Top environmental groups say some of Labor’s new laws could take conservation backwards

<span>The Gouldian finch is listed as endangered. The Labor government approved the clearing of part of its habitat in Darwin.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Hidalgo Photgography/Getty Images</span>
The Gouldian finch is listed as endangered. The Labor government approved the clearing of part of its habitat in Darwin.Photograph: Joe Hidalgo Photgography/Getty Images

The Albanese government is backing away from a promise to substantially transform how nature is protected in Australia and is planning some changes that would make things worse, according to eight of the country’s top environment groups.

The conservation organisations said they were concerned the government planned to break up promised legislation for new environmental laws and defer some difficult reforms until after the next election, if it wins a second term.

In two submissions seen by Guardian Australia, the Places You Love alliance of conservation organisations said the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, had promised changes that would put Australia on a path to having zero extinctions, but that ambition was not evident in the draft laws they had been shown in private consultations.

Related: Labor’s proposed changes to water trigger laws could have ‘centuries-long consequences’, environment groups say

The alliance, which includes Environmental Justice Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF-Australia, said the draft proposals were “simply incremental changes rather than the transformational change required”.

“In fact, a number of proposed changes are a regression from the current regime,” they said.

The threatened species campaigner for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Alexia Wellbelove, said nature urgently needed the “the strongest possible environment laws”, but “at the moment we aren’t seeing that conceptual shift”.

“Urgent transformation is what’s needed and it’s what the government promised,” she said. “Species like the maugean skate are hurtling towards extinction and may be lost in the next 10 years. We simply don’t have time to waste.”

The groups compiled the submissions after closed consultation sessions in December and February in which they and business groups were asked for feedback. The proposed new laws have not been publicly released.

The environment groups said they were concerned the laws would:

  • Include a “call-in” power that allowed the minister to take over a decision from a proposed environment protection agency (EPA) “at any time and for any reason”.

  • Allow developers to make payments to a new “restoration contributions” fund to compensate for damage their projects caused to the environment. This would remove a requirement that environmental offsets provide a “like-for-like” replacement for ecosystems or species affected by a development.

  • Fail to give the new EPA the “teeth” it needed to be an independent and effective environmental regulator.

A spokesperson for Plibersek said the government was “working methodically on sensible updates to national environment law, consistent with what we’ve already announced” under what it has described as a nature positive plan. They said it would lead to the system working “better for both business and nature”.

The Wilderness Society’s biodiversity policy and campaign manger, Sam Szoke-Burke, said the community would judge the reforms on whether they “actually stop deforestation and extinctions”.

Related: Tanya Plibersek approves habitat clearing in Darwin despite risk to endangered bird

“The current drafts don’t yet change the status quo for nature,” he said.But the Albanese government can still take the decisive action needed to protect forests from destruction.”

The alliance said there were positive elements in the government’s proposals. They included the introduction of national environmental standards against which projects proposals would be assessed, a commitment to define “unacceptable impacts” on nature that would prevent some development activity, and it becoming a requirement that each threatened species has a recovery strategy.

But they said there was a “real risk” that improvements would be undermined by other aspects of the draft laws.

Labor promised to fix the country’s environment laws after a 2020 review led by Graeme Samuel, a former competition watchdog head found Australian governments had failed to protect the country’s unique wildlife for two decades.

Related: Australia’s environment in unsustainable state of decline, major review finds

When his report was released in 2021, Samuel said the government would be accepting “the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems” if it shied away from the fundamental reforms he recommended.

When Plibersek released the state of the environment report in 2022, she said it was a “shocking document” that told “a story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment, and of a decade of government inaction and wilful ignorance”.

She declared: “Under Labor the environment is back on the priority list.”

Nicola Beynon, head of campaigns at Humane Society International Australia, said the government “must not let pressure from those who seek to continue the cycle of destruction stop them from delivering a comprehensive package of reforms”.

“Australia’s extinction crisis is continuing unabated,” she said. “We urgently need strong new nature laws that put protection of our unique wildlife and their habitats at the forefront.”