Many of us are breathing a sigh of relief as restrictions cautiously ease across Australia to allow for somewhat greater social interaction and economic activity. Our governments are changing laws and legal processes almost at a daily pace.
Fortunately, Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) lawyers have been watching as State and Territory governments have passed laws or made amendments which alter planning and environmental controls and access to courts, tribunals and planning panels.
On 1 May 2020 they summarised the laws passed and changes made to planning and environment laws. See https://www.edo.org.au/2020/04/30/decision-making-during-covid19/
The EDO lawyers have been tracking issues around justice and fair hearing rights, public access to proceedings and long-term environmental implications. They have produced five principles they believe should guide how governments and decision-makers act. The principles are a benchmark against which government actions can be measured.
Principle 1: COVID-19 emergency powers should be exercised temporarily, transparently and only as necessary to respond to the health crisis.
Principle 2: Ensure access to justice and procedural fairness by providing meaningful and equal opportunities to access online public consultation and hearings, adjusting processes or deferring hearings.
Principle 3: Courts and tribunals could use the opportunity to advance open justice by expanding public access to online hearings.
Principle 4: Laws passed for economic and social recovery must put us on a path to a safe and healthy climate and restore the natural environment.
Principle 5: Economic stimulus measures must maintain or improve laws, processes and standards for environment and cultural heritage protection, transparency and accountability and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
How we meet the economic challenge of COVID-19 will dictate the future of our environment and climate. The science tells us that the next 10 years are critical to ensure we have a safe climate and an environment that will provide for future generations. It is imperative that laws passed to stimulate the economy seize that opportunity.
There is an urgent need to strike the right balance between the necessity of public health restrictions and protecting important community rights as restrictions ease.
Environmental Defenders Office is a legal centre dedicated to protecting the environment.