Michelle Grattan, Political editor of The Age
The Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2012
BUSINESS has reacted furiously to Prime Minister Julia Gillard putting on hold plans to give the states power to deal with environmental approvals for major projects.
After a meeting with Ms Gillard and the premiers, business representatives described the atmosphere variously as ''black'' and ''frosty'' and said the perception was that Ms Gillard had caved into the Greens and environmental groups.
Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd said later the forum had heard ''a frustrating reversal'' by the Commonwealth on its commitment to deal with the growing costs of the approval processes faced by major investments.
Ms Gillard said the Commonwealth needed to secure a consistent approach from the states that met proper environmental standards. Otherwise there would be a patchwork of arrangements and a threat to standards.
Business sources said no state had said it would not sign up. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said they were willing to sign up there and then.
There was disagreement over the wording of the communique from the meeting. Ms Gillard has left the way open for further negotiations with the states but business wanted this made explicit in the communique while the federal government did not. In the end, the wording was fuzzy and business is concerned there will not be more negotiations.
The final wording said discussions between the Commonwealth and states and territories would continue to work through various matters.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said it was disappointing for business that progress had stalled.
He accused the Greens of running a scare campaign. ''The business community stressed through this meeting that it does not want to see a reduction in standards,'' he said. To say the business community wanted to reduce standards was a ''distortion of reality''.
Mr Shepherd said the forum's participants from business and government alike reinforced the ''non-negotiable need to protect all environmental standards''.
But business had made clear that maintaining the present system involving duplication and multiple agencies ''will risk the investments that are critical to the strength and resilience of the economy''.
A one-stop shop was critical, he said. But the BCA had never sought a uniform national approach. ''We were seeking immediate progress on removing double handling while at the same time preserving the highest environmental standards.''
He called on the federal government to commit to accrediting the states through bilateral agreements and said it should take up the offers from Mr Baillieu and Mr O'Farrell to sign at once.
Greens leader Christine Milne said Ms Gillard had found out during the past few months that she had ''made a complete muck of it'', and now had made another mistake. Instead of abandoning ''this ridiculous proposition that the Commonwealth hand over its powers to the states, what she's said is 'all right then states, you go and sort it out, come back and tell me how much of the environmental protection powers you want, and I'll hand it over to you next year'''.