To: Premiers, Chief Ministers, MPs, Prime Minister

Regulate ecological consultants to protect the public interest

Regulate ecological consultants to protect the public interest

Dear Premier / Chief Minister / Prime Minister,

Please act to close a legislative loophole that allows development proponents to choose environmental consultants who favour their interests over the public interest. Please regulate environmental consultants to improve the competence and ethics of this industry. This will help to restore public trust in environmental assessments used by government, industry, and private clients.

Why is this important?

In NSW and most if not all other Australian jurisdictions, there has long been a problem whereby environmental consultants whose work is often relied upon by assessing authorities such as Councils, are largely unregulated, yet their reports can make or break proposals at all scales. The lack of regulation means that anyone can trade as an environmental consultant, especially in the field of ecology. Only in some jurisdictions are there rules that allow authorities to specify a level of competency for a consultant preparing some specialised assessments. Most assessments never reach that level, so those rules are very rarely applied. In most situations, there are no minimum standards for qualifications, experience, and ethics. There is no regulatory body to assess a consultant's competence, and to suspend or ban them if they act incompetently and/or unethically. This leaves consumers open to wasting money on incompetent consultants. Some authorities have the staff to check consultant's reports and potentially reject them if they are not competently prepared, or they can require further work. But there is no mandate that local government or State/Territory governments employ sufficient staff with adequate training to competently review consultant's work. The systems largely assume that consultants' reports are competent and unbiased, when too often this isn't the case. One better resourced Council has three Threatened Species Officers who check the work of ecological consultants employed by development proponents. The Officers report that ~90% of reports are deficient and that they can't trust the reports, in part because it is the applicant that chooses and pays the consultant. It is too easy for an applicant to influence a consultant to give them a favourable report. Coercion and bribery occurs. "Give me what I want and I'll pay you extra; don't give me what I want and I won't pay you even though you've done the required work". This favours corruption, not the public interest.

The lack of regulation also means that decision-makers are assessing projects from small scale clearing of native vegetation to accommodate a house, through to major clearing for mining and infrastructure projects (some of which GetUp and other NGOs are campaigning against) based on the advice of consultants chosen and paid for by the proponent. No wonder most EIAs are found wanting. The public rightly has little trust in the project assessment process, and particular distrust of consultants chosen and paid for by the proponent.

The ICAC investigations into corruption in NSW have revealed that illegal donations from property developers have been filtered through 'slush funds' and the like, and appear to have bought political influence. Little wonder then that neither Labor nor Coalition governments have regulated environmental consultants. This wouldn't favour the interests of developers who don't want their projects competently assessed by consultants who report in the public interest.

We need to regulate environmental consultants at all level of government where such consultants are relied upon to give authorities advice about the effects of development and other projects. We need to ensure consultants are competent and ethical, and we need the ability to sanction them and ultimately ban them for repeated and/or serious offences. It would be far safer if consultants were appointed from a register held by assessing authorities, rather than being chosen by proponents. The consultant is then paid by the authority, not by the client, thus removing or at least reducing the potential for the client to unduly influence the consultant. This is closer to the model used for building inspectors.

I've written this petition because I want to see the public protected from dodgy consultants; I want to see faith restored in the assessment process; and I want to remove another corruption-supporting link between developers and government. I am also a consultant who wants to be able to report what I see rather than being lent on by clients to 'turn a blind eye', and threatened with non-payment if I ignore my duty to report without prejudice. Thanks for your support.


Reasons for signing

  • It is important to me that learned and unbiased environmental consultants committed to the health of the environment are placed in these roles and that they cannot be swayed by greed or fear of reprisal from their employers if they don't prepare reports that prop up their those employers' interests. The environmental consultants best interests should be the health of the environment and the people, animals and vegetation that live in and around it.
  • I'm sick of mining environmental reports that always end up saying that there will be "no significant impacts".
  • There has to be regulation of this profession, especially when there is a great deal of money at stake, as without it there can be incompetence or corruption.

Updates

2014-10-07 12:53:17 +1100

I received some responses from State and Territory Environment Ministers (not from the Federal Minister), one of which suggested that the need to improve regulatory standards should be dealt with nationally. I have written to the Federal Minister suggesting (as per the State Minister's comments) that the matter go before the recurrent meeting of State and Territory Environment Ministers, and the Federal Minister in Canberra. I haven't received a response yet...

Those interested in the topic and the related problem of ecological offsetting may like to view (and listen to) http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2014-03-16/5312944

Regards

2014-08-06 15:31:26 +1000

Dear signatories, I have submitted the petition to all State and Territory governments and to the Federal Minister for Environment. 390 signatures supported the petition. I have relaunched a simplified version of the petition on Change.org to generate greater support. You can view it at http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/australian-governments-regulate-ecological-consultants-to-restore-trust-in-environmental-impact-assessment?utm_source=guides&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=petition_created
Thanks for your support

2014-06-17 11:52:30 +1000

Dear All, I received some feedback objecting to the petition on the grounds that it was only about setting standards for academic qualifications that would be held by consultants. This isn't the case. Qualifications don't guarantee technical or ethical competency. There are a small number of established consultant ecologists who do not hold university qualifications that would generally be regarded as a minimum standard for practitioners, yet some of these consultants are at least as competent and ethical as others with an abundance of qualifications. The Ecological Consultants Association and related bodies have recognised that there needs to be provision to accommodate competent and ethical consultants who lack qualifications or particular standards of training, but who have plenty of peer support and no complaints from regulatory authorities.

Thanks for your support or interest. Please post questions if they arise.

2014-05-11 18:14:42 +1000

100 signatures reached

2014-05-11 11:46:11 +1000

50 signatures reached

2014-05-11 07:54:33 +1000

25 signatures reached

2014-05-09 20:04:42 +1000

10 signatures reached