What is Tony Abbott planning?

The following is from The Age newspaper (April 20, 2012).

A COALITION government would give the states greater powers to grant environmental approval to major projects such as mines and ports, Tony Abbott will say today in a speech outlining sweeping plans to cut ''green tape''.

Declaring, ''I have always regarded myself as a conservationist,'' Mr Abbott will announce at an Australian Industry Group conference in Brisbane that he would strike deals with willing state and territory governments to delegate decision-making and create a single approval process.

The plan goes considerably further than the deal Prime Minister Julia Gillard struck with the states last week, and would accommodate Queensland Premier Campbell Newman's call for the states to be given virtually unilateral control of environmental approvals.

State governments would still be bound by federal laws, meaning they would not have complete power to approve any project they wish. But critically, it could be state government officials that make the decisions as to whether or not a project such as a mine meets the standards set by the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Business groups have recently raised concerns about duplication and bureaucratic delays in decisions about environmental approvals.

''Investors invariably accept that projects should comply with best environmental standards,'' Mr Abbott says in his speech. ''The standards aren't the problem. It's the indecision, imprecision and inconsistency which is killing new projects.''

He continues: ''The Coalition will maintain high standards but seek to simplify the approvals process.''

Mr Abbott says the deals with states would set up ''one-stop shops'' where state officials would administer a single assessment process, including whether a project conforms to federal laws.

This would also mean one set of paperwork and a single lodgement. Commonwealth officers could be seconded to the state offices to help.

States that sign up to the arrangement would have a competitive advantage in attracting investment, Mr Abbott says.

The streamlined process would include deadlines for decisions with penalties such as partial return of the lodgement fees if the bureaucrats did not meet the deadlines.

This one-stop shop approach would also be offered to local councils where possible.

Mr Abbott adds that for some projects such as major offshore developments, states and territories ''may prefer to have the Commonwealth as the sole, designated assessor''.

The speech follows calls last week by Mr Newman for the federal government to hand over to the states all responsibility for assessing projects on environmental grounds.