Thursday, 10 September 2015
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015; Second Reading
As I was saying, if you are one of the thousands of Australians who are up at three in the morning providing catering services to those men and women who start early and finish late, whether on site or in transit, making takeaway breakfasts and lunch packs, cleaning on-site accommodation or cleaning hotels, this change is for you. If you are the teachers, the nurses and the doctors working in regional Australia, helping the people working in regional Australia, this change is for you.
If you are the union members of any stripe, I say to you this: the Labor Party are interested in your membership fees; they are not interested in your long-term employment. If they were, they would be supporting this change, because the Greens have publicly stated:
Our strategy is to disrupt and delay key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for industry …
So, every time you see a political ad from the Greens, it is not about the environment. If it were, they would be talking about matters which are doing enormous damage to our flora and fauna: the feral cats that are wiping out entire species; the feral dogs that are destroying livestock for fun, not for food; the feral pigs that are eating to extinction our sea turtle eggs and hatchlings and, in my region, the loggerhead turtles. They are turtles which nest in only two locations in the world, one of them Mon Repos beach, right in the middle of my electorate.
We on this side of the House are the ones improving the environment. It is this government that is allocating money to control feral pigs, to control feral cats and to control wild dogs. When the Greens speak about the Great Barrier Reef or Queensland ports, know that they speak with a forked tongue, because the Greens' aim—the Greens' only aim—is to ensure that Australians do not have a job. That is because the Greens' goal is to destroy industry. The Greens' goal is to close Queensland ports. And they will do anything, say anything and spend anything to ensure that investment in this great nation stops.
We must end the economic vandalism of the Greens, and we must end it now. I commend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015 to the House.
I rise to speak on this amendment bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, because, as a former resource industry executive and as a former resources minister, I believe that how we regulate, how we manage and how at law we provide rights to developers, to conservationists and to communities are extremely important, and the EPBC Act is legislation that has stood the test of time. Good, objective based environmental legislation is an enabler, not a disabler, of investment decisions.
Under this act, in the course of the previous government, we saw in excess of $280 billion worth of investment in our resources sector alone. There was investment on Curtis Island that saw the development of LNG export facilities in the previous speaker's own area. We saw the development of coalmines through Queensland and of gasification, of gas from coal seams, and we have seen the development of massive new export LNG facilities through northern Australia and Western Australia. Iron ore production alone will have gone from 100 million tonnes in the year 2000 to in excess of 800 million tonnes per year from next year. That was all done with the EPBC Act in place.
Why were we able to do that? We were able to do that for seven simple reasons, and these reasons were known to the framers and the creators of that legislation. The framers and creators of that legislation were of course the Howard government.
The EPBC Act creates certainty. It creates certainty for consumers. It creates certainty for investors. It creates certainty for communities. And it creates certainty for environmentalists. It creates certainty because, within the operation of the EPBC Act, there is a process which allows for proper, rigorous testing of arguments and propositions.
It is an open act. People can see how this act is being implemented by Commonwealth departments and by those agencies in states that operate under the delegated authorities from the EPBC Act.
It is transparent. Transparency is a critical element in environmental approvals, and the transparency that is available to communities to see where an approval is and why an approval is is extremely important.
It is practical. It allows for proponents of projects and opponents of projects to argue their case. It allows science to be brought into judgement, and it allows arguments about the economic value of propositions to be taken into account, in the knowledge of environmental costs.
It is flexible, because it operates in every Australian jurisdiction, onshore and offshore, whether it be a coalmine, an iron ore mine or an oil or gas field.
It is efficient. We have seen thousands of decisions made in the short 15 years of the action of this act that have seen the approval of some of the biggest resource projects not simply in the history of our nation but in the world. The close to $80 billion currently being invested on Barrow Island, in Western Australia, by Chevron as the operator of the Gorgon Project is seeing the world's largest single-point resource investment made on decisions that were structured and carefully tuned under the EPBC Act: decisions that protect the turtles, decisions that protect the seagrass, decisions that protect an A-class nature reserve. They are decisions of which we can all be proud. Most importantly, they are decisions which have allowed the world's first and the world's largest commercial carbon dioxide geosequestration project as part of the Barrow Island Gorgon Project. That is something of which both sides in this parliament should be deeply proud. This is a project whose approval began through this system under the Howard government and was concluded under the Rudd and Gillard governments, and the first exports of LNG from that project will occur under the Abbott government.
My word, we should be simply proud of how this act works. We should be seeing these successes as demonstrations that good environmental legislation allows us to create approvals in which communities can have confidence and in which investors can have great confidence.
The EPBC Act has a seventh component which I regard as being extremely important in environmental legislation, and that is completeness. When you have an EPBC Act approval, you know it has been through a rigorous testing process. That is why we have seen over $280 billion of resource investment across our country in every jurisdiction and in every mineral category supporting our exports, supporting our jobs and supporting the best possible environmental decisions. At this time, we see a lot of public contestability around the efficacy of coal exports. I have no compunction in standing in this place and in any community in our country to support our coal mining industry, coal exports, the development of coal mines, the use of coal for energy generation and coal chemistry, so that we can extract the value of coal for the value of current and future generations.
The Adani mine—the Carmichael mine—became contentious as a consequence of a set of administrative procedures that had taken place through the Minister for the Environment's portfolio and of management that placed a conclusive decision in the context of Adani at risk. Quite properly, the minister and Adani—the government and Adani—reached an agreement as to what to do next. That agreement was really simple: let's restart the process, let's spend a few weeks just stopping the clock and restarting the process. I do not join with those journalists who have been, I think, caustically unfair about the judgement that descends on the environment minister, Minister Hunt, as a consequence of that. Indeed, I read one opinion in a weekend paper that said:
… the recent Carmichael decision in the courts, delaying the project, highlights … gross incompetence by a ministerial office…
I do not believe the administrative law shortcoming in this process demonstrates incompetence in the ministerial office at all. This is a complex act; it is hard to administer. People—individuals and environmental groups—have rights and they exercise those rights. In so doing, an administrative flaw was detected that is not fatal and does not damage the integrity of the Carmichael mine. So, with consent, the project proponents and the government stopped the clock and restarted the process. I would expect to see that process restarted within weeks and I hope that it is able to approve that mine. But, of course, that decision is in the hands of the minister, as it should be under this act. It is in the hands of the government and, effectively, it is a decision that will be made on the basis of the best scientific evidence, the best possible advice and in consideration of all the documentation available to the government.
It is a complex act. I can recall when, in the previous government, a decision was made on a small magnetite mine in Tasmania. When I say small, in the context of our overall iron ore exports this was a very, very tiny mine. But a small administrative flaw placed the Shree approval at risk. As a consequence, the Shree mine had to be reconsidered, documents needed to be cited and an approval could not be properly given until the clock, on that occasion, had been appropriately stopped and then restarted. These things happen; they are not fatal.
I stress again, in the course of the last seven or eight years we have seen almost $300 billion, in resource investments alone, approved under the EPBC Act. Let us not weaken this act through this amendment, which removes third party appeal rights. We do not need to weaken it, because the best environmental regulation is strong environmental regulation. It is regulation which allows third parties to offer their view, which allows good science to be brought to bear and which is transparent and ultimately complete in its capacity to make decisions and recommendations.
I am reminded that the threat of third-party appeals does, of course, create a stronger incentive for proponents and governments to adhere to the black letter law of approvals. That is a good thing. It is a good thing because it improves the quality of environmental assessments of major projects. It is not the actual exercise of the power to enforce public rights that matters most, but actually the threat that they will be exercised that brings improved accountability to an approval system that can be plagued by vested interests. I am not naive. I know that environmental activists target the weaknesses and the complexities in this legislation in order to slow down and, where they can, prevent projects. But only a fool would suggest that removing those rights makes this legislation better; it does not. We need to accept that, in our contested world, there are heartfelt views and, on occasions, good science that needs to be brought to the attention of regulators and decision makers.
We should also be minded that, since the EPBC Act commenced in July 2000, nearly 6,000 projects have been processed through the EPBC Act. It says 5,500 on the statistics available to me here. Of these, there have been 33 Federal Court challenges by third parties against only 22 projects. When we look at how those challenges occur, it is worth having in mind that just recently, in the last couple of days, we have seen a decision in the context of another very significant coal mine, a very significant coal mine indeed. That is, the Alpha coal mine in Queensland. As we read in our weekend papers, the Indian company, GDK's, proposed $6 billion Alpha coal mine has survived a legal challenge by environmentalists, clearing another hurdle for the development of the minerals-rich Galilee Basin. That was the headline in TheWeekend Australian newspaper.
Let us look at this in its context. Conservationists challenge an approvals process. A judgement is made that clearly determines that that challenge was both vexatious and without foundation. As a consequence, costs are awarded against the conservationists. Good, because this is the moral hazard that the conservationists and activists run when they take actions which are purely vexatious.
When we have good science and good environmental regulation, we know that we can approve a good thermal coal mine that will generate jobs, most importantly generate coal that will fire power stations that will drive electricity generation that will allow communities in China, in India, in North Asia to thrive. It will allow lights to be lit, food to be cooked, food to be kept cold and communities to operate around our North Asian region as a consequence of our very good, well approved coal mines, coal mines that have a life of 20, 30 even 40 years, coal mines that will be in existence, generating a project and product onto the global marketplace, which will increase living standards not just in Australia but in our region.
I agree with the sentiment of this House that coal mining is not just a good activity and an essential activity to put good clean coal onto the world market to support both our exports but most importantly to support the living standards of people in our North Asian region. To allow us to do that, we need the best environmental approvals process that we can design. As a generation of legislators and parliamentarians, we are blessed in that the design of this act has been done for us. It was done by Robert Hill, it was done by Prime Minister Howard, it was done in a previous parliament and we should not compromise it for the sake of short-term political gain. I think this is a bad amendment and I cannot support it.
I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. Over two years ago we were elected, amongst mandates, to: create safer borders; fix our country's budget black hole; provide certainty to small businesses; and provide a clear direction, a strong direction in relation to our policy related to the environment. The Australian people voted the coalition in on these mandates amongst many others.
It seems timely today that I am here to speak on the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation amendment or the EPBC Act. Our nation has some of the most enduring and stringent environmental laws worldwide and these laws deserve to be respected; they deserve to be observed, not subject to legal sabotage. Let me reassure the House and the people out there that farmers, landowners and any other person whose interests are adversely affected by the decision will continue to have a right to appeal any decision. It is their right as a party who carries a vested interest. For clarity, I want to repeat that: farmers, landowners any other person whose interests are adversely affected by the decision will continue to have the right to appeal any decision. That is what we are enshrining.
However, the environmental groups, those vandals out there who seek to stop any progress, will still have ample opportunity to put forward their evidence and make their case through our rigorous environmental impact assessment process. I am concerned by some of the objectives of those green groups. I want to quote from the Greenpeace Australia report titled: Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom. It says:
Our strategy is to 'disrupt and delay' key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the industry.
Further it goes on to say:
Legal challenges can stop projects outright or can delay them … to buy time to build a much stronger movement and powerful public campaigns. They can also expose the impacts, increase costs (and) raise investor uncertainty and create a powerful platform for public campaigning.
As a government, we had a clear mandate prior to the 2013 election to restore confidence to the Australian people and in particular to those that want to invest in jobs, growth and opportunity for this nation. We as a government have made a decision to protect Australian jobs by removing from the EPBC Act the provision that allows radical green activists to engage in vigilante litigation to stop important economic projects. Section 487 of the EPBC Act is a red carpet for radical activists who have a political but not a legal interest in a development to use aggressive litigation tactics to disrupt and sabotage important projects.
I was astounded to hear the member for Newcastle earlier make commentary in response to these vigilante court cases in saying:
This red carpet is hardly worn, I would suggest.
I would respectfully suggest that the member for Newcastle is incredibly misguided. Radical Greens have begun an emerging trend and are using our Australian court system to sabotage economic projects, sacrificing tens of thousands of Australian jobs in the process—people that would have been the union movement, working in many of those jobs. So she cannot even support her own union membership in the jobs that would be provided.
The government will repeal this provision to return law to the usual position, where somebody with a legitimate interest in commencing a legal action has the standing to do so but somebody who really wants to prosecute a political cause does not. This will take away the congestion from our court system, which is already under significant pressure and lengthy delays. Further pressures from radical groups trying to draw out the process is not appreciated. These ideological groups pose a great threat to our court processes, generating costly delays to our system and also posing a threat to the jobs in our nation. So on one hand we have the Labor opposition talking about the unemployment rate and how the government needs to do something about it and then on the other hand Labor is opposing this legislation which will help streamline and create jobs for those very Australians they purport to stand up for.
These green activists I speak of themselves have declared that this is their objective—to use the courts not for the proper purpose of resolving a dispute between citizens but for the political purpose of bringing developments to a standstill. Green activists, in their document Stopping the Australian coal export boom, declare a strategy to delay, to disrupt and to reduce the financial viability of key infrastructure projects, including ports, rail and mines, through litigation.
This is an area that has created significant contention in the Hunter region recently. I would like to cite the Newcastle City Council making a decision just two weeks ago to move its investments away from financial institutions who invest in the coal industry. Might I add that the predominantly Labor Newcastle City Council's decision to do this was idealistically spearheaded by Labor Councillor Declan Clausen. Declan Clausen has shown that he is not only wet behind the ears; he is also green between them. Mr Clausen acknowledged that the Port of Newcastle is the world's largest coal-exporting port and that it was 'important that the city looked at diversifying its economy'. He also said that the coal industry in New South Wales 'understands the writing is on the wall' and that 'coal is not going to be a leader long into the future' and he suggested that clean technology could in part replace coal's economic contribution. That is logical—let's draw investment away from the industry that props up the city and is the main engine room of the Hunter Valley! The actions of the Newcastle City Council and Declan Clausen are so misguided.
To provide a level of context to the House: the Port of Newcastle has 216 years of history in shipping. The port operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and, in 2014 alone, it exported 159 million tonnes of coal. The New South Wales Minerals Council found—in research that was independently peer reviewed by the Centre for Small Business and Regional Research at the University of Wollongong—that mining in the Hunter region accounts for $5.9 billion of direct expenditure, employing 11,078 employees, many of them union members. The direct contribution to the local economies included paying $1.5 billion in salaries for the most recent published year, 2013-14. Mining in the Hunter directly supports 4,328 businesses, many of them small businesses. In 2013-14—the latest available data—mining in the Hunter contributed $21.1 million to local councils, including Newcastle City Council. In a 2011 report, the number of persons employed at the Port of Newcastle was listed at 6,927 in the direct port precinct. A further 597 were listed as in direct port related jobs. Transport and warehousing jobs associated with the port had 1,293 workers, and jobs listed in the 'buffer zone' totalled 30,744. These are jobs that reflect on the activities connected to the port. This port is so integral and coal is so integral to our economy. The Prime Minister recently made commentary on the decision of Newcastle City Council, asking: 'Why is a coal city moving away from coal investment?' I echo the Prime Minister's thoughts.
The Labor Party are trying to undermine Australia's coal industry at its core, and the Labor politicians in the Hunter region, at local, state and federal level, are no different. I refer to the comments of the Labor shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, in November 2014 in relation to the question of phasing out the coal industry. He said, on ABC's Adelaide Breakfast:
Yes. I think everyone agrees that over a period of time—it will be a fairly extended period of time—we'll move to more renewable energy sources.
It is one thing for the economically reckless Greens to advocate the end of one of our most significant industries, with little thought for the economic costs to Australian jobs, but it is quite another thing for the Labor Party to do the same. The Hunter Labor members have an agenda to support the demise of an industry that has upheld the standards of living in the Hunter for decades. I recently called on the Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, to clarify comments he made on 27 August in support of Newcastle City Council's decision to move its investments away from the coal industry. I find it interesting that the member for Hunter felt confident enough to write to the Newcastle Herald on 29 August that 'we should insist that the council rescind its decision'. It would appear that the member for Hunter has had a drastic change of heart. On 27 August, in an interview with ABC 1233's Paul Bevan, Newcastle City Council Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said that the council's decision 'is not directly related to our coal industry', to which Mr Fitzgibbon, the member for Hunter, replied, 'Well, I've listened to the Lord Mayor, and she makes a lot of sense of course and Nuatali has done much to sort of clarify what the council did last night.'
The member for Hunter needs to clarify, in the light of his comments, what makes sense to him in relation to Newcastle council moving its investments away from our coal industry. I call on the member for Hunter to outline what prior contact he had with council, a large majority of whom are his Labor colleagues. Did the member for Hunter make any attempt to persuade his colleagues to stop this from happening? I would also like the Newcastle Lord Mayor to answer in detail how isolating major banks due to their investment in fossil fuel is 'not at all related to the coal industry'. In relation to Lord Mayor's comments that 'lots of companies around the world are doing it', on 27 August 2015 on ABC Newcastle, I am quite certain that most companies and councils around the world would think twice before isolating the largest revenue-making industry within their local government area.
The Labor Party are not serious about jobs in the Hunter, both indirect and direct mining jobs. The ALP are not serious about the small businesses in the Hunter, many of whom rely on the coal industry to survive. Where do the member for Newcastle, the member for Charlton and the member for Shortland stand on this issue? Mining and mining support industries are big employers in their respective electorates. How would Newcastle City Council itself feel if the banks diverted their lending and investment portfolio away from Newcastle? With a record export month for coal out of the Port of Newcastle last financial year, this industry has proven that it can have a long and enduring future in our region. Without doubt, it is backbone of the local economy. In times of investment uncertainty, it does not need its political leaders at local government, state and federal levels undermining that confidence. The member for Hunter and the Labor politicians are doing their best to try to distance themselves from this debate, but I know the undue amount of influence the Labor Greens coalition have over the member for Hunter and his policy decisions.
As a government we seek to bring certainty to our nation, to the court processes and of course with our environment policies. I am particularly passionate about this piece of legislation due to my responsibilities as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and because my electorate of Paterson is impacted so directly by the attacks on the coal industry. This is a government that has to ensure some of the toughest and most effective environmental laws in the world are upheld. We are protecting the Great Barrier Reef, building a generation of environmental enthusiasts with the Green Army and implementing unprecedented water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Minister Hunt introduced this legislation to ensure that environmental activists no longer receive special treatment under the EPBC Act. Let me be clear that the proposed amendments do not change environmental standards. This legislation makes sense because it brings the EPBC Act into line with other Commonwealth laws. Farmers, landowners and any other person whose interests are adversely affected by the decision will continue to have the right to appeal any decision.
We want to create certainty for business. Under this government, Australia is open for business and part of that is removing uncertainty for investors by halving the time for approvals and clearing Labor's backlog of approvals, and by approving over one trillion dollars in project approvals. Does Labor really want to support green activist groups who cost jobs of their union members and delay critical investment? I call on the Labor Party to support this sound legislation.
I join other Labor members in rising in opposition to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. This is a small amendment but one which carries far-reaching consequences, directly in terms of our capacity to protect our precious natural environment but more broadly in terms of the strength of our civil society and, indeed, our democracy. In this bill, I think, we see a real narrowing in terms of important legal rights, the rights to seek judicial review on important matters of broad public significance, and a narrowing of our sense of our collective capacity. That was evident in the contribution of the parliamentary secretary who spoke before me in this debate, a contribution which did not address any of the important questions of principle or the practical consequences of the legislation that is before this House. It is telling as we consider this legislation that it speaks to a government that is always looking for someone else to blame.
Through all the contributions of government members, we have heard much talk about jobs, this from a government that has pushed the unemployment queues to beyond 800,000 for the first time in 20 years, this from a government that has no plan for jobs, this from a government which fails to address the evidence base underpinning the assertions they have made regarding the impact of the legislation that is before us on jobs. That is unsurprising because it is a complete red herring. This is a government that is not interested in evidence.
Here, today, we are discussing the removal of a provision that has served Australia well, a provision introduced by that well-known green vigilante, former Prime Minister John Howard and his government. Section 487 of the EPBC Act has effectively balanced interests of landowners, those seeking to develop land and exploit its resources, and the wider community—the present generation and future generations who deserve to inherit the same beautiful and pristine environment that we enjoy today. The provision recognises that there is such a thing as civil society and this is a good and, indeed, a vital thing, which makes the language of government members in this debate and in their public contributions around it so very troubling.
It really is extraordinary that government members seem to believe that it is as a matter of principle somehow wrong to act in interests other than narrow economic self-interest. Activism, community involvement, as we speak about so often in this place in other contexts, are of course good things. It is part of the bedrock of a healthy society and it is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Again, the language of this debate is something that we should have regard to, particularly given some of the other challenges we are working our way through on behalf of the nation in the parliament at the moment.
Is it helpful to characterise public interest litigation as 'lawfare'? Is it helpful to defame people acting on behalf of the environment as vigilante green activists and to talk about conspiracies? Is it helpful to talk about throwing grenades in this context? I do not think it is; it gets in the way of a debate about getting this balance right—balancing these interests. I think it is also worth reflecting on how the legislation we are debating today came before this parliament.
This bill which would amend the EPBC Act to repeal 487 of that act, which presently extends the meaning of a person aggrieved in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. This bill is a clear attempt to restrict the ability of community members seeking to review the legality of decisions which are in the public interest—seeking to uphold the law, seeking to uphold the world's toughest environmental protections, as the parliamentary secretary spoke of earlier, and indeed that was a matter that the minister spoke of in his second reading—his rather disingenuous second reading. The effect of this short amendment would be profound. The amendment would not only impact the credibility of Australia's environmental policy that restricts citizens from questioning government decisions by judicial review; it also, like many other policies of this government, shows a clear divergence from contemporary attitudes towards environmental protection right across our society.
So how did this amendment come before the parliament? Clearly, there is no debate. It is a reaction to the government's embarrassing, flawed and ultimately failed approval process for the Adani mine, which, of course, is all about a major error on the part of the government, identified via litigation properly brought under this provision via proper standing arrangements, enabling these issues to be ventilated before the courts and enabling a process to be dealt with on procedural grounds—via consent orders, ultimately.
After 15 years of successful operation of this provision, we now have this amendment before us, which reflects the minister's attempt to bypass a legitimate democratic process. Not only is the amendment in reaction to this decision but, to my mind and to any fair reading, it contravenes the intention and object of the original legislation, despite what the minister has suggested.
It is useful to reflect on the debate in 1998, as the present legislation made its way through the parliament. The EPBC Act is, of course, the central national piece of environmental legislation. It provides, critically, a legal framework to protect and manage national and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places. This act has been the overriding legislative embodiment of environmental protection throughout this millennium, including through the mining boom. It is pretty clear that its existence, including the provisions in respect of the extended standing for judicial review, has posed no problem for the economy or job creation—quite the reverse. We have seen the approval of many thousands of projects worth billions of dollars of investment under the Howard government and the Rudd and Gillard governments. The legislation has been tried and tested. The standing provision was initially implemented to overcome the problem of groups with legitimate public interest and legitimate environmental interest being unable to bring actions on behalf of affected communities if not directly in the communities themselves.
This was a matter canvassed in a very detailed report of a Senate committee in 1998. I think it is worth members participating in this debate reflecting on the work of that Senate committee in its report on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998 and the Environmental Reform (Consequential Provisions) Bill 1999. This committee was chaired by Senator Eggleston and was comprised of a majority of coalition members. This committee wholeheartedly endorsed a set clause, 485, which subsequently was enacted as section 487, which extended the meaning of the term 'person aggrieved' within the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. The report stated:
The Committee does not agree with the claims that the standing provisions will 'open the floodgates' of litigation. The Committee notes that the standing provisions under the Bill are consistent with those already provided in existing Commonwealth environmental legislation, such as the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1996. As such, this approach to standing has already been successfully used by the Commonwealth and does not represent a radical departure from current legislation.
This is a matter that government members should have regard to. It is very difficult to see a similar evidence base—a similar detailed process of inquiry that took place in 1998—evidenced in the bill before us, particularly having listened to some of the contributions from government legislators, which have been very heavy on rhetoric and very light on evidence. Perhaps that is not unusual and perhaps expecting more is expecting a bit too much in this place under this government. It is important to note also that the committee further noted:
… the standing provisions of the Bill reach a fair balance between enabling public involvement in enforcement of the Bill and ensuring that decisions under the Bill are not unnecessarily delayed or impeded by vexatious litigation. The Bill also provides certainty as to which persons have standing.
I think this gets to the nub of the debate we should be having around these issues. It is about striking an appropriate balance and providing certainty; this should not be a false debate involving rhetorical attacks on the motives of individuals and groups. The consequences simply are not there.
I urge government members to look at the work of their coalition colleagues in 1998, when they had a very detailed look at the matters underpinning this legislation. I remind them, as I referred to earlier, that this extended standing approach is not unique to the legislation we are debating now. It has also effectively been used in other forms of Commonwealth environmental legislation. When we go to the question of the evidence, it is important to note—despite some of the hysteria which has characterised the debate—that, since the commencement of the EPBC Act, there have been about 30 actions brought in the Federal Court by third parties who have challenged environmental impact assessment processes under the provisions of the act, hardly an overly burdensome number. The removal of section 487 extended standing provision has to be seen in that context and through also having regard to the balancing of the important principle of holding decisions of government to proper scrutiny, as we have seen most recently in the litigation which has caused this debate to come before the parliament.
This bill would limit standing to persons whose interests are adversely affected by the decision, based on federal administrative law. The extent of this standing is obviously much less certain than that previously provided for, which seems clearly to go against some of the rhetorical posturing of government members. There is, of course, a very strong public policy rationale for retaining these sorts of broad standing provisions for judicial review. Open standing and access to justice has a wide variety of benefits in maintaining adequate checks on government as well as clear avenues for effective enforcement of environmental laws.
We all have a responsibility in this place to ensure that the responsibility for the environment in which we live does not simply lie with those persons directly affected. This is clearly an intergenerational responsibility. Those opposite do like to lecture us on this side about intergenerational responsibility. There is no more profound intergenerational responsibility for those of us here now than to think about the quality of the natural environment we are going to leave for those who come after us. This is a collective responsibility. It is not only in the hands of those in executive government. It is not only in the hands of those who sit in this legislature. It is a responsibility that should extend to interested persons in the wider community acting properly. That has been the effect of section 487 over the past 15 years. It should continue to be so. Within these existing legal frameworks, it is evident that our broad civic responsibility to question government decision making on environmental protection needs to continue to be accommodated.
It is clear that the existing standing provisions—in fact, it is most evident through the contributions of government members that this has been borne out—have not attracted a negative response from the sector or the legal system. Since the commencement of the act, I note that there have been several reviews looking at its effectiveness. These reviews have supported extended standing provisions for judicial review in the EPBC Act. I note that very recently the Productivity Commission conducted a wide review of this. It looked at major projects rather than the act at large, but this review concluded:
… there is a public interest in allowing third parties to bring judicial review applications, as it allows the legality of the process to be enforced, providing an important 'safety valve' in the system.
And it does, and it should continue to be so. This work of the Productivity Commission, hardly a green vigilante group on these questions, provided again a very useful overview of the operation of our present environmental regulations in terms of major project approvals. It gives them a big tick, basically. It looks at the evidence, something members of this government are allergic to. It also looks again at the balancing that we are required to do—the balancing of the broad public policy objectives. It is very clear that we cannot simply tilt the balance in favour of this executive, or any executive. The public policy grounds for retaining section 487 in its present form and providing for the current certainty around extended standing for judicial review are clear.
This House should reject the bill that is before it, because the government has not made the case for change. It should reject the bill, because we should in this place stand up for the environment today and for the environment tomorrow. But we should also be rejecting this bill because its introduction would strike a deep blow into the effective operation of our democracy through inhibiting the operation of civil society actors to hold government decision making effectively to account. I urge government members to go back to 1998 and review the Senate committee. I urge government members to go back to 2013 and look at the work of the Productivity Commission. I urge government members to bring evidence and principle to this debate and to reject this legislation.
I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. This bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 by repealing section 487. Section 487 has the effect of extending the definition of an aggrieved person which is outlined in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. The original act outlines the conditions under which someone may apply for a review of an administrative decision. These conditions specify that 'a person who is aggrieved by a decision' may apply to the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court for an order of review. The act specifies that a person who is aggrieved is someone 'whose interests are adversely affected by the decision'. That is the test that applies across a very wide range of administrative decisions. But section 487 of the EPBC Act opens the door for any individual to challenge a decision covered by the act as long as:
… at any time in the 2 years immediately before the decision, failure or conduct, the individual has engaged in a series of activities in Australia or an external Territory for protection or conservation of, or research into, the environment.
The same, I note, applies to organisations. Section 487 specifies that all the terms used in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act have the same meaning in the EPBC Act except 'person aggrieved'. What the extended meaning has done, in practical terms, is open a door for the misuse of Australian law. It opens the door for people and organisations who have absolutely nothing to do with the decision being made or the project being considered, or the decision not being made on the project being considered. It opens the door for people and organisations whose interests are in no way adversely affected. It opens the door to anyone with an axe to grind—any axe—as long as they took notes on their weekly bushwalk. That is what it amounts to. It is an open invitation to extreme greens to use legal warfare, or 'lawfare', in pursuit of their own ideology that has nothing to do with the decision or the matter that is being decide upon.
What we have seen in Queensland is an organised campaign by the extreme green movement to do everything they possibly can to shut down the coal industry. The coal industry is a major driver of the Australian economy. It still is, despite there being a downturn, and it was coal—certainly not the Rudd Labor government or the member for Lilley—together with iron ore that got Australia through the global financial crisis. The state of Queensland would be an economic wreck if these activists were suddenly successful in shutting down the coal industry, but the anti-coal movement pay no attention to any impacts that the pursuit of their ideology may have.
Some years ago they produced a report and funding proposal to seek investors from the extreme green network, and that report was called Stopping the Australian coal export boom. They unashamedly named their intentions, which, to many thousands of people who rely on the coal industry for jobs, for wealth, for business and for survival, were nothing short of treason. These extremists set about implementing this plan almost word by word and letter by letter. They have targeted, amongst other things, the plans by Adani Australia to build the biggest coalmine in Australia in the Galilee Basin. The plan was for construction of the Carmichael mine, construction of a railway line linking the Carmichael mine and the Galilee Basin with the port of Abbot Point, and the expansion of the port at Abbot Point to cater for new ships coming in to export the coal.
These extreme greens have done everything they possibly can to stop that project by frustrating and delaying the approvals process. I have to say there is a long litany of actions by the green movement beyond the legal warfare that I want to update the House on. They effectively inserted activists from outside our region—people who were very well connected and well trained in professional activism—into the Mackay region and the Whitsundays region. Just as they planned in that document, Stopping the Australian coal export boom, they inserted these activists into the community to create community dissent where previously there was none. Again, this is all outlined in the strategy: the strategy of Stopping the Australian coal export boom.
They have used a campaign of lies and misinformation to try to convince the public that things are terrible—that we are going to mine the reef and stuff like that. The language from organisations like GetUp! about this is that we were going to dump 'toxic sludge' on the reef. There was never any intention to do that. Why would there be? What point is there in that? But these are the kinds of lies that we have heard. They challenged approvals for the port expansion. They tried to use lies to convince various segments of the community that offshore disposal was going to blow up the reef.
The only concern they raised about the Abbot Point expansion at that point in time was offshore disposal. Even a Greens candidate said they would be happy with the port being expanded if it was agriculture that was going out, not coal, which showed the hypocrisy in their arguments about the reef. They advocated a change at that point to onshore disposal. The government moved to address concerns out there, which probably were not based too much on science but on a fear that something was going to happen to the reef; we said we would dispose of dredge spoil onshore. Suddenly, there was another reason that the green movement was against it: the Caley Valley wetlands. Now the Caley Valley wetlands has been sorted out, it is just the fact that it is coal. They are just coming out and stating, plain and simple, that it is coal. They are still railing against the project, but they are unclear as to the reason why, apart from it being coal.
Then they went and challenged the federal government's approval of the Carmichael mine. This is but the latest in a long line of extreme green actions to delay and disrupt this job-creating project. They used the ornamental snake and the yakka skink as reasons to go about this latest delay and disruption exercise. But it was not about the snake, it was not about the skink and it was not about the environment. It is not even about climate change. It is about the coal. The extreme green movement hate the coal, even though this project has the capacity to create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in Queensland, particularly in regional Queensland and around the Mackay region. Hundreds of millions of Indians will be lifted out of energy poverty.
If the coal does not come out of Galilee Basin, where is it going to come from? They are just going to source it from elsewhere. They are probably going to source it from Indonesia, where there are weaker environmental regulations and lower quality coal with higher ash content, which means higher carbon dioxide emissions when it is burnt. If the green movement really cared about carbon dioxide emissions and really cared about the entire planet and environmental regulation then they would promote this mine ahead of other options because the other options are going to be worse in terms of environmental outcomes.
It is about shutting down the Australian coal industry, and that is the only aim behind these actions—an aim that is purely ideological. Is that what we really want in this country? Is that what the EPBC Act was supposed to be for? Was it designed to promote ideological activism? I would say no. I would say also that we are not willing to sacrifice so much for the sake of letting the extreme greens play out their ideological games with this legislation.
I want to say to the House that maybe this argument is going on legally and politically, but let's not forget what is at stake here. Even if there is a reapproval of this project, the extreme green movement will, for the next two years, continue to disrupt and delay this project in court and quite possibly bring this project to an end. I am very worried about that. I am worried for my region. We have workers from Central and North Queensland who are desperately looking for jobs—people who have come out of the mining industry. Adani indicated they wanted to use workers from Mackay, Bowen and regional Queensland.
Just the other day, I had a longstanding business—130 years in the Mackay community—contact me and tell me that they were forced to make some workers redundant because of the downturn in the economy. We have thousands of empty homes throughout the Mackay region and hundreds of empty homes in the Bowen region, and we have this project which could restore some hope and opportunity to the region being held up by this green movement. There is the opportunity of the railway line construction and the operation of that railway line, which could create more jobs and open up more economic opportunity in the town of Bowen, which is dying the death of a thousand cuts right now. There is also the expansion of Abbot Point, which again would facilitate jobs and investment in Bowen and also the Mackay region.
This is really about the families in North Queensland—Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, the Burdekin and the Whitsundays—who are struggling because of job insecurity, because of family stress, because of family breakdown because they cannot make ends meet and because these jobs are being held up. People are actually killing themselves because they do not see that there is any hope because the green movement are in court litigating against this job-creating project. I say enough is enough. A few North Queenslanders killing themselves in despair does not worry the green movement, but I have to tell you it worries me. We in North Queensland care. The majority of others around the country should care. The people in this chamber should care. We care about people. We should care about jobs. We should care about the revenue that these projects could bring in for the government to provide schools, hospitals, basic care and infrastructure in North Queensland so people can go about living a good life. We should be caring about the things that this project could provide—for example, getting people out of energy poverty, creating new economic opportunities, creating steel and creating windmills for the environment.
It is going to create the windmills that the Greens love—the down-the-rabbit-hole fairy land the lunatic fringe puts up as their utopia; their pie in the sky that they want to ram down our throats. None of that is possible without coal and without coalminers. Trying to shut down coal-fired power generation before viable alternatives are in place is not only putting the cart before the horse; it is shooting the horse and believing that it is somehow going to force innovation. Well, the motorcar was not invented because we went out and shot the horses. A return to cave-dwelling under the mistaken belief that that will somehow magically drive the mythically green technology is just lunacy. Without the materials that coal provides, without the electricity that coal provides and without the funding that coal and a functioning economy provide, none of the fairyland that the Greens go on about will ever be possible. An unemployed scientist eating grass and weaving hemp baskets in Nimbin is not going to invent any green technology.
I say to the Labor Party: I know you guys side with the Greens more often than not these days—and it is very sad—but I have workers in North Queensland and Central Queensland who have voted Labor all of their lives who are hoping that you guys will get on board and support the government on this because they want to see this project go ahead. If the Labor Party decides to vote this legislation down, it needs to come up to the Mackay region and tell people—
Come to the Mackay region and tell people why you voted this down, why you have delayed this project, why you want the Greens to keep on taking it to court, why you want these opportunities destroyed, why you want these jobs destroyed and why you have sacrificed the workers of North Queensland and Central Queensland for some cheap green inner-city votes. That is not the Labor Party way. You should be up there supporting it. You should be up there trying to get this project done. That is what the government is trying to do. That is what the Liberal-National coalition is trying to do. We are well and truly on the side of the mine workers of Central Queensland and North Queensland. It is such a shame that the Labor Party has hung them out to dry.
The irony in following the member for Dawson giving a speech about extremists is not lost on me. This bill that is in front of us, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, is dumb legislation introduced to the parliament for dumb reasons. I was not going to speak in this debate, but—
I was on it as of today. But, given that I have made more decisions under this act than any other member of this parliament, I do know something about how it operates and I do know how it can get the balance right between making sure we create jobs and making sure that we protect the environment.
The concept put in that speech, which has been put in a number of speeches from government members, is that somehow industry is being held back because of constant litigation. Of all the decisions that I made in my time as environment minister—including decisions that I made with respect to INPEX, Prelude, the Olympic Dam and the Gladstone projects—only one was successfully challenged. It was successfully challenged at the very end of my time. Mark Butler was the Minister for the Environment by then. The reason for the decision was not that there was anything wrong with the conditions or the reasons; it was that one of the documents that should have been included in the final brief was not included. So the decision was reworked and remade and, within a few weeks, certainty was given to industry again.
What is extraordinary is that the mistake that was made by the government in the Adani decision was apparently an identical mistake. I personally do not hold the Minister for the Environment responsible. I know how big those briefs are—and, realistically, I want the environment minister to be going methodically through all the conditions. It is a clerical check that would have been done by the department which was clearly done in error. It is probably, if anything, a reminder to the parliament of what can happen if you spread your Public Service too thin. Ordinary checks that need to be made can well be overlooked.
But the Adani decision could have been fixed in a number of weeks. Instead of just fixing it and providing certainty, the government have talked down confidence in projects in Australia in a bizarre way. They could have talked this up and just said, 'Yes, it is an administrative error in terms of what was included in the final brief and we are going to redo it and the decision will be made again in a few weeks' time,' and Adani would have confidence. Instead, the government sends a message to investors around the world that this is a disaster and we need to change the law and put forward a legal change that is very likely to not end up passing the parliament. This is a complete talking down of jobs, investment, industry and certainty.
When people talk about lawfare and about it being a problem that has been brought on by environmental activism, they miss the fact that the orders were not a final judicial decision ruling in favour of the appeal for the environmental movement. The orders were consent orders sought by the Commonwealth. In the Adani case, the Commonwealth realised they had made a decision contrary to law and, having realised that, asked for this decision to be made. The court agreed to the consent orders and, having agreed, the government then said, 'Outrageous! How on earth could this have happened?' The court gave the consent orders that the government asked it to provide and then, having provided those consent orders, the government went on its new level of outrage—because this is a government that knows how to take a fight but does not know how to reach an outcome. It does not know how to reach a solution. The change here is unnecessary. This change is bad for the environment and, ultimately, in a final irony, is bad for industry as well—and I will work through each of those.
Firstly, though, I want to comment on some of the rhetoric that we have heard in some of these speeches, where members have said, 'If you are opposing this you are chasing cheap, environmental, green inner-city votes.' I do not know how that relates to Alan Jones. I have got to say there was a period when Alan Jones would praise me on his radio station—in the last few weeks, I think it is fair to say, that period has ended. But on this one, I am willing to give Alan Jones praise. It is not particularly forthcoming my way these days, but he is completely right: on environmental issues, all Australians have a right to care. If anyone thinks that the only people who have a right to care about the Great Barrier Reef are the people who live next to it, they do not understand what happened when Joh Bjelke-Petersen wanted to drill the Great Barrier Reef. If people think that the only people who will care about Tasmania's forests are people who live in Tasmania, they do not understand that the Tasmanian tourism industry draws people from all around the nation and the world. If people think that the only people who will care about the Daintree Rainforest are the people who live there, they are wrong; or the only people who care about Kakadu are the people who live in the Northern Territory, they are wrong.
We all have a right to be proud of Australia's environmental icons. Ultimately, what this legislation seeks to do is create a situation where, if a minister for the environment makes an illegal decision, they want it to be able to stand. That is what this is about. Ultimately, the challenge here is from the government, and what is upsetting them is, if an illegal decision is made by a minister, it could be challenged in a court.
What sort of parliament wants to create a situation where a minister will make decisions under legislation which have been passed by this parliament but make them contrary to that legislation, and we want to make an amendment that says: if they do that, that decision will stand? Very few decisions will be successfully challenged in court. The vast bulk of decisions that I made were challenged in court. One was challenged successfully.
But the shift in standing, the reason that the Howard government—that radical environmentalist John Howard—included the standing rules that are in the EPBC Act now was for a very good reason: if you do not have the standing provisions, what you end up with is a worse situation. What happens is you get a court case first establishing whether or not the party has standing. You have uncertainty for the project for that entire period. If they end up being given standing, then and only then do you get to the merits of the case.
The reason the Howard government included this provision in the legislation was to make sure that, if a decision was going to be successfully challenged, it is in everyone's interests that that happen immediately and quickly so you do not have a long period dealing with standing and you get immediately to the merits of the case. If, as in the situation with the Adani case, the government realise that they have got a decision wrong, then they can seek consent orders, have the decision made and get on with making a new decision—get on with doing it properly—which they would be able to do with respect to Adani.
How bad did it use to be in terms of uncertainty when you did not have a clear standing provision? The best example is probably the case of Australian Conversation Foundation v Commonwealth—this was way back in the eighties. The decision was made on 30 July 1978. The decision on standing was made on 13 February 1980. So from 1978 to 1980, on something where they ended up not being given standing, there was uncertainty over the project anyway. Since that time, the standing common law principles have become less restrictive. It may well be the case that, in a similar circumstance now, you would end up getting standing. So you get your first two years arguing whether you have got standing and, having got it, you then have the argument about the merits. Potentially, for an investment cycle for a project from the time of an environmental decision to the time of them knowing whether or not it is actually going to go ahead, you could have a period of three years.
My view on these issues is that it is in no-one's interest for there to be ongoing uncertainty about a project. Environmental decisions should be made. They should be made properly under the act. Sometimes mistakes and errors will be made by ministers. Sometimes they will be errors for which the minister is fully responsible and sometimes they will be errors which were inadvertent or were new rulings, which were surprising from a court. But whatever that time frame is, you want to know as soon as possible. That is why the Howard government said: 'Let's not waste time with an argument about standing; let's give everyone standing straightaway—all the relevant groups that have already indicated an interest in the region. You can't invent a group after the fact but, if they've already been active and indicated an interest in the region prior to the decision, then they can have standing, and we get straight to the merits of the decision.'
In the merits of a decision at the moment, we are dealing with cases where the error was inadvertent. But consider if the error had been blatant. Consider if you have an environment minister who knowingly ignores a threatened species. For example, I had objections when I listed in Queensland and New South Wales the koala as a threatened species under this act. Campbell Newman went out and bagged me and different people were very critical of it. If an environment minister was dealing with a development in South-East Queensland and they decided to ignore the impact on the koala, who is going to have standing other than the property developers to be able to definitely take the case? You need to be able to resolve it quickly.
If an environment minister knowingly makes an unlawful decision, we cannot have a situation where the only people who might have an interest or standing under the law to take it to court are the very people who want the project to go ahead—unless this parliament is going to make a decision today and in this bill we think it is okay for a environment minister to act unlawfully. There is no doubt the proponent will always have standing, so if an illegal decision is made by an environment minister, the proponent will always be good with that. This legislation seeks to narrow whether or not anyone would be able to challenge it.
On this occasion we are talking about the Adani mine and a particular decision where the error was not in the final conditions. It was not in whether or not something had really been taken into account, because the environment minister had conditioned around the document that had not been included anyway. So this is not an issue like that—and I am not accusing the environment minister of making a decision like that. But under this change it becomes possible for an environment minister to ignore the impact on the Great Barrier Reef, to ignore the impact on a threatened species like the koala or to ignore the impact on an endangered wetland, let something through and have nobody who has legal standing to be able to challenge that even though it might be a concern to almost every other Australian around the country.
How on earth can a parliament say, 'We support there being legislation with all these conditions, but we don't support whether or not the environment minister will have to abide by them'? That is the impact we are talking about. The reality of it which would then flow in terms of the proponents themselves will be the delay in finding out whether or not they have certainty on the project. It will just take longer because you will have a protracted debate about standing before you ever get to the merits of it. At every angle this is an attempt from the government to wreck certainty for industry and create a potential for environmental considerations of the most iconic type to be completely ignored by a future environment minister. The parliament is being asked to legislate to allow an environment minister to ignore its legislation.
I cannot begin to think of the gravity, of the stupidity of what is before this parliament now. The government has decided to manufacture, where there had been certainty and this could have been certainty quickly, a crisis and create a lack of confidence for investment in Australia. They then decided the answer was, from industry's perspective, to make the time for certainty as long as possible and then decided that a possible outcome would be that an environmental consideration, no matter how iconic, could in the future be wilfully ignored by a minister for the environment and there would be no legal recourse.
This legislation does deal with extremists. It deals with an extreme ideology which says environmental considerations in the future should be ignored. You would never have found this under the Howard government. You only find this led by a Prime Minister who knowingly wants to attack the environment.
I rise, of course, to oppose this ridiculous piece of legislation that seeks to amend the environment protection and biodiversity conservation legislation to take out section 487 of that act to remove standing in respect of third-party interventions on development affecting the environment. What a ridiculous piece of legislation. It really is just a fatuous piece of left-baiting that is going to do nothing for this country or this country's economy. At a time when last-quarter growth was 0.2 per cent, half of what was anticipated for the last quarter; at a time when disposable income per capita has been shrinking for the past five quarters in a row; at a time when there are 800,000 unemployed people in Australia for the first time in about 20 years; at a time when wages growth is the slowest it has been since the wages price index started being kept in the 1990s; at a time in which the government has between the 2014 federal budget and the 2015 federal budget doubled the deficit, it is actually ridiculous that they are spending their time on stupid left-baiting like this bill.
It is a bill that is all about trying to throw up a bit of smoke and mirrors, a bit of misdirection, saying: 'Look over here, look over here! We're doing something, we're doing something!' to try to cover up the fact that the government actually has no agenda, has no plan for this nation. They might have a pamphlet, but they certainly do not have a plan. They are a government that is such an embarrassment. Every journalist on the second-year anniversary of this government this week wrote about the utter embarrassment that this government has been in that two-year period. You saw some scathing commentary from the journalists across the different news organisations and papers about what we have seen in the first two years of this government.
We have seen an eccentric Prime Minister with his crazy let's-knight-a-prince idea on Australia Day and his very interesting approach to this parliament where he comes in and carries on like a buffoon in question time, calling the Australian Labor Party racist because we are interested in how labour market testing and skills testing might work in a free trade agreement with one of our neighbours. This is the behaviour of someone who is just not fight to govern, someone who is not fit to be the Prime Minister of Australia. If you want to be an undergraduate stunt puller in a government then perhaps don't occupy the position of Prime Minister. I know I am not the only person who has these views. I also know I am not the only person who has these views based on those sorts of antics and that it is not only people on this side of the House who think the Prime Minister ought not be in that position. We saw earlier this year the spectacle of the nation's Prime Minister being challenged to a spill without there even being another candidate. That is how bad this Prime Minister has been and how embarrassed the entire nation is at having him.
You need look no further for evidence of that embarrassment than the recent national reform summit. Here is a Prime Minister whose behaviour, conduct and track record are so poor that across civil society, business and the fourth estate you have had people saying, 'Oh my god, we don't think that politics is working anymore.' Why is politics not working? Because the nation's erstwhile leader is more interested in carrying on, picking fights, brawling, left-baiting and throwing up these sorts of smoke and mirrors and misdirections than he is in thinking about the national interest. I am not surprised that some of the people who backed him in so strongly in 2013 against the Labor Prime Minister at the time are now a bit embarrassed about the person that they helped to install as Prime Minister.
This piece of legislation that we are debating in the House today when we should be debating much more significant issues for the nation's future is utterly ridiculous, but it is also another piece of misdirection from this government. It is also a real indication of the contempt with which this government holds civil society and particularly people who are engaged in community organisations who are interested in the environment. Those are not people who are confined to one side of politics or to one particular political party. You will find people from the Left and the Right who are interested in ensuring that our environment is protected. In my own electorate I have wonderful community action groups that work to preserve biodiversity and to conserve nature, and they are not uniformly Labor people, I can tell you that—not by a long way.
As if to demonstrate to the world the degree of contempt with which this government treats those organisations, we see this fatuous piece of legislation aimed at removing third-party intervention rights under the EPBC legislation. People in the community have reacted very strongly. I have certainly got a lot of representations being made to my office about the concerns that people hold in respect of this plan to remove an opportunity for judicial scrutiny of these projects.
Being for standing for third-party groups is not an indicator that you are against development or that you are against, for example, resources projects. I myself am strongly in favour of seeing more investment in resources projects, in seeing more opportunities for our resources sector to grow. I know that coal is our No. 1 export commodity and our No. 1 export product. I also appreciate the other resources work that is done in this country and I am, as I say, strongly for resources development—provided that it is safe, provided that it is consistent with Australia's strict environmental standards, provided that there are good Australian jobs and opportunities that come out of those projects, and provided that those projects contribute to the overall national interest and are to the benefit of all people in our community, including through paying their fair share of taxation.
Being someone who is for resources projects does not necessitate the conclusion that I would therefore be in favour of this ridiculous piece of legislation that seeks to remove people's rights to raise concerns through the courts in the event that the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation legislation is breached. This is being framed as a situation where you are either for resources, and therefore for this bill, or you are against this bill and therefore some sort of person who does not really care about resources development. It is just wrong and it is nonsensical.
You can see that this bill is really much more of a political campaign for the government than it is a real, measured and deliberate piece of law reform. There are a few clues to that proposition. One of those clues is that this is not a new provision; this is a provision that was introduced under the Howard coalition government and it has been an uncontroversial provision ever since it was passed 15 years ago. It is not the case that this is some sort of radical left-wing conspiracy to choke development and to choke national resources in this country, no matter what members opposite might claim—and it is pretty funny when they do.
Another clue that this is really much more of a political campaign than a serious attempt at law reform is the language that is being used by the coalition, such as this nonsensical idea of 'lawfare'—what a ridiculous word! If you are going to use the language of 'lawfare', you might actually think about what sorts of parallels you are drawing. This comes in a week in which this parliament has been considering the assistance that should be given to people who are fleeing actual warfare—the serious matter of the disintegration of Syria and the fighting that has been going on there, now in its fifth year. That is the seriousness with which the language of 'warfare' should be used. To adopt the language of 'lawfare' is as silly as it is insulting to those people who are facing genuine conflict.
Another clue to the fact that this is a solution in search of a problem is the track record of the use of these standing provisions under the EPBC Act. Only about 0.4 per cent of EPBC Act referrals—that is 0.4 per cent, not four per cent—have ever been challenged in court, so these suggestions of some sort of avalanche of litigation, of 'lawfare', are frankly ridiculous. We are talking here about judicial review rights. We are not talking here about full merits reviews of decisions for approvals under this legislation; we are talking about looking to see whether the decision has been lawfully made. The court does not put itself in the shoes of the person making the decision and say, 'That is all fine and well, but I would have made this other decision.' The court just looks to make sure that the decision has been made in accordance with the proper processes.
If you want an example of that, have a look at the Carmichael litigation that seems to have prompted the government to move this legislation. This was a case in which the government incompetently managed to get the decision making wrong. That is what happened—it was government incompetence. The decision-making process was not correctly followed and, as a consequence, the government agreed to the court orders that were made in the case. We are not talking about a situation where the government made a flawless decision and the court overturned it at all. We are talking about a situation where there was a mea culpa on the part of the government in respect of its own incompetence, and that is what led to the consent orders being made—and I stress the word 'consent'. That is a really good example, and it also goes to my point about the obviousness, the transparency, of the fact that this is really just about politics, not about the law.
The standing provisions under section 487, which is the provision to be repealed if this legislation passes, are already sufficiently rigorous. The standing provision limits legal challenges only to community groups that have been active on environmental issues for at least two years. Not just any person can wander up to the court and bring proceedings. We are also talking about Federal Court proceedings. These are expensive to launch. This is a matter that you only do if you have some serious basis and, if you do not, under the Federal Court rules the court is in a position to consider whether or not the proceeding ought to be continued where there is an abuse of process or if it is a trivial matter.
On the substance of the issue, it is also, I think, relevant to remember that there is actually a public interest in having appropriate scrutiny of decisions made under the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation legislation. Let us remember that we are dealing here with possibly significant impacts on the environment and biodiversity. To think that it is somehow a good idea to lessen the scrutiny as part of this sort of silly political campaign, this smoke and mirrors, this misdirection that the government is deploying to take away scrutiny from its own incompetence and also to deflect attention away from the fact that it really has no agenda and no plan, is just irresponsible. And I say 'irresponsible' advisedly. For a party that supposedly stands for personal responsibility, in a situation where its own government has been incompetent, to look around for someone else to shift the blame to really exposes the hypocrisy of this government and the flimsy foundation—I think probably 'flimsy' is too kind a description—or utter lack of a foundation for this ridiculous legislation that we are in here debating today.
In short, if this legislation is passed, it is really going to put an end to any effective legal challenges against federal approvals of major industrial developments with high environmental impacts, and no-one would want that. I think, frankly, that it would be a higher priority for the resources sector to have a government that is actually competent and to get these things right than it would be to remove a provision in circumstances in which, as I say, only 0.4 per cent of EPBC Act referrals have ever been challenged in court. This sort of idea that there is some sort of avalanche of litigation out there, that there are gangs of people waiting to bring proceedings under section 487 of the legislation, seems to me to be a bit of an overstatement, to put it nicely.
I make the point that this bill has come about in an utter policy vacuum from this government. It is looking for things to do. It is wandering around saying, 'Oh my goodness, what can we do?' and everyone knows it. It is an embarrassment of a government. It is a government that should be dealing with the major economic challenges facing our nation. It is a government that ought to be dealing with improving the living standards of all Australians, improving our prosperity and improving the ability for everyone to share in that prosperity. This bill is a distraction, and it ought to be defeated.
Anything that diminishes the protection for the environment is obviously wrong and to be resisted. So too to deny some Australian citizens the right to access all aspects of the legal system, no matter what the matter is, or to deny some Australian citizens the right to judicial review in particular is self-evidently wrong. In fact, anything that diminishes the protection of the environment, anything that diminishes the rights of our citizens, is so self-evidently wrong that it is quite remarkable that it has come before the parliament and that we even need to debate the rights and wrongs of these issues.
It is also wrong for us to look at these issues in isolation. I suggest we need to take a step back at this point and have a look at the direction our country is going in a whole range of ways and, in particular, the direction we are going for the rights of our citizens and the way in which the rights of our citizens and our groups, be they environmental groups or any other groups, are slowly being diminished in an incremental way. When you take a step back and you look at a whole range of decisions that have been made by this and previous governments, including the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, which is before the parliament today, which would deny some Australian citizens the right to access all aspects of the legal system, you can draw a conclusion that Australia has reached the stage of being almost in a police state. The rights of citizens have been diminished so far and the power of the state has increased so much that we are in what I will characterise as a 'pre police state'.
When I turned my mind to this issue today in preparing this speech, it took me very little time to quickly come up with some 10 characteristics of a pre police state which exist in Australia right now. I will quickly rattle through them, if you do not mind, Deputy Speaker. For a start, there is the way that all members of the community are now monitored by the state on account of mandatory metadata retention, which passed this parliament some time ago, is already in law and will be implemented from next month. The community need to understand that, from next month, every phone call they make, every website they visit and every location signal sent from their mobile phone or other mobile electronic device will be recorded by law and can be accessed by the security services without warrant. This is something that has been rejected by many other developed countries. The scale of the mandatory metadata retention which is being implemented in this country from next month is almost unprecedented around the world in any developed country or democracy.
Another characteristic of a pre police state is the way that the media is being manipulated in this country. We have seen the way that funding for independent broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, has been reduced. We have seen the way government ministers have bullied the ABC, bullied the Fairfax papers and bullied some of the News Limited papers, at least the tabloids. We have seen the way that in this country The Australian broadsheet has now become almost like Pravda was in the Soviet Union, as the official organ of the Australian Liberal Party. Again, this is a characteristic of a pre police state: the way the media is being used and manipulated.
Another characteristic of a pre police state is the manipulation of the judiciary. It is remarkable that the government sees nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all, in the fact that a royal commissioner would agree to go to a party political event.
Another characteristic of a pre police state is the secrecy that we see with this government and the ludicrous level of secrecy that surrounds our response to irregular immigration and the development of this term 'on-water operations', whatever that is. All we know is that it is some sort of term that means, 'We are not going to tell you what is going on, even if it is being paid for by you, even if it is being done in your name and even if it is of great humanitarian significance.'
Another characteristic of a pre police state is the fact that in law in this country now you can be arrested on suspicion, in the absence of any hard evidence, when it comes to terrorism. This, of course, is contained in one of the approximately seven separate pieces of legislation that have passed the Australian parliaments since 9/11. The fact is that in Australia you can be arrested, in the absence of hard evidence, just on suspicion of thinking that you are going to do something in the future.
Another characteristic of a pre police state, and something that we see in Australia, is the fact that some people can be incarcerated indefinitely without trial. That is exactly what we are doing to some asylum seekers. They are being incarcerated, seemingly indefinitely and definitely without trial, in third countries that we send them to—we send them to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or to the Republic of Nauru.
Another characteristic of a pre police state—there is no shortage of things I can rattle off here—is the fact that this government now shows complete and utter disregard for international law and any number of international agreements that previous parliaments and previous governments have agreed to. For instance, this government ignores its own statute. This government ignores the refugee convention. This government ignores the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A healthy democracy—one that respects the rule of law, the rights of its citizens and the rights of the citizens of other countries—is one with a government that respects international law and international agreements.
Another characteristic of a pre police state is one in which the parliament, the elected representatives of the people, are forbidden to debate and decide on important matters of state. We had the situation yesterday where the government, in secret, decided to start bombing the sovereign state of Syria. The matter was never allowed to be debated by the parliament and was never voted on by the parliament. This makes Australia almost unique among our allies and among many developed countries. The fact is that in this country the parliament is not involved—it is not allowed to be involved—in decisions about waging war. In the United States the Congress has to debate and vote on declaring war. In France, Germany and the Netherlands, their parliaments are all required by law to debate and vote on the use of force. Even in the United Kingdom, where it is not law, it is certainly convention that the House of Commons these days will debate and decide on whether or not British military forces are committed to a conflict—but not in Australia, not in our pre police state, where parliament is not allowed to even have a proper debate, let alone a vote, about these sorts of matters.
Another characteristic of a pre police state that we see in this country these days is the way our safeguard mechanisms are disregarded, or even bullied, if they get in the government's way. We saw the terrible treatment of the President of the Human Rights Commission when she spoke up on the issue of asylum seekers. A good government, in a healthy democracy, would have listened to the President of the Human Rights Commission. It would have listened very carefully and it would have been very careful to take the advice of the President of the Human Rights Commission and be seen to take that advice. Instead, what we saw was a conga line of ministers all lining up to have a go at her and to bully her. That is how an autocratic regime acts. It is not how a democratically elected government should act. It is not how our government should act. It was a shame on this government, the way it treated the President of the Human Rights Commission.
Another characteristic of a pre police state is when security agencies start acting beyond their lawful powers. Although it was eventually halted, in the face of overwhelming public concern and protest, the Australian Border Force thought it was okay to conduct an operation on the streets of Melbourne, a couple of weeks ago now, where it would have acted unlawfully by stopping people on the street to check their papers, so to speak—something that is not allowed in the act and is beyond their legal power. But was there any condemnation from this government over this? Was anyone sacked or held to account? No. All we heard from the relevant minister, in interview after interview, were attempts to try and downplay the matter and to say, 'It was not that big a deal; it was just a badly worded press release.' No, it was not a badly worded press release. It was worded exactly the way the Australian Border Force had intended for it to be worded. It was a press release that went to the minister's office beforehand; we are not sure exactly how many times—it seems to have been at least twice, perhaps three times or perhaps more.
That is a long and pretty painful list to go through, but if I could come up with 10 characteristics of a pre police state and jot them down in a matter of minutes this morning—and I am sure I could add to that with any number of other ways in which our democracy is diminished right now—what does that say about our country? It puts this bill in quite a different light. If we were a healthy democracy, without that list of 10 characteristics of a pre police state—if this bill just came in fresh and there was nothing else going on around us—maybe we would respond to it differently. I do not think we would, actually, because it is self-evident we should not diminish the protections for the environment. It is self-evident that we should not deny some members of the community or some groups within the community the right to access all aspects of our legal system including judicial review.
It is a serious matter in its own right, this bill that is before the parliament, but when you put in the context of all the other things that have gone on in recent years in this country, you start to understand that this country not only is going in the wrong direction but has gone a long way in the wrong direction. When you look back history at the lessons of history and you look at once great countries that deteriorated over time or their democracy deteriorated over time—and some ultimately became police states—you see that often it happened incrementally. Often it did not happen with one seismic event where a dictator came to power. Sometimes these autocratic regimes were democratically elected. Over time, bit by bit, the country's democracy deteriorated, was diminished bit by bit. And then one day the community woke up and asked: how on earth did we get here? How on earth did we allow ourselves to now be living in a country that is so bad, that is so far removed from the wonderful democracy it once was? How on earth did we allow a democratically elected government to bit by bit, incrementally, one bill at a time take us so far away from the healthy wonderful democracy we once had?
One of the problems is bit by bit things become normal. We get used one little bit then there is another little bit, another bill. I made the point already, since 9-11 there have been about 70 separate pieces of legislation in this country to do with our national security, even though it could be argued our laws at the time of 9-11 in 2001 were just about right. It was clearly a serious criminal offence to murder back then; it still is now. There is no doubt that much of that legislation contained in those 70 or so bills is unnecessary. We have gone too far in that regard. We must, however, ensure we keep our safeguards in place. That is one of the reasons why this bill is so bad—that we would think it okay to deny some Australians their lawful access to the courts.
I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. The Abbott government has an appalling record on the environment and this ill conceived bill clearly represents a further attack on the environment by a desperate Prime Minister and a government which is openly hostile to sensible environmental protections. This bill seeks to amend an act passed by the Howard coalition government that has created a scheme of environmental protections that have served Australia well over the last 15 years. Only a desperate Prime Minister who is leading a shambolic and chaotic government would seek to amend the system created by his political mentor and one that is working well. It is little wonder that the Abbott government has such a hostility to all things environmental as the Prime Minister is propped up by a weird gaggle of extreme climate change deniers who are an embarrassment to the few sensible Liberal politicians left on the environment.
Labor is right to oppose this bill and I am very pleased to provide this contribution explaining why this bill should not pass. This bill seeks to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 by repealing section 487. Section 487 extends the meaning of a person aggrieved in the administrative decisions Judicial Review Act 1977. With these amendments, the government is seeking to remove the ability of third parties to take action under the EPBC Act that will only permit persons who meet the standing test in the ADGR act to apply for judicial review.
Before discussing why the bill should be opposed, it is important to examine the way in which the EPBC Act has been operating over the last 15 years. As I said previously, the act is working well and is serving its intended purpose. The act was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard in 2000 and has operated these past 15 years throughout the height of Australia's mining boom. Throughout the boom, there have been no issues with section 487.
Let us consider that since the act commenced operation in July 2000, around 5,500 projects have been through the EPBC process. Of these projects, there have only been three Federal Court challenges by third parties against 22 projects. Out of these 33, six were legally successful in the sense that the applicant received a judgement in their favour and only one project has been stopped. This figure is important: one project out of 5,500 over 15 years. That one fact completely demonstrates the hollowness of this bill that we are discussing now—one project out of 5,500 but suddenly we have got a massive problem that needs to be urgently addressed. This government is trying to justify this amendment by creating the impression of a crisis in project approvals. The figures I have mentioned clearly demonstrate that there is no crisis and the government is blatantly misleading the Australian people in pretending there is.
The EPBC Act is operating well and this bill must be opposed. The plain intention of this bill is to continue the attacks on the environment by the Abbott government. They claim the current system is costing jobs. We all know that the only jobs the Prime Minister and his colleagues are worried about are their own. Their claims about jobs regarding the EPBC Act is an unconscionable misrepresentation. As I said, the act has been operating for the last 15 years through the mining boom. It has been the key environmental protection law throughout this period and it has posed no problem to the economy. The changes the government are attempting to make are political fix for their own incompetence regarding the approval process for the Adani mine and this legislation is trying to cover up that incompetence.
In contrast, Labor has a proud record of environmental protection and we are always prepared to support sensible reforms in the national interest which would improve the environmental regulatory system, including the streamlining of assessment processes. What Labor will not support is this radical right-wing government's attempt to weaken fundamentally important environmental protections and limit the public's ability to seek judicial review of government's decisions.
The government has presented this bill as limiting the ability of extreme environmentalist groups to exercise rights under this act. Well, it is not solely environmental groups that are being targeted by this amendment; it is farmers. For example, the discussion around the Shenhua mine on the Liverpool Plains would be endangered by this amendment. Any farmer seeking to express concern about development of mines in either their local community or communities upstream from them would be constrained by the operation of this amendment. Communities themselves, without any deep environmental conviction, will be retarded from taking action if this bill is successful.
I would like to point out that, under the current system, there is no ability to challenge the merits of a project approval under the EPBC Act. Only the legal validity of a project can be challenged. This already represents a significant limitation as a feature of the current system. I do not propose to spend too much time talking about the Adani Carmichael mine, which is supposedly the trigger for this action, other than to make a very basic point. The government is in this position with the EPBC Act's movement around Adani as a direct result of its own failure to comply with its own law. The Federal Court even identified this in a statement it issued:
3. Under the terms of s 139(2) of the Act, it was mandatory for the Minister to have regard to the approved conservation advices.
4. In deciding whether or not to approve the proposed action, the Minister did not have regard to the approved conservation advices.
5. The Minister did not have regard to the approved conservation advices because they were not included in the material that was before him at the time he made his decision.
Talk about a pathetic excuse for a so-called Minister for the Environment—who, as we all know, wrote his thesis arguing that a market based mechanism was the most cost-efficient way to combat carbon pollution and then abolished the very market mechanism he advocated for. For the government to mask his incompetence by trying to push this bill through parliament demonstrates the callow nature of that individual and this government. The government are in this difficult situation of their own making and are trying to hide behind shameful rhetoric about so-called lawfare and jobs. They are blatantly trying to hide their own mistakes. Their minister, the so-called Minister for the Environment, stuffed it up. He stuffed it up; his office stuffed it up; his department stuffed it up. That was what the Federal Court confirmed. It was not environmental vandals; it was not radical green groups; it was Minister Hunt stuffing up the application of an act he has responsibility for administering.
I would now like to draw the attention of the House to some of the disgraceful contributions by members opposite on this issue. It is well known that the member for Dawson is a climate change denier. He has absolutely zero credibility on environmental issues. But, according to his blog, the government's course of action regarding this issue is a result of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General heeding his advice. God help us if the legislative agenda of this government is being determined by advice from the member for Dawson. His blog is, to be honest, a very entertaining read. It bears little relationship to reality, but it is entertaining. In his 17 August contribution, he writes that he has spoken to the Attorney-General and:
I told him that it was unacceptable that groups that had nothing to do with this project were able to hold up and try to kill off jobs by waging warfare through the legal system.
The member for Dawson clearly has no understanding of the EPBC Act. As I outlined previously, there is no ability to challenge the merits of projects approved under the EPBC Act. Only the legal validity of a project can be challenged. In the case of Adani Carmichael, the minister failed to apply his own laws. The member for Dawson continually slanders citizens who have a regard for protection of our natural environment. I rarely agree with Alan Jones, but he is right when he says:
This legislative restriction is divisive, it isolates us. It means we are not allowed to care.
What is extreme and offensive is the member for Dawson's and this government's continual denial of good environmental protection, of climate change science and of good, sound policy advice on how to care for our environment.
The truth is that good governments know that there is no need to choose between coal and the protection of the environment. I am proud to represent a coalmining region. I am proud that there are four operational coalmines in my electorate. I am proud that Charlton houses the biggest power station in this country, proudly fired by black coal. I am proud that coal has built the Newcastle and Hunter Valley region. It is a legacy I honour. It is a legacy that can continue. But part of the continuing operation of these coalmines and project approval for new coalmines is a social contract, and that social contract has to be founded on a few key principles. The first is commitment to local jobs in the mines and in the supply chain. Too often during the last mining boom, we saw the supply chain for mines being outsourced to overseas.
The second principle is a commitment to reducing the environmental footprint of the coalmines. I recently visited the Centennial Mandalong coalmine, which is one of the biggest underground coalmines in Australia, and they were briefing me on the very extensive work they do to minimise subsidence in the area. Subsidence is a very big issue in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley region, and they have been developing techniques to reduce that impact, reduce the local footprint of the coalmine.
The third principle has to be community involvement, supporting local communities, whether it is through sponsorship of the local football team or something else. For example, in my area Centennial Coal is a proud supporter of the Macquarie Scorpions, a rugby league club I am patron of—and I wish to say good luck to them in the upcoming finals series. They lost last week in the first round, but hopefully they can pull a victory out on Saturday. But that level of community involvement from coalmines and their workers is essential to fulfilling the social contract which mining must be based on in this country.
The fourth principle is a commitment from coalmining companies to engage on climate change, to invest in R&D, to invest in technologies that mean that we can continue mining coal into the future. There are some interesting techniques being developed around carbon capture and storage. Some of them will work; some of them will not work; but it requires the coalmining companies to put their hands in their own pockets to invest in the R&D. As we face a carbon constrained future, there will not be an industry that survives without capping its carbon emissions, whether that is at the actual coalmine—for example, Mandalong colliery are spending lots of money developing ventilation and methane abatement technologies so that they reduce the level of methane escaping from the coalmine—or it is investing in carbon capture and storage, or carbon capture and re-use, two technological areas that have been explored at the University of Newcastle's National Institute for Energy and Resources. If we are to continue to export coal, these fundamental technologies must be developed and commercialised. The Japanese are spending a lot of money on CCS. They are still recovering from the horrible Fukushima nuclear disaster and they realise that they need to diversify their energy mix. If they are going to have coal in the future, it must be with minimal carbon emissions.
This bill is a part of the social compact that resource projects must have with Australia. That social compact has to be based on jobs, it has to be based on supporting local supply chains, it has to be based on supporting local communities through sponsoring sporting clubs and community organisations and it has to be based on sound environmental protections. This bill undermines that. It undermines that social compact by saying that groups like farmers, broader community groups and even, heaven forbid, environmental groups have no stake in the development of our resources industry and have no say in whether environmental protection and biodiversity must be respected. That is a hollow and false debate from a government that does not seek to lead this country; it seeks to divide this country. It seeks to pitch sections of the population against each other and surf on that divisiveness into power and to maintain power. That is an incredibly unfortunate frame of mine. It reflects some of the worst aspects of the Fraser years and, unfortunately, it is something that continues to this day. We can do better.
I am confident that the resources industry in this country, in particular coalmining, can coexist with other industries, can coexist with growing and prosperous communities and can coexist with society that has greater environmental protections. But if we are to do that, we must reject this bill. This bill is a hollow attack on environmental protection. It is an attack motivated by the most base of circumstances to distract the Australian people from this government's appalling record of managing this country, particularly on economic management. We have unemployment figures coming out—or they may have already come out—and we have already seen this government making excuses for any upward revision of the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate, as it stands, is at a 13-year high and they are using bills like this to distract people from the real drivers of that unemployment. The real driver of that unemployment is the economic mismanagement of the coalition government. I proudly stand opposed to this bill. I proudly stand-up for coalmining communities but on the basis of a social compact with the community in which they operate.
In speaking on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, can I begin by commending the member for Charlton for his contribution to this debate, and I certainly endorse all that he has said in the speech he just made. In leading Labor's response to this legislation, the member for Grayndler outlined the track record of the Abbott government in turning its back on the environment. The member for Grayndler listed the numerous changes that the Abbott government has made since coming to office that weaken or abolish Australia's environmental protection laws. No Australian government on record has turned its back on the environment and sought to demonise environmentalists more so than has done the Abbott government. No Australian government has either through ignorance or by deliberate intent ignored the value of the environment to our wellbeing, to our future and to the future of future generations to the extent that the Abbott government has.
If anyone wants an example of cost-shifting on to future generations, it is the Abbott government's denial of environmental responsibilities, ignoring the environmental consequences of its actions today and effectively transferring those consequences and the associated cost burdens on to future generations. The fact that broadcaster Alan Jones is running a campaign against this legislation—Alan Jones not being a radical, left wing environmentalist—should highlight for members opposite the absurdity of this legislation and their shallow justification for it.
The bill removes the right of third parties to challenge the legality of a development which has environmental consequences by removing section 487 of the EPBC Act 1999. It is a provision that was introduced by the Howard government about 15 years ago. Since its introduction, there have been 5,500 development applications under this provision of the act. Of those 5,500 development applications, there have been 33 court challenges against 22 projects. Of those, six were successful and only one project has ever been stopped. The facts and the figures speak for themselves. There is no problem with the act or that section of it. The EPBC Act is serving Australia well and so is that particular section.
There is indeed no basis and no justification on the facts presented for repealing section 487 of the EPBC Act. I have a copy of the act here with me and it includes—and it is written very clearly—the condition that individuals or community groups must have been in that space for at least two years. That was a thought out piece of the act. It was not something that was just flippantly or carelessly included at the time, and it has served Australia well.
Communities do not have the right to challenge the merits of a project approval. And under the act they do not have the right to challenge the merits of the project approval itself, but they have the right to challenge the legal validity of it. The situation is very different to the simplistic comparisons made by many members opposite when they liken third-party appeals for environmental matters to third-party appeals objecting to a residential development somewhere. The natural environment belongs to all Australians. Its destruction or degradation affects all Australians, nor can the natural environment speak for itself, in the same way that future generations have no voice about the decisions made by today's society. The environment is not a self-contained, isolated area but is connected to and forms part of the world around it and the global environment. As history shows, it is because of environmental activists that so many of Australia's iconic environmental assets have been preserved for future generations. The real issue, however, should never be about who it is that raises the objection. The real issue is: does the objection have merit? If it has, it should not be a question of who it was raised by.
Australia's environment, like that across the world, is constantly under threat. We have seen, only in the last couple of hundred years of white settlement in this country, the loss of hundreds of species, and a further 1,700 species and ecological communities are currently under threat and at risk of extinction. In fact, Australia probably has the worst track record of any of the advanced countries with respect to the documented decline in biodiversity of any continent. More than 50 species of Australian animals and 48 species of Australian plants have been made extinct in the last couple of hundred years, and the situation for many others is just as serious. It is easy to ignore or to dismiss those statistics, because most people, including me, have probably never seen or heard of some of the species lost or at risk of being lost. Every time a species is lost there are consequences for others species.
The fact remains that it is environmentalists, who do not necessarily live next to development sites, who take the time to study the environment, who understand the environment best and who understand its value. If you are a research scientist based in one of the capital cities, it does not mean that you have no connection with the environment in the middle of Australia, where perhaps you have spent half your life doing the research work that you do. When you are aware that there is a risk to that environment, why should you not have the right, having put so much time and effort into preserving that environment, to also stand up for it? Of course you should. That is why section 487 is in the current EPBC Act.
The courts already have the ability to deal with vexatious claims simply by dealing with them expeditiously and, if necessary, by not only dismissing them but also awarding costs against the plaintiff. So, if there is a frivolous objection, then I believe that every court has the opportunity and the mechanism to deal with it. I also note that the recent decision by the government to set aside its own decision regarding the Adani project approval, because the government failed to comply with its own legal obligations, is being used as an example by coalition members of how actions of environmentalists obstruct projects from proceeding. That the Federal Court felt compelled to issue a public statement clarifying the Adani matter is telling of the distorted reporting of the facts and the politicisation of this matter by some media writers and some coalition members. The Federal Court statement makes the situation clear. As the member for Grayndler has already read the statement fully into the Hansard,I will limit my own comments about it. It is most unusual that a court of the land, the Federal Court, saw it necessary, effectively, to intervene in the public debate and issue a public statement in order to stop the misrepresentation of the matter.
It is also interesting that the matter goes to the heart of the minister's own department not providing him with the relevant information at the time. That in my mind raises a very serious question: why did the department fail to provide the minister with the information that was required? Was it because the department is under-resourced? If that is the case, again, it is consistent with the theme of this government in undermining the environment by not properly resourcing the very departments that act to protect it. The minister can respond to that when the debate is closed, but I suspect that the under-resourcing of the environment department is one of the reasons this mistake occurred. I suspect that it is also causing problems in the protection of the environment in so many other parts of the country.
The attacks on environmentalists by most of the coalition members who have spoken in support of this legislation are also extraordinary. These are the same people who come into this chamber and who, when it suits them, talk up the environmental wonders of Australia such as the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest region, Kakadu National Park, Fraser Island and probably all of Tasmania, because all of these places truly are environmental assets for Australia. They criticise the environmentalists who brought attention to the importance of these assets, but they never acknowledge that it was those same environmentalists who have today preserved them and that, through the preservation of those environmental assets, there is an economic value generated for the whole of the country. Through tourism alone, most of those places raise an extraordinary amount of income for the regions they are in. I have no doubt they form some of the most important reasons for people coming to Australia in the first place.
If members opposite want to talk about jobs, then they should also be honest about the number of jobs that are created when we preserve our natural environment. The Great Barrier Reef is a good example where, supposedly, 60,000 jobs or thereabouts have been created in that part of Australia alone. I am sure that we could multiply that many, many times over when we combine all of the environmental assets that we have in this country. If we lost those environmental assets, there no longer would be a drawcard for many overseas visitors to come to Australia. In turn, what would be the downward effect to our economy of those losses?
The environment is a unique asset across the world, and particularly here in Australia, and we should do all that we can to preserve it. That is why the EPBC Act was legislated in the first place. It is because the parliament of the day, and preceding parliaments, recognised the importance and the value of it to our economy and to our nation and set about a process to make sure that it is protected for the future. Yet this government today wants to turn back what was implemented by previous governments who had the foresight to understand the importance of what they were doing—previous governments which, I might say, included previous coalition governments, because it was indeed under the Howard government that the EPBC Act, including this particular section of the act, was legislated.
I finish on this point: it was not that long ago—it was, I think, in around 2009—that the Hawke report, which thoroughly reviewed the EPBC Act, was brought down. That review came up with an extraordinary number of recommendations, and there were suggestions made as to how the EPBC Act could be improved. None of those suggestions in any way raised concerns about section 487. So here we have an expert asked to look at the act and advise the parliament as to how we can make it better, and not once did he raise concerns about section 487. I would have thought that, if there was a legitimate concern about the operation of that section of the act, Mr Hawke would have found that concern and brought it to the attention of the parliament. But that was not done, because it was never a concern.
This is an ideological attack on the environmental movement across Australia by a government, the Abbott government, that simply does not understand or value the environment that we have in this country, and it is an ideological attack that goes to the heart of the work of thousands of people across this country who every day contribute towards preserving their local environment. I have to note again the hypocrisy I see from so many members opposite, who are prepared to stand up in this chamber and applaud the work of these environmentalists but, at the same time, try to diminish the very act that goes hand in glove with the work that they are doing to preserve what we have.
Lastly, I finish on this point: it is also concerning to hear criticism of environmental organisations because they have DGR status. The bottom line to DGR status is that people want to make contributions to the environmental movements they do because they value our environment. It is a choice people make. So to say that taxpayers' funds are being used to undermine development projects across this country is also an absurdity, because those people making those donations do not do it because of their tax-deductibility; they do it because they care about Australia's environment.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, which is before us today, speaks volumes as to who this government is and the desperation that it now has. It is desperate to create an enemy and a villain within our community. This amendment that is before us is the government waging another ideological war over what should be sound environmental law that gives communities hope and confidence that this parliament and our laws will take on board their concerns about any major development.
Members of the cabinet and this government have been very quick to stand in this place or in the public space, deem these groups to be vigilantes and label them as environmental radicals, wanting to smash up and destroy development. This government is wrong and could not be further from the truth. People who are actively involved in many of these cases include a number of people in regional areas: farmers, community groups, Landcare groups and people from my own electorate who are concerned about the impact that major mining developments or other developments are having on their local community and their local environment. It is wrong of the government to label anybody who exercises their rights under this act as vigilantes, environmental vandals or reckless. It is creating nothing but anxiety, fear and demonstrations of a government that is out of control, irrational and going for cheap headlines.
The intention of the changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is to stop third parties from intervening on developments affecting their environment. It is unbelievable that the government would do this knowing full well about the concerns that have been raised within their own communities about a number of these projects. The National and Country Liberal MPs that will vote for this bill or stand and speak on this bill are letting down their communities.
The EPBC Act has been an overriding national environmental protection law for the past 15 years. It has stood and lasted through the mining boom, and it has posed no problem to creating jobs in that industry or the economy. Thousands of projects have been approved and managed effectively under our current system, which was here during the Howard government and then two terms of the Labor government. The intention to repeal section 487 of the EPBC Act is a rash reaction from the government, which is trying to cover up its own failures—which have been borne out in the courts—and at the same time trying to create another enemy within the community.
The government has been caught out for not properly managing the approval process of the Adani mine under the act, which is what has brought this legislation before us today. It is making outrageous claims and trying to change the legislation to cover up its own incompetency. The government's claims that this act is costing jobs are just outrageous and are another attempt by this government to pretend that it is a government focused on creating jobs when its actions, not just on this issue but on a number of issues, have put thousands of jobs within our country regional areas at risk.
The EPBC Act was designed to protect the environment and gives local communities an opportunity to challenge any development that they believe may impact on their local community. Landholders have the right to appeal decisions where they believe projects may impact on their land. We are not talking about inner-city greenies as the government would have us pretend. We are talking about environmental groups in communities. We are talking about farmers. We are talking about groups like Lock the Gate. Lock the Gate has been vocal in a number of our communities. The Lock the Gate Alliance is a national grassroots organisation of over 40,000 supporters and more than 250 local groups. They are not the radicals the government would like to paint them as. They are, as I have said, our farmers. They are people in our schools in our regional communities. Sure, they have triangles, but they are yellow triangles not green triangles. They speak up because they believe the impact of overmining our land could put at risk good prime agricultural land. What they ask for is a set of laws that allow them to object to mining projects that could impact on their ability to keep their land productive.
It is not just the Lock the Gate Alliance who speaks up about these projects. The National Farmers' Federation recently spoke out against this government's decision to approve another coalmine. The National Farmers' Federation argues that farmers and food production need to come before the needs of the mining industry. These are not, as the government would like to present, radicals and vigilantes—the nasty words they use for people who are speaking up about their concerns. These are people living in regional Australia. Whether they be involved in the National Farmers' Federation, the Lock the Gate Alliance, Landcare groups or other organisations, they are speaking up and wanting balance and fairness when it comes to decisions about the use of the land in their area.
People in my own electorate have been quite vocal about this, and a number of them have written to me. Kerry, from Woodend, said:
I feel strongly about protecting our environment. I live in the Macedon Ranges and love its nature and wildlife. I'm in favour of clean energy sources rather than polluting ones. Can you please speak up for the above by refusing to weaken Australia's Protection Laws.
Barbara, from Macedon, said:
Big polluters should not be able to develop projects without checks and balances. Australian communities and environment groups should have the right to access the law to speak up for land, water and wildlife and against polluting and damaging mining projects. Australia needs stronger, not weaker, nature protection laws to balance the power of big polluters over governments—
It is up to government to make sure there are fair, balanced laws. Marie, from Bendigo, said:
We have been members of ACF for many years and are shocked at the strategies of this government to try and sabotage what would otherwise be sound law.
Margaret, from Castlemaine, said:
I am shocked, angered and totally dismayed to read this morning's Age Newspaper regarding the Prime Minister's new attack on laws governing environmental protection and conservation groups. This is outrageous… People like myself care and love the environment and seek every opportunity to embrace reusable energy and community natural resources for a sustainable and healthy future.
And we want the right to know that we can challenge any changes to that.
These are just a few of the people who have raised concerns about not only this government's attacks on environmental law but also its outright hysteria in labelling as vigilantes those who speak up against proposals in their area.
I think about some of the other controversial projects in my part of the world. Near Maldon there is a proposal to have intensive chicken farming. A number of locals in Maldon and the Tarrengower community have objected to that project. They are worried about the effect it will have on their own enterprises. There is a stud farm there, there is a natural environment there and there is a school not far from where the proposal is. They have gone through several processes to challenge and tease out what is appropriate and fair development within their community. In our society, across regional Australia, there is always going to be conflict between different industries. It is the role of government to make sure there is a framework that is rigid, robust and fair enough to allow each of those groups to challenge possible development.
Our farmers are strongly making the point that we cannot afford to lose all of our prime agricultural and food production land to mining projects. We need to make sure that we have sound environmental and resource management of our land. For the government to try to turn its incompetent stuff-up in the courts into an opportunity to weaken the environment laws not only smacks of ridiculousness but is also a demonstration that it does not have the interests of regional Australia at heart. Instead, this is cheap political opportunism. This government is very quickly raging out of control. Whether it be this or other reforms, they have little care or regard for what is going on in regional Australia.
Finally, the government claims that this project will create thousands upon thousands of jobs. The figures they bandy vary from question time to question time—one day it is 2,000, the next day it is 10,000 and then it is 5,000. But the mine says it will only create just over 1,000 jobs. They also will not confirm who those jobs will go to or whether they will be local workers. I suspect it will be FIFO workers.
If the government are serious about projects that create jobs, they need to work with industry to ensure that locals get those jobs first. Australians do not care if you are creating jobs for overseas workers. In fact they get frustrated. What we see time and time again from this government is that they say they are the champion of jobs but they are not championing Australians for jobs or locals first for local jobs. They are very happy and quite complicit with companies being able to bring in their own overseas workers to work the jobs.
I was recently in the north speaking to some workers in Townsville and Brisbane. They said to me that, when it comes to these projects, they do want to see more jobs in their regions but they want to see rules in place to ensure that the local kids and local people get opportunities at the jobs first. The government need to drop the rhetoric on this one and stick to sound environmental law that was introduced by one of their former governments. They need to stop going straight for the cheap political headline, using words that divide the community, labelling people as vigilante or radical green groups, and start being serious in engaging communities about what is appropriate, fair, environmental friendly or sound projects.
Other speakers on this side of the House agree or disagree about whether the mining project itself is appropriate. I tend to be on the environmental side and on the side of the farmers. I want to see more and more of our land preserved for food production and agriculture. I have to ask all those National and Liberal MPs: where are you in this debate? Are you seriously standing up here and saying, 'Ignore the farmers' concerns, ignore the lock-the-gate concerns. Let's label them as radicals, environmentalists and greenies. Let's pretend they don't exist and let's just back our mates in big business. Let's try to cover up the fact that we stuffed up. Let's not be embarrassed when we go along to that next big fundraiser and say that we have the court case won on that one. Let's try to ram through an amendment to an act that has existed for a while that gave community assurances that decisions being made in their area, in regional Australia, was sound and that they had an opportunity to object.'
Our communities need to know that their views are being listened to. Currently the act that we have before us gives communities the confidence in our planning system. They guard against corruption and result in better environmental assessments and outcomes. I urge the House to vote down this amendment that will only create more fury and more wars in our community. (Time expired)
The Abbott government's intention to change the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the EPBC Act, to stop third-party intervention on developments affecting the environment is unconscionable. It is yet another attack in this government's relentless war on the environment and groups that take it upon themselves to protect it.
Unfortunately for the people of Australia this government, the Abbott government, does not believe in accountability. It does not like its legislation to be challenged. It does not like any of its legislation to be questioned. It is all about closing off any sort of scrutiny. This legislation goes along those lines.
This bill has a provision that will no longer allow the public to challenge the legality of decisions made by the government, a government that cannot stand scrutiny. It runs against the rule of law, democratic accountability and history. It should be seen for what it is—another attempt to stop environmental concerns from getting in the way of economic priorities. It is a reactionary response to the successful challenge by the Mackay Conservation Group on the decision to approve the Carmichael coal mine. It builds on the government's draconian funding cuts already made to public-interest environmental legislation.
The one thing that the people of Australia know is that you cannot trust this government when it comes to the environment. We have had the environment minister standing up day after day in this parliament spruiking anti-environmental policies. It is a government that has absolutely no respect for the environment and a government that does not understand the importance of our environment.
I have been overwhelmed with emails and comments from my constituents about the proposal to change this act. Just for the members on the other side of this House, this does not have the support of the community. This is just another blatant ploy to play politics. The intention to repeal section 407 of the EPBC Act is a rash reaction to the government's incompetence and failure. That was borne out in the courts. The Australian government was embarrassed last month when a small environmental group was successful. Let's get this right—that was because the minister had failed to present documents showing how they would ensure protection of two vulnerable species, the yakka skink and the ornamental snake. This is just another example of a government not wanting to be held accountable for its incompetence. This government really should be condemned for the action in this legislation.
The government claims that the EPBC Act is costing jobs, and that is absolutely outrageous. The only thing that is costing this country jobs is the government's incompetence and the Prime Minister's determination to fight for his own job and for no-one else's. We have seen the car industry disappear from Australia. We have seen the government failing to ensure that Australian workers can get work in the shipping industry. Under Tony Abbott, more than 800,000 people are now unemployed—the first time it has been this high in 20 years.
I hear the member for Corangamite interjecting—it is interesting. She should be standing up to the Prime Minister, telling him it is not good enough. She should be making sure that there are jobs available for her constituents rather than sitting there and seeing the jobs go out the door—not good enough, Member for Corangamite; I am very disappointed that you are not standing up for your community. Labor will not under any circumstance support weakening environmental protection or limiting a community's right to challenge government decisions. This is a government that is not about jobs. We in the opposition are about jobs.
Since being passed by the Howard government 15 years ago, the EPBC Act has been the overriding national environmental protection law, including throughout the whole of the mining boom. Environmental groups are required to operate within this law. It has been on the books for 15 years and it is only now, after the environment minister has been incompetent, that the government are seeking to change it. I can understand that. They probably realise that his incompetence will continue. This legislation was designed to protect the environment because the environment is important. Threatened species are important. Unfortunately, the government do not appreciate the importance of the environment not only for those people in the areas that will be affected by development but for Australia and the whole of the world's ecosystems. Under this proposed legislation, landholders have a right to appeal decisions where a project impacts on their land, but, where the legislation was intended to protect the environment for, say, a threatened species, under this bill those groups and organisations standing up for the environment will not have the ability to challenge decisions.
Community objection rights are important because they build community confidence in the planning system, they guard against corruption and they result in better environmental assessments and outcomes. The threat of third-party appeals creates a stronger incentive for proponents and the government to adhere to the law, improving the quality of environmental assessment of major projects. It is not the actual exercise of power to enforce the public right that matters most but the threat that it will be exercised that wins improved accountability to an approval system that can be plagued by vested interests—something that those on the other side of this House do not like to hear. They do not like accountability; they do not like transparency; they do not like openness. We have seen that time and time again in this House.
In looking at this provision, only about 0.4 per cent of the EPBC Act referrals have ever been challenged. The scope of the appeal rights within the EPBC Act 1999 is already restricted to judicial review. Communities do not have the right to challenge the merit of a project, yet this government wants to see the law amended even further so that the protection of the environment is thrown out the door. It is very disturbing and really shows that you cannot trust the Abbott government. It objects to being held accountable and, as I said, does not like scrutiny. Removing effective appeal rights will result in less scrutiny and rigour in the assessment process and will most likely result in poorer environmental outcomes at a time when Australia's natural environment is under greater threat than ever. That the government constantly denies that climate change exists—we have a Prime Minister who calls it 'crap'—is testimony to the fact that this government does not take environmental protection seriously.
If this amendment is made to the EPBC Act, the only people who will be able to challenge the approval of a mine or any other major industrial development with high environmental impacts will be individuals who can prove they will be directly affected, who have the funds to go to court and who have the courage to risk a massive cost order against them which will probably bankrupt them if they lose. In short, it will effectively put an end to any legal challenges against federal approvals of major industrial developments with high environmental impacts. No wonder this government is called the anti-environment government.
It is interesting to look at the people who have questioned whether this amendment should be enacted. Even Phillip Ruddock has questioned the government's plan to prevent environmental groups from challenging major mining projects. Alan Jones, who is a strong supporter of those on the other side, has also questioned this legislation.
I will conclude by saying: this government does not like being held accountable. It does not like openness and transparency. It has no respect for the environment. This legislation should not pass the House; it should not pass the Senate; it should not become law because it is one of the greatest threats to our environment that this country has seen—second to one: the Abbott government.
I am opposed to this bill. It does not take an environmental scientist to realise that Australia's natural environment is the envy of the world. We are blessed with some of the most spectacular surrounds that attract people from every nation to our shores. But there is more to places like the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru than just their good looks. Our environment is large and complex. It nurtures us, supports us and gives us a place to live, work and play; it informs our national identity and it possesses an intrinsic economic value and a greater economic value than most Australians would appreciate.
Last year, a group of international researchers from the Australian National University and the University of South Australia estimated the work of Australia's ecosystem services to be around $5 trillion per year; but it is declining in Australia, as it is over the rest of the world. The researchers found that the global area of tropical forest has declined by 642 million hectares between 1997 and 2011, while deserts had grown by 234 million hectares. Coral reefs had gradually been turned into sea grass and algae beds. The area of ocean coral has shrunk by 34 million hectares, while sea grass and algae beds had grown by the same amount between 1997 and 2011. The global area of wetlands has shrunk by more than 14 million hectares.
Unfortunately, this is where the Abbott government fits into this picture. This bill represents the latest wave of this Abbott government's attack on our environment and the people who seek to protect and represent that environment. This government has proven time and time again that not only is the environment not on their list of priorities but it is not even in their list of vocabulary. In the first year of the Abbott government, they destroyed Australia's efforts to lead the global push towards a cleaner energy future. They abolished the Climate Commission and they attempted to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Renewable Energy Agency. They have reviewed our marine national reserves and they have abolished the price of carbon in our economy. That is just in the first year of this government.
The effects of this bill are to further their anti-environmental agenda by changing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to stop third-party interventions on developments affecting the environment. This change is unconscionable and patently unnecessary. Since the EPBC Act commenced in July 2000, approximately 5,500 projects have been through the system. That is 5,500 approvals that have been granted under this act. Of these, there have been only 33 Federal Court challenges by third parties against only 22 projects.
In terms of statistics and percentages, this represents a mere 0.4 per cent of projects referred under the EPBC Act. Of the 33 actions, four were discounted or resolved with the consent of the parties; six were legally successful in the sense that the applicant received a judgement and/or orders in its favour; and only one project was actually stopped. All others were legally unsuccessful. The EPBC Act has been the overriding national environmental protection law for last 50 years. It is our national environmental asset protection legislation. It has done this job, including through the mining boom, and has posed no problems for our economy. The approval of thousands of projects was managed perfectly well under this system by the Howard government and two terms of the Labor government.
That begs the question: why on earth is the Abbott government doing this? Why on earth are they making it more difficult and removing the right of communities and third parties to challenge environmental decisions? I think you only need to look at the timing of this particular decision, because this policy and this change was announced in a week where it was leaked from cabinet that there was nothing on the cabinet agenda—not a single thing to be debated on the cabinet agenda. That highlights the fact that this government does not have a plan. They do not have a plan to manage and govern our nation and our economy.
So in a week where there is nothing on the agenda, why not go out and attack environmental organisations? Why not go out and try to undermine the integrity of a bill that protects our environment and, by all accounts and by all statistics, has been working well in serving our economy and our environment and getting that balance right many, many years? The intention to repeal section 487 of the EPBC Act is a dramatic and dangerous overreaction by a Prime Minister who is desperate to save his job. It has been brought on by the government's complete stuff up in respect of the approval of the Adani coalmine in Queensland.
Labor believes that the rights of communities and third parties to oppose onerous developments is vital as it helps to maintain confidence in the system, prevents questionable findings and leads to all around better environmental outcomes. Basically, this provision in the EPBC Act is fundamental to our democracy. It is the opportunity for communities to challenge bad environmental decisions and this government wants to remove that right. It is important to note that standing provisions under section 487 of the current EPBC Act are already sufficiently rigorous.
As it currently stands, communities do not have the right to challenge the merits of a project approval under the EPBC Act, only the legal validity of it. This is a very, very important distinction, which I think has been lost on the environment minister and the government. It limits legal challenges only to community groups who have been active on environmental issues for at least two years. If section 487(2) is repealed, then the onus falls back entirely onto individuals to prove that they are directly affected in order to challenge any mining approvals. This, of course, is an effective way to silence dissent, as individuals rarely possess the necessary resources to challenge multibillion-dollar mining conglomerates in court. The risk is simply too great for any individual to entertain.
The matter that triggered this referral and this change of the law was, of course, the Adani coalmine decision in Queensland. That challenge was made by the Environmental Defenders Office on behalf of the communities surrounding the mine. This government wants to undermine that process and that right. The result of this change would, of course, be the end of any challenges by those communities to large-scale projects that have a significant impact on the environment. One of the shameful hallmarks of this government has been its propensity to distance the Australian people from the decisions and actions that affect our community.
Labor will always support common-sense improvements to our environmental regulatory system such as the streamlining of assessment approvals and processes. But we will not support the weakening of environmental protections or the limiting of a community's right to challenge government decisions. That is exactly what this bill does. It undermines a fundamental premise of our democracy—that people have the right to challenge decisions relating to the environment in which they live when there is a good chance that those decisions will have a detrimental effect on their quality of life and the communities they inhabit. That is exactly what this reform will do. It will undermine the right and ability of those communities to challenge those decisions. On that basis, it must be voted down by the House of Representatives.
I rise to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. The bill was introduced into the parliament on 20 August. It is a very simple piece of legislation. Its only measure, the only change it will effect to our law, is the simple repeal of one provision—section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. That provision provides extended standing to challenge decisions made under the EPBC Act. Its repeal will have the effect that the usual rules of standing under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act apply to the review of decisions under the EPBC Act.
This may be a simple piece of legislation, but it tells you a lot about this government. The process by which the government came to introduce this bill tells you a lot about how this government is run and what its priorities are. The government rhetoric around this bill tells you a lot about its politics and about the way it wants to conduct public debate. Most importantly, the substance of this little bill tells you a lot about this government's values and about what sort of country it wants to build.
In his second reading speech the Minister for the Environment claimed that the bill is responsive to a trend of abuse of the EPBC Act—what he claims is a pattern of behaviour by certain environmental activists. This is transparently not the case. The government has not established any such trend. They have produced no evidence of what they claim is a flood of vexatious litigation. No, this bill is responsive to just one incident—the orders of the Federal Court of Australia on 4 August this year relating to the Adani Carmichael project. We should be very clear about what the Federal Court did in that matter, because it is the genesis of this bill. Unusually, we have the assistance of a public statement of the court, released on 19 August, explaining the court's orders. In that statement the court explains that on 4 August a judge of the court set aside the decision of the Minister for the Environment to approve, under the EPBC Act, the Adani Carmichael project. Crucially, though, the court said:
The orders were not made after a hearing. There was no judgment. There were no findings. The orders were made by consent, that is, with the agreement of the parties to the litigation.
Lawyers for the minister had written a letter to the court admitting that he had made an error in his approval decision. In making his decision the EPBC Act obliged him to consider advice about threatened species which a project might affect, but he had not done so in this instance. The minister, through his lawyers, conceded that this error invalidated the decision and asked the court to set it aside. As I said, it is unusual for the court to make a public statement about matters before it. Very diplomatically, the court said it did so in order to correct media reports about the Adani case. What happened, in fact, was that government had an almighty public tantrum. The orders of the Federal Court came about not because of any underhanded action by environmental activists—they were necessary, as the government itself admitted to the court—but because of an error the minister had made.
This is an opportunistic government, however. It is a government which is desperate for a fight. It is desperate to distract from the paucity of its own agenda. Instead of simply remaking the decision—and this time considering all of the information which the act requires—the government lashed out at the decision and at the environmental group which had brought the application to the court. It engaged in the most hyperbolic kind of rhetoric—which I will come to shortly. Instead of reflecting on its own ineptitude—the true cause of the adverse ruling by the court—it announced that it would change the law. This really is quite an extraordinary way to legislate—though it is one we are fast becoming used to under this government.
I am reminded of the crusade against the Racial Discrimination Act led by the Prime Minister and his Attorney-General in response to just one judgement by a single judge of the Federal Court concerning a single conservative opinion columnist. Because of that one judgement—a judgement which the columnist in question did not seek to appeal in even the Full Court of the Federal Court, let alone the High Court—the government decided to repeal a provision which had served the community well for over two decades. This time they did not even have a judgement. As the court explained, there was no trial, no hearing, no findings—just a single set of consent orders setting aside one decision of the minister relating to one mining project. If the government has its way, this is to be the basis for changing the rules about challenging all projects under the EPBC Act, Australia's primary national environmental protection statute.
The current standing provision, section 487, which this act would repeal, has been in place since the act itself was passed by the Howard government. The government has produced no evidence of any abuse of this provision, no evidence of litigation unfairly holding up any development. Since the EPBC Act commenced in July 2000, approximately 5,500 projects have been through the EPBC process. Of these, there have been 33 Federal Court challenges by third parties against only 22 projects—that is right: 22 projects, out of 5½ thousand. This equates to only 0.4 per cent of projects referred under the EPBC Act. Of the 33 actions, four were discontinued or resolved with the consent of the parties and six were legally successful in the sense that the applicant received a judgement or orders in its favour. Only one project was actually stopped. All the others were legally unsuccessful.
The operation of the EPBC Act was last subjected to an independent review in 2009, led by respected former public servant Dr Allan Hawke and a panel of experts. That review considered section 487 and the other extended standing provisions in the act. This was the conclusion of the review led by Dr Hawke: 'These provisions created no difficulties and should be maintained.' The current government is evidently ignoring this finding. They have not conducted any review of their own. They have not produced any real evidence. They have not consulted. They have barely thought about it. This is a government that values ideology over evidence. They are interested in politics not policy. This is no way to legislate in this national parliament. It is no way to govern Australia.
Of course, this government is not one to let the facts get in the way of a good slogan. With no evidence to back them up, they have engaged in some truly extraordinary rhetoric. They have spoken about 'vigilante litigation', a contradiction in terms if ever I saw one. They have slurred farmers and community groups as 'radical activists'. They accuse those who care about this country's environment of engaging in acts of 'sabotage'. And this is not coming from maverick backbenchers. It is not coming from the fringes of the Liberal and Nationals party rooms. This rhetoric is being spouted by cabinet ministers and by the Prime Minister himself. There is one minister in particular who ought to be singled out for this sort of language: the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. As first law officer, he should be restrained in the way he talks about the courts and about matters before them. He ought never to denigrate the role of the courts in holding the government of the day to the letter of the law, in what must be a new low—
I hear a ridiculous interjection from the parliamentary secretary at the table, who is suggesting to me that a royal commission—which is in fact an executive inquiry, launched by the government of the country, launched by the Abbott government—is somehow to be compared with a court. He should know what nonsense it is, and it is consistent with this government that they have no idea of how to properly conduct the affairs of Australia. It is absolutely consistent with their ignorance of parliamentary convention, their ignorance of conventions about royal commissions, that the parliamentary secretary would seek to compare a royal commission to a court.
As I was saying, in the Senate, embarrassingly, the Attorney-General of Australia described, no less, an application for judicial review in the Federal Court, an application which was not contested by the government, as 'lawfare'. That is what we have come to—just like the ridiculous statements government ministers have been making, falsely comparing a royal commission to a court. We now have the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth saying that an application for judicial review in the Federal Court is 'lawfare'. The only thing that this kind of unhinged rhetoric which we have heard from the Prime Minister himself and which we have heard from ministers—
Ms Henderson interjecting—
and unhinged rhetoric like we are hearing now from the member for Corangamite tells us about this government is that it is a government that is desperate for a distraction. They are desperate to confect outrage, to pick a fight. It is a government boxing at shadows. The government's histrionics on this issue bear no relation to what this bill will actually achieve. The bill is not really about radical activists. It is not really about vexatious litigants or frivolous lawsuits. The courts already have powers under the general law to deal with vexatious applicants. They already have the ability to restrain abuses of their processes. It is an unjustified slur on the courts to suggest that they have not been using these powers appropriately.
What this bill would actually do is silence the voice of the community on environmental matters. It would strip Australians of the right they presently have to challenge important government decisions which might have profound environmental consequences, including impacts on our food security, the tourism industry and the health and quality of life of those living in regional Australia. It would take away the rights of farmers, graziers and agribusinesses whose lands and water supplies are often threatened by the impacts of major projects. It is a retrograde step, but no-one should be surprised. This government has an appalling record on environmental issues.
The Prime Minister talked a big game when he was in opposition. In 2009 he said he was a 'fair dinkum environmentalist'. In 2010 he told the ABC:
I reckon I have always been a conservationist. I have always taken the environment seriously.
As in so many other areas, the promises this government made before taking office have turned out to be completely illusory. In office, this government has waged an unrelenting war on Australia's environment—and, what's worse, on anyone who dares to try to defend it. In office, this Prime Minister turned out to be, as the respected international magazine Foreign Policy put it last year, 'the Australian environment's worst nightmare'. The Prime Minister destroyed Australia's carbon pricing scheme, something he boasts about endlessly. He asked UNESCO to delist 74,000 hectares of World Heritage forest in Tasmania, making Australia only the third country, after Oman and Tanzania, to try to abandon one of its own World Heritage sites.
Chillingly, though, a particular focus of this government has been on restraining public debate about environmental issues. The government wants to stifle activism and prevent the community from speaking out and organising around environmental causes.
In December 2013, after being asked to do so by the Minerals Council, the Attorney-General cancelled all funding to environmental defenders offices. Through the House Standing Committee on the Environment, the government has been waging a campaign against the deductible gift recipient status of environmental organisations. The Liberal Party has already made its attitude to this quite clear. Last year, at the urging of the member for Bass, the federal Liberal council passed a motion calling for such organisations to lose their DGR status. The member for Bass said that the groups which defend our environment are not 'real charities'.
This bill is just the latest salvo in that government campaign to silence the community, to silence those Australians who care about the environment, which I hope would be every Australian. Well, Labor will not stand for it. We will not allow this government to undermine the integrity of our environment protection laws. We will not let them cover up the Minister for the Environment's own incompetence with an attack on the rights of the community. I expect the people of Australia will not let them get away with it either.
The House should reject this bill, just as this House should reject the appalling attitudes which have been expressed by speaker after speaker from the government benches. They have demonstrated not the slightest understanding of the way our legal system is meant to work and not the slightest understanding even of the responsibilities of the national government to care for and protect our environment and to make it possible for all those in Australia who care about the environment to participate in ensuring that every development is in accordance with the law.
I rise to wear the badge that I have been retrospectively branded with this week: that of a radical activist. If a radical activist is someone who will stand up for their community and organise with others in their community to stand up for the environment then that is what I am. I am a radical activist. Those opposite have not been shy this week about labelling people who care about the environment and labelling people who are prepared to make a contribution in causes around the environment.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. What we have seen could be described as lively debate, but that implies being fleet of foot or mind, and I would argue that those opposite have been neither. Rather, the debate has been marked by a sledgehammer approach. We have had conflated rhetoric and people being accused of being vigilantes, vandals, saboteurs and of gaming a system. Going to the Federal Court is now gaming the system! This is a really important debate because it gives us an opportunity to lay out what the changes before us actually are and what has brought them before us.
We are talking about the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which, as has been pointed out by many in this debate, has been in operation for some 15 years since it was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places defined in the act as matters of national environmental significance. As someone who represents an electorate with a Ramsar site, I stand here proudly to say that this act is critically important and should not be amended as suggested.
This amendment bill seeks to repeal section 487, which will remove the ability of third parties to take action under the act and instead only allow persons who can meet the standing test in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act. What does this mean in real terms? What does it mean to the people in my community? Currently, this law allows very specific groups and people to challenge an approval given by government where the processes have not been followed to the letter of the law—where an approval has been granted without meeting the requirements of the act. Generally, when an appeal is lodged the parties involved withdraw the approval and revisit the process until they can guarantee that it is legal.
This amendment bill removes the ability to do that from specific people. Currently, legal challenges are limited to community groups who have been active for at least two years. This amendment would mean that challenges would be limited to people who can prove they are directly affected. In real terms, they have to prove they are directly affected and have the funds and the courage to risk a massive costs order against them. What it means is that the errors in the approval process would go unchallenged. The act, as it stands, means that errors do not go unchallenged, that people are careful in deliberating in the approval processes, that environmental concerns are addressed appropriately and that mitigating measures are taken to ensure environmental protection.
But here we are, in the federal parliament, looking to undo that process. Let's have a look at the context. We are here because Minister Hunt made a mistake. Generally, if grown-ups make a mistake, they own it, they act to ameliorate the damage and they move on. But no. What we have seen from Minister Hunt is the throwing of the toys out of the cot. He has had a huge dummy-spit because he got something wrong. I would have thought that grown-up governments required grown-up ministers, not toddler tantrums like we have seen here.
Those opposite have opened up a new front in the Abbott government's war on everything fair. This time it is the environmentalists are under attack. In reality, the EPBC Act, as it stands, delivers attention to detail, sensitive compromise and negotiated outcomes. Reason is what this act delivers. But this week we have heard speech after speech of scalding rhetoric. I have found listening to the speeches from those opposite over the last 48 hours personally affronting. I led a community campaign. I was chairperson of the Werribee Residents Against the Toxic Dump. This was a group of people concerned about the environmental impacts of a project that had the support of the Premier of the day, Jeff Kennett, and was being proposed by a huge company. CSR was the company. In leading that campaign I worked with a group of incredibly sensitive and reasonable people. I worked with a farmer—a farmer, as it happened—who was very concerned about the damage to the reputation of the Werribee South growers and their produce. I worked with a suburban solicitor who was concerned that the people's voices were not being heard and that the processes were pitched against the community. I worked with an academic—and I of course was a school teacher. We had a scientist on our committee. In fact, we had two scientists on our committee.
The changes that are being suggested today and the rhetoric being piled on during this week vilify people who have clear community concerns and they pigeon-hole people from my community as wild 'mung bean eating vandals'—that was one of the quotes yesterday. A few people in my community may have eaten mung beans, but I have not. The people on the group I chaired were concerned about potential damage, real damage, to the groundwater that is used to water the crops in Werribee South. Those people were prepared to take whatever action was required. That included a trip to Canberra to see if, given the danger to the Ramsar wetland, the federal government were interested in our cause.
I find it offensive, and I know that all the people in my community who were involved in that campaign will have found it equally offensive, to have heard concerned citizens typecast in this way. We were residents, we were farmers, we were people critically concerned about our community and about our environment—and we did all the evil things be ranted about. We took action. We took every action we could to ensure our voices were heard. We were on the consultative committees. We did seek what legal avenues were open to us. We worked closely with the Geelong Environmental Defenders Office. We sought legal advice from that group. We sought their expertise.
What we are discussing today is about taking away a community's right to seek explicit expertise in environmental matters if they have a problem with a proposal in their area. We have heard lots of rhetoric like, 'You should be in the immediate vicinity', and we have heard lots of rhetoric about people taking action from thousands of miles away. The EPBC Act is exactly what this country needs to ensure that people thousands of miles away can express their concerns, can seek redress, can be involved in the process, and can ensure that the approval process ticks every box under the act.
There is no doubt in my mind that this in fact another war for this government—someone else to pick a fight with—and their overblown rhetoric camouflages the fact that they want to change something that was introduced under the Howard government, something that has worked for 15 years, and which, as speaker after speaker has said, has resulted in one project being stopped. The fact that these provisions are in the act ensure that those involved in the process are able to make sure that their due diligence is done appropriately. They ensure that the approval process has followed the law. That is what is important here. To those people from the Mackay Conservation Group, the grassroots community-based organisation from North Queensland which is run by a group of dedicated volunteers, I say, 'Keep up the good work' and 'If you need expert advice from the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office, seek it, because it reflects the same work I did as a concerned citizen of my community some years ago.'
History shows that the EPBC Act, as it stands, ensures that processes are followed. It ensures community voices are heard. It ensures approvals are not corrupted. This bill is dangerous legislation. It seeks to circumvent natural justice and disempower the public of Australia. It seeks to silence communities when they are critically concerned and critically involved. In fact, I would go further and say that it will limit community involvement. Community activism is a good thing, not a bad thing. Having people informed and involved in the debates around major projects ensures that a community goes with a project when it gets ultimate approval. I suggest strongly that those opposite rethink this mad war on environmentalists.
Like other concerned members and the members of the Labor Party, I too would like to lend my voice to opposing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015, which seeks to amend section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
There are very good reasons for opposing this legislation, and it is not because we are trying to give voice to people who are not entitled to a voice. It is not that we are trying to sponsor a reform through litigation. It is solely because, if this passes the House, we will limit the ability of individuals, communities and, yes, environmental groups to challenge large-scale development projects that will impact on the environment under the federal law.
For the last 15 years, this act has been Australia's principal piece of legislation for environmental protection. It was introduced in 2000 by John Howard—hardly the greatest rogue environmentalist, tree-hugging prime minister this nation has ever seen. This piece of legislation in 2000 showed that he had a vision for preservation of environmental concerns.
This legislation provides the legal framework to protect and manage national and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places, which are defined in the act as matters of national environmental significance. Apart from other things that that government did, including Work Choices, we on this side of the House would actually call this act a positive contribution to our nation's future and the preservation of our environment for future generations.
Since its enactment, there have been approximately 5,500 projects that have been through the EPBC process. Of these, only 33 Federal Court challenges by third parties against 22 projects eventuated. Interestingly, when you look at those 5½ thousand projects, they equate to 0.4 per cent of projects referred under the act. Of the 33 actions, four were discontinued or resolved with the consent of the parties, six were legally successful, one project was actually stopped and the rest were unsuccessful. This amendment is not exactly responding to something that the courts have been inundated with. It is not responding to something where mischievous judges have overturned projects—one was stopped.
Since the year 2000, a few things have occurred, including the mining boom. This act, including section 487, has been in force then. I think most would conclude, from those statistics that I just gave, that it has not threatened the viability of those projects. Therefore this project to repeal the enabling provisions of the EPBC Act is just another relentless attack by this government on the environment and the groups that take seriously the protection of the environment.
Currently, under Australia's EPBC Act, anyone who is adversely affected by a decision or failure to make a decision has the legal right to challenge the project. This includes any Australian citizen, resident or organisation established in Australia who have acted 'for protection or conservation of or research into the environment' any time in the two years before the decision was made. That sounds fair enough; you have to establish some credibility here—not just any old Tom, Dick and Harry but people who have been involved in research to be demonstrated over the two years prior to a decision being made. However, the proposed changes will restrict the ability of these third parties to challenge the approval of a mine or another major industrial development and limit those challenges to only those directly affected by a development such as the immediate landholder.
This amendment will not only restrict but it will move to ensure that various environmental groups, farming groups and certainly local communities with a genuine interest in not only development but also what precedes the development—the status of the environment and its impact—will no longer have a voice.
The Liberal Government's decision to amend the EPBC Act and restrict third-party appeals has arisen in response to the Adani Carmichael project in Queensland's Galilee Basin. This $16.5 million project is significant
and was approved by the environment minister in 2014 but was then later set aside following a challenge by the Mackay Conservation Group. The Federal Court's decision to set this project aside was based not on a specific environmental challenge but the failure of the minister now at the table to comply with his own law—namely, to properly consider the impact of the Carmichael mine on the Great Barrier Reef, taking into account vulnerable species as well as Adani's environmental track record.
It was that kind of error—and my colleague can address it when he gives his reply—and cavalier attitude to the decision-making process that was finally fatal to the potential and threatened biodiversity and ecological communities such as those surrounding the Galilee Basin. However, it appears the government has not learned the lessons. To remove the provision is simply going to silence those whose sole fallback position is to exercise their rights in the courts.
Clearly there are many people this government does not trust, including those on our side of politics, community activists and environmental activists, but they also clearly do not trust the courts themselves. Therefore, this is not only designed to limit litigation but also to keep the judges from meddling in determining whether or not provisions have been complied with. To some extent, you almost see this as being an attack on the freedom of speech or on democracy by the executive trying to silence the judiciary having any involvement. Amongst everything else, it is stripping rights from our communities and those who actually believe in the health and preservation of our environment.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I really needed that protection too. He might be an able medium-pace bowler, but I'm not sure he's an able environment minister!
While not directly affected, we had an issue in my own electorate which is analogous to what is occurring here. It is not directly impacted by this legislation. The conservative government of New South Wales took a very similar approach to what the minister is doing here, but they decided to move 5,800 tonnes of radioactive waste from Hunters Hill on the North Shore in a conservative electorate to a facility in Kemps Creek, Western Sydney, on the boundaries of my electorate. The view was that this could create hazards—long-term issues, health issues—for the people of North Sydney. If you were north of the harbour, that was a consideration. Therefore, they could move that.
Even the then premier himself admitted that the radioactive waste was seven times above the acceptable limits, it was certainly too dangerous to leave it where it was—in North Sydney, that is—and they were looking for a more appropriate place to put it: in the backyard of the people of Western Sydney. That is how they approached it. Fortunately, apart from the 5,000 residents various conservation groups, scientists, school communities and everybody else came together to cause the government to stop that. If they had the ability at that stage, they would have banded their resources and gone to court to stop that, because people in Western Sydney were generally very concerned about themselves, their families and the future of their local environment.
Therefore, the issue of trying to silence third parties and take away third-party appeal rights is not the way to go. Third-party appeals and third-party interests actually create a stronger incentive for proponents of these projects and governments not only to adhere to the law but to get their assessments right. It also builds on community confidence in the planning system, guards against corruption and results in better environmental assessment outcomes for all.
We all have a direct interest in making sure projects like the Adani Carmichael mine project are properly assessed and screened to minimise adverse impacts to the wider community and environment and for generations to come. However, in this government we see a direct interest only in protecting a certain degree of interests—the interests of large mining companies—as opposed to enforcing the law for all. If these changes go ahead, not only will the new amendments undermine the basic justice and fairness for, in this case, rural communities but really for any communities who are now facing off against some of the biggest companies and mining enterprises in the world; but it will also impact to the detriment of community health, social wellbeing and the environment.
When will this government start enforcing its own laws so the community does not have to? That is the basis for our opposition to this amendment.
I thank all members for their contribution to the debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015. I would also like to thank in particular Senator Brandis for driving this legislation. This bill repeals section 487 of the EPBC Act and, effectively, standing will therefore be covered under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977, as is the ordinary case across the Commonwealth. In particular it brings the standing under the EPBC Act into line with other Commonwealth legislation under the AD(JR) Act. By the way, this is exactly the standard which the ALP actively supported when supporting legislation for Western Sydney airport. The ALP recently voted for precisely this standard, precisely this level of standing in the Western Sydney airport.
That is a simple legislative fact. The ALP supported the AD(JR) as the appropriate basis expressly enshrined in legislation. I know that the member for Grayndler finds it a little inconvenient that he recently voted in support of exactly this level of standing and mechanism not just without demur but with active support for the legislation—and we thank him for his active support for that legislation. I would have thought that that principle applied to everybody. Clearly, it is a case of picking and choosing.
Let me finish on this situation. The position is absolutely clear: this amendment bill will prevent those with no connection to the project other than a political ambition to frustrate decisions made under the EPBC Act, which have been made subject to the most rigorous environmental approvals, from using the courts to 'disrupt and delay projects' that have been appropriately considered under the EPBC Act.
I would also note that, on the advice I have, there has not been a single case under section 487 of the EPBC Act of a farmer seeking to bring action and relying on that as standing. The farmers' right is fundamentally enshrined and protected, and the neighbours' right is fundamentally enshrined and protected under the EPBC Act, through the AD(JR) Act. For the purposes of the Acts Interpretation Act, let me make this statement: this amendment will maintain, protect and endorse the rights of those with a genuine and direct interest in a matter, such as farmers and landowners. It maintains, protects and endorses their rights, as should be the case. For these reasons I commend this bill to the House.