Monday, 16 June 2014
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014; Consideration in Detail
by leave—I move government amendments (1) to (3):
(1) Schedule 3, page 13 (after line 9), after item 2, insert:
2A Subsection 48A(1)
After "described in subsection (2) or (3)", insert ", or referred to in subsection (2A),".
2B Subsection 48A(1)
After "subsection (2)" (second occurring), insert ", (2A)".
2C After subsection 48A(2)
(2A) A bilateral agreement including a declaration that is described in section 46 and that covers an action described in section 24D or 24E must include the following undertakings by the State or Territory:
(a) that the appropriate State or Territory Minister will obtain the advice of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development if the taking of the action, or a class of actions that includes the action, is likely to have a significant impact on water resources, including any impacts of associated salt production and/or salinity;
(b) that, in deciding whether or not to approve the taking of the action or a class of actions that includes the action, the decision maker will take into account any relevant advice obtained from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development under the agreement.
(2B) To avoid doubt, the fact that a bilateral agreement contains the undertakings mentioned in subsection (2A) does not limit the ability of the appropriate State or Territory Minister to request advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development.
Note: See subsection 505D(2).
2D After paragraph 505D(1)(b)
(ba) at the request of the Environment Minister—to provide advice to the Environment Minister about the operation of a bilateral agreement including a declaration that:
(i) is described in section 46 or 47; and
(ii) covers an action described in section 24D or 24E;
(2) Schedule 3, item 5, page 13 (line 15), before "The", insert "(1)".
(3) Schedule 3, item 5, page 13 (after line 18), at the end of the item, add:
(2) The amendments made by items 2A, 2B and 2C of this Part apply in relation to an action that is approved in accordance with a management arrangement or authorisation process that is a bilaterally accredited management arrangement or bilaterally accredited authorisation process for the purposes of a bilateral agreement on or after the day this item commences, regardless of when the agreement is entered into.
I introduce these amendments to Australia's national environment law to ensure the continued protection of Australia's water resources from coal seam gas and large coalmining development. The Australian government recently introduced a bill that amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the EPBC Act, to support the implementation of the Australian government's one-stop shop reform for environmental approvals. The bill includes an amendment to allow states and territories to make approval decisions in relation to the water trigger.
I have been carefully considering the Australian government's amendments in relation to the one-stop shop and the water trigger. I have met with the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, on a number of occasions to discuss the concerns that my local community have in relation to coal-seam gas development. I impressed upon him that it is of utmost importance that the community has confidence in the one-stop shop and the approval decisions made by the states and territories for CSG and large coalmining projects.
To make sure that the states and territories maintain high environmental standards when making decisions relating to the water trigger, I have introduced two amendments. The first amendment will make it mandatory for states and territories making approval decisions under bilateral agreements to seek and take into account the advice—and this is very important—of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. The second amendment gives the independent expert scientific committee an additional function and allows the federal environment minister to request its supplementary advice on high-risk coal seam gas and large coalmining developments assessed under the one-stop shop. The Commonwealth minister can ask the IESC if their advice has been adequately considered.
My amendments ensure two things. Firstly, under bilateral agreements, decision makers must seek or take into account the advice of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. Currently in some instances this is not the case. The second amendment gives the IESC an additional function and, importantly, gives the federal environment minister the ultimate say and indeed oversight of this. An example would be, as I said, if the IESC does not believe their advice and opinion has been taken into account. I believe these two amendments strengthen not only the bill before us today but indeed the water trigger legislation passed by the previous parliament. Water is crucial. It is everything with regard to food production and a lot of other things. It affects our daily life.
There was a lot of concern in my community on this issue, including in Bentley, as has previously been mentioned in this chamber. This water trigger legislation, along with my two amendments, strengthens the protection of our waterways from CSG mining. The assurance framework included in the bill has evaluations or audits against the state and territory commitments in the bilateral agreements, transitional and five-yearly reviews of bilateral agreements, reporting mechanisms, ongoing monitoring, continuous improvement mechanisms and ultimately a call-in power for the Commonwealth environment minister. The call-in power will allow the Commonwealth environment minister to take back a project before it is approved by a state or territory if the project will result in or is likely to result in serious or irreversible environmental damage and a breach of the agreement. In extreme circumstances the minister has the power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an entitlement agreement. I commend these amendments to the House.
I too support the amendments moved by the member for Page, but can I point out to him it is too little too late. There is no point putting a bandaid on a gaping wound, and that is what you are proposing to do today. The fact is that you and your party are huge supporters of coal seam gas mining on the North Coast of New South Wales, and this does nothing to allay the fears of people in your community and in my community and the extent of concerns about unconventional gas mining. In fact, just last weekend at the National Party conference, which I am sure the member for Page was at, he would have heard the Leader of the Nationals and the Deputy Premier slag off at people that were protesting at Bentley. That is what you and your party think of people who oppose coal seam gas mining. The fact is that you are a member of a party that proactively pushes coal seam gas mining right across the North coast of New South Wales.
There are changes being made to water down the water trigger. What we put in place when we were in government was a very important initiative to protect water resources throughout the country. The actions we took in extending the water trigger were very important to people in my electorate and indeed to people in your electorate, member for Page. What you voted for tonight took that away. You took away the provisions in terms of looking at water and coal seam gas mining. This bandaid does not repair that at all. In fact, it does nothing—it makes it worse. Tonight you have voted to hand all of those environmental powers to state governments or—God forbid—some councils.
You made reference to Bentley. We all know that Bentley is in Richmond Valley shire. We know that the National Party mayor of Richmond Valley Council is full-on keen for coal seam gas mining. What you voted for tonight means either your pro-CSG National Party state government or your pro-CSG Richmond Valley Council is going to give a big tick to coal seam gas mining at Bentley. So keep in mind what you voted for, and disregard the bandaid amendments that you have put forward.
If you want to talk about Bentley, we know that the decision on an exploration licence is going to be made by 25 June. That is pretty close in terms of the decision making and the impacts there. We saw thousands of people at Bentley come out to protest the exploration licence there and we are going to see thousands again. So I think that you need to be true to your constituents who are very worried about the exploration licence at Bentley and what that means.
These amendments are not actually going to secure anything. You have taken away so much by voting for this bill tonight. By voting to actually delegate approval responsibilities to the states and the councils as well, you have taken away the capacity for national oversight across a whole range of very important issues. Your attempt to put a bandaid response in this legislation is not going to have any effect at all in stopping harmful coal seam gas mining or in having any oversight of it. We have to look at all of those particular factors within the context of this bill.
You cannot vote for something and then pretend that the couple of minor, little amendments that you have moved mean that somehow it is not that bad. Well, it is that bad. It is that bad because you have effectively voted to hand over approval powers to a state government who, quite frankly, we know are environmental vandals. The New South Wales state government are environmental vandals; everyone knows that. It is a real concern in terms of their actions, from allowing shooting in national parks right across to their pro coal seam gas mining agenda. Their vandalism is very widespread. It includes some of their rezoning and not protecting koala habitats. There are a huge array of issues on which the state government has failed the people of New South Wales. I think that in our area and in others they will be held to account come the state election next March.
The member for Page has tonight voted to say, 'Yes, you're environmental vandals but we'll give this power to you or we'll give it to the councils.' Now, most councils just do not have the resources to be able to deal with issues such as this. They just do not have the staff, the scientists, the bureaucrats and the encompassing framework that the federal government has to look at all of these particular ramifications effectively. So it is irresponsible to hand it to them as well. Potentially, as I said, we could see some councils making decisions in relation to coal seam gas mining or even uranium mining. For goodness sake, how irresponsible is that?
The member for Page can stand here tonight and move as many amendments as he likes. The fact is that what he voted for is absolutely destructive. Your constituents—and I know what they want because they are my constituents too—want you to stop unconventional gas mining and any unconventional mining on the North Coast, but you and your party continue to pursue it. We saw your leader at the conference on the weekend denigrate and ridicule those of us who stood against it. The fact is the National Party are pro coal seam gas mining and you confirmed it by voting for this bill tonight.
On behalf of the government, I present the explanatory memorandum in relation to the amendments moved by the member for Page. I make some brief comments on the amendments. The member for Page has moved two amendments, which are aimed at, and will deliver, an increase in the role of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development, known as the IESC. I hope that all members of this House can support the amendments. Not only do the amendments strengthen this legislation; they strengthen the role of the IESC and the safeguard system throughout the entire Commonwealth and state framework. As a consequence of this, the states will be subject to more rigorous standards than has ever been the case.
We have discussed these amendments not just with the New South Wales farmers but also with the National Farmers Federation, the Queensland government and the New South Wales government. I must say that the state governments have accepted in good grace the lifting of the standards to which they are subject and to which they will be subject. In particular, the member for Page has been a great advocate and a true parliamentarian in the course of this process. He has helped in the crafting and the design of the legislative amendments and he has advocated a policy position that is common sense. I think that this strengthens the process significantly.
To summarise, two steps are being encompassed in the amendments before the House today. Firstly, this set of amendments will ensure that state and territory decision makers must—and I repeat 'must'—seek and take into account the advice of the IESC. This is achieved by making it mandatory for bilateral agreements to include this requirement. This is a standard which was never there under the previous government. It is there now and it will remain there so long as we are responsible for this legislation. In other words, these are the toughest standards in relation to the protection of water that Australia has ever had. Secondly, this legislation also allows the environment minister at a federal level to request from the IESC information on the operation of the bilateral agreement in relation to the water trigger. For example, this could include advice on the extent to which a state or territory has assessed the impacts of the development and has considered the initial advice of the IESC.
I want to make one correction for the sake of the House. I mentioned earlier that this would last until the bioregional assessments were complete. I want to clarify that it will in fact last in perpetuity and not just until the bioregional assessments are completed. There is no sunset provision. I apologise if there was any inadvertence on my behalf.
In summary, let me make the very simple point that the member for Page, on behalf of the government, has set out these amendments. He has argued for additional protections for the water resources of Australia, in particular the subterranean water resources contained within aquifers and basins. He and the government together, working with the farming community and the states, produced these two amendments. For the first time ever, states will be subject to a requirement, if they are to operate under bilateral agreements, that state and territory decision makers must seek, and take into account, the advice of the ISC. All up, these are valuable amendments, which produce additional protection to water resources—the most protection that has ever been given under Australian law. I thank the member and I commend the amendments.
This is a piece of choreographed theatre of which Andrew Lloyd Webber would be proud. This is astounding. The government has come in and said the existing national protections that apply at the federal level against things like coal seam gas mining are about to be taken away once and for all. Instead, under the legislation, we are going to allow state or even local governments to approve projects that would normally be assessed against federal standards. Then, in a rearguard action—because the government knows that the community is breathing down its neck about coal seam gas—it comes in and says: 'I'll tell you what we'll do. We won't keep those high levels of protections—we're still going to remove them all, but we'll just add in one little one that takes you about a third of the way to where we were before.'
When you consider this amendment together with the legislation that we are about to pass, what it will mean is this: yes, a state minister has to obtain advice, but it is now going to be the case that that very same state minister gets to determine whether those conditions have been met. It might even be a local government that gets to determine it, and that might even be the case where the state government is the one conducting the proposal—the proponent. In other words, under this amendment and the legislation, when you read the two together, a state government can come along and say: 'We are the proponent for this coal seam gas project, and we are going to determine whether it meets federal standards, and the only obligation on us now is to go and seek some advice. Well, we sought it and we're going to approve it, and there's nothing you can do.'
If you are really concerned about protecting the community against the adverse impacts of coal seam gas, then you would keep the existing legislation and the water trigger that is embodied in it. These amendments, as choreographed as they are, make a bad piece of legislation slightly better, and so they will be supported. But anyone who really cared about protecting the water table and protecting the community from the impact of coal seam gas would be voting against this piece of legislation in the first place. I think everyone knows that these amendments would not be here, were it not for the wide cross-section of Australians from all walks of life who are coming out and saying, 'Hang on, this government we voted for is not representing us when it comes to protecting our farmland and is not representing us when it comes to protecting us against the adverse impact of coal seam gas.' This is a choreographed attempt to hold at bay some of that support, but I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the communities right across this country, who are campaigning to protect their land and their water against the impacts of coal seam gas and unconventional gas, know that this is not good enough and they know that the only reason that this is happening is they are out there day after day fighting to protect their land and their water. The Greens will continue to stand with them and continue to condemn this coalition government for voting to strip away federal protections, including the water trigger, and hand over to state and local governments the power to determine whether coal seam gas and unconventional gas mining can go ahead.
The member for Melbourne talked about Andrew Lloyd Webber, and we have just heard from the phantom of the opera. Certainly, in the last parliament he was the phantom of the parliament. He would float around here like some greenie spectre making sure that every bit of legislation had a green tinge to it. I will pay him one due: at least he was consistent—consistently bad, nonetheless, but at least he was consistent. We always knew where the member for Melbourne was coming from; we always knew what angle he would take. I pay him that respect. But we did not know where the member for Richmond was coming from.
During the last election campaign, there were some very mischievous ads placed in the local press against the Nationals candidate for Richmond, Matthew Fraser, that mixed up state and federal issues to scare the daylights out of the people of Richmond on what the National Party stood for. It was mischievous, if not reckless, in the extreme. The member for Page is a really good member. You would not have seen the previous member for Page, Janelle Saffin, ever go against her party. You would not have seen that and you certainly will not see the current member for Richmond go against her party, because to do so would mean instant expulsion. I must give credit to the member for Page because—unlike the member for Melbourne who said this was a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre—he has courageously advocated to improve the legislation. That is what really good backbenchers do: they advocate for legislation that has already been discussed by the party room. The member for Page has gone out and introduced in consultation with the Minister for the Environment—who is absolutely getting on with the job of ticking off on green projects that will improve business and industry, while at the same time placing those environmental safeguards in place—to make sure the environmental standards of his electorate and the good farming folk he represents are going to be met.
The amendments that the member for Page has come up with are very good: they improve the legislation before the House. The two amendments will boost the role of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on coal seam gas and large coalmining development. That is what we want—we want good legislation. We want amendments which are going to tighten and strengthen those water triggers which are so important. We all know that. I have coal seam gas mining exploration licences being called on in the Riverina, particularly around Hillston. I have to say that, in consultation with state government representatives—through the member for Murrumbidgee, Adrian Piccoli, and through the Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson—they have put those developments back. They have put the licensing exploration back. That is what National Party members do—in consultation with our coalition colleagues, the Liberal Party, we look at what has happened and then, in consultation, we get better legislation. We get better improvements. We make amendments, as the member for Page has done.
The first amendment will ensure that that state and territory decision-makers must seek and take into account the advice of the IESC. This is achieved by making it compulsory for bilateral agreements to include this requirement. Secondly, we will allow the environment minister to request advice from the IESC about the operation of a bilateral agreement in relation to the water trigger. This could include advice on the extent to which the state or territory has assessed the impacts and consequences of the development and considered the initial advice of the IESC. The Minister for the Environment has consulted with NSW Farmers, the National Farmers' Federation, and the Queensland and New South Wales governments—because that is what this side of government does. That is what the federal coalition does. We consult. We never heard any consultation from those on the other side in the last six years—particularly in the last term when there was a hung parliament, and particularly when it came down to issues which affected farmland, agriculture, and regional and rural Australia. All we ever saw—all we ever heard from them—was what the member for Melbourne wanted. We had this green tinge placed over every bit of legislation. And did we ever hear from the member for Richmond about wanting to get her electorate going forward—about her electorate actually looking at things, in relation to weighing up industry as well as the environment, and reaching a satisfactory conclusion? No, we did not. That is why I commend the member for Page for his amendments.
I thank the honourable Parliamentary Secretary. The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. The question now is that the amendments moved by the honourable member for Page be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.