A Senate committee has given the green light for Greg Hunt to introduce protections that would effectively sandbag him from legal action against all approvals he has made or will make. Photo: Andrew MearesThe legal fraternity has accused the Abbott government of undermining the rule of law through retrospective legislation to prevent court challenges to the approval of mining projects where conservation advice is ignored.
A Senate committee has given the green light for Environment Minister Greg Hunt to introduce protections that would effectively sandbag him from legal action against all approvals he has made or will make.
Those include permission for Clive Palmer's giant coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin that will ship its product through the Great Barrier Reef, the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal and a fourth coal-seam gas plant at Gladston Harbour.
The government proposed amending the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act after a decision by Mr Hunt's Labor predecessor, Tony Burke, to allow an iron ore mine in Tasmania's Tarkine wilderness was overturned by the Federal Court because the former minister had not considered advice that a mine threatened Tasmanian devil numbers. The mine has since gone ahead.
''Our view is there is not sufficient justification for legislation in such broad terms. It goes against the general principle of not making laws retrospectively,'' said Greg McIntyre, SC, chairman of the council's environment and planning law group.
''If you introduce laws to protect the environment and put safeguards in place, there should be no reason to alter them retrospectively.''
Mr McIntyre told the Senate committee: ''Part of the operation of the rule of law is that you actually know what the law is and then you act in accordance with it. You cannot possibly know what a retrospectively operative law is and act in accordance with it.''
More than a dozen environmental and conservation groups submitted objections to the amendment.
Mr Hunt told Parliament the law will ''ensure that past decisions are not put at risk. This will provide certainty for industry stakeholders''.
Greens senator Larissa Waters criticised Labor for supporting the bill and said it was a sign of the Abbott government's ''anti-science, anti-environment agenda''.