Thursday, 3 September 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading
[by video link] The Morrison government is taking a chainsaw to our environment laws. They're making it easier for their corporate mates in mining, oil and gas to get their projects approved, which will put our environment and wildlife at risk. With this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020, the federal government is passing their responsibilities for protecting our environment onto the states, where there are weaker laws and fewer environmental protections. We know that state governments are often in the pocket of developers and big corporations. We need more environmental protections, not less. Just this year we have seen what happens when our environmental laws are too weak: Rio Tinto blows up a 40,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in the Juukan Gorge. We also know what happens when we have strong environmental protections. It is federal environmental protections that stopped the Franklin River from being dammed, and they protected our World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef from being drilled for oil. We can't let the Prime Minister trash our environment. We need strong national environmental standards and an independent regulator who can properly enforce environmental protections. The Greens fought this bill when Tony Abbott introduced it in 2014 and we will fight it again now.
We are in an extinction crisis. We are in an environment and climate emergency. We are being warned that unless we take action in less than the next few years we could start off a chain reaction that will mean climate change is unstoppable and that will take with it large parts of our environment. We have seen just over this summer one billion creatures lose their lives, an unprecedented devastation to our natural areas. We are also seeing a massive, massive attack on our water supply, on the basics of life, as big corporations get given the green light by state and federal governments to do things that they just should not be able to do.
We know from our history that it is often state governments who will be the most co-opted by big corporations. They will have the weakest protections, they're the ones who get the donations from the developers and the corporations, and they're the ones that are most likely to give the green light to devastating projects. Whether it's the Queensland Labor government giving the go-ahead to devastating coalmines in the Carmichael basin or Liberal governments who never cared about the environment in the first place, we need strong national laws to protect our environment.
It's not just the Greens saying this. It's not just the Australian public saying this. An independent review that the government itself commissioned of its own environment laws has said that the existing environment laws are not strong enough; they have holes in them big enough to drive a bulldozer through. The review has found very clearly that our environment laws don't do the job of protecting our threatened species or our environment. You would think that, when you have national laws called 'the environment protection laws', you could look in there and find something, somewhere, in clear black and white, that protected the environment. But you don't, at the moment, under our laws. They are just not working.
The government's own independent review said it. The independent review said that we not only need to change those laws, to put in place strong environmental standards, but we need a strong cop on the beat. In other words, once we've got these standards, we also then need to make sure that there is someone who will hold government and corporations to account to make sure that those laws aren't breached, so that the laws themselves actually get enforced. And only then, the independent review said, might you consider allowing someone other than the Commonwealth government to make the decision.
But what does the Morrison government do? The Morrison government comes along and says: 'Well, we'll ignore the bit in the report that says we need tougher environmental standards, we'll ignore the bit that says we need a cop on the beat, but what we will do is hand over all of our powers to the state governments and let them make decisions.' Make no mistake: if this bill passes, our environment will suffer. And all of the things that people power and federal governments have protected before—like stopping the Franklin from being dammed—will now be under threat, and it will be the state government that gets the final say.
The federal government—all that the minister has to hang her hat on with this is to say: 'It's okay. You can trust me.' 'You can trust us,' the minister says. She says: 'It's alright. In this bill, we'll enable the government to call in an action for approval in appropriate circumstances.' I'm sorry, Minister, but I don't trust you. I have absolutely no doubt that, if it came down to a choice between the Commonwealth stepping in and overriding a state government or just letting the state government and corporations do what they want to do, the government would sit on their hands. Just as this government sat on its hands as the Juukan Gorge was destroyed, so they will in the future as well.
Passing a bill on the basis that a government who has so far shown a complete disregard for the environment might do something in the future is the wrong way to go. But we hear more from the minister. She says: 'It's okay. You can pass this bill because what we'll do after the bill is passed is put in place some of those strong protections that the independent review said were missing from our laws.' In other words, the minister says: 'Trust me. If you pass this bill, I'll then go and negotiate some separate agreements with the states, and I'll hope that they abide by them.' Come on! Do you think we came down in the last shower? You haven't even written these supposed standards. You haven't even got one state to agree to it. And why on earth is a state going to tie their hands after the bill has been passed?
If the government was serious about protecting our environment, it would have come to the table with a piece of legislation that included strong protections and included strong deals that it had reached with the states. I don't necessarily accept the idea that we can hand off powers to the states, because I don't trust them either. But no-one believes the idea the government is peddling—'It's okay. You can trust us. We'll put in some protections in the future'. No-one believes that, Minister. No-one believes that, Prime Minister.
If nothing else—even if you don't agree with the Greens, the Australian public and the independent review that we need strong standards—at an absolute minimum you would think we should care about proper process. The EPBC Act is undergoing its statutory 10-year review. We should let the expert panel complete its final report before we make any new changes. That is a very simple and uncontroversial proposition. Even if you disagree with the Greens about how strong the standards for protecting our environment need to be, at the least the statutory review should be allowed to conclude. No-one could have any objections to that. The interim report said there are a number of changes that need to be made, and I've mentioned three that have been specifically identified. But you don't go and change a law in the middle of a review about that law—unless you are this government, which wants to destroy our environment even further and hand over more power to big corporations and state governments.
And, even if you disagree with the Greens about the level of environmental protection that we need in this country, we should also, at a minimum, have this bill looked at by a Senate inquiry. The Greens have been trying in the Senate to get a Senate inquiry into this bill. That should be uncontroversial. It's what the Senate does. It's part of the reason that the Senate is there. It inquires into bills. We have been trying to get a Senate inquiry into this bill. Instead, the government has said no. The government is blocking this bill from even going to an inquiry. What are you trying to hide? Is there more in this bill that we haven't yet uncovered? Would you be worried that, if we sent the bill to a Senate inquiry, it is going to show that it is even worse than we feared? You've got these wonderful arguments in place about why the only thing you as a government can do to deal with the environment is dust off a bill that Tony Abbott tried to get through the parliament. If, after all the time you've had in power to think about how you are going to protect the environment, that is all you can do, why won't you let the bill be looked at by a Senate inquiry? What are you afraid of?
If you're trying to create new standards that serve as a backdrop to the integrity of state and territory laws, let us have time to consider if they are fit for purpose before we pass this legislation. We should be reviewing these hypothetical national environment standards that you tell us are contained in this bill—which you think are such strong protections—before we give the minister a blank cheque to sign all of the Commonwealth powers over to the states. That is what this bill is trying to do—give the states a blank cheque and hand Commonwealth responsibility over to the states. This is one of the biggest moves we would see in environmental law for decades. And the government doesn't even want it to go to inquiry. The government won't even let an inquiry look at this legislation.
We are seeing something very worrying under the cover of the coronavirus crisis. We are seeing this government say: 'We'll never let a good crisis go to waste. We're going to use this opportunity to try and ram through legislation,' They are pretending it has something to do with jobs, when it really doesn't; it's just about making sure the donors get what they paid for by allowing corporations to have more say. We are seeing the government use the coronavirus crisis as a cover for attacks on democracy and attacks on our environment. This is part of the bull-headed rush-through of the government's deregulatory agenda. We are seeing the government attempting to remove people's rights at work by pushing through the emergency industrial relations powers that were put in place to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The government is now extending them. People who don't even get JobKeeper are now subject to having their rights taken away even though they get no support. The government is also trying to ram through its pro-gas agenda. That would be a climate crime and a climate catastrophe. We know gas is as dirty as coal. The government is trying to use the cover of the coronavirus crisis to say—