Scott Morrison has elevated an obscure agricultural chemicals bill to one of the top two legislative priorities for the Coalition in 2019, according to his office.
Speaking to ABC News Breakfast on Monday, the prime minister cited “environmental legislation … [that] is important for native species” as among the government’s priorities for the new year, second only to national security.
There is no major environmental legislation before parliament and the prime minister’s office was unable to immediately identify what he was referring to.
Morrison’s comments also caught conservation groups offguard.
Five hours later, a spokesman for Morrison told Guardian Australia the prime minister was “referring to the agricultural and veterinary chemicals legislation amendment”, described as relating to “cosmetic testing”.
The bill – introduced by the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, in October – makes minor changes to the regulatory scheme for agricultural and veterinary chemicals to provide simpler processes for chemicals of low concern.
The federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, Tim Beshara, said the bill “is about reducing the so-called red tape involved in getting farm chemicals into the market. It’s got stuff-all to do with native species.”
He told Guardian Australia: “It’s a bill so lowly in stature that when it was introduced into the house, no one other than the agriculture minister spoke on it and the government haven’t even brought it on for a vote in the house, let alone tried to get it through the Senate.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation nature campaigner, Jess Abrahams, said the bill was “not particularly” important for native species.
He said streamlined processes “may have some benefit in controlling some invasive species” but the bill was not a priority compared with “a new generation of stronger national environment laws and an independent Environment Protection Authority”.
“As far as we are aware, the main government policy relating to native species is the plan for a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, which would have the effect of weakening environmental protection.
“The government also has a targeted review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for farmers, which could also weaken protection of the environment.”
Labor and the Coalition have been focusing on environmental issues, both announcing packages worth more than $200m to revitalise the world heritage-listed Kakadu national park. On Monday Littleproud promised a $5m recovery package and review of the Murray-Darling River crisis.
In May the former environment minister Josh Frydenberg wrote an opinion piece trumpeting the appointment of a threatened species commissioner.
He said 99.7% of about 2,000 of the threatened species and ecological communities listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act had a recovery plan or conservation advice in place.
In September a Senate inquiry investigating fauna extinctions heard that a large proportion of staff working in threatened species management rated the government’s performance as “poor or very poor”.
The union representing staff said 91.3% of those who responded to a survey said the government was doing poorly or very poorly in fulfilling domestic and international obligations to conserve threatened fauna and 87% believed the adequacy of Australia’s national environment laws – the EPBC act – was poor or very poor.
Beshara accused the government of failing its statutory responsibility to fund and implement endangered species recovery plans. He called on the government to put “some serious funding towards saving some endangered critters and plants”.
“I am more than happy to brief the prime minister on what the government needs to do for native species if he would like.
“He might be surprised to know that the Darling River crisis is only one of many ecological crises happening in Australia right now on his watch. It’s a real mess out there.”