Thursday, 3 September 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading
When you think of Australia's most iconic natural places, overwhelmingly they've been protected under Commonwealth laws: Kakadu National Park, the Daintree, the Franklin, the Great Barrier Reef. All of those iconic places that are so important to our natural environment—but which also, of course, have become economic assets in terms of the tourism sector creating jobs—have been protected by the Commonwealth, usually in opposition to respective state governments of different political persuasions. It is, indeed, a powerful reminder that government can make good and lasting change if they have a long-term vision for the nation and not just a focus on themselves in the here and now. In the later discussions I had with the great Bob Hawke, he would always go through his environmental record, which he was so proud of, in the Hawke Labor government. It is a powerful reminder that what those opposite propose is actually contrary to the national interest, contrary to the protection of our natural environment, contrary to the creation of jobs and contrary to economic growth.
We need environmental laws in this nation which protect our natural surroundings and attract investment. What that means is that we need to have clear rules of engagement for business and we need fast, simple processes. It's very clear that, if you have a proposal for an investment, what you need to do is to have proper environmental assessments that are rigorous but that don't create unnecessary delay, because time is money when it comes to investment. But you need to make sure that there's confidence from the public in those processes, and what's being proposed by this government will undermine confidence in the system. What's being proposed are Abbott-era laws which were rejected in 2014 and should be rejected in 2020.
The minister claims that her amendments are 'supported by the directions outlined in the interim report carried out by Professor Graeme Samuel this year'. It's certainly true that Professor Samuel has described the EPBC Act as 'ineffective'. You certainly have no argument from this side of the House that we could look at improvements to the act. But this isn't about improving the act. This isn't about progress. This is about looking backwards. It's very disrespectful as well, I believe, that this very fine Australian, Graeme Samuel—someone who's distinguished and whom I've worked with in a range of ways over many years—has produced this report and it's being trashed and not really looked at.
It's not true that Professor Samuel thought the solution was for the federal government to walk away from its responsibilities to approve or refuse development applications which may have significant environmental impacts. Indeed, Professor Samuel recommended that the government introduce 'granular and measurable' national environmental standards which would be the foundation of new environmental laws. He recommended that there be a development and accreditation process for states and territories to be able to grant environmental approvals, in some cases, and in accordance with the national environmental standards. He recommended the establishment of an independent cop on the beat to develop national environmental standards and ensure the rules aren't being broken. He didn't say that the Commonwealth should simply pass the buck and hand over environmental approvals to states without any rules and without any scrutiny. In fact, he warned against this very approach that the government is taking. He said there was significant concern about the ability of states and territories to uphold the national interest in making these decisions, when the Abbott government tried this in 2014.
When Professor Samuel's interim report was released, the minister promised national environmental standards would be legislated at the same time as greater powers were given to the states—standards that Graeme Samuel describes as the foundation of the reforms that he's proposed. The government has legislation but hasn't even bothered to draft any national standards. All they've done is try to hand over responsibility for environmental approvals to the state and territories. It's a bit like their national cabinet, which isn't national and isn't a cabinet. They want to take responsibility for anything good that happens, but anything else is someone else's fault. They just hand over their responsibility to the states and territories and then complain after the event.
What we need is national environmental standards that don't allow for complaint after mistakes have been made but fix things in advance, because, if you're complaining, by definition it's too late. And we saw that, tragically, recently in Western Australia, where Indigenous heritage was destroyed in such a graphic way. Once it's done, it's done. Once there's drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, it's done. Once the Franklin stops flowing, it can't be restarted. Once the Daintree is destroyed, you can't remake it. You can't fix what our natural environment takes tens of thousands of years, and sometimes millions of years, to produce. That's why we need to get it right. That's why the responsibility on these issues is so important, because it goes beyond our time in this place; it goes beyond our time on this earth. What we do in this place makes a difference for a long period of time.
Key to the Samuel review interim report was a recommendation for an independent regulator to develop these standards and to ensure compliance. The report states that a regulator should not be subject to actual or implied direction from the Commonwealth minister. That's not a problem, because the regulator isn't subject to any direction, given it doesn't exist under this legislation. States can approve development applications, but there are no rules on what can or can't be approved, there is no scope for enforcing those rules if they are ever developed and there is no compliance monitoring. Samuel also highlighted the failure of the EPBC Act to recognise and value Indigenous knowledge and views, and recommended the national environmental standards include a specific standard on best practice Indigenous engagement. The legislation ignores that too.
Under the government's amendments, on matters of national significance, development approvals will be made by states and territories instead of the federal government. We should be clear about what that means. There are eight matters of national environmental significance currently protected by the EPBC Act. Samuel recommended strengthening protections for them. They are: World Heritage properties, like Kakadu; national heritage places, like Fraser Island; wetlands of international importance, like the Coorong and its Lower Lakes; migratory species protected under international agreements, like the humpback whale; listed threatened species, like the Leadbeater's possum; Commonwealth marine areas, like those around Lord Howe Island; the magnificent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and nuclear actions, including uranium mines. We have international agreements on these areas. We effectively agree that any development will be consistent with principles to protect the environment covered under these categories. That's an important responsibility to the international community, but we have a greater one, and that's to future generations. That's to our kids and our grandkids to come, for some of us, we hope—not too soon! We believe that, when we look at those issues, we do understand how significant it is.
In conclusion, let's have a look at what the problems have been with the EPBC Act and some of its functions, because these amendments won't fix any of them. They won't create more jobs. They won't approve appropriate developments more quickly or give inappropriate ones a quick refusal so they can move on. They won't create the certainty that's needed to drive greater investment. This government knows that that's the case.
Under this government, approval delays for development projects have blown out by more than 500 per cent. In 79 per cent of environmental decisions, they've made an error, and 95 per cent of decisions are actually late. It's no coincidence that they've cut the environment department budget by 40 per cent. So the government have made cuts to the department, and the assessments aren't taking place in a timely manner, with a blowout by more than 500 per cent, but their solution isn't to fix what's gone wrong on their watch; their solution is to just hand it over to someone else—to the states and territories.
As well, under this proposal, companies wanting to get approval for developments will have to navigate 16 different sets of rules across the country. It will make the processes more complex, when what we need is more simplicity. It will add to delays, not reduce them. It will add to the complexity, not simplify it. And it will be not only a bad outcome for all those seeking to do business but also a bad outcome for the environment.
I was proud to be the shadow environment minister some time ago in this place. At that time, I spoke about Australia facing an extinction crisis. That crisis has got worse. It has got worse, not better. Climate change is having a dramatic effect on our flora and our fauna. I said then that we were going backwards. Habitat was being lost. Species were disappearing. But what we're seeing is in fact an extinction crisis in this nation. It's something that should be of great concern to us, and I know Australians are concerned about these issues. You only have to look at koalas and the impact that the bushfires had on them. But something else happened then too, which is that, internationally, there were more funds raised to protect koalas in Australia than were raised to protect people. That's not to say that, internationally, people weren't concerned about the impact the bushfires had on Australians. But what it did signify was how much our great nation is identified with our natural assets, be they physical, in the form of these places that we need to protect, or be they natural, as in our fauna—our koalas, our kangaroos—and our flora that make this place special on earth. We have an extraordinary natural environment that we need to cherish, value and protect.
This legislation is bad legislation. Labor will be opposing it, and we're right to do so. The government should go back, actually have a look at what Graeme Samuel has said and go back to the drawing board if they are at all serious.