There is currently no regulatory body to assess an environmental 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, and even worse, in some states and territories legislative loopholes this allows development proponents to choose environmental consultants who favour their interests over the public interest.
In NSW and most Australian jurisdictions environmental consultants, whose work is often relied upon by assessing authorities such as Councils, are largely unregulated, yet their reports can make or break development proposals. Only in some jurisdictions are there rules that allow authorities to specify a level of competency for a consultant preparing some specialised assessments.
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.
Under these circumstances, it is far 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.
No wonder many 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 developers.
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. Let’s get some faith restored in the assessment process for the protection of a Australians. I am also an environmental 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.