National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development

Prepared by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Steering Committee
Endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments
December, 1992
ISBN 0 644 27253 8

Appendix A - Summary of the InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment

The environment is one of the most important issues facing Australians today. It has also been an issue sometimes marred by damaging intergovernmental disputes, as governments respond to the challenge posed by public demands for a better and healthier environment.

The Prime Minister's One Nation Statement of 26 February 1992 announced that agreement had been reached on an Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment.

The agreement represents the beginning of a new approach to intergovernmental dealings on the environment. It sets out the roles of the parties and establishes the 'ground rules' under which the Commonwealth Government, State, Territory and local governments will interact on the environment (Section 2); includes a broad set of principles to guide the development of environment policies (Section 3); and, in a series of schedules, sets out cooperative arrangements on a wide range of specific issues.

History Of The Agreement

The proposal to develop the agreement arose as part of the Government's initiative to reform intergovernmental relations. The intention to develop the agreement was announced in the Communique issued by the first special Premiers Conference in October 1990.

Purpose Of The Agreement

The agreement aims to provide the basis for a new cooperative approach to the management of environmental issues in Australia. In particular, it will be the mechanism for providing:

  • a cooperative national approach to the environment;
  • better definition of the roles of respective governments with respect to the environment;
  • a reduction in intergovernmental environmental disputes;
  • more certain government and business decision making; and
  • better environment protection.

Major Features Of The Agreement

Responsibilities and interests

Section 2 of the Agreement delineates for the first time the responsibilities and interests of each of the three spheres of government. In doing so, it recognises that the States and Territories have responsibility for the majority of environmental issues within their borders. Nevertheless, it makes provisions for the Commonwealth Government to become involved in those issues where it has demonstrated responsibilities and interests.

Accommodation of interests

Section 2 of the Agreement also provides mechanisms and procedures for accommodating the interests of the various levels of government in environmental issues. These procedures emphasise timely consultation, more streamlining of intergovernmental processes and the need to avoid duplication of decision making.

In particular, the agreement specifies the mechanisms for the Commonwealth and a State/Territory or States and Territories to handle those issues where both spheres of government have an involvement, viz:

  • the cooperative setting of outcomes and standards; and
  • accreditation by the Commonwealth (or a State or Territory as the case may be) of the decision-making processes or systems of the other sphere of government.

Under the agreement, once a party has accredited a process or system, it will be obliged to give 'full faith and credit' to the outcomes of that process when making decisions on those outcomes. This aims to avoid the arbitrary revisiting of environmental issues by the parties.

International conventions

International environmental issues have in the past been an area of disputation between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. The agreement establishes improved consultative arrangements between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories in relation to negotiating and entering into international conventions on the environment. These arrangements will result in a more harmonised approach to implementation of such conventions.

Identification of interests

For those environmental issues where responsibility for an issue is not readily apparent, Section 2 requires consultation between the Commonwealth and the relevant State/Territory or States and Territories to determine the nature of the interest and how it should be handled. Such consultation is subject to strict time limits.

Duplication of interests

The agreement also includes a commitment to aim to eliminate functional duplication between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories wherever the interests of the relevant sphere of government have been accommodated.

Principles of environmental policy

Section 3 proposes a series of broad principles to guide the parties in the development and implementation of environmental policies and programs. These principles include the adoption of a precautionary approach to environmental issues and the effective integration of environmental and economic considerations in decision making.


Schedules to the agreement spell out cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth Government and State and Territory Governments in a range of specific environmental areas. The agreement provides for the amendment of schedules and the development of additional schedules as environment issues evolve.

Environmental data

Schedule 1 provides for the development of a national approach to the collection and handling of environmental data. The schedule requires the development of consistent standards for the description and exchange of land-related information and improved mechanisms for making data more accessible across spheres of government.

Land-use decisions and approval processes

Schedule 2 provides the basis for joint collaborative efforts which facilitate rational and environmentally sound land-use decisions and approvals processes. It includes a common set of characteristics which should apply to land-use decision making (including consultation with all affected parties and dispute resolution procedures). As a means of eliminating duplication, the schedule provides for the Commonwealth to accredit State and Territory land-use and resource-use planning systems.

Environmental impact assessment

Schedule 3 sets out a common set of principles which will achieve greater consistency of EIA throughout Australia, and avoid duplication and delays in the process. It provides for the negotiation of a single national agreement between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories to eliminate any duplication in assessment processes and for the Commonwealth, States and Territories to accredit each other's processes.

Environment protection

Schedule 4 establishes a cooperative Commonwealth-State/Territory process for developing national environmental standards, guidelines and goals. The National Environment Protection Authority established under the schedule will be backed by complementary Commonwealth and State legislation.

Climate change

Schedule 5 acknowledges the potentially significant impact of greenhouse induced climate change and provides for the cooperative development of a National Greenhouse Response Strategy.

Biological diversity

Schedule 6 puts into place intergovernmental arrangements to oversee implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity signed by Australia at UNCED on 5 June 1992.

National estate

Schedule 7 recognises the role of the Australian Heritage Commission in identifying the National Estate and advising the Commonwealth on its conservation. The schedule provides for closer cooperation between the Commission and State and Territory agencies, for example through an expanded process of joint assessments of national estate values. It also includes a commitment for the Commission and the States and Territories to reach agreement wherever possible on the timing of their assessment processes and thus avoid duplication.

World heritage

Schedule 8 will reduce conflict in this area by recognising the Commonwealth Government's international obligations to protect Australia's World Heritage and by codifying arrangements between the Commonwealth, States and Territories on identification and nomination of World Heritage areas. Under these arrangements, the Commonwealth will be required to use its best endeavours to obtain the agreement of relevant States and Territories on nominations to the World Heritage List.

Nature conservation

Schedule 9 formalises cooperative arrangements on a wide range of nature conservation issues. It includes a commitment to develop a strategy for a national approach to the protection of rare, vulnerable and endangered species; endorses a cooperative national approach to the control of introduced animals and plants which pose a threat to the natural environment; and proposes development of improved intergovernmental arrangements for regulation of commercial use of native wildlife.