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A simple stimulus step that won’t cost a cent: stop green lawfare

20 March 2020

1:48 PM

20 March 2020

1:48 PM

Over $65 billion of investment, mostly in regional Australia, has been put at risk by a small group of environmental and inner-city activists who have exploited a special legal provision to engage in frivolous and vexatious legal activism without delivering a discernible environmental benefit. 

Research recently released by the Institute of Public Affairs found that green groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society have used a legal provision in Commonwealth environmental law to hold up major projects in court for a cumulative total of 10,100 days since the year 2000. 

Section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act specifically empowers green groups to challenge projects that have been approved by the federal environment minister.    

With Australia facing the economic impact of coronavirus, it is now more important than ever to remove barriers to investment.  

Since 2000 there have been 28 projects targeted through this provision, including coal mines, dams, vegetation management, and public infrastructure. Prominent projects include the original $16.5 billion Adani coal mine, a $2.3 billion pulp mill in Tasmania, and a $767 million coal mine at Maules Creek in New South Wales. 

Despite the costly delays, the vast majority of these cases have not led to environmental improvements. According to IPA research, only three out of 51 cases since 2000 – or six per cent – have resulted in significant changes to environmental approvals. 


The success of legal challenges is not the primary concern of green groups. Their aim, as outlined in the 2011 Greenpeace document Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom is to “stop projects outright”, “increase costs”, and “raise investor uncertainty”. By holding up projects in court, even without winning the case, they deter investment in the resources sector with the prospect of costly delays and increased legal risk.  

For investors in the resources industry, the punishment is in the process. 

The pursuit of environmental ends with no consideration of costs or care for those forced to bear those costs is characteristic of the green movement. 

The movement is based largely in the inner cities, far away from those Australians who their policy prescriptions hurt the most. In the 2019 federal election, over 80 per cent of the Greens’ primary vote came from non-rural electorates, and their share of the vote was twice as high in the inner city compared to regional Australia. 

Mining projects have been opposed at the cost of jobs in regional Australia and to the detriment of regional communities. Continued restrictions on logging are destroying a once vibrant forestry industry. Farmers suffering through severe drought have been forced to sit by hopelessly as they watch an abundance of water flow by out to sea due to onerous restrictions on irrigation and red tape preventing the construction of industry saving dams.  

Landowners have faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the crime of trying to save their homes from bushfire by clearing trees. For example, a Queensland grazier was fined $1 million in 2017 for clearing a fire break on his property previously ravaged by bushfire. Fires have raged at a ferocity enabled by an abundance of fuel that environmentalists have ensured has not been adequately managed.  

And of course, the green movement has opposed coal and gas generated power that delivers affordable and reliable energy. A jump in electricity and gas prices may not be felt as strongly by Green voters who have a median household income $14,000 higher than the general public, according to research from Roy Morgan. But for many people it is the difference between their small business turning a profit, being able to spend money on the kids, or the ability to heat their homes in winter.    

Many of these struggles are simply not felt by inner-city elites. It is all too easy to advocate “action on climate change” and radical environmental policies when you are not the one bearing the cost. 

The resources and agriculture sectors are an integral part of the Australian economy and the lifeblood of regional Australia. They represent 20 per cent of private capital investment and 75 per cent of the value of Australia’s top 25 exports. Outside the big cities, agriculture and mining are major employers and support the services and retail sectors that are built up around them.   

While all Australians want positive environmental outcomes, duplicated layers of complex regulation combined with legal activism are imposing an unnecessary burden on regional Australia for no discernible environmental gain.  

Green activism, enabled and emboldened by lax legal loopholes, poses an existential threat to the resources sector, regional communities, and the Australian way of life. Repealing Section 487 should be the first step in reining in the excesses of the green movement.  

Kurt Wallace is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. Join as a member at www.ipa.org.au.

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