Yes, the national standards. They would be robust standards, and there'd be more accountability and transparency in the whole system. Access to information and transparency of decision-making is another problem that we've currently got. In the new system we'd be able to see exactly how the robust national standards were applied. Part of that is removing some of the discretion from the legislation and making decisions based on objective standards. If those standards are clear to everyone, that helps with an efficient system, because up-front you know what your clear standards are. If there's alignment between your state standards and your federal standards, as developed by the commission, then that's going to create some increased efficiency and clarity.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Walmsley and Ms Ho, for your evidence to us today. It has been very, very useful.