Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Processes and International System Development - Australian Perspective
Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Processes and
International System Development - Australian Perspective
Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) evaluates the environmental impact of policies,
plans and programs (or strategic proposals/decisions). The objective of SEA is to mainstream
the environmental consideration at the earlier phase of decision making and improved
governance through reducing administrative burden via avoiding project level EIA and
duplication along the ministries (Fischer 2007; Therivel 2010; Fundingsland Tetlow and
Australia has more than 30 years of experience of evaluating PPPs (policies, plans and
programs) under different legislative mechanisms. In May 1992 the Australian
Commonwealth, all States (6) and Territories (2) and Australian Local Government
Association, signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (IGAE). The
signatories agreed that ‘environmental issues associated with a proposed project, program or
policy will be taken into consideration in the decision making process’. Clearly, the IGAE
enveloped the principle of SEA (Kelly et al. 2012). Following this after an extensive review
of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposal) Act 1974, in 1999 Environmental
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act came into force. This Act
formally introduced SEA in Australian legislative context. Before this SEA was informally
applied to proposals nationally and regionally, but no mandatory or formal bindings
(Marsden 2013b). Section 146 of EPBC Act introduced the discretionary provision of SEA in
all sectors excepts for fishery which has been made mandatory by Section 147 (Ashe and
Extent to which SEA has become a Central Component of Decision Making
The voluntary nature of Section 146 resulted poor take-up of SEA by the proponents through
producing only two cases of discretionary SEA until 2006. The Government amended the
EPBC Act in 2006 to provide incentive to the proponents of SEA through keeping the
provision that those PPPs which is already endorsed under Section 146 can be approved by
the minister without making further assessment such as EIA (Ashe and Marsden 2011). That
amendment triggered 4 completed SEA and 12 on-going SEA till date among which majority
is for spatial development planning (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water,
Population and Communities 2013b; Stoeglehner et al. 2010). In contrast, 120 SEAs in
fisheries sector have been performed due to its legal bindings and provision of incentives in
return in the form of export license (Marsden 2013a). In addition to that SEA is also
performing well in other niche areas such as National Environment Protection Measures and
Australia’s foreign aid program (Ashe and Marsden 2011).
Four of Australia's states now have legislative requirements for SEA that relate to
environmental planning and protection (New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia
and Tasmania), and the two self governing territories also have some SEA provision
(Marsden and Ashe 2006). The objectives of these acts and policies are to promote
Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) by protect and manage nationally and
internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places — defined
in the EPBC Act as ‘matters of national environmental significance’ (MNES). Procedural
guidelines to undertake SEA (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population
and Communities 2013a) has been recently published by the Australian Government. Best
practice guidelines and standards is only available for fisheries sector (Ecologically
Sustainable Management of Fisheries-2001) reflecting the focus of SEA in Australia, which
is solely on ocean and marine environment (Marsden 2013a).
Though SEA-type assessment in Australia has a long story much of this has been ad hoc in
nature and has used the language ‘SEA’ only in some cases and in some instances may be
characterized as ‘para SEA’(Dalal-Clayton and Sadler 2005 cited in Ashe and Marsden
2011). The practice of SEA is uneven across the administrative scale. SEA is mainly focused
on national (federal) and regional (state) level with little evidence in the local (territory) level
(Marsden and Ashe 2006).
SEA is being used as the routine or ‘tick-box’ procedure by the Australian government to
fast-track the development process (avoiding EIA as much as possible) and aiding quick-
decision making which can be evident from the nature of amendment of the EPBC act in
2006. Australian policy-makers have yet to determine whether PPPs should seek to advance
sustainable development or merely take the concept into account (Kelly et al. 2012). SEA is
only focused and successful in the fisheries sector, reflecting the distinctive authoritative
boundary between the national and state government. While the marine environment’s
responsibility vested upon the federal, local and regional level development decision is under
the scrutiny of state and territory government. Which reflects why fisheries sector are kept
mandatory and the rest of the sectors are still voluntary (Coffey et al. 2011; Marsden 2013b).
On the other hand the high number of successful SEA cases in fisheries sector provides the
example that SEA can be extremely successful, whether it is mandatory or voluntary; and this
success depends on the willingness of the stakeholders and inputs within the process (Ashe
and Marsden 2011). Furthermore, environmental consideration often outweighed among
other social and economic development imperatives placed upon the decision table
(Stoeglehner et al. 2010).
Gap between SEA Theory and Practice
The objective of the EU SEA directive was to adopt environmental consideration early in the
decision making system (Therivel 2010). Whereas the objective of the SEA is not mentioned
explicitly under the EPBC act (Marsden 2013b). The purpose of the SEA is portrayed in the
theory as to improve the strategic decision through identifying the best options from the
alternatives which have the least environmental impact and ensuring the legitimacy of the
policy making via increased stakeholder participation (Fischer 2007; Therivel 2010;
Fundingsland Tetlow and Hanusch 2012). In the case of Australia, SEA is being currently
used as a routine approach which has been discussed earlier. Not considering the alternatives
and initiating SEAs after fixing the location of the project has reported in Australia (Ashe and
The purpose of ‘tiering’ in the theory of SEA and EU directive is to assess and filter the
negative impact earlier and conduct EIA (if necessary) on those matters which has not been
assessed under SEA (Therivel 2010). The purpose of ‘tiering’ is different in the context
Australia. Australian government assesses policies, programs and plans to fast-track the
individual project level decision through not conducting EIA at all for those projects which
has been already evaluated at a higher tier (Marsden 2013b). In addition, SEA is focused
mainly on the plans and couple of policies. Programs level SEA is still scarce (Department of
Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities 2013b). Furthermore SEA
is still ‘reactive’ in fisheries sector and ‘proactive’ for spatial development decision.
Moreover the same proponent who is responsible in developing the PPPs is the responsible
authority for conducting the SEA and submitting to the Department of Environment for
appraisal (Ashe and Marsden 2011).
Simon Marsden (the leading researcher about Strategic Environmental Assessment’s
evolution and practice in Australia) has explored the weakness and strength of SEA practice
is Australia through a number of studies (Marsden 2002; Marsden and Ashe 2006; Ashe and
Marsden 2011; Marsden 2013a; 2013b) . Which can be summarized as the following - SEA
practice in Australia is still ad hoc and voluntary in nature. It is underutilized despite the
presence of specific legislation for SEA. The use of the SEA in state and territory level is
very uneven. SEA system is highly dependent on ministerial discretion. It has limitations on
the scope of environmental matters that may be considered in SEA. Additionally, SEA
practice throughout Australia is scattered, inconsistent and often absent. It lacks institutional,
enforcement and political support. Weak guidelines through the EPBC act echoes the still
undefined concept of SEA in Australia. In contrast the successful implementation in the
fisheries sector through providing appropriate incentives to the proponents and through legal
bindings reflects the fact that, success of SEA depends on the willingness and input of the
relevant stakeholders. To overcome the present situation the measures suggested by the
researchers and practitioners are - SEA in Australia will only be enhanced if the legislated
purpose is more explicitly focused on environmental protection, if it is applied earlier to a
reasonable range of alternative sites, and if the Australian Government continues to play an
active role in relation to MNES (matters of national environmental signiﬁcance).
Ashe, J. and Marsden, S. (2011). SEA in Australia. In B. Sadler et al., eds. Handbook of Strategic
Environmental Assessment. Oxfordshire, UK: Earthscan, pp. 21–35.
Coffey, B., Fitzsimons, J.A. and Gormly, R. (2011). Strategic Public Land Use Assessment and
Planning in Victoria, Australia: Four Decades of Trailblazing but Where to from here? Land Use
Policy, 28(1), pp.306–313.
Dalal-Clayton, D.B. and Sadler, B. (2005). Strategic Environmental Assessment: A Sourcebook and
Reference Guide to International Experience. 1st ed. London, UK: Earthscan.
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. (2013a). A Guide to
Undertaking Strategic Assessments. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. (2013b). Strategic
Assessment Prospectus. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.
Fischer, T.B. (2007). The Theory and Practice of Strategic Environmental Assessment: Towards a
More Systematic Approach. 1st ed. London, UK & Sterling, USA: Earthscan.
Fundingsland Tetlow, M. and Hanusch, M. (2012). Strategic Environmental Assessment: The State of
the Art. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 30(1), pp.15–24.
Kelly, A.H., Jackson, T. and Williams, P. (2012). Strategic environmental Assessment: Lessons for
New South Wales, Australia, from Scottish practice. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal,
Marsden, S. (2013a). Protecting Heritage on Australia’s Coasts: A Role for Strategic Environmental
Assessment? Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 15(03), p.1350014.
Marsden, S. (2002). Strategic Environmental Assessment and Fisheries Management in Australia:
How Effective is the Commonwealth Legal Framework. In S. Dovers & S. Marsden, eds.
Strategic Environmental Assessment in Australasia. Sydney, Australia: The Federation Press, pp.
Marsden, S. (2013b). Strategic Environmental Assessment in Australian Land-Use Planning.
Environmental and Planning Law Journal, 30(5), pp.422–433.
Marsden, S. and Ashe, J. (2006). Strategic Environmental Assessment Legislation in Australian States
and Territories. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 13(4), pp.205–215.
Stoeglehner, G., Morrison-Saunders, A. and Early, G. (2010). Comparing Legislative Mechanisms for
SEA Screening and Decision-Making: Austrian and Australian Experiences. Journal of
Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 12(04), pp.399–423.
Therivel, R. (2010). Strategic Environmental Assessment in Action. 2nd ed. London, UK &
Washington, USA: Earthscan.