House debates

Thursday, 3 September 2020


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:13 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources) Share this | Hansard source

The amendment moved by the member for Griffith to the motion for the second reading of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020—and I thank her for her thoughtful and professional consideration of the Samuel review—was seconded by the member for Paterson. I take this opportunity to wish the member for Paterson a very happy birthday for today. It's a shame we have her in here, working so hard again, on such a momentous occasion, but she had a lovely bit of cake earlier with some friends on this side and I hope the rest of the day is nice for her.

The Samuel review makes one point absolutely clear, and that is that the EPBC Act, as it stands, is serving neither the natural environment nor industry—neither the future of what really makes Australia a beautiful place nor the industry and jobs that are so important and flow from a timely, effective and efficient approvals process.

An effective EPBC Act is one which strikes the right balance between the protection of our natural environment and the need to encourage economic growth and sustainable jobs. The report by Graeme Samuel which has been referenced so often in this debate today is an interim one and an important one. We will have the final report on this subject in October this year, I trust. So it makes no sense to be bringing this legislation forward at this point in time. Nor has the government been able to mount a coherent case for bringing this legislation forward. On that basis, the opposition will be rejecting it.

No-one will be surprised to learn that the interim report has found that EPBC Act terminology is not clear and concise and is driving confusion and therefore suboptimal outcomes. Nor will they be surprised that the review describes the EPBC Act as archaic—that's why it was important that this review be undertaken. The review says the interrelationships between the EPBC Act and other laws are not clear, and I think most would agree. Every member in this place will surely agree with the review's ambition to restructure and simplify the EPBC Act, but surely no member wants to rush that process and therefore risk getting it wrong. As the Commonwealth's key instrument for environmental oversight and protection, it's too important an act to be rushed, and the consequences of getting it wrong are far too great. It is clear that inadequate departmental resourcing and state-Commonwealth duplication are failing both the environment and our business community. Our biodiversity continues to deteriorate, and the Minerals Council have suggested that delays on greenfields projects can cost an applicant up to $46 million every month. Further, big resources approvals critical to the Australian economy and to sustainable jobs are taking three years on average. That is, of course, in addition to the state based processes.

The call for strong legislated national environmental standards is a welcome one, and I don't think anyone in this place would disagree. The recommendation for devolution to the states is of course more controversial and should be subject to extensive parliamentary and community scrutiny and discussion—again, not a rushed process. Certainly there can be no progress on that front without agreed environmental standards. Devolution is not an evil. No-one is arguing that. Bilaterals make sense. I know the Western Australian government, for example, is very keen on further progressing bilateral agreements. In fact, devolution looks like the most obvious path to ridding ourselves of unnecessary duplication. For that proposal to secure any community support, and indeed broad-ranging support in this place—and we need broad-ranging support in this place, because this is an act which, like any act of parliament, is subject to regular amendment—we need to go on this journey together and get this right together. Then industry will have certainty and people can have confidence in the instrument which protects our natural environment. Building that consensus will not be easy, but it will be made easier if the government is serious about meaningful reform rather than looking for an opportunity to play politics with this very, very important protection for our natural environment. Already the review has found that neither the community nor industry have any trust in the EPBC Act and its processes. That's why independent serious oversight will be necessary, but we have to fix that mistrust. We can't put forward an effective regime if neither industry nor the broader community trust the processes or the legislative backing for those processes. I hope the interim review's focus on legal standing and review will be part of that sensible conversation. I think most people working in industry have at least a perception of ongoing, almost infinite, legal processes getting in the way of sensible development. So we must fix any flaws but also address that perception. We have to have a serious debate about that. We have to have a serious review and look at those frustrations.

With respect to the standing provisions—that is, those which give legal standing to those who are not directly affected by a project—the interim review 'is not yet convinced that extended standings should be curtailed'. It is not convinced that that part of the system is broken. I know that this is not a final conclusion on the review's position, but I think most people will be surprised by that. And I welcome that, because it's one area where I don't think it will be necessary to have a protracted debate. But we'll see what the final report says. Further, the interim report says:

Broad standing remains an important feature of environmental legislation, particularly given the presence of collective harm resulting from damage to environmental or heritage values.

What Graeme Samuel is saying is that we all have a stake in this—where we are directly affected by living close to the project, for example. I think we all do have a stake in this, and I welcome the review's thoughts. The review further points out that the courts already have a capacity to weed out unnecessary and vexatious litigation. That is noted. That includes, of course, cases where the applicant really has no prospect of success. I look forward to the final report and Graeme Samuel's final conclusions on that. The interim report says:

It may though be beneficial for the EPBC Act to require an applicant seeking to rely on the extended standing provisions to demonstrate that they have an arguable case, or that the case raises matters of exceptional public importance before the matter can proceed.

So it is obvious that Graeme Samuel has left his mind open to further thinking on the area of what some might describe as vexatious claims et cetera, which we do know can be problematic for industry and for those workers who rely on it. He further notes:

Full merits review is not advised. Opening decisions on appeal or review to the admission of new documentation or materials for consideration delays decisions without necessarily improving outcomes. It also promotes forum shopping.

I'm very pleased that he is devoting a lot of his time to thinking about these issues.

I trust that environmental activists, who will be celebrating the review's conclusion that the act is not serving the natural environment, will be just as open-minded to all those things the report has identified as being frustrating for investors and business and all those people who rely on that investment. We cannot be cherrypicking the final report when it comes down. If we want to celebrate the flaws on the environmental side, we've also got to take seriously the identification of those matters that are standing in the way of investment. I think that will be critically important. More generally, I trust that they will turn their minds to the fact that the review does conclude—in an interim way, I suppose—that the act is not supporting investment and jobs.

The bill before the House is premature. The government hasn't made the case for the substantive matters in it, nor the timing. That's why the opposition will be rejecting it, and that's why I'm here standing in support of the member for Griffith. If we are going to be successful again, we need to go on this journey together and do it in a most sensible way.

Industries like the resources sector aren't the only groups in this country that will be watching this debate very carefully. So too will those in agriculture, the other area for which I have responsibility in this place. Often, the conflicts are very similar and we need to be mindful of the needs of those investing and working in the agriculture sector, as well. We also need to look again at the opportunities for the agriculture sector. No-one benefits more from sound environmental planning and regulation than those who work our land. They are the people who are being challenged by climate change, more than anyone else. In many senses, given productivity has been flatlining for 10 years, they are probably best placed to use the sensible things we can do here to lift productivity and therefore profitability. Obviously, soil health is chief and key among them.

In March 2019 the agriculture minister announced at the ABARES conference—finally; we dragged him screaming to this—that the government would progress a stewardship package to deal with biodiversity policy. This is now almost seven years on. The government's been very slow getting there. The problem, though, is that we still haven't seen any benefits from that March 2019 announcement, and we are now told that the two key programs being funded under that $34 million package will not commence until 2021. We haven't been given a month in 2020-21, so it may be that, from the announcement to even the beginning of the implementation of this scheme, the period could be 2½ years. This is another example of a government that loves an announcement but is very poor on the follow-through.

I note that a good chunk of that money has gone to the National Farmers Federation to develop some measures for certification of soil. I might have that wrong—I don't have the note in front of me. That would be a wonderful thing if it is happening. But, of course, the NFF, and I say this most respectfully, doesn't have any expertise to do that certification work, so naturally it will be contracting that work out, I would expect—in part to the ANU and, I have no doubt, to others. It makes us wonder in this place how long it will be, after seven years under this government, before we even have a proposal to help farmers improve their soil health, store more carbon, enter that carbon market, which they are not really able to do under this government. Technically, they will say that the opportunity is there. But ask a farmer about the challenge of participating in that carbon market and you will get a very interesting answer. I see the minister at the table smiling in acknowledgement and recognition, I think, of the point I am making.

So, there are some good things we can do for our farmers while also doing good things for our natural environment. The opportunity is there and, just like the Samuel review, we will get there if we are prepared to take the politics out of these things and work together. If we can do that, our farmers will benefit, our resources industry will benefit, the workers who work within it will benefit and, of course, our natural environment will benefit as well.

(Quorum formed)


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