Thursday, 3 September 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading
Australia's natural heritage and resources are under unprecedented threat. The Great Barrier Reef has again been subject to another bleaching event and its beauty and its contribution to Australia is again under threat. The Murray-Darling river system is probably the worst that it has been in our nation's history, and all of those towns and communities that rely on the Murray-Darling as a source of economic support but also as a source of human support are now at risk. Our coastlines are subject to unprecedented erosion, and some of that is occurring in places where it has never occurred in the past. We've just come through one of the most prolonged and the deepest droughts in our nation's history. And, unfortunately, we have the unenviable record of the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world. There's something that's not right with the way our environmental protection laws are working, and they need to change.
The effect of this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020, is to ignore some of the recommendations that have been made by the very thorough review that has just been undertaken by Graeme Samuel into the principal mechanism that the Commonwealth parliament has to protect and conserve our environment, and that is, of course, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The effect of this bill will be to amend the EPBC Act to allow further devolution of decision-making about environmental approvals to the states and territories under bilateral approval agreements. Many are worried that the effect of this is going to be to water down some of those protections that we have at a Commonwealth level to make sure, firstly, that if someone is proposing a development in a particular area where there are threatened or protected species or that is a conservation area then they don't do any damage to protected species and the like, and, secondly, that they meet all of the conditions that are put on the development and are part of the consent. The Samuel review points out that that scheme is not working in the way that it should, and to further devolve that check and balance and that decision-making really does endanger the protection of our environment and the purpose for which the act was established. Remember that I said earlier that we have the highest rate of mammal extinctions of any nation in the world, and the purpose of the EPBC Act is to actually reduce that rate of extinction—to stop that rate of extinction—because the act is specifically put there to protect threatened species and endangered species. And this bill will water down that protection.
It doesn't make sense for the government to ignore this independent review and the very thorough recommendations that were made by Graeme Samuel. In his independent review, Graeme Samuel, in the opening words, points out for people just what a parlous state the environmental approval process at a federal level is in in Australia, when he says:
Australia's natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. … The impact of climate change on the environment is building, and will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline.
He goes on to state:
The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.
Now, when you're faced with a report like that—when you're faced with a summary of the stock and the measures that you have, as a government, to protect and conserve our natural environment—you don't go the opposite way and water down some of those protections, which is exactly what many are worried this bill will do.
The second element of the EPBC Act and its ineffectiveness relates to the approval process. Recently, the shadow minister has been very effective in highlighting the problems we've seen in the process of approvals since this government came to office. They were uncovered by the Auditor-General's report into approvals under the EPBC Act. They paint a very damning picture of this government's approach to those approvals and to making sure approvals are made in a timely fashion, abide by the provisions of the act, conserve and protect our native heritage, and, importantly, are policed.
The Auditor-General's report found there has been a 510 per cent increase in the average delay for approvals since 2014—that is, since this government came to office. Seventy-five per cent of the decisions that are made under the EPBC Act contain errors or are not compliant. That's a serious problem not only for environmental conservation and protection but for people who are investing in the proponents of developments and activities in our country that generate economic activity and support jobs. If they're faced with the prospect of a 510 per cent increase in the delay for an approval, then that's not good for our economy. We all know why this has occurred. We can pinpoint why this has occurred. It's because, when this government came to office, they slashed, burned and cut through the department, the staff and the expertise employed to do this job in making sure that we had a timely process for approvals, making sure the conditions under the act were met, and, importantly, making sure that when consents were made that those consents were policed and the outcomes were assured. We're not getting that from this government.
It's been identified by the Auditor-General through his report, it's been identified by Graeme Samuel in his report and it's been pointed out quite effectively by the shadow minister, so all Australians now know that this is a serious issue. We all know that the act is not working. It's not fit for purpose and it's not doing its job. And yet, this government completely ignores many of those recommendations and goes against the tone of the Samuel review in particular. It's not meeting the purpose of assessing projects in a timely manner, of compliance with conditions that have been put in place or of protecting our environment.
The Samuel review made a number of recommendations. It made important recommendations about the establishment of national environment standards. A focus on the core Commonwealth responsibilities under the act was the establishment of regional landscape plans. He was very scathing of the government's approach and the department's approach to consultation with First Nations Australians under this particular act. He described it as tokenism—that is, a tick-and-flick exercise where the views of Indigenous Australians were not genuinely taken into account.
If you want to know who are the best experts on environmental conservation, the best people that have the longest history of conserving for, caring for and nurturing our land, then look no further than the local Aboriginal population in a particular area. They've had tens of thousands of years of connection with that land and that environment, and they wouldn't have survived that long unless they knew how to conserve and protect that environment so that it sustained life into the future. They are the best advisers on environmental protection, and yet we see that there's nothing more than tokenism in the approach that's taken by government under this act with First Australians. That has to change. That simply has to change if we're going to make sure that we conserve our environment into the future.
The report points out that there's serious problems of duplication, and I know that is what the government would say this issue and this bill go to. But, if you're doing that on the basis of trying to water down the protections that are put in place—particularly around protected species and threatened species, which are the Commonwealth's responsibility; it hangs from the Constitution and the laws that were put in place from the international covenants that we signed up to—and you're trying to water down that check that, importantly, occurs at the federal level, that's not acting in the interests of the environment and that's not making the law fit for purpose.
The review also talks about the importance of environmental offsets and how they've been poorly designed and implemented, and it also points out that, in Professor Samuel's view, the department is simply too weak. In particular, it's too weak on compliance and making sure that the conditions that are put in place for environmental approvals are actually met by the proponents of those proposals as the projects come to light. This is a serious issue, and it's something that's been identified by the Labor Party for some years now in the consultations that we've undertaken with the Australian people. That's why at the last election we had a policy to deal with this issue, and that was the establishment of a national environmental watchdog—an EPA, if you like—to make sure that conditions under the EPBC Act are met and complied with and that there are stiff penalties for people who don't do so.
The Samuel report also makes some recommendations about immediate reform that can happen straightaway, and that's what this government's trying to do. They're trying to use that as the basis for this. But they've taken perhaps one per cent of what Graeme Samuel has said and ignored 99 per cent of the recommendations for immediate action, and that's why Labor will oppose this bill.
Principal among those recommendations for immediate action is the establishment of national environmental standards, clear rules for how decisions are made and contribute to outcomes for the environment, and making sure that they are binding and enforceable and developed in consultation with Indigenous Australians and with the state and territory governments. Here's an immediate step that Samuel has recommended that the government can take, and they would get Labor's approval to do so, yet they've completely ignored that important recommendation from the report.
That really highlights that the government isn't serious about fixing these problems that have been identified by the Samuel review. The government really isn't serious about working in a cooperative manner on environmental conservation and protection and trying to get some bipartisanship on this issue of environmental protection in Australia. If they were serious about it then they would act on some of those recommendations that Samuel made for immediate attention. Instead, the government chose to ignore those recommendations.
What we've got here is a rehash of a failed proposal, a failed bill that was put into the parliament back in the era of the Abbott government. It rehashes that old approach of a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals and fails to deliver on necessary environmental protection, and that is why I and my Labor colleagues are not supportive of this particular provision.
I again reiterate the importance of a national environment protection agency. Labor has been very strong on this and on pointing out that, if the government were serious about this compliance issue under the EPBC Act, they would seriously look at that. Again, this is another area where we could achieve bipartisanship and work together for the conservation of the environment.
In conclusion, we're opposing this bill. I'm speaking in support of the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister and encouraging the government to end this divide, to end this ridiculous war on environmental protection that's gone on in this country for too long, and to try and work in a bipartisan manner. Let's start with the recommendations of the Samuel review so that we get a fair-dinkum approach to environmental protection and improve the operation of the EPBC Act for all Australians.