Stripping environmental groups of the right to take legal action under Federal environmental laws will undermine core democratic freedoms, a leading human rights organisation has warned.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said that changing laws to limit court scrutiny of government decision-making is a retrograde step in a democracy like Australia.
“The ability to take legal action in the public interest is central to ensuring governments remain accountable. Locking particular groups out of the courts is heavy handed and will mean that bad decisions will go unchecked and unchallenged,” said Ms Barson.
The Attorney-General George Brandis’ proposed amendment to the Environment, Protection, Biodiversity and Conservation Act (introduced by the Howard Government), involves repealing an important provision which recognises that nature cannot speak for itself, and therefore environmental organisations need to be able to initiate legal challenges.
Ms Barson said the proposed amendment was a dangerous knee-jerk reaction to a recent Federal Court challenge bought by local environment groups. The Government ultimately withdrew from the challenge, effectively acknowledging that the Environment Minister had failed in his legal duty to consider relevant threatened species when he approved the massive coal mine in Queensland.
“It is ironic that the Government is rushing through this amendment on the back of essentially conceding inadequate ministerial decision making. Without the legal scrutiny of the environment groups who took this case, it is entirely possible that significant environmental impacts would have remained overlooked,” said Ms Barson.
The Attorney-General has also been criticised for his inflammatory remarks about legal proceedings brought by environmental organisations.
“Using a term like ‘vigilante’ when describing a court case – one of the most orthodox and proper methods for challenging Government decision making – is extraordinary. The Attorney-General should be showing more respect for the separation of powers and the rule of law,” said Ms Barson.
In addition to the weakening of transparency and court oversight, Ms Barson said she was concerned by the escalating attacks on basic rights.
“This steady erosion of fundamental democratic rights and freedoms in Australia should be a wake up call. Rather than accepting the valuable scrutiny provided by the courts, the Government wants to rewrite the rule-book about who can access the courts. This is dangerous territory. Governments shouldn’t have a free-license to act without effective scrutiny when making decisions that impact all Australians,” said Ms Barson.
For media inquiries: Ruth Barson 0417 773 037 or firstname.lastname@example.org