Environment Protection Bill - speech in Parliament

Mr GILES (Scullin) (18:23): I also rise to speak in opposition to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. As previous speakers have noted, this bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to facilitate the delegation of environmental approval powers to state and local governments. This delegation would include world heritage sites, wetlands of international importance, migratory species, endangered species in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, nuclear activities and approvals under the water trigger amendment.

I think, for the record, it is worth highlighting the initial purpose of the substantive act, which is aimed at assisting a cooperative implementation of Australia's international environmental responsibilities—responsibilities that I note that this government does not seek us to walk away from formally—to provide for ecologically sustainable development through the protection of the environment. Such a focus is, regrettably, absent in the legislation before the House now. This is focussed on the Commonwealth interest in the nine matters of national environmental significance that are set out in the act.

The act provides that projects which are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance—a controlled action—are subject to an assessment and an approval process by the Commonwealth environment minister. Project proponents must refer their proposals to the minister, who will then decide whether the proposal is a controlled action within the terms of the act. Where this is the case, the minister must choose how the impacts of the proposed action are to be assessed. This is how the Commonwealth performs its vital role in ensuring that Australia's obligations under international environmental treaties are met.

In respect of this bill, the minister baldly asserted:

State and territory governments … have processes in place for evaluating the environmental impacts of development proposals consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, …

The minister offered no evidence then, and no evidence has been offered subsequently in this debate, to substantiate this assertion. I suspect this is so because there is none.

Mr Hunt: Queensland has legislated changes!

Mr GILES: Queensland has, yes. There has been some work done in exploring this issue lately and, of course, there is the current reference to the House environment committee. Proponents are yet to offer much in the way of persuasive evidence about the costs of so-called green tape.

There is a pattern here. The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee's March 2013 report found:

While the committee heard claims that the Commonwealth approval process was causing inefficiency, that processes between the Commonwealth and the states and territories were duplicated, and that project proponents were labouring underneath the weight of uncertainty,10 there was no substantive evidence presented to support these claims.

Admittedly, the minister is part of a government that has a curious relationship with evidence. Where there is evidence of climate change, it ignores it. Where there is no evidence of state and territory, and now local governments, of having appropriate processes in place—I have to state for the minister's benefit—it pretends that these exist.

I suspect that this minister, in his heart of hearts, knows this but, like the Minister for Industry, it seems that he is held hostage by others in the government. One need only note the untimely execution of the coalition's much vaunted 'one million solar panels policy' the subject of so much sad commentary this week.

There is some precedent for the coalition not wanting to debate ideas that contrast with its own. I note that when this present act was originally debated in this place in 1999, it was done so on the same day as the GST tax package. Debate for both was gagged and rammed through the parliament. There was, as was pointed out then, a deal with the Australian Democrats. This was done with undue haste then, and we are seeing a similar devil-may-care attitude by those opposite now.

The premise of this bill is that the Commonwealth should take a back seat on matters pertaining to the environment. This is an outdated view. There is a well-established precedent for the Commonwealth to take a leadership role when it comes to the environment. You could say that it is part of our 'knitting' in the terms of our Prime Minister. Since the Tasmanian dams case in 1983, Australians have expected, and continue to expect, the Commonwealth government to stand up for the environment against the behaviour of state and territory governments when actions are detrimental to our natural heritage. There has been a settlement with the Australian people about this. It is a settlement system that does allow for development and protects the environment.

This is always a tricky equation, especially as it is so hard to quantify environmental impacts and so to strike appropriate balances in every case. Since successive High Court decisions in the evolution of our system over the years—our system of federation—the nature of state and local governments today is that they have vastly reduced options for raising revenue independently. No doubt, this is a matter being discussed at the Australian Local Government Association conference down the road as we speak. This makes these governments more readily inclined to approve projects for easy access to cash without taking the longer-term view of the impact on the environment.

As then Prime Minister Paul Keating said at a premiers conference in 1990, 'Never stand between a state premier and a bucket of money.' It seems that the current government does not have the courage or the convictions of Keating to look such premiers in the eye and tell them 'no' or, at least, not without putting in place proper protections.

Mr Hunt: But this was your policy! Julia Gillard brought it in!

Mr GILES: I think it was a very different policy and we will go to the history in a minute, minister! I look forward to hearing that, and I wish the minister was as assertive around the cabinet table as he has been today in this debate!

The environment should, of course, be seen as more than just a blockage to accessing buckets of money. State and local governments and the community in general have an important role to play in the decision-making process when it comes to projects affecting the environment. But final decisions for matters of national significance—matters going to our international obligations—should rest with the Commonwealth government. We only have one Great Barrier Reef, one Daintree rainforest and one Kakadu. The list of such places goes on for now, but once they are gone they are gone forever.

These landmarks should not be subject to the budgetary whims of state and local governments—or indeed any vested interest. It is worth noting that state, and particularly local, governments do not always have the resources or, in the case of various coalition state governments, the will to conduct thorough assessments of environmental impacts. There are obvious conflicts of interests in the many instances where a state government is also a project proponent. We have seen evidence of that sort of conflict of interest with the Western Australian government's shark cull and with the Victorian government's cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park.

Of course state governments have their own environmental departments, but, when these same governments are advancing a certain position, their department's advice is often under question. So an uncompromised Commonwealth government taking a dispassionate decision—away from the instant concerns—is no bad thing. Under this government's changes, Premier Newman will be able to approve dredging and dumping on the Great Barrier Reef; Premier Barnett, of shark cull fame, will have the final say over the Ningaloo Reef; and Premier Hodgman will be in charge of Tasmania's iconic World Heritage listed forests. Talk about putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank!

I note recent comments from UNESCO, in relation to the Great Barrier Reef, about these proposed changes:

The GBRMPA draft SA—

'SA' stands for 'strategic assessment'—

underlines concerns expressed by the Committee regarding serious decline in the condition of the GBR, including in coral recruitment and reef building across extensive parts of the property, and that a business as usual approach to managing the property is not an option.

It further indicates that climate change remains the most significant threat to the long-term health of the reef. The SA concludes that the loss of resilience is not attributable to any single cause but to the effect of cumulative impacts and that management is not keeping pace with these.

In relation to the Abbot Point expansion, also in Queensland, UNESCO stated:

The proposed dumping of dredged material from the proposed Abbot Point development is also noted with concern. Indeed, this was approved, despite an indication that less impacting disposal alternatives may exist …

Increased attention is needed to complete the required work on reviewing governance of the property and the transfer of decision-making powers from the Federal Level to the State Level appears premature until the governance requirements to implement the LTPSD—

that is the long-term plan for sustainable development—

have been considered.

UNESCO's concerns should be heeded. They should be treated with the utmost seriousness.

In government, Labor sought to work with state and territory governments to streamline this process while maintaining our commitment to meeting environmental safeguards. Throughout these negotiations it became clear that some states could not be trusted with Australia's unique environment. Labor remains in favour of streamlining environmental approval processes for major projects—but only where final approvals on matters of national environmental significance remain with the Commonwealth government. The Australian government has a responsibility to protect Australia's precious environment. The EPBC Act, in particular, accounts for matters of national environmental significance and our international obligations. But the Abbott government has no interest in protecting Australia's environment for the future.

Since coming to government, the minister and our recently self-described 'conservationist' Prime Minister have made bad decision upon bad decision, hurting our environment. These bad decisions have generally been based on no evidence. This is a government that does not mean what is says. On the one hand, the act binds the Australian government to various world treaties to protect the environment. On the other hand, this amendment bill installs a mechanism to effectively undermine these commitments. This amendment bill puts our environment at risk of irreparable damage by proposing to leave decisions of national environmental significance to state premiers.

I agree with the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Office that a real priority for an environment minister in the Australian government should be a mature examination of how environmental laws can respond to the pressing concerns of this century—challenges such as biodiversity loss, land use change and climate change responses—and fulfil our national and international obligations while getting the balance right and ensuring that we maintain Australia's high quality of life. As an aside, I note that the environmental defenders offices around Australia have had massive funding cuts—$10 million—another symbol of this government's threadbare environmental credentials.

Going back to the challenge that we should be facing, our environmental management challenge of the 21st century: streamlining can and should be a part of this where we are certain we have the balance right between removing barriers to economic growth and protecting our natural environment. I emphasise the words 'where we are certain'—because all too often there will not be a second chance to get things right. Now is the time to carefully consider the evidence, not to reflexively lower environmental standards and roll back protections.

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