Thursday, 3 September 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I wish they did take (a), member for Paterson! I should say that taking the latter course, the nakedly political route, has the potential to derail the entire process. I think it's really regrettable if that's what they're doing. But that is what they're doing; I regret to say that they're taking the nakedly political route. The bill we're debating today is an attempt to reanimate the corpse of some failed Abbott-era legislation. It's Abbott 2.0.
By the way, this is something that Professor Samuel explicitly warned against in the interim report:
In 2014 the then Australian Government was unable to secure the necessary parliamentary support for the legislative changes required. There was considerable community and stakeholder concern that environmental outcomes were not clearly defined and the states and territories would not be able to uphold the national interest in protecting the environment. A lack of clear environmental (as opposed to process) standards fuelled political differences at the time.
This community concern remains. Submissions to the Review highlighted ongoing concern about the adequacy of state and territory laws, their ability to manage conflicts of interest, and increased environmental risks if the Commonwealth steps away.
It's incredibly disappointing that the government has disregarded the independent reviewer's report in this way. They're well aware that the bill they're now pursuing is unacceptable and is a model that has already been rejected by this parliament.
It didn't have to be this way, as I said. The conditions for reform that the government faces are very favourable. They're in majority government. When the last 10-yearly review was on, Labor was in minority government. This government has the benefit of a collaborative opposition that has expressed, throughout this period, our intention to be cooperative—to consider proposals in good faith. And I've made that point continuously since the interim report was released.
In contrast, when the last 10-yearly report was released, we had a Tony Abbott led opposition, completely obstructive—perhaps the most obstructive in the history of federation—plus a Greens crossbench that had very recently, at that time, shown its unwillingness to do the right thing and instead its preparedness to put politics ahead of the national interest by voting with the Liberals against action on climate change. And, of course, at the time, as Professor Samuel has made clear in his report, last time there was an attempt to undertake reforms of this nature, there were deep community and stakeholder concerns.
What does this government have now? What are the conditions for reform? They've got everyone! Get this: they've got everyone, from the Minerals Council to the BCA to the Farmers Federation to the Australian Conservation Foundation to the Humane Society; they've got the Wilderness Society; they've got WWF; they've got traditional owners; they've got academics; they've got environmental law experts—all making a contribution to this process that Professor Graeme Samuel is undertaking. And they've got Professor Samuel himself, one of, as I said, the nation's most experienced regulators, who is working very hard. Now I don't know if that's going to yield an outcome. But why don't we see if it does? Why don't we see—because everybody wants durability of reform, right? That's what industry wants. That's what everybody wants. They want something that, instead of the chopping and changing and uncertainty, can get broad support and buy-in. And the buy-in point is a point that the minister made when she released the report publicly. So, if we can get that, we have such an opportunity here, because these laws are not up to scratch.
As I've said, we have made very clear that we're open to considering anything serious the government wants to put up that's consistent with the Samuel review. For example, we support the introduction of strong national environmental standards. We want them to be properly made. We want them underpinned by legislation. We've also called for a cop on the beat, which Professor Samuel has recommended.
But why would we vote for the Abbott 2.0 bill? Absolute state control over environmental decision-making would have seen logging in the Daintree, drilling on the reef and the damming of the Franklin. It took Labor in government federally to put a stop to this environmental destruction that was intended to occur. With our natural environment—a driver of tens of thousands of jobs—under greater pressure than ever, the Australian people don't want to see the Commonwealth getting out of the business of protecting the environment, and Professor Samuel's report makes it clear that the Commonwealth should not do so. So why would we commit to supporting the Abbott 2.0 model? We would want to see, from the government, something serious, and of course, as they well know, and as Professor Samuel has said, there has to be a clear role for the Commonwealth under that model.
But the first step is that the interim national environmental standards should be drafted and made public. We should not be asked to vote—as we are being today—on legislative change to support devolution to the other jurisdictions before seeing the content and the detail of the standards that are intended to apply from day one. We think that Graeme Samuel's process is a good opportunity to create standards that have, as the minister said, buy-in. She should see what proposed national environmental standards, if any, that process yields, because agreed standards will, as I said, be much more durable than standards written exclusively by the government and simply imposed in a top-down way. The minister should also give some thought to any proposed regulation-making power, including how to make sure it properly underpins the standards proposed by the review and how it might make sure that those future iterations of the standards do not provide lesser levels of protection than the ones that apply initially.
I should note—and I do want to draw this out and highlight it—that Professor Samuel also talks extensively in the report about Indigenous engagement and cultural heritage and other matters relating to traditional owners. We would hope that these issues would feature very prominently in the work that's being done in relation to drafting standards. I think that that's something that everybody would agree on—that we do want to see strong improvements in making sure that traditional owners are not just consulted but have their authority and their experience properly respected and have the genuine opportunity to be a part of the future of protection for cultural heritage but also engagement in environmental decision-making. In that connection, I might take the opportunity to note that Australians were horrified by the recent destruction at Juukan Gorge, and I encourage all jurisdictions to work together with traditional owners to ensure similar destruction cannot occur in the future.
Turning to the issue of compliance and assurance more broadly, including the cop on the beat that Professor Samuel has recommended, let me make some observations. It is clear that compliance and enforcement are a mess under the Morrison Liberal-National government. Australians deserve to have confidence in how our environment is being managed. We've called on the Morrison government to establish an independent compliance watchdog with teeth that is genuinely independent and, I might add, we'd also want to see from the government what they intend to do about ensuring ongoing parliamentary scrutiny.
Minister Taylor's 'Grassgate' scandal, where he got the now Treasurer to set up a meeting about the environment issue that affected value of his land, is a good example of why an independent watchdog is needed. There's no point in having a toothless watchdog. If you want to see what's happened when watchdogs go wrong, just take a look at the interim inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin—I'm talking about the position, not the holder of it. That position was announced on 1 August last year with much fanfare: 'We're going to create an inspector-general position. It'll be interim at first, but we'll rapidly get together some legislation to give it a statutory basis and proper powers so it can do its job to be a good strong watchdog with teeth. The states are all going to sign up to it, and it's all going to be great.' And here we are a year later, and there's still no statutory basis—in fact it's more than a year later—it's still an interim position with no statutory powers and, from all reports, it's not necessarily getting willing compliance from the states. That's not the fault of the incumbent in the position; it's the fault of the government that created the position and then did not properly empower it. It's a good example as well of government talking a big game on integrity and failing on it, because when they announced the position they said it would be able to refer matters to the Commonwealth integrity commission, a body that still does not exist. The government, in dealing with these standards, should indicate how it intends to secure the states' and territories' willing compliance in relation to any proposed compliance or assurance measures that it puts around environmental standards more broadly.
I also want to make a point about resourcing. Given the government's track record of cutting 40 per cent of the environment department's funding, I expect that this parliament will probably want to understand how Australians could be confident that any reforms would be properly resourced, especially since the government has made clear that no additional support would be provided to the states and territories in the event devolution was to occur. It's a pretty big ask for them. 'You guys do all the work. We won't give you any extra money'—that's the position of the government at this stage. I think, after we've seen the 40 per cent funding cuts and the consequences of those, people would want to know how any compliance or assurance mechanisms or broader reforms would be financed into the future.
Also, as Australians, I think we want reassurance that the unnecessary delays—and I'm talking about the delays caused by cuts and incompetence—could be brought to an end. These remarks are not intended to provide the government with a blank cheque and nor are they intended to be a blueprint for reform or a statement of our future position. We're not in government, and it's up to the government to draft and propose any laws and supporting instruments. As I said, it's not a commitment to vote for future legislation sight unseen. All I'm committing to is nothing more and nothing less than a proper serious, good-faith consideration of anything that the government is willing to put forward that is also serious and consistent with the EPBC review.
I've consistently said since the interim report was released that we would give it proper and sober consideration without cherry-picking. That position stands in contrast, unfortunately, with the government's approach. So Labor will oppose the Morrison government's attempt to rehash former Prime Minister Abbott's failed 2014 environment bill which would harm Australia's natural environment and put jobs and investment at risk. This bill would see more major project delays, more investment uncertainty, more conflict, less trust in decisions and worse outcomes for our natural environment. There are no national environmental standards in this bill, and none have been published, despite them being the foundation and the centrepiece of Professor Graeme Samuel's proposed reforms. With no proposed standards, no independent cop on the beat and no additional funding for the states, despite the extra responsibility, it's just a bill designed for political conflict.
When presented with an opportunity to provide more certainty for jobs and investment in our environment, Scott Morrison chose conflict. If he was serious about securing broad support and durable reform, he would get rid of this bill, sit down at the table, stop breaking promises on national standards and actually work together with stakeholders and the community to deliver something with durability and certainty.