In a report released today, the commission outlined a series of draft recommendations to improve transparency, increase scientific standards in decision criteria, reduce duplicative processes and streamline the regulatory framework for minerals exploration.
Productivity Commission deputy chairman Mike Woods aimed for a balance of safeguarding community and landholder rights with relieving the burden of inefficient approvals processes on explorers.
Woods said overlapping environmental and indigenous heritage regimes in particular should be simplified.
He also said state and federal governments had the power to agree on more efficient accreditation arrangements.
However, the report consented that it was uncertain whether consolidation or harmonisation of state and territory resource legislation would be more efficient than the current arrangements.
“There needs to be greater community engagement when governments make land access decisions but the debate needs to be grounded in sound evidence about the environmental, social and economic impacts of particular exploration activities,” he said.
“Regulation needs to evolve alongside gains in the scientific knowledge base.”
Recommendations for exploration licensing and approvals, including information and criteria by which licences would be assessed, should be published along with the outcome and details of the successful bidder.
The draft report also called for governments not to allocate licences too small or too irregular a shape for an efficient mine to be established.
Published regulator timeframes and government guidance on how to navigate the range of approvals was also recommended.
When deciding to declare a national park or conservation area, the commission proposed the use of evidence-based analyses of the economic and social costs and benefits, including exploration.
It called for explorer requests to access national park or conservation reserves to be considered, where allowed, according to the risk and potential impact of the specific proposed activity.
Regarding heritage protection, draft recommendations call for the repeal of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act of 1984 after all jurisdictional regimes are operating satisfactorily to federal standards.
Transparency was also urged among heritage authorities, with the recommended lodging of all heritage surveys and maintenance of registers which map and list all known indigenous heritage sites.
State and territory governments were called to manage indigenous heritage on a risk-assessment basis, with a streamlined “due diligence” process in low likelihood of heritage significance and models of agreement-making rather than government authorisation in cases of high likelihood of heritage significance.
The report called for the federal government to strengthen bilateral arrangements with the states and territories regarding environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.
Environment-related regulation of exploration activities was recommended to be focused toward performance-based environmental outcome measures and away from prescriptive conditions, in order to better manage risk and achieve environmentally sound outcomes.
Archived industry data was recommended to be made publicly available and a single online location was proposed to provide environment-related guidance on approvals to exploration companies.
The commission’s call for reform cited a Canadian study which suggested that the regulatory regimes of Australian jurisdictions that governed exploration activity were contributing to the decline in their international competitiveness as destinations for exploration.
It said common concerns raised in its inquiry, across all regulatory domains, had been the lack of transparent and consultative processes undertaken when adding or changing regulation, the poor communication of some regulators and the scant use of evidence-based decision making and proportionate risk management.
Noting strong opposition to mineral and energy resource exploration from some in the community, the commission said policy processes had sometimes failed to assess the more widely dispersed benefits for the broader community.