Parliamentary speeches

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 - Second Reading

June 23, 2021

It was my pleasure to be in the chamber for the contribution by my friend the member for Macnamara—in particular, for the proposition with which he ended his remarks. The question he asked is a question that everyone who has the privilege to stand in this place and in the other place should be able to answer: did we make decisions that led to a better future? Did we make decisions that left a legacy that's worth passing on to future generations? This debate really puts that question into a very stark focus, and it puts the positions of Labor and the present government into stark contrast.

The principal act that we're discussing now—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act—is an act that requires attention and amendment. I think all of us in this place would recognise that it's no longer fit for purpose—that great purpose of recognising, firstly, that there are things that are of national environmental significance. That's in part because of commitments we have made as a nation and in part because, frankly, of the inherent nature of our precious natural environment—our flora and our fauna; the habitats and biodiversity; and the things that I would hope make the land of this country so magical and important to each and every one of us. These are things that need to be centre of attention for any national government.

But here we have a national government that won't listen to the call articulated by the member for Macnamara. In its eight long years it has been unable to articulate a sense of a better future in any aspect of its performance. Most profoundly, that is so in terms of how it plans to safeguard our environment for future generations. I will touch on climate as well, because, obviously—and as you would know, Deputy Speaker Claydon—that's something which underpins this debate. But, in terms of how this government is dealing with its responsibilities—or failing to deal with its responsibilities—to protect matters national environmental significance, its performance is nothing short of woeful.

The proposal that's before us contained in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 will take us backwards, not forwards. It's a sorry record already and this would be worse. So I join with my Labor colleagues in opposing this legislation, which would weaken environmental protection in Australia. I will also make remarks in support of the second reading amendment which has been moved by the member for Griffith, the shadow minister. It really goes to the heart of this debate, a debate that government members seem unwilling to join—or perhaps they're incapable of joining it. That's really about the challenge of a national government in taking responsibility—a challenge that this government either fails to embrace or falters in its embrace, getting there only after having exhausted every other option. I hope that this government, after the other options are exhausted in this regard, will come on board.

There is actually a report which should have informed this legislation and which does provide a very good guide to what a decent and concerned national government would be doing to update this act and to put in place a regulatory framework that is fit for purpose, with enforcement and audit mechanisms which are independent and fit for purpose. This would allow us to continue down the path of securing economic growth that's sustainable and securing jobs without sacrificing the environment.

What did we see today? We saw the Prime Minister, through the screen, seeming to think that his role is somehow to play chicken with our responsibilities to the natural environment and to set tests for Labor. These are tests that, frankly, he would not set, much less pass, for himself. This is because he is a man who will not take responsibility for doing almost any aspect of his job, who continues to deflect and obfuscate when he needs to lead—nowhere more so than in this regard. The truth is that when it comes to the preservation of the national environment and, indeed, dealing with environmental approvals and investment in the job consequences that relate to those, the record of this government after eight long years is a sorry one.

And the fact is we're continuing to fall further behind on both of these indices: on the issue of protection of the environment, where we are becoming world leaders in all the wrong areas in terms of species extinction and habitat destruction; and, at the same time, we're not doing so well in terms of securing investment. Perhaps if we had a government that was interested in talking and perhaps if we had a minister who was interested in constructive engagement, we might also be sending signals to business about how things are to be done. We might be sending signals to the Australian community that we have a government that's mature enough to recognise these are issues that are inherently in the national interest. They are intergenerational questions, and surely this requires at least the pretence of engaging, firstly, with the review process that has led to this legislation and, secondly, with other parties in the parliament.

Because we are falling so much further behind, because the climate crisis deepens daily, this demands a sense of urgency, but, instead of this sense of urgency, this distance of determination, we see from this minister truculence at best, a refusal to see things as they are, much less the imagination to see things as they should be for future generations. The last few days have been terrible for our precious natural environment in Australia. We often say that a week is a long time in politics. I think all of us recognise that the past few days are making that aphorism true again for all the wrong reasons. The member for New England, Barnaby Joyce, has just become Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, and this signals still further intransigence, indeed, denial, when it comes to climate change; a position that is out of step with every state and territory—Labor states and conservative states. It's out of step with almost every significant business and organisation in Australia, and, as the Prime Minister should well know from his visit to the G7, it's a position that's out of step with all our major trading partners.

And it doesn't end with their position on emissions, because last night in the Senate we saw another signal of the resurgence of these climate deniers within Australia's government, with an attack on water policy and an attack on what seems to be an agreed framework to preserve and progress the Darling Basin. I know my friend the member for Kingston, and presumably all South Australian members, would be horrified about this—horrified about the substance; horrified about the impact on businesses, the environment and individuals in South Australia and elsewhere; and also horrified about the process—because this is a government that is seemingly incapable of following any of its own rules.

Just the night before last, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee declared the Great Barrier Reef in danger. Minister Ley seems upset about the process within UNESCO which has led to this declaration, but perhaps instead of this, instead of more truculence, she should look to her own responsibilities, like getting the Reef 2050 Plan updated, like recognising that there have been three bleaching events in the last five years and like fighting for the reef and all the communities and the jobs that depend on it and its health. Arguing about process with UNESCO could not be further from the point—nor, bizarrely, is seemingly to claim credit for decisions made by the Fraser government, as she did in question time yesterday. Is that the best Australia's environment minister can do—to hark back to the seventies and eighties?

Winning an argument around the cabinet table on the reef itself and perhaps some climate action more broadly might be more useful. With each passing day the case for action on climate gets stronger and the costs of continued inaction become more clear. While the minister argues pointlessly with UNESCO and implies political motivations on their part, she misses the point, which is not that Australia has been singled out somehow but that we can't take the reef for granted. Surely that's not hard to see, if not for its innate significance then for the many thousands of Queensland jobs that depend on it.

When what passes for debate in this Morrison-Joyce government is whether it's preferable to reach net zero by 2050 or whether it's something we should avoid like the plague, words fail me. What has preference got to do with it? We are dealing with a question that is existential. We have a prime minister who suggests one thing when he's at the G7, but here he's either incapable of insisting on, or unwilling to insist on, what needs to be done. This is the context in which this bill has been brought on for debate. This in itself is both an admission of failure and a demonstration of the strength of the ideological commitment that sustains this tired and dysfunctional government.

This bill has been part of a legislative package which includes another bill before the Senate, which itself is essentially a cut-and-paste copy of legislation introduced in 2014. Since then a lot has changed in Australia and for its natural environment, but some things just stay the same—like the rhetoric these reactionaries deploy around 'green tape', 'one-stop shops' and, more recently, 'single-touch approvals'. It is striking, though, how little progress the minister has made in respect of this agenda. Perhaps that's because this government is not interested in bringing people together, listening to experts—even the ones they commission themselves—or carefully weighing up and balancing competing considerations. Instead, they prefer this endless culture war, vice signalling, always seeking to divide or to find someone to blame or to hide behind, and never delivering in the national interest nor taking responsibility, even when the stakes are so high.

The final report of the Samuel review described our current trajectory as 'unsustainable'. The report states:

The impact of climate change on the environment will exacerbate pressures and contribute to further decline. In its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats.

Sadly, for Australians today, for our children and for their children, nor is our current government up to facing up to these threats, and they stand condemned for that. As the member for Macnamara said, everyone in this place should be able to say they worked to leave a better future. Members voting for this bill, which will weaken environmental protections in the context of continued habitat destruction and species extinction, can't make that claim, and they should be ashamed of that.

The Samuel review—the second review of the substantive act—has been completed, but it's not being progressed. The review found that the act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environment matters that are important for the nation. How's that going right now? This is a significant finding and a damning indictment of this government's stewardship of our precious and unique natural environment, and the problem is being compounded through this bill. While Professor Samuel urged the government not to cherry-pick from amongst his 38 recommendations, that is exactly what this 'minister against the environment' has done. She has turned a cohesive, interconnected set of recommendations into a partial and partisan proposition, taking us back to 2014, when the challenge today is so much more urgent.

What's frustrating is that this needn't be such a divisive issue. Labor has sought to be constructive and to be open to dialogue, but this hasn't been reciprocated, and, of course, it can't be at any price. We on this side of the House will not ignore the national responsibility—indeed, the imperative—to safeguard our environment for future generations. The bill before us would, unfortunately, do just that. It would ignore this responsibility.

I want to touch on another matter briefly, and that is the ANAO report of last year, which showed an extraordinary record of failure when it comes to decision-making under the act. This is a problem of the minister's making, which she seeks to hide from. The delays in decision-making are because of her administrative failings. They are having shocking consequences for all parties in this, yet she won't confront that. She should, as we would. But, more fundamentally, she should withdraw this bad bill and work with us to deliver strong national environment standards and an independent, strongly resourced cop on the beat. Only by doing these three things can we all say to the people we are privileged to represent in this place that we have done what we needed to do to leave our country better, by reason of our actions, than it was before we came here. This is urgent. It can't wait. The minister should reconsider her position.