The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) has been urged to overhaul its inefficient environmental approvals process, including updating its ICT and information management systems, and improving its risk assessment and quality assurance frameworks.
DAWE is responsible for receiving and assessing a high volume of “matters of national environmental significance” requiring Ministerial approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.
However, a series of audits have found that its information management and ICT systems are not up to the task.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found that the department (and its predecessors) had ‘commenced, but not completed’ multiple ICT projects since 2015.
After a Regulatory Maturity Review in 2016, the then Department of Environment agreed to improve its regulatory ICT systems, with nine functions identified to be included in an upgrade. None had been implemented at the time of the audit (January 2020), which found that several relating to analytic capability have been dropped from the ICT work program altogether.
The ANAO notes that “without implementing these improvements, the department’s ability to utilise information from internal business systems and develop a comprehensive view of the regulatory landscape is limited..”
In testimony before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit (PJCPAA) in March 2021, the department advised it is “in the process of procuring Information Technology for an assessments system and a compliance case management system”.
The 2019-20 MYEFO allocated $25 million over two years for ‘busting congestion’ the environmental approvals process, with the 2020-21 federal Budget dedicating an additional $36.6 million, also over two years
The EPBC Act is the subject of frequent Machinery of Government (MoG) changes. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) was created in February 2020 by the merger of the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Environment and Energy (DEE), which previously had carriage of EPBC matters from 2016-2020. The approval process sat with the Department of Environment from 2013-2016. The Commonwealth has been unsuccessful in several attempts to delegate EPBC decisions to accredited state planning systems during this time.
The ANAO investigation in June 2020 found that data migrated from previous systems is incomplete or inaccurate. Some steps in the approval process are still reliant on manual data collection. A lack of records prevented ANAO from forming a view on some issues. Regulatory information was stored in multiple ICT systems, and the department’s ability to use that information was “limited by a lack of linkages between systems and data management issues".
DAWE agreed to all recommendations made by the Auditor General, but the Parliamentary Joint Committee, which has statutory oversight of Commonwealth audits, has slammed the department for dragging its feet.
PJCPAA report 486 is blunt in its concern that the department “failed to demonstrate it had acted” on previous audits. The committee is chaired by government backbencher, Lucy Wicks MP. Labor MPs on the committee “note and welcome” the reports “strong condemnation of the administration of the EBPC Act”.
The report recommends that DAWE provide an update within six months on the status improvements to its ICT systems and capabilities; record keeping practices; and its compliance risk, performance, and quality assurance frameworks.
DAWE has improved its EPBC processing times. In its most recent 2019-20 Annual Report, Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe notes “In the December 2019 quarter only 19% of our decisions were made on time, but by June 2020 this had increased to 98%. We also cut our backlog of key decisions by more than 60%.”
The EPBC Act is Australia’s primary environmental protection legislation. It identifies nine specific - such as nuclear, wetlands, heritage areas, protected species, and the Great Barrier Reef – where actions by groups or individuals require Ministerial approval.
This results in around 300 matters, on average, being referred to the Minister each year for assessment and approval. Examples include grazing animals, mining, building roads, residential and commercial property.
The senior portfolio minister responsible for DAWE is the Minister for Agriculture, Draught and Emergency Management, David Littleproud; while EPBC matters sit with the Minister for Environment, Sussan Ley.