Thursday, 3 September 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020; Second Reading
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, known as the EPBC Act, which is the primary piece of Commonwealth environmental legislation. The EPBC Act contains a statutory requirement to review the operation of the act every 10 years. The second of those 10-yearly reviews is presently underway. The government appointed Professor Graeme Samuel AC, one of Australia's most experienced regulators, to lead that review.
I'd hoped to be here today considering legislation that had been brought forward in good faith consistent with that interim review, that was serious and that had meaningful environmental protections in it, but I regret to say that that is not the case. So I move the following amendment to the motion for the second reading:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"The House declines to give the bill a second reading as it is of the opinion that the outdated proposals from the Government ignore recommendations from the Samuel Review and fail to protect the environment, create jobs and provide certainty for business".
On 20 July 2020 the government made public Professor Samuel's interim report. The final report is due in October 2020. The interim report sounded a clarion call about the state of the environment. It said:
The environment and our iconic places are in decline and under increasing threat. The EPBC Act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect and conserve nationally important environmental matters. It is not fit for current or future environmental challenges.
To put that in perspective, I want to talk to you about this seven-year-old Liberal government's failures to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity. Professor Samuel's interim report summarises some alarming examples of decline derived from the 2016 State of the environment report and expert submissions to the EPBC review. As to threatened species and biodiversity, the interim report states:
Australia is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate and has one of the highest rates of extinction in the world. More than 10% of Australia's land mammals are now extinct, and another 21% are threatened and declining. Populations of threatened birds, plants, fish and invertebrates are also continuing to decrease, and the list of threatened species is growing. Although there is evidence of population increases where targeted management actions are undertaken (such as controlling or excluding feral animals or implementing ecological fire management techniques), these are exceptions rather than a broad trend.
Since the EPBC Act was introduced, the threat status of species has deteriorated. Approximately 4 times more species have been listed as threatened than those that have shown an improvement. Over its 20-year operation, only 13 animal species have been removed from the Act's threatened species lists, and only one of these … is generally considered a case of genuine improvement.
That's a pretty sad report of the state of affairs under this current legislation. As to protected areas, the interim report states:
The area of Australia that is protected from competing land uses, for example through national parks, marine reserves and Indigenous Protected Areas, has expanded. However, not all ecosystems or habitats are well represented, and their management is not delivering strong outcomes for threatened species. Consideration of future scenarios indicates that the reserve system is unlikely to provide adequate protection for species and communities in the face of future pressures such as climate change.
As to oceans and marine environments, the interim report states:
Aspects of Australia's marine environment are in good condition and there have been some management successes, but our oceans face significant current and future threats from climate change and human activity.
It goes on to point out:
… submissions pointed to recent evidence of steep declines in habitats across Australia's marine ecosystems—including coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef, saltmarshes on the east coast, mangroves in northern Australia, and kelp forests in Tasmania.
The 2016 State of the environment report predicted that under a business-as-usual approach—that is, assuming current trends continued and policies or management arrangements were not changed significantly—we would see ecosystem changes including declining quality of ecosystems; continued loss of biodiversity, including habitat loss and extinction of many species of plants and animals; ongoing clearing of native vegetation; changes to the marine environment, including ocean acidification and others; changes to the distribution of species and ecological communities; increased pollution of marine and coastal areas from plastics, with greater impacts on species that could be entangled in the debris; continued or increased erosion in some coastal locations; and modification and loss of foreshore and near-shore shallow water habitats.
These are bleak stories, but even bleaker is the Australian emotional response to some of the loss that we have seen. It seems almost like a long time ago now, but it was not a long time ago that we had the bushfires over the summer. It was only months ago. Burned into the Australian psyche, as if by those bushfires, are the images that we saw coming out of the coverage: the woman who took off her shirt to try to rescue a koala; the animals with missing paws, with terrible burns; and the impact on threatened species, to the extent that there were recent reports that up to three billion animals were killed or displaced in just last summer's bushfires. Australians are deeply distressed—I've had people in tears on my phone to my office, and I know other members have had the same thing—by the damage to the environment and to our species wrought by those terrible bushfires.
Taking into account the evidence and taking into account the national sentiment, it is clear that Australia needs to do more to protect our natural environment and conserve biodiversity. At the same time, the environment law has a significant impact on whether major projects and other developments can go ahead and, if so, under what conditions. As well as having significant consequences for the environment, this has consequences for jobs and investment. Projects and developments that are likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance would generally require environmental assessment and approval from the Commonwealth environment minister because of the operation of the EPBC Act.
You could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the government's woeful record on environmental protection and biodiversity conservation has come about because they've been too focused on administering the projects approvals aspect of the law, but that's not what is going on. The fact is Australia has an environmental crisis and a jobs crisis, and the government are failing woefully on both counts. They're both failing to protect the environment and managing to inject massive unnecessary delays, as well as errors and mismanagement, into the process. The government cut around 40 per cent of the funding to the environment department, and now the Australian people and Australian industry are reaping what this seven-year-old government has sown. Whenever an acceptable project is delayed because of this government's cuts and incompetence or whenever the government gets a decision wrong it delays jobs and causes investment uncertainty.
Recently, we got a very clear picture of just how badly this government's cuts and incompetence have stuffed up environmental decision-making. In June 2020 the Australian National Audit Office released its report Referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It's got a pretty bland title, but I'll tell you what wasn't bland: the content of that report. This is an uncharacteristically blunt report from an audit office. It's findings reinforced what Labor has been hearing from industry—and I'm sure the government's been hearing this as well—that the government's funding cuts have been putting real pressure on decision-making and have given rise to serious delays. The audit report showed there'd been a 510 per cent blowout in project approval delays. It showed that since 2014 there'd been an explosion in approval delays beyond the statutory time frames from 19 to 116 days. And, in the 2018-19 financial year, 95 per cent of all Morrison government key decisions on major projects were late. Of those key decisions about assessments and about approvals, 95 per cent were late beyond the statutory time frames in that financial year. The audit report also found that 79 per cent of approval decisions were affected by error or noncompliance.
Over the time the government has been in office, the total number of decisions has been going backwards. It's not as if the environmental laws have become more strict or protective. It's very clear the government's cuts and incompetency are the source of these delays. When the Morrison government use the phrase 'green tape', it appears they are talking about the delays that they have caused. I prefer to think of the delays as caused by blue tape—Liberal Party cuts and incompetence, not environmental protections, which tie up decision-making unnecessarily.
The government have tacitly admitted that their cuts are the source of these problems. Late last year they injected some funding to try to reduce the delays. But why on earth did they wait until their seventh year in government to start to clean up the mess that they had made—to try and stem some of the bleeding? What made them think in the first place that they could cut 40 per cent of the environment department's funding without causing significant harm to the environment, to jobs and to investment? Unfortunately, what we're seeing here is straight from the Liberal Party playbook: gut the Public Service, run them into the ground and then use their worsened performance to justify further cuts or outsourcing or, in this case, to attempt to abrogate responsibility entirely. But it doesn't have to be this way.
The Samuel review process is providing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the environmental laws in a way that provides a win-win outcome, with both much-improved environmental protection and more support for jobs creation and investment. Labor doesn't believe that those two objectives are inconsistent with each other. They're not in opposition to each other. With goodwill, with cooperation and with negotiation, it is not beyond the wit and wisdom of Australian parliamentarians, experts, industry leaders, traditional owners, environmentalists and other community leaders to come up with a way forward together.
As I've said, in the course of his review, Professor Samuel has issued an interim report which was provided to the government and ultimately made public. That report was made public on 20 July 2020, though the government had it for some time before that. The report proposes three phases of reform. The first phase was proposed to commence immediately before the final report is issued. The interim report described the first phase as follows:
The interim report elaborated on phase 1 as follows:
The initial phase of reform should fix long-known issues with the EPBC Act within its current construct and set the base for key reform foundations that can be built on and improved over time. The 5 areas of focus for phase 1 reforms are:
It is important to note all the elements of this phase were proposed by Professor Samuel to occur together. When the report was released he said:
The Review encourages consideration of the overall reform direction proposed, rather than its component parts.
Let me therefore talk briefly about all of those elements together from phase 1, as he describes it. The reference to reducing points of clear duplication, inconsistencies, gaps and conflicts in the act is about the drafting and the architecture of the existing legislation. The examples given are things like: defining terms that the review believes need to be clearer, like 'significant' or 'action' or 'continuing use'; reordering the position so it's in a more logical order, for example, by having all the enforcement provisions together rather than distributed through the act; and making the act's provisions less 'verbose' to make them easier to read. These are all examples that I've taken from the interim report. That's what he's referring to in that point.
As to the interim national environmental standards, Professor Samuel has said:
The development of National Environment Standards should be a priority reform measure. Interim Standards could be developed immediately, followed by an iterative development process as more sophisticated data becomes accessible. Standards should focus on detailed prescription of outcomes, not process.
He explained why he thought this was important. He said:
National Environmental Standards will mean that the community and business can know what to expect. Standards support clear and consistent decisions, regardless of who makes them. Where states and territories can demonstrate their systems can deliver environmental outcomes consistent with the Standards, responsibilities should be devolved, providing faster and lower cost development assessments and approvals.
This is what he is saying about these standards and why they're important. At the time, in July, when this was released, the minister said that the government would introduce strong, rigorous environmental standards that had 'buy-in across the board' at the same time as introducing proposed legislative change. That hasn't happened.
The proposed national environmental standards, from the report—these are not my words; I'm describing what the report says—are described as the foundation, or the centrepiece; he uses both those terms. They are the foundation on which the other reforms are proposed to be built. So there is this idea that the government has in this bill, and the idea more broadly—Professor Samuel hasn't, but the government has—of devolving authority to the states. But Professor Samuel's model hinges entirely not just on whether there are some standards in existence, which there don't seem to be yet, but also on the content of them—whether they're good enough, whether they're fit for purpose and whether they're strong enough. He makes it really clear that he doesn't want to see negotiation on a state-by-state basis which leads to a lowest-common-denominator approach. He wants to see national standards that they have to meet.
The devolution proposal which is made here also makes this clear; it's contingent on creating and maintaining trust. That takes us to the other two elements of his proposed phase 1 reforms. On July 20 he said:
Community trust in the EPBC Act and its administration is low.
That's true; we know that. It's very clear. He went on:
To build confidence, the Interim Report proposes that an independent cop on the beat is required to deliver rigorous, transparent compliance and enforcement.
So the interim report sets out a clear pathway for reform. The review is currently convening groups of stakeholders and experts to do that work which is necessary to give effect to it—to draft those proposed interim national standards.
This has given the Morrison government a choice. They could work with the reviewer, the stakeholders and the experts and then propose serious reforms consistent with the Samuel review for this parliament to consider. And I say 'consider'; there are no guarantees in this, but at least a serious set of reforms with buy-in across the board could be considered properly. On the other hand, they could act in a way that is nakedly political and try to ram through something that is completely unacceptable and completely inconsistent with the Samuel review to try to create division.
I wish they did take (a), member for Paterson! I should say that taking the latter course, the nakedly political route, has the potential to derail the entire process. I think it's really regrettable if that's what they're doing. But that is what they're doing; I regret to say that they're taking the nakedly political route. The bill we're debating today is an attempt to reanimate the corpse of some failed Abbott-era legislation. It's Abbott 2.0.
By the way, this is something that Professor Samuel explicitly warned against in the interim report:
In 2014 the then Australian Government was unable to secure the necessary parliamentary support for the legislative changes required. There was considerable community and stakeholder concern that environmental outcomes were not clearly defined and the states and territories would not be able to uphold the national interest in protecting the environment. A lack of clear environmental (as opposed to process) standards fuelled political differences at the time.
This community concern remains. Submissions to the Review highlighted ongoing concern about the adequacy of state and territory laws, their ability to manage conflicts of interest, and increased environmental risks if the Commonwealth steps away.
It's incredibly disappointing that the government has disregarded the independent reviewer's report in this way. They're well aware that the bill they're now pursuing is unacceptable and is a model that has already been rejected by this parliament.
It didn't have to be this way, as I said. The conditions for reform that the government faces are very favourable. They're in majority government. When the last 10-yearly review was on, Labor was in minority government. This government has the benefit of a collaborative opposition that has expressed, throughout this period, our intention to be cooperative—to consider proposals in good faith. And I've made that point continuously since the interim report was released.
In contrast, when the last 10-yearly report was released, we had a Tony Abbott led opposition, completely obstructive—perhaps the most obstructive in the history of federation—plus a Greens crossbench that had very recently, at that time, shown its unwillingness to do the right thing and instead its preparedness to put politics ahead of the national interest by voting with the Liberals against action on climate change. And, of course, at the time, as Professor Samuel has made clear in his report, last time there was an attempt to undertake reforms of this nature, there were deep community and stakeholder concerns.
What does this government have now? What are the conditions for reform? They've got everyone! Get this: they've got everyone, from the Minerals Council to the BCA to the Farmers Federation to the Australian Conservation Foundation to the Humane Society; they've got the Wilderness Society; they've got WWF; they've got traditional owners; they've got academics; they've got environmental law experts—all making a contribution to this process that Professor Graeme Samuel is undertaking. And they've got Professor Samuel himself, one of, as I said, the nation's most experienced regulators, who is working very hard. Now I don't know if that's going to yield an outcome. But why don't we see if it does? Why don't we see—because everybody wants durability of reform, right? That's what industry wants. That's what everybody wants. They want something that, instead of the chopping and changing and uncertainty, can get broad support and buy-in. And the buy-in point is a point that the minister made when she released the report publicly. So, if we can get that, we have such an opportunity here, because these laws are not up to scratch.
As I've said, we have made very clear that we're open to considering anything serious the government wants to put up that's consistent with the Samuel review. For example, we support the introduction of strong national environmental standards. We want them to be properly made. We want them underpinned by legislation. We've also called for a cop on the beat, which Professor Samuel has recommended.
But why would we vote for the Abbott 2.0 bill? Absolute state control over environmental decision-making would have seen logging in the Daintree, drilling on the reef and the damming of the Franklin. It took Labor in government federally to put a stop to this environmental destruction that was intended to occur. With our natural environment—a driver of tens of thousands of jobs—under greater pressure than ever, the Australian people don't want to see the Commonwealth getting out of the business of protecting the environment, and Professor Samuel's report makes it clear that the Commonwealth should not do so. So why would we commit to supporting the Abbott 2.0 model? We would want to see, from the government, something serious, and of course, as they well know, and as Professor Samuel has said, there has to be a clear role for the Commonwealth under that model.
But the first step is that the interim national environmental standards should be drafted and made public. We should not be asked to vote—as we are being today—on legislative change to support devolution to the other jurisdictions before seeing the content and the detail of the standards that are intended to apply from day one. We think that Graeme Samuel's process is a good opportunity to create standards that have, as the minister said, buy-in. She should see what proposed national environmental standards, if any, that process yields, because agreed standards will, as I said, be much more durable than standards written exclusively by the government and simply imposed in a top-down way. The minister should also give some thought to any proposed regulation-making power, including how to make sure it properly underpins the standards proposed by the review and how it might make sure that those future iterations of the standards do not provide lesser levels of protection than the ones that apply initially.
I should note—and I do want to draw this out and highlight it—that Professor Samuel also talks extensively in the report about Indigenous engagement and cultural heritage and other matters relating to traditional owners. We would hope that these issues would feature very prominently in the work that's being done in relation to drafting standards. I think that that's something that everybody would agree on—that we do want to see strong improvements in making sure that traditional owners are not just consulted but have their authority and their experience properly respected and have the genuine opportunity to be a part of the future of protection for cultural heritage but also engagement in environmental decision-making. In that connection, I might take the opportunity to note that Australians were horrified by the recent destruction at Juukan Gorge, and I encourage all jurisdictions to work together with traditional owners to ensure similar destruction cannot occur in the future.
Turning to the issue of compliance and assurance more broadly, including the cop on the beat that Professor Samuel has recommended, let me make some observations. It is clear that compliance and enforcement are a mess under the Morrison Liberal-National government. Australians deserve to have confidence in how our environment is being managed. We've called on the Morrison government to establish an independent compliance watchdog with teeth that is genuinely independent and, I might add, we'd also want to see from the government what they intend to do about ensuring ongoing parliamentary scrutiny.
Minister Taylor's 'Grassgate' scandal, where he got the now Treasurer to set up a meeting about the environment issue that affected value of his land, is a good example of why an independent watchdog is needed. There's no point in having a toothless watchdog. If you want to see what's happened when watchdogs go wrong, just take a look at the interim inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin—I'm talking about the position, not the holder of it. That position was announced on 1 August last year with much fanfare: 'We're going to create an inspector-general position. It'll be interim at first, but we'll rapidly get together some legislation to give it a statutory basis and proper powers so it can do its job to be a good strong watchdog with teeth. The states are all going to sign up to it, and it's all going to be great.' And here we are a year later, and there's still no statutory basis—in fact it's more than a year later—it's still an interim position with no statutory powers and, from all reports, it's not necessarily getting willing compliance from the states. That's not the fault of the incumbent in the position; it's the fault of the government that created the position and then did not properly empower it. It's a good example as well of government talking a big game on integrity and failing on it, because when they announced the position they said it would be able to refer matters to the Commonwealth integrity commission, a body that still does not exist. The government, in dealing with these standards, should indicate how it intends to secure the states' and territories' willing compliance in relation to any proposed compliance or assurance measures that it puts around environmental standards more broadly.
I also want to make a point about resourcing. Given the government's track record of cutting 40 per cent of the environment department's funding, I expect that this parliament will probably want to understand how Australians could be confident that any reforms would be properly resourced, especially since the government has made clear that no additional support would be provided to the states and territories in the event devolution was to occur. It's a pretty big ask for them. 'You guys do all the work. We won't give you any extra money'—that's the position of the government at this stage. I think, after we've seen the 40 per cent funding cuts and the consequences of those, people would want to know how any compliance or assurance mechanisms or broader reforms would be financed into the future.
Also, as Australians, I think we want reassurance that the unnecessary delays—and I'm talking about the delays caused by cuts and incompetence—could be brought to an end. These remarks are not intended to provide the government with a blank cheque and nor are they intended to be a blueprint for reform or a statement of our future position. We're not in government, and it's up to the government to draft and propose any laws and supporting instruments. As I said, it's not a commitment to vote for future legislation sight unseen. All I'm committing to is nothing more and nothing less than a proper serious, good-faith consideration of anything that the government is willing to put forward that is also serious and consistent with the EPBC review.
I've consistently said since the interim report was released that we would give it proper and sober consideration without cherry-picking. That position stands in contrast, unfortunately, with the government's approach. So Labor will oppose the Morrison government's attempt to rehash former Prime Minister Abbott's failed 2014 environment bill which would harm Australia's natural environment and put jobs and investment at risk. This bill would see more major project delays, more investment uncertainty, more conflict, less trust in decisions and worse outcomes for our natural environment. There are no national environmental standards in this bill, and none have been published, despite them being the foundation and the centrepiece of Professor Graeme Samuel's proposed reforms. With no proposed standards, no independent cop on the beat and no additional funding for the states, despite the extra responsibility, it's just a bill designed for political conflict.
When presented with an opportunity to provide more certainty for jobs and investment in our environment, Scott Morrison chose conflict. If he was serious about securing broad support and durable reform, he would get rid of this bill, sit down at the table, stop breaking promises on national standards and actually work together with stakeholders and the community to deliver something with durability and certainty.
When you think of Australia's most iconic natural places, overwhelmingly they've been protected under Commonwealth laws: Kakadu National Park, the Daintree, the Franklin, the Great Barrier Reef. All of those iconic places that are so important to our natural environment—but which also, of course, have become economic assets in terms of the tourism sector creating jobs—have been protected by the Commonwealth, usually in opposition to respective state governments of different political persuasions. It is, indeed, a powerful reminder that government can make good and lasting change if they have a long-term vision for the nation and not just a focus on themselves in the here and now. In the later discussions I had with the great Bob Hawke, he would always go through his environmental record, which he was so proud of, in the Hawke Labor government. It is a powerful reminder that what those opposite propose is actually contrary to the national interest, contrary to the protection of our natural environment, contrary to the creation of jobs and contrary to economic growth.
We need environmental laws in this nation which protect our natural surroundings and attract investment. What that means is that we need to have clear rules of engagement for business and we need fast, simple processes. It's very clear that, if you have a proposal for an investment, what you need to do is to have proper environmental assessments that are rigorous but that don't create unnecessary delay, because time is money when it comes to investment. But you need to make sure that there's confidence from the public in those processes, and what's being proposed by this government will undermine confidence in the system. What's being proposed are Abbott-era laws which were rejected in 2014 and should be rejected in 2020.
The minister claims that her amendments are 'supported by the directions outlined in the interim report carried out by Professor Graeme Samuel this year'. It's certainly true that Professor Samuel has described the EPBC Act as 'ineffective'. You certainly have no argument from this side of the House that we could look at improvements to the act. But this isn't about improving the act. This isn't about progress. This is about looking backwards. It's very disrespectful as well, I believe, that this very fine Australian, Graeme Samuel—someone who's distinguished and whom I've worked with in a range of ways over many years—has produced this report and it's being trashed and not really looked at.
It's not true that Professor Samuel thought the solution was for the federal government to walk away from its responsibilities to approve or refuse development applications which may have significant environmental impacts. Indeed, Professor Samuel recommended that the government introduce 'granular and measurable' national environmental standards which would be the foundation of new environmental laws. He recommended that there be a development and accreditation process for states and territories to be able to grant environmental approvals, in some cases, and in accordance with the national environmental standards. He recommended the establishment of an independent cop on the beat to develop national environmental standards and ensure the rules aren't being broken. He didn't say that the Commonwealth should simply pass the buck and hand over environmental approvals to states without any rules and without any scrutiny. In fact, he warned against this very approach that the government is taking. He said there was significant concern about the ability of states and territories to uphold the national interest in making these decisions, when the Abbott government tried this in 2014.
When Professor Samuel's interim report was released, the minister promised national environmental standards would be legislated at the same time as greater powers were given to the states—standards that Graeme Samuel describes as the foundation of the reforms that he's proposed. The government has legislation but hasn't even bothered to draft any national standards. All they've done is try to hand over responsibility for environmental approvals to the state and territories. It's a bit like their national cabinet, which isn't national and isn't a cabinet. They want to take responsibility for anything good that happens, but anything else is someone else's fault. They just hand over their responsibility to the states and territories and then complain after the event.
What we need is national environmental standards that don't allow for complaint after mistakes have been made but fix things in advance, because, if you're complaining, by definition it's too late. And we saw that, tragically, recently in Western Australia, where Indigenous heritage was destroyed in such a graphic way. Once it's done, it's done. Once there's drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, it's done. Once the Franklin stops flowing, it can't be restarted. Once the Daintree is destroyed, you can't remake it. You can't fix what our natural environment takes tens of thousands of years, and sometimes millions of years, to produce. That's why we need to get it right. That's why the responsibility on these issues is so important, because it goes beyond our time in this place; it goes beyond our time on this earth. What we do in this place makes a difference for a long period of time.
Key to the Samuel review interim report was a recommendation for an independent regulator to develop these standards and to ensure compliance. The report states that a regulator should not be subject to actual or implied direction from the Commonwealth minister. That's not a problem, because the regulator isn't subject to any direction, given it doesn't exist under this legislation. States can approve development applications, but there are no rules on what can or can't be approved, there is no scope for enforcing those rules if they are ever developed and there is no compliance monitoring. Samuel also highlighted the failure of the EPBC Act to recognise and value Indigenous knowledge and views, and recommended the national environmental standards include a specific standard on best practice Indigenous engagement. The legislation ignores that too.
Under the government's amendments, on matters of national significance, development approvals will be made by states and territories instead of the federal government. We should be clear about what that means. There are eight matters of national environmental significance currently protected by the EPBC Act. Samuel recommended strengthening protections for them. They are: World Heritage properties, like Kakadu; national heritage places, like Fraser Island; wetlands of international importance, like the Coorong and its Lower Lakes; migratory species protected under international agreements, like the humpback whale; listed threatened species, like the Leadbeater's possum; Commonwealth marine areas, like those around Lord Howe Island; the magnificent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and nuclear actions, including uranium mines. We have international agreements on these areas. We effectively agree that any development will be consistent with principles to protect the environment covered under these categories. That's an important responsibility to the international community, but we have a greater one, and that's to future generations. That's to our kids and our grandkids to come, for some of us, we hope—not too soon! We believe that, when we look at those issues, we do understand how significant it is.
In conclusion, let's have a look at what the problems have been with the EPBC Act and some of its functions, because these amendments won't fix any of them. They won't create more jobs. They won't approve appropriate developments more quickly or give inappropriate ones a quick refusal so they can move on. They won't create the certainty that's needed to drive greater investment. This government knows that that's the case.
Under this government, approval delays for development projects have blown out by more than 500 per cent. In 79 per cent of environmental decisions, they've made an error, and 95 per cent of decisions are actually late. It's no coincidence that they've cut the environment department budget by 40 per cent. So the government have made cuts to the department, and the assessments aren't taking place in a timely manner, with a blowout by more than 500 per cent, but their solution isn't to fix what's gone wrong on their watch; their solution is to just hand it over to someone else—to the states and territories.
As well, under this proposal, companies wanting to get approval for developments will have to navigate 16 different sets of rules across the country. It will make the processes more complex, when what we need is more simplicity. It will add to delays, not reduce them. It will add to the complexity, not simplify it. And it will be not only a bad outcome for all those seeking to do business but also a bad outcome for the environment.
I was proud to be the shadow environment minister some time ago in this place. At that time, I spoke about Australia facing an extinction crisis. That crisis has got worse. It has got worse, not better. Climate change is having a dramatic effect on our flora and our fauna. I said then that we were going backwards. Habitat was being lost. Species were disappearing. But what we're seeing is in fact an extinction crisis in this nation. It's something that should be of great concern to us, and I know Australians are concerned about these issues. You only have to look at koalas and the impact that the bushfires had on them. But something else happened then too, which is that, internationally, there were more funds raised to protect koalas in Australia than were raised to protect people. That's not to say that, internationally, people weren't concerned about the impact the bushfires had on Australians. But what it did signify was how much our great nation is identified with our natural assets, be they physical, in the form of these places that we need to protect, or be they natural, as in our fauna—our koalas, our kangaroos—and our flora that make this place special on earth. We have an extraordinary natural environment that we need to cherish, value and protect.
This legislation is bad legislation. Labor will be opposing it, and we're right to do so. The government should go back, actually have a look at what Graeme Samuel has said and go back to the drawing board if they are at all serious.
The amendment moved by the member for Griffith to the motion for the second reading of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020—and I thank her for her thoughtful and professional consideration of the Samuel review—was seconded by the member for Paterson. I take this opportunity to wish the member for Paterson a very happy birthday for today. It's a shame we have her in here, working so hard again, on such a momentous occasion, but she had a lovely bit of cake earlier with some friends on this side and I hope the rest of the day is nice for her.
The Samuel review makes one point absolutely clear, and that is that the EPBC Act, as it stands, is serving neither the natural environment nor industry—neither the future of what really makes Australia a beautiful place nor the industry and jobs that are so important and flow from a timely, effective and efficient approvals process.
An effective EPBC Act is one which strikes the right balance between the protection of our natural environment and the need to encourage economic growth and sustainable jobs. The report by Graeme Samuel which has been referenced so often in this debate today is an interim one and an important one. We will have the final report on this subject in October this year, I trust. So it makes no sense to be bringing this legislation forward at this point in time. Nor has the government been able to mount a coherent case for bringing this legislation forward. On that basis, the opposition will be rejecting it.
No-one will be surprised to learn that the interim report has found that EPBC Act terminology is not clear and concise and is driving confusion and therefore suboptimal outcomes. Nor will they be surprised that the review describes the EPBC Act as archaic—that's why it was important that this review be undertaken. The review says the interrelationships between the EPBC Act and other laws are not clear, and I think most would agree. Every member in this place will surely agree with the review's ambition to restructure and simplify the EPBC Act, but surely no member wants to rush that process and therefore risk getting it wrong. As the Commonwealth's key instrument for environmental oversight and protection, it's too important an act to be rushed, and the consequences of getting it wrong are far too great. It is clear that inadequate departmental resourcing and state-Commonwealth duplication are failing both the environment and our business community. Our biodiversity continues to deteriorate, and the Minerals Council have suggested that delays on greenfields projects can cost an applicant up to $46 million every month. Further, big resources approvals critical to the Australian economy and to sustainable jobs are taking three years on average. That is, of course, in addition to the state based processes.
The call for strong legislated national environmental standards is a welcome one, and I don't think anyone in this place would disagree. The recommendation for devolution to the states is of course more controversial and should be subject to extensive parliamentary and community scrutiny and discussion—again, not a rushed process. Certainly there can be no progress on that front without agreed environmental standards. Devolution is not an evil. No-one is arguing that. Bilaterals make sense. I know the Western Australian government, for example, is very keen on further progressing bilateral agreements. In fact, devolution looks like the most obvious path to ridding ourselves of unnecessary duplication. For that proposal to secure any community support, and indeed broad-ranging support in this place—and we need broad-ranging support in this place, because this is an act which, like any act of parliament, is subject to regular amendment—we need to go on this journey together and get this right together. Then industry will have certainty and people can have confidence in the instrument which protects our natural environment. Building that consensus will not be easy, but it will be made easier if the government is serious about meaningful reform rather than looking for an opportunity to play politics with this very, very important protection for our natural environment. Already the review has found that neither the community nor industry have any trust in the EPBC Act and its processes. That's why independent serious oversight will be necessary, but we have to fix that mistrust. We can't put forward an effective regime if neither industry nor the broader community trust the processes or the legislative backing for those processes. I hope the interim review's focus on legal standing and review will be part of that sensible conversation. I think most people working in industry have at least a perception of ongoing, almost infinite, legal processes getting in the way of sensible development. So we must fix any flaws but also address that perception. We have to have a serious debate about that. We have to have a serious review and look at those frustrations.
With respect to the standing provisions—that is, those which give legal standing to those who are not directly affected by a project—the interim review 'is not yet convinced that extended standings should be curtailed'. It is not convinced that that part of the system is broken. I know that this is not a final conclusion on the review's position, but I think most people will be surprised by that. And I welcome that, because it's one area where I don't think it will be necessary to have a protracted debate. But we'll see what the final report says. Further, the interim report says:
Broad standing remains an important feature of environmental legislation, particularly given the presence of collective harm resulting from damage to environmental or heritage values.
What Graeme Samuel is saying is that we all have a stake in this—where we are directly affected by living close to the project, for example. I think we all do have a stake in this, and I welcome the review's thoughts. The review further points out that the courts already have a capacity to weed out unnecessary and vexatious litigation. That is noted. That includes, of course, cases where the applicant really has no prospect of success. I look forward to the final report and Graeme Samuel's final conclusions on that. The interim report says:
It may though be beneficial for the EPBC Act to require an applicant seeking to rely on the extended standing provisions to demonstrate that they have an arguable case, or that the case raises matters of exceptional public importance before the matter can proceed.
So it is obvious that Graeme Samuel has left his mind open to further thinking on the area of what some might describe as vexatious claims et cetera, which we do know can be problematic for industry and for those workers who rely on it. He further notes:
Full merits review is not advised. Opening decisions on appeal or review to the admission of new documentation or materials for consideration delays decisions without necessarily improving outcomes. It also promotes forum shopping.
I'm very pleased that he is devoting a lot of his time to thinking about these issues.
I trust that environmental activists, who will be celebrating the review's conclusion that the act is not serving the natural environment, will be just as open-minded to all those things the report has identified as being frustrating for investors and business and all those people who rely on that investment. We cannot be cherrypicking the final report when it comes down. If we want to celebrate the flaws on the environmental side, we've also got to take seriously the identification of those matters that are standing in the way of investment. I think that will be critically important. More generally, I trust that they will turn their minds to the fact that the review does conclude—in an interim way, I suppose—that the act is not supporting investment and jobs.
The bill before the House is premature. The government hasn't made the case for the substantive matters in it, nor the timing. That's why the opposition will be rejecting it, and that's why I'm here standing in support of the member for Griffith. If we are going to be successful again, we need to go on this journey together and do it in a most sensible way.
Industries like the resources sector aren't the only groups in this country that will be watching this debate very carefully. So too will those in agriculture, the other area for which I have responsibility in this place. Often, the conflicts are very similar and we need to be mindful of the needs of those investing and working in the agriculture sector, as well. We also need to look again at the opportunities for the agriculture sector. No-one benefits more from sound environmental planning and regulation than those who work our land. They are the people who are being challenged by climate change, more than anyone else. In many senses, given productivity has been flatlining for 10 years, they are probably best placed to use the sensible things we can do here to lift productivity and therefore profitability. Obviously, soil health is chief and key among them.
In March 2019 the agriculture minister announced at the ABARES conference—finally; we dragged him screaming to this—that the government would progress a stewardship package to deal with biodiversity policy. This is now almost seven years on. The government's been very slow getting there. The problem, though, is that we still haven't seen any benefits from that March 2019 announcement, and we are now told that the two key programs being funded under that $34 million package will not commence until 2021. We haven't been given a month in 2020-21, so it may be that, from the announcement to even the beginning of the implementation of this scheme, the period could be 2½ years. This is another example of a government that loves an announcement but is very poor on the follow-through.
I note that a good chunk of that money has gone to the National Farmers Federation to develop some measures for certification of soil. I might have that wrong—I don't have the note in front of me. That would be a wonderful thing if it is happening. But, of course, the NFF, and I say this most respectfully, doesn't have any expertise to do that certification work, so naturally it will be contracting that work out, I would expect—in part to the ANU and, I have no doubt, to others. It makes us wonder in this place how long it will be, after seven years under this government, before we even have a proposal to help farmers improve their soil health, store more carbon, enter that carbon market, which they are not really able to do under this government. Technically, they will say that the opportunity is there. But ask a farmer about the challenge of participating in that carbon market and you will get a very interesting answer. I see the minister at the table smiling in acknowledgement and recognition, I think, of the point I am making.
So, there are some good things we can do for our farmers while also doing good things for our natural environment. The opportunity is there and, just like the Samuel review, we will get there if we are prepared to take the politics out of these things and work together. If we can do that, our farmers will benefit, our resources industry will benefit, the workers who work within it will benefit and, of course, our natural environment will benefit as well.
I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 and the amendment moved to it.
The Morrison government is failing Australian jobs and the Australian environment. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the economic recession it has caused was thrust upon us, the Morrison government was stifling the opportunity for major resources and infrastructure projects around Australia to proceed. This has become such a profound issue that even in Western Australia the Minister for Transport and Planning there called out the federal government for being the key hold-up to major projects across Perth.
Principally, the issue is this: the Morrison government has cut funding to the department of the environment so much that this department, the department that is responsible for federal environmental assessments of projects under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, is fundamentally failing to do its job. Under this Liberal government, approval delays have already blown out by 510 per cent—from 16 days to nearly four months, on average. Essentially, this is all caused by sustained cuts to the environment department. These are cuts of nearly 40 per cent since 2013.
In 2018-19, 95 per cent of decisions on major projects were made late, and 79 per cent of decisions were affected by error or were non-compliant. Since the end of last year, the WA government has been calling on the Commonwealth to enter into a bilateral agreement for environmental approvals, which would help to avoid delays being caused at the federal level. Of course, in looking at such bilateral agreements they should be about best-practice environmental protection and not open to finding the lowest common denominator. Recently, the Fraser Institute's Annual Survey of Mining Companies identified Western Australia as the No. 1 place in the world for mining and mineral exploration. WA is ideally placed to work with the Commonwealth and to lead the nation to deliver this once-in-a-generation reform.
Instead of aiding and abetting Clive Palmer's mad plan to break WA's protective borders, the Prime Minister should be working to secure better laws for jobs, investment and environmental protection. In October last year the Morrison government commissioned a review into environmental laws, appointing Professor Graeme Samuel to head that review. Upon the completion of that inquiry, Professor Samuel said that our country needs better environmental laws, underpinned by national environmental standards, together with an enforcement body, as well as supporting bilateral agreements with the states, such as has been requested by the state of Western Australia.
It's vital that we simplify and reduce unnecessary regulatory obligations on industry whilst maintaining strong environmental protection standards to further aid the state's economic recovery and, indeed, our nation's economic recovery during this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. However, it seems that the Liberal government are ignoring the recommendations of their own inquiry. The Samuel report found that, despite being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since the commencement of the act, the administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act are not effective.
I could go on. The report is quite damning on the government. But what came out of it were eight recommendations, all of which were agreed by the department, who stated that they were committed to the continuous improvement of processes and procedures. Despite the recommendations of the Samuel review, this government is trying to put through legislation now that does not include any environmental standards. This isn't just leaving our environment unprotected; it's holding up job-creating projects.
If there was ever a time that Australia needed to be in a position to get moving, that we needed to have shovel-ready projects, that we needed to make sure that regulatory requirements were met speedily but properly so that job-creating projects can proceed as soon as possible, it is now when we're in the midst of the first recession in three decades. The national accounts have confirmed Australia is in the deepest recession for almost a century, with the economy experiencing the sharpest contraction ever on record. A record one million workers are already unemployed and an additional 400,000 are set to become jobless by Christmas. Yet the Morrison government still has no proper plan for jobs. It appears the only plan they have is for no jobs.
The Prime Minister and Treasurer went to wind back JobKeeper, cut wages, cut super and freeze the pension. This recession will be deeper and unemployment queues will longer because the Morrison government is leaving too many people behind. Workers, businesses and communities are crying out for a plan from the Morrison government to promote growth, protect and create jobs, support business and set Australia up for a proper recovery. The Morrison government has excellent conditions for reform at its disposal right now, and we, on this side of the House, have said that we will engage constructively. After all, Professor Samuel is a well-respected review chair who has been working diligently with leaders from agriculture, the resources sector and business as well as traditional owners, conservationists and academics.
The legislation before us today is a gross insult to the federal environment department, the work of Professor Samuel and the state governments across the country who are working so hard to get our nation moving after this COVID pandemic. In fact, this piece of legislation goes against what the report from Professor Samuel actually says. Our environment needs protection, business needs certainty and Australians need jobs. These changes fail on each count.
The Morrison government is putting jobs and investment at risk through this legislation. The model that Professor Samuel proposed in his interim report is contingent on the creation of strong interim national environmental standards, and when the government publicly released Professor Samuel's interim report back in July it said the proposed legislative changes would be accompanied by the standards. The Morrison government should not pursue amendments until the interim standards are finalised and made available to the people of Australia. Without national environmental standards recognised in law, each state jurisdiction could end up negotiating different standards into each bilateral agreement, which would increase job and investment delays and become a regulatory nightmare. It is precisely the opposite of what we should be striving for: nationally consistent environmental protections to provide certainty for project proponents and the environment.
Labor has made it clear all along that we are open to considering environmental law reforms that Professor Samuel has proposed. After all, it's Labor that has undertaken every major achievement in environmental protection in our nation's history. Labor's legacy is that we protected Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Franklin. We created Landcare and we created what was at the time the largest network of marine parks in the world. Only Labor has the will and capacity to properly protect Australia's environment.
Labor is also the party of jobs and job creation. Yet the Liberal government's record in this space is the opposite. It is utterly hopeless. Trying to push through incomplete legislation doesn't build support for reform. It's playing silly political games that will not only hurt jobs across the nation but reduce investment certainty.
This is the most significant opportunity for environmental reform that we've had in the last 20 years. The government must get this right. Environmental protection and supporting major projects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, good environmental laws should secure both. Indeed, it isn't good environmental law unless it does.
Rather than taking the axe to laws designed to protect our environment and, importantly, laws that preserve Australia as a world-leading tourism destination, the federal government should improve its project assessment funding and performance. It should be working towards the full suite of laws that are required. A piecemeal approach will not cut it. So what do we want to see? The Morrison government should introduce strong environmental standards and establish a genuinely independent cop on the beat for Australia's environment. It should fix the explosion of the unnecessary 500 per cent increase in investment delays caused by its funding cuts to the environment department.
Australia has a job crisis and an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing Australia on both counts. We need to make sure that both job opportunities and the environment will be improved by this legislation, not compromised. If there was ever a time that we needed to get laws like this right, it is now, when we need to bring forward major job-creating projects to support our economy.
That's why Labor will not agree to the bill in the House: because a well-respected professor, who I'm sure was paid a healthy sum to undertake a detailed review, is not being listened to by the government that commissioned him to do that work. Professor Samuel made some good recommendations, and, as a result of that review, they should be followed. It's only appropriate that they are considered properly for all that they are worth.
That's why Labor will look to refer this bill to a Senate committee inquiry. It needs to be looked at properly. We recognise this legislation has been delayed following the release of the review. We recognise that state governments, including the Western Australian government, are hanging out for progress on these changes. But we will not agree to legislation that will put jobs and the environment on the line. We need to get this right. Far too many Australians, and the environment, are relying on us now.
Australia's natural heritage and resources are under unprecedented threat. The Great Barrier Reef has again been subject to another bleaching event and its beauty and its contribution to Australia is again under threat. The Murray-Darling river system is probably the worst that it has been in our nation's history, and all of those towns and communities that rely on the Murray-Darling as a source of economic support but also as a source of human support are now at risk. Our coastlines are subject to unprecedented erosion, and some of that is occurring in places where it has never occurred in the past. We've just come through one of the most prolonged and the deepest droughts in our nation's history. And, unfortunately, we have the unenviable record of the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world. There's something that's not right with the way our environmental protection laws are working, and they need to change.
The effect of this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020, is to ignore some of the recommendations that have been made by the very thorough review that has just been undertaken by Graeme Samuel into the principal mechanism that the Commonwealth parliament has to protect and conserve our environment, and that is, of course, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The effect of this bill will be to amend the EPBC Act to allow further devolution of decision-making about environmental approvals to the states and territories under bilateral approval agreements. Many are worried that the effect of this is going to be to water down some of those protections that we have at a Commonwealth level to make sure, firstly, that if someone is proposing a development in a particular area where there are threatened or protected species or that is a conservation area then they don't do any damage to protected species and the like, and, secondly, that they meet all of the conditions that are put on the development and are part of the consent. The Samuel review points out that that scheme is not working in the way that it should, and to further devolve that check and balance and that decision-making really does endanger the protection of our environment and the purpose for which the act was established. Remember that I said earlier that we have the highest rate of mammal extinctions of any nation in the world, and the purpose of the EPBC Act is to actually reduce that rate of extinction—to stop that rate of extinction—because the act is specifically put there to protect threatened species and endangered species. And this bill will water down that protection.
It doesn't make sense for the government to ignore this independent review and the very thorough recommendations that were made by Graeme Samuel. In his independent review, Graeme Samuel, in the opening words, points out for people just what a parlous state the environmental approval process at a federal level is in in Australia, when he says:
Australia's natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. … The impact of climate change on the environment is building, and will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline.
He goes on to state:
The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.
Now, when you're faced with a report like that—when you're faced with a summary of the stock and the measures that you have, as a government, to protect and conserve our natural environment—you don't go the opposite way and water down some of those protections, which is exactly what many are worried this bill will do.
The second element of the EPBC Act and its ineffectiveness relates to the approval process. Recently, the shadow minister has been very effective in highlighting the problems we've seen in the process of approvals since this government came to office. They were uncovered by the Auditor-General's report into approvals under the EPBC Act. They paint a very damning picture of this government's approach to those approvals and to making sure approvals are made in a timely fashion, abide by the provisions of the act, conserve and protect our native heritage, and, importantly, are policed.
The Auditor-General's report found there has been a 510 per cent increase in the average delay for approvals since 2014—that is, since this government came to office. Seventy-five per cent of the decisions that are made under the EPBC Act contain errors or are not compliant. That's a serious problem not only for environmental conservation and protection but for people who are investing in the proponents of developments and activities in our country that generate economic activity and support jobs. If they're faced with the prospect of a 510 per cent increase in the delay for an approval, then that's not good for our economy. We all know why this has occurred. We can pinpoint why this has occurred. It's because, when this government came to office, they slashed, burned and cut through the department, the staff and the expertise employed to do this job in making sure that we had a timely process for approvals, making sure the conditions under the act were met, and, importantly, making sure that when consents were made that those consents were policed and the outcomes were assured. We're not getting that from this government.
It's been identified by the Auditor-General through his report, it's been identified by Graeme Samuel in his report and it's been pointed out quite effectively by the shadow minister, so all Australians now know that this is a serious issue. We all know that the act is not working. It's not fit for purpose and it's not doing its job. And yet, this government completely ignores many of those recommendations and goes against the tone of the Samuel review in particular. It's not meeting the purpose of assessing projects in a timely manner, of compliance with conditions that have been put in place or of protecting our environment.
The Samuel review made a number of recommendations. It made important recommendations about the establishment of national environment standards. A focus on the core Commonwealth responsibilities under the act was the establishment of regional landscape plans. He was very scathing of the government's approach and the department's approach to consultation with First Nations Australians under this particular act. He described it as tokenism—that is, a tick-and-flick exercise where the views of Indigenous Australians were not genuinely taken into account.
If you want to know who are the best experts on environmental conservation, the best people that have the longest history of conserving for, caring for and nurturing our land, then look no further than the local Aboriginal population in a particular area. They've had tens of thousands of years of connection with that land and that environment, and they wouldn't have survived that long unless they knew how to conserve and protect that environment so that it sustained life into the future. They are the best advisers on environmental protection, and yet we see that there's nothing more than tokenism in the approach that's taken by government under this act with First Australians. That has to change. That simply has to change if we're going to make sure that we conserve our environment into the future.
The report points out that there's serious problems of duplication, and I know that is what the government would say this issue and this bill go to. But, if you're doing that on the basis of trying to water down the protections that are put in place—particularly around protected species and threatened species, which are the Commonwealth's responsibility; it hangs from the Constitution and the laws that were put in place from the international covenants that we signed up to—and you're trying to water down that check that, importantly, occurs at the federal level, that's not acting in the interests of the environment and that's not making the law fit for purpose.
The review also talks about the importance of environmental offsets and how they've been poorly designed and implemented, and it also points out that, in Professor Samuel's view, the department is simply too weak. In particular, it's too weak on compliance and making sure that the conditions that are put in place for environmental approvals are actually met by the proponents of those proposals as the projects come to light. This is a serious issue, and it's something that's been identified by the Labor Party for some years now in the consultations that we've undertaken with the Australian people. That's why at the last election we had a policy to deal with this issue, and that was the establishment of a national environmental watchdog—an EPA, if you like—to make sure that conditions under the EPBC Act are met and complied with and that there are stiff penalties for people who don't do so.
The Samuel report also makes some recommendations about immediate reform that can happen straightaway, and that's what this government's trying to do. They're trying to use that as the basis for this. But they've taken perhaps one per cent of what Graeme Samuel has said and ignored 99 per cent of the recommendations for immediate action, and that's why Labor will oppose this bill.
Principal among those recommendations for immediate action is the establishment of national environmental standards, clear rules for how decisions are made and contribute to outcomes for the environment, and making sure that they are binding and enforceable and developed in consultation with Indigenous Australians and with the state and territory governments. Here's an immediate step that Samuel has recommended that the government can take, and they would get Labor's approval to do so, yet they've completely ignored that important recommendation from the report.
That really highlights that the government isn't serious about fixing these problems that have been identified by the Samuel review. The government really isn't serious about working in a cooperative manner on environmental conservation and protection and trying to get some bipartisanship on this issue of environmental protection in Australia. If they were serious about it then they would act on some of those recommendations that Samuel made for immediate attention. Instead, the government chose to ignore those recommendations.
What we've got here is a rehash of a failed proposal, a failed bill that was put into the parliament back in the era of the Abbott government. It rehashes that old approach of a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals and fails to deliver on necessary environmental protection, and that is why I and my Labor colleagues are not supportive of this particular provision.
I again reiterate the importance of a national environment protection agency. Labor has been very strong on this and on pointing out that, if the government were serious about this compliance issue under the EPBC Act, they would seriously look at that. Again, this is another area where we could achieve bipartisanship and work together for the conservation of the environment.
In conclusion, we're opposing this bill. I'm speaking in support of the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister and encouraging the government to end this divide, to end this ridiculous war on environmental protection that's gone on in this country for too long, and to try and work in a bipartisan manner. Let's start with the recommendations of the Samuel review so that we get a fair-dinkum approach to environmental protection and improve the operation of the EPBC Act for all Australians.
[by video link] I rise to speak on the amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It gives me no great pleasure to say that the Labor Party will not be supporting this amendment to this important piece of legislation, the EPBC Act, although I think every Labor member in this place wants to support an amendment to it. I take this opportunity to commend the previous speaker, the member for Kingsford Smith, on his contribution to this debate and, of course, I thank the shadow minister, the member for Griffith, who has done an outstanding job of steering difficult pieces of legislation through in a constructive but principled way. I support her and the Labor Party's position to oppose this piece of legislation.
The EPBC Act needs updating. The Samuel review was part of the 10-year statutory requirement to update and review this piece of legislation. We desperately need to update the EPBC Act, but the bill that the government has presented in this place on this day is not the bill that we in this country need and will accept. The bill before the parliament will not protect our environment, it will not protect jobs and it will not protect the natural wonders that Australia is so proud of. Our environmental interests in this country align with our economic interests in this country. What we need and is good for the environment is good for the economy. A research paper conducted in my office by my parliamentary intern found that almost 300,000 Australians work in some form of job connected to the environment. The environment is a job-creating machine, and we need to protect it.
In this contribution, I'm going to outline why the EPBC Act is important and why this review is so important. I'm going to outline parts of what is in this bill, and I'm then going to go to what actually should be done in this place. Before I do, I just want to point out one fact—that not one member of the government, not one member of the coalition, is standing up to speak on this bill. Not one member of the government is standing up to support this EPBC Act amendment. It shows that their heart is not in it. It shows that they don't want to stand up and be associated with this bill. This bill is bad for our environment, bad for jobs, bad for our country. That's why not one member of the government has the guts to stand up and defend it. But we will fight it in this place.
Why is the EPBC Act so important? To start this part of my contribution, I want to thank the environmentalists, including local environmentalists in Macnamara, who have, at every stage of my time as the member for Macnamara, engaged constructively, positively and passionately with me about protection for the environment. I especially want to thank members of the Australian Conservation Foundation locally who have helped and made submissions not only to the EPBC Act review, the Samuel review, but also to me personally for my contribution on this bill. I thank them at this moment.
The EPBC Act is important because it is crucial to protecting our natural environment and our incredibly valuable ecosystems in this country. Healthy Australians can only exist in a healthy Australian natural environment, and the current EPBC Act has failed to protect Australia's natural wonders. We have the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. Our water and air quality are declining. Our planet is rapidly warming and it is already having devastating consequences. We saw bushfires increase in intensity over summer. We're seeing severe droughts. We are in an ecological crisis, and things are only getting worse. This should not be happening in a developed country, when we have the resources to protect our most valuable assets. The current EPBC Act does not protect the things it is supposed to protect, and it needs to be strengthened. It needs to be monitored. It needs to be effectively enforced by an independent regulator.
But revisiting and resubmitting this failed bill from 2014, from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is an insult to the 30,000 Australians who submitted constructively to the Samuel review that the government undertook itself and who made submissions to help strengthen our environmental laws. Now is the time to bring people together on this bill. Now is the time to constructively bring people—scientists, businesses, conservationists, Indigenous Australians and people who have a stake in our environment—together and to listen to the experts. But of course that is too far removed from the capabilities of this government. The bill before us is a far cry and is far removed from what Professor Samuel is recommending in his interim report. Instead of listening to the interim report of Professor Samuel, the government has chosen to put forward a bill that will only make a bad situation worse. At the very heart of the Samuel review comes a clear recommendation that the Commonwealth cannot cede environmental standards to the states and that what we need in this country is a clear and strong set of national environmental standards led and introduced by the federal government. But of course, instead of listening to Professor Samuel, this bill hands over much of the decision-making to the states and does not set out strong and clear federal environmental standards, because we know this government has no strong and clear federal environmental standards. It is happy to trash our environment and watch it be destroyed.
To make matters worse, when the minister wants to bypass the states she will be able to call in decisions under this bill but has removed the transparency and accountability measures that are so desperately needed in decision-making in the environmental space at the moment. To summarise, she can hand over to the states but, when she doesn't want to, she's going to do it secretly and without transparency.
That leads me to another part of what the Samuel review has recommended, which is to improve trust transparency in the act, including publishing all materials related to approval decisions. The Samuel review recognises that there isn't enough transparency on this piece of legislation but, instead of increasing transparency and accountability in environmental decision-making, the government is looking to reduce it. They are looking to reduce their own accountability and their own transparency in this much-needed space. At the last election Labor committed to introducing a federal environmental protections agency, an independent agency, that would help oversee that environmental standards are upheld. Professor Samuel recommended that they needed an independent cop on the beat, but this government doesn't want oversight. They don't want an independent agency; they want to continue with secretive and unaccountable environmental decisions.
As the member for Kingsford Smith pointed out very eloquently in his contribution, the interim report has also recommended that there be a specific standard on best-practice Indigenous engagement in this bill. We were reminded why this is so important recently when Rio Tinto destroyed the irreplaceable Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia. And, unsurprisingly, there is no reference to a specific standard on best practice on Indigenous engagement in this bill.
So what do we want to see? We want to see strong national environmental standards. We agree with Professor Samuel that the way to strengthen our environment is not to cede control to the states but for the federal government to have a strong and clear idea of what it is to protect our environment and the standards of environmental protection that are needed in this country. The Prime Minister and the minister have all of the conditions that they could possibly wish for at their disposal. We have an opposition who have said consistently that we will engage with the government. We will work with Professor Samuel and the review. We will work with agriculture. We will work with the resources sector, with businesses, with traditional owners, with conservationists and with academics. But, like with all things, government is wasted on Scott Morrison and government is wasted on this bunch. They are not interested in improving our national environmental standards. They are not interested in introducing a bill that even listens to their own review. All they're interested in is continuing the ineptitude, the inaction and the devastation that we're seeing in our natural environment. We should be implementing strong national environmental standards. We should be introducing an independent cop on the beat, an independent agency, to help uphold these standards. We should be putting the resources needed to ensure that our federal government agencies have all of the tools at their disposals to ensure that our environmental standards are met and that businesses have certainty and accountability.
The Labor Party will not cede our principle that it is our responsibility in this place to uphold strong environmental laws. The Labor Party's legacy is that we protected Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Franklin. We created Landcare. It is Labor governments that have a record of environmental protection that is to be admired and to be proud of, but the same cannot be said of the Morrison government.
Locally, in Macnamara, at the last election I was pleased to be able to commit the federal Labor Party to one of the largest inner-city urban environmental protection project that we've seen in the last decade. In Elwood, in the heart of my electorate, we had a plan to support the local government and the local council to turn the old Elsternwick Golf Course into a natural environmental wetland to protect local species, to protect local plants and to protect indigenous wildlife. It was one of the proudest and most exciting election commitments that I had, going into the last election. I'm pleased to say that the plans for this environmental protection are going ahead locally, thanks to the work of the local government, the St Kilda eco centre and many of the committed local environmental agencies and organisations, which are working tirelessly. But we are not seeing the same commitment from this federal government to protecting our precious and limited natural wonders.
The member for Kingsford Smith rightly pointed out that our Indigenous Australians are the ones we should be listening to. Locally, the Boonwurrung people, the traditional owners from where I represent and live, used to watch the waterways near the city of Port Phillip, before it became a wetland, before it became a bay. They used to watch the fish population and when the fish population used to decline the Boonwurrung used to stop the fishing from the six Boonwurrung clans, as well as the visiting clans, until the fish had enough time to have their population increase. For thousands of years our traditional owners locally around the country have protected our natural wonders and wildlife. They understand conservation and sustainability.
But, according to this piece of legislation before us today, this government does not. The government have put forward a bill that will not do what the review that they instigated recommends. We need stronger and more formidable environmental protections in this country. The planet is warming. Our species are dying out and we cannot trust the Morrison government to protect our environment.
[by video link] The Morrison government is taking a chainsaw to our environment laws. They're making it easier for their corporate mates in mining, oil and gas to get their projects approved, which will put our environment and wildlife at risk. With this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020, the federal government is passing their responsibilities for protecting our environment onto the states, where there are weaker laws and fewer environmental protections. We know that state governments are often in the pocket of developers and big corporations. We need more environmental protections, not less. Just this year we have seen what happens when our environmental laws are too weak: Rio Tinto blows up a 40,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in the Juukan Gorge. We also know what happens when we have strong environmental protections. It is federal environmental protections that stopped the Franklin River from being dammed, and they protected our World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef from being drilled for oil. We can't let the Prime Minister trash our environment. We need strong national environmental standards and an independent regulator who can properly enforce environmental protections. The Greens fought this bill when Tony Abbott introduced it in 2014 and we will fight it again now.
We are in an extinction crisis. We are in an environment and climate emergency. We are being warned that unless we take action in less than the next few years we could start off a chain reaction that will mean climate change is unstoppable and that will take with it large parts of our environment. We have seen just over this summer one billion creatures lose their lives, an unprecedented devastation to our natural areas. We are also seeing a massive, massive attack on our water supply, on the basics of life, as big corporations get given the green light by state and federal governments to do things that they just should not be able to do.
We know from our history that it is often state governments who will be the most co-opted by big corporations. They will have the weakest protections, they're the ones who get the donations from the developers and the corporations, and they're the ones that are most likely to give the green light to devastating projects. Whether it's the Queensland Labor government giving the go-ahead to devastating coalmines in the Carmichael basin or Liberal governments who never cared about the environment in the first place, we need strong national laws to protect our environment.
It's not just the Greens saying this. It's not just the Australian public saying this. An independent review that the government itself commissioned of its own environment laws has said that the existing environment laws are not strong enough; they have holes in them big enough to drive a bulldozer through. The review has found very clearly that our environment laws don't do the job of protecting our threatened species or our environment. You would think that, when you have national laws called 'the environment protection laws', you could look in there and find something, somewhere, in clear black and white, that protected the environment. But you don't, at the moment, under our laws. They are just not working.
The government's own independent review said it. The independent review said that we not only need to change those laws, to put in place strong environmental standards, but we need a strong cop on the beat. In other words, once we've got these standards, we also then need to make sure that there is someone who will hold government and corporations to account to make sure that those laws aren't breached, so that the laws themselves actually get enforced. And only then, the independent review said, might you consider allowing someone other than the Commonwealth government to make the decision.
But what does the Morrison government do? The Morrison government comes along and says: 'Well, we'll ignore the bit in the report that says we need tougher environmental standards, we'll ignore the bit that says we need a cop on the beat, but what we will do is hand over all of our powers to the state governments and let them make decisions.' Make no mistake: if this bill passes, our environment will suffer. And all of the things that people power and federal governments have protected before—like stopping the Franklin from being dammed—will now be under threat, and it will be the state government that gets the final say.
The federal government—all that the minister has to hang her hat on with this is to say: 'It's okay. You can trust me.' 'You can trust us,' the minister says. She says: 'It's alright. In this bill, we'll enable the government to call in an action for approval in appropriate circumstances.' I'm sorry, Minister, but I don't trust you. I have absolutely no doubt that, if it came down to a choice between the Commonwealth stepping in and overriding a state government or just letting the state government and corporations do what they want to do, the government would sit on their hands. Just as this government sat on its hands as the Juukan Gorge was destroyed, so they will in the future as well.
Passing a bill on the basis that a government who has so far shown a complete disregard for the environment might do something in the future is the wrong way to go. But we hear more from the minister. She says: 'It's okay. You can pass this bill because what we'll do after the bill is passed is put in place some of those strong protections that the independent review said were missing from our laws.' In other words, the minister says: 'Trust me. If you pass this bill, I'll then go and negotiate some separate agreements with the states, and I'll hope that they abide by them.' Come on! Do you think we came down in the last shower? You haven't even written these supposed standards. You haven't even got one state to agree to it. And why on earth is a state going to tie their hands after the bill has been passed?
If the government was serious about protecting our environment, it would have come to the table with a piece of legislation that included strong protections and included strong deals that it had reached with the states. I don't necessarily accept the idea that we can hand off powers to the states, because I don't trust them either. But no-one believes the idea the government is peddling—'It's okay. You can trust us. We'll put in some protections in the future'. No-one believes that, Minister. No-one believes that, Prime Minister.
If nothing else—even if you don't agree with the Greens, the Australian public and the independent review that we need strong standards—at an absolute minimum you would think we should care about proper process. The EPBC Act is undergoing its statutory 10-year review. We should let the expert panel complete its final report before we make any new changes. That is a very simple and uncontroversial proposition. Even if you disagree with the Greens about how strong the standards for protecting our environment need to be, at the least the statutory review should be allowed to conclude. No-one could have any objections to that. The interim report said there are a number of changes that need to be made, and I've mentioned three that have been specifically identified. But you don't go and change a law in the middle of a review about that law—unless you are this government, which wants to destroy our environment even further and hand over more power to big corporations and state governments.
And, even if you disagree with the Greens about the level of environmental protection that we need in this country, we should also, at a minimum, have this bill looked at by a Senate inquiry. The Greens have been trying in the Senate to get a Senate inquiry into this bill. That should be uncontroversial. It's what the Senate does. It's part of the reason that the Senate is there. It inquires into bills. We have been trying to get a Senate inquiry into this bill. Instead, the government has said no. The government is blocking this bill from even going to an inquiry. What are you trying to hide? Is there more in this bill that we haven't yet uncovered? Would you be worried that, if we sent the bill to a Senate inquiry, it is going to show that it is even worse than we feared? You've got these wonderful arguments in place about why the only thing you as a government can do to deal with the environment is dust off a bill that Tony Abbott tried to get through the parliament. If, after all the time you've had in power to think about how you are going to protect the environment, that is all you can do, why won't you let the bill be looked at by a Senate inquiry? What are you afraid of?
If you're trying to create new standards that serve as a backdrop to the integrity of state and territory laws, let us have time to consider if they are fit for purpose before we pass this legislation. We should be reviewing these hypothetical national environment standards that you tell us are contained in this bill—which you think are such strong protections—before we give the minister a blank cheque to sign all of the Commonwealth powers over to the states. That is what this bill is trying to do—give the states a blank cheque and hand Commonwealth responsibility over to the states. This is one of the biggest moves we would see in environmental law for decades. And the government doesn't even want it to go to inquiry. The government won't even let an inquiry look at this legislation.
We are seeing something very worrying under the cover of the coronavirus crisis. We are seeing this government say: 'We'll never let a good crisis go to waste. We're going to use this opportunity to try and ram through legislation,' They are pretending it has something to do with jobs, when it really doesn't; it's just about making sure the donors get what they paid for by allowing corporations to have more say. We are seeing the government use the coronavirus crisis as a cover for attacks on democracy and attacks on our environment. This is part of the bull-headed rush-through of the government's deregulatory agenda. We are seeing the government attempting to remove people's rights at work by pushing through the emergency industrial relations powers that were put in place to deal with the coronavirus crisis. The government is now extending them. People who don't even get JobKeeper are now subject to having their rights taken away even though they get no support. The government is also trying to ram through its pro-gas agenda. That would be a climate crime and a climate catastrophe. We know gas is as dirty as coal. The government is trying to use the cover of the coronavirus crisis to say—