House debates

Thursday, 3 September 2020


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

1:02 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak on the amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It gives me no great pleasure to say that the Labor Party will not be supporting this amendment to this important piece of legislation, the EPBC Act, although I think every Labor member in this place wants to support an amendment to it. I take this opportunity to commend the previous speaker, the member for Kingsford Smith, on his contribution to this debate and, of course, I thank the shadow minister, the member for Griffith, who has done an outstanding job of steering difficult pieces of legislation through in a constructive but principled way. I support her and the Labor Party's position to oppose this piece of legislation.

The EPBC Act needs updating. The Samuel review was part of the 10-year statutory requirement to update and review this piece of legislation. We desperately need to update the EPBC Act, but the bill that the government has presented in this place on this day is not the bill that we in this country need and will accept. The bill before the parliament will not protect our environment, it will not protect jobs and it will not protect the natural wonders that Australia is so proud of. Our environmental interests in this country align with our economic interests in this country. What we need and is good for the environment is good for the economy. A research paper conducted in my office by my parliamentary intern found that almost 300,000 Australians work in some form of job connected to the environment. The environment is a job-creating machine, and we need to protect it.

In this contribution, I'm going to outline why the EPBC Act is important and why this review is so important. I'm going to outline parts of what is in this bill, and I'm then going to go to what actually should be done in this place. Before I do, I just want to point out one fact—that not one member of the government, not one member of the coalition, is standing up to speak on this bill. Not one member of the government is standing up to support this EPBC Act amendment. It shows that their heart is not in it. It shows that they don't want to stand up and be associated with this bill. This bill is bad for our environment, bad for jobs, bad for our country. That's why not one member of the government has the guts to stand up and defend it. But we will fight it in this place.

Why is the EPBC Act so important? To start this part of my contribution, I want to thank the environmentalists, including local environmentalists in Macnamara, who have, at every stage of my time as the member for Macnamara, engaged constructively, positively and passionately with me about protection for the environment. I especially want to thank members of the Australian Conservation Foundation locally who have helped and made submissions not only to the EPBC Act review, the Samuel review, but also to me personally for my contribution on this bill. I thank them at this moment.

The EPBC Act is important because it is crucial to protecting our natural environment and our incredibly valuable ecosystems in this country. Healthy Australians can only exist in a healthy Australian natural environment, and the current EPBC Act has failed to protect Australia's natural wonders. We have the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. Our water and air quality are declining. Our planet is rapidly warming and it is already having devastating consequences. We saw bushfires increase in intensity over summer. We're seeing severe droughts. We are in an ecological crisis, and things are only getting worse. This should not be happening in a developed country, when we have the resources to protect our most valuable assets. The current EPBC Act does not protect the things it is supposed to protect, and it needs to be strengthened. It needs to be monitored. It needs to be effectively enforced by an independent regulator.

But revisiting and resubmitting this failed bill from 2014, from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is an insult to the 30,000 Australians who submitted constructively to the Samuel review that the government undertook itself and who made submissions to help strengthen our environmental laws. Now is the time to bring people together on this bill. Now is the time to constructively bring people—scientists, businesses, conservationists, Indigenous Australians and people who have a stake in our environment—together and to listen to the experts. But of course that is too far removed from the capabilities of this government. The bill before us is a far cry and is far removed from what Professor Samuel is recommending in his interim report. Instead of listening to the interim report of Professor Samuel, the government has chosen to put forward a bill that will only make a bad situation worse. At the very heart of the Samuel review comes a clear recommendation that the Commonwealth cannot cede environmental standards to the states and that what we need in this country is a clear and strong set of national environmental standards led and introduced by the federal government. But of course, instead of listening to Professor Samuel, this bill hands over much of the decision-making to the states and does not set out strong and clear federal environmental standards, because we know this government has no strong and clear federal environmental standards. It is happy to trash our environment and watch it be destroyed.

To make matters worse, when the minister wants to bypass the states she will be able to call in decisions under this bill but has removed the transparency and accountability measures that are so desperately needed in decision-making in the environmental space at the moment. To summarise, she can hand over to the states but, when she doesn't want to, she's going to do it secretly and without transparency.

That leads me to another part of what the Samuel review has recommended, which is to improve trust transparency in the act, including publishing all materials related to approval decisions. The Samuel review recognises that there isn't enough transparency on this piece of legislation but, instead of increasing transparency and accountability in environmental decision-making, the government is looking to reduce it. They are looking to reduce their own accountability and their own transparency in this much-needed space. At the last election Labor committed to introducing a federal environmental protections agency, an independent agency, that would help oversee that environmental standards are upheld. Professor Samuel recommended that they needed an independent cop on the beat, but this government doesn't want oversight. They don't want an independent agency; they want to continue with secretive and unaccountable environmental decisions.

As the member for Kingsford Smith pointed out very eloquently in his contribution, the interim report has also recommended that there be a specific standard on best-practice Indigenous engagement in this bill. We were reminded why this is so important recently when Rio Tinto destroyed the irreplaceable Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia. And, unsurprisingly, there is no reference to a specific standard on best practice on Indigenous engagement in this bill.

So what do we want to see? We want to see strong national environmental standards. We agree with Professor Samuel that the way to strengthen our environment is not to cede control to the states but for the federal government to have a strong and clear idea of what it is to protect our environment and the standards of environmental protection that are needed in this country. The Prime Minister and the minister have all of the conditions that they could possibly wish for at their disposal. We have an opposition who have said consistently that we will engage with the government. We will work with Professor Samuel and the review. We will work with agriculture. We will work with the resources sector, with businesses, with traditional owners, with conservationists and with academics. But, like with all things, government is wasted on Scott Morrison and government is wasted on this bunch. They are not interested in improving our national environmental standards. They are not interested in introducing a bill that even listens to their own review. All they're interested in is continuing the ineptitude, the inaction and the devastation that we're seeing in our natural environment. We should be implementing strong national environmental standards. We should be introducing an independent cop on the beat, an independent agency, to help uphold these standards. We should be putting the resources needed to ensure that our federal government agencies have all of the tools at their disposals to ensure that our environmental standards are met and that businesses have certainty and accountability.

The Labor Party will not cede our principle that it is our responsibility in this place to uphold strong environmental laws. The Labor Party's legacy is that we protected Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Franklin. We created Landcare. It is Labor governments that have a record of environmental protection that is to be admired and to be proud of, but the same cannot be said of the Morrison government.

Locally, in Macnamara, at the last election I was pleased to be able to commit the federal Labor Party to one of the largest inner-city urban environmental protection project that we've seen in the last decade. In Elwood, in the heart of my electorate, we had a plan to support the local government and the local council to turn the old Elsternwick Golf Course into a natural environmental wetland to protect local species, to protect local plants and to protect indigenous wildlife. It was one of the proudest and most exciting election commitments that I had, going into the last election. I'm pleased to say that the plans for this environmental protection are going ahead locally, thanks to the work of the local government, the St Kilda eco centre and many of the committed local environmental agencies and organisations, which are working tirelessly. But we are not seeing the same commitment from this federal government to protecting our precious and limited natural wonders.

The member for Kingsford Smith rightly pointed out that our Indigenous Australians are the ones we should be listening to. Locally, the Boonwurrung people, the traditional owners from where I represent and live, used to watch the waterways near the city of Port Phillip, before it became a wetland, before it became a bay. They used to watch the fish population and when the fish population used to decline the Boonwurrung used to stop the fishing from the six Boonwurrung clans, as well as the visiting clans, until the fish had enough time to have their population increase. For thousands of years our traditional owners locally around the country have protected our natural wonders and wildlife. They understand conservation and sustainability.

But, according to this piece of legislation before us today, this government does not. The government have put forward a bill that will not do what the review that they instigated recommends. We need stronger and more formidable environmental protections in this country. The planet is warming. Our species are dying out and we cannot trust the Morrison government to protect our environment.


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