Political leaders will devote much of today’s Council of Australian Governments meeting to consider a push by Victoria and New South Wales to do away with “unnecessary” environmental regulations. So-called green tape has been in the sights of business groups for many years now, particularly environmentally impact-intensive industries such as mining and property development.

Just how bad is all this green tape? Well, the Business Council of Australia estimates Commonwealth environmental regulations have cost business $820 million in costs and delays since its adoption in 1999. I don’t believe that figure for a minute, but let’s assume they’re right. That means that green tape is a $75 million annual problem for business.

Now let’s put this in perspective. According to the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics, traffic congestion costs the Australian economy about $11 billion per year. The Commonwealth has estimated that invasive weeds are a $4 billion per year problem. And type 2 diabetes costs $4 billion per year in lost productivity alone, according to Diabetes Australia.

So from an economic perspective, congestion is about 150 times worse than green tape, and both weeds and diabetes are more than 50 times worse.

If COAG split up its time over an eight-hour day to each of these four issues according to their economic magnitude, it would spend the whole morning plus a 40-minute session after lunch discussing traffic, the next hour and 40 minutes discussing diabetes and then a similar block of time on weeds, and it would spend just under two minutes talking about this burning green tape issue at the end of the day.

But congestion, weeds and diabetes aren’t even on the agenda. Yet green tape is so severe a national crisis that our Prime Minister, collected premiers and our top business leaders will convene a special session today.

Talk about getting your priorities wrong.

COAG should be focused on addressing the billion dollar and 10 billion dollar issues, not couple-of-million dollar issues such as green tape.

No environment groups were invited to this crisis session, by the way. COAG remains one of those chummy old institutions where business gets a say, but community groups are excluded.

As for the substance of the green tape issue? Well, perhaps the one thing worse for business than green tape is no green tape. When you have no green tape, communities find other ways of making themselves heard.

No green tape means more Jabilukas. No green tape means more Lock the Gate protests. No green tape means more activists locking themselves on to equipment.

If business succeeds in its push to have environmentally sensitive projects fast-tracked, I hope it’s prepared for the inevitable increase in direct protest when communities discover they no longer have real avenues to influence decision-making within the tent.

And no green tape means worse environmental outcomes. Remember that Commonwealth environmental laws were adopted for a reason: state governments and private businesses had proven unreliable in protecting the national interest in a healthy environment.

If the Prime Minister cedes this power back to the states, she will set environmental regulation back  30 years, and sow the seeds for divided communities and further loss of our natural heritage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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