A crossbencher's model for a federal environmental protection agency would create the type of tough watchdog needed to halt the decline of Australia's threatened species, advocacy groups say.
Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie introduced laws to parliament on Monday to establish a Commonwealth Environmental Protection Authority, with the aim of "depoliticising" the nation's environmental approvals regime.
The authority would have far greater oversight that the Morrison government's proposed national environment assurance commissioner, which Mr Wilkie and wildlife advocacy groups have labelled a "toothless tiger".
ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti has also raised concerns about the narrow scope of the commissioner's powers.
Under Mr Wilkie's proposal, the federal government's functions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act [EPBC] - including to approve and reject projects - would be administered by a "completely" independent authority.
The authority would have the power to terminate approvals or issue stop-work orders in cases where environmental harm "has been caused or is imminent", he said.
In contrast, the government's commissioner would have no role in monitoring or auditing individual decisions.
Its primary role would be auditing bi-lateral agreements struck as part of the handing over of environmental approval powers from the Commonwealth to states and territories.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley last month told Parliament that the commissioner would not be subject to directions from her office. However, it would be based inside her department.
The establishment of the commissioner position was a recommendation from Graeme Samuel's damning review of Australia's environmental protection laws, which found the existing regime was "not fit" to address the overall decline and rising threats to Australia's wildlife.
In a speech introducing the laws to the lower house on Monday, Mr Wilkie said at a "time when we are seeing the immediate collapse of precious eco-systems, when Australian is a world leader in extinctions .... a strong independent regulator is more important than ever."
WWF-Australia chief executive Dermot O'Gorman said Mr Wilkie's proposal presented an opportunity to arrest the decline of the nation's wildlife and wild natural environment.
"It would put a truly independent cop on the beat with the resources to audit major projects, enforce our laws and ensure every Australian, business and industry is doing the right thing for nature," Mr O'Gorman said.
The Australian Conservation Foundation said the establishment of a strong independent watchdog was "critical" to reversing Australia's extinction crisis.
"Establishing an independent national Environment Protection Authority that operates at arm's length from government and is free from the interference of vested interest is critical to deliver the protection that our wildlife and ecosystems need and the community demands," the foundation's nature program manager, Basha Stasak, said.
Opposition environment and water spokeswoman Terri Butler welcomed Mr Wilkie's proposal, although she noted that without the government's support the bill was doomed to fail.
"Labor has been consistently calling for a strong cop on the beat to ensure our nation's environmental laws are upheld," Ms Butler said.
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