Tuesday, 27 October 2020
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
The EPBC Act exists to protect the Australian environment from harm and to ensure that the incredible living diversity of our continent and our oceans is maintained. It's in the name, after all: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Surely there can be no question that we must achieve those imperatives; we must achieve protection and conservation. Yet our national environmental protection framework has failed and is failing. The EPBC Act and the associated departmental resources, the government programs and the budget allocations that support all these elements of our protection framework are failing.
As the government-appointed EPBC Act reviewer, Mr Graeme Samuel AC, declared in his interim report:
Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The pressures on the environment are significant—including land-use change, habitat loss and degradation, and feral animal and invasive plant species. The impact of climate change on the environment is building, and will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline.
Just to make it completely clear, he also said:
The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.
He went on to say:
The current settings cannot halt the trajectory of environmental decline, let alone reverse it.
Mr Samuel's prescription for addressing the problem is utterly sensible in its simplicity: (1) create and apply legally enforceable national environmental standards and (2) establish an independent regulator responsible for monitoring compliance, enforcement and assurance—a regulator that will be, in Mr Samuel's own words, 'a strong cop on the beat'.
Yet there was hardly time for the interim report to hit the desk before the Minister for the Environment had ruled out creating an independent watchdog and compliance agency. To be honest, that is the end of it: that is the end of the minister's environmental credibility; it is the end of the government's environmental credibility. We have a failed protection framework. We have an environment that has been hammered and is on a trajectory of decline, and the Morrison government rules out the key element of the expert advice for fixing the problem. And it is a key element, because, even we develop stronger national standards with a potential to deliver better environmental outcomes, what guarantee is there that those standards will be applied, monitored and enforced? One of the greatest black marks against this government has been the Australian National Audit Office finding that 79 per cent of EPBC decisions involved a failure of some kind, and there was no effective compliance regime. Is that surprising when the government has cut 40 per cent of the funding to the department of the environment? Make no mistake, without an independent watchdog and compliance agency, there will be no improvement to our trajectory of decline.
In a scorched landscape of environmental protection failure, even our parliamentary process or, at least, our parliamentary culture is failing, to the extent that the government wouldn't even allow these things to be properly debated in this place. For no reason whatsoever, the debate on the government's rushed and senseless EPBC amendments—which by themselves did absolutely nothing to improve environmental outcomes—was gagged and guillotined in this place. Dozens of Labor and crossbench members were unable to be part of the debate. I as the shadow assistant minister for the environment wasn't able to participate. The member for Watson, a former minister for the environment, wasn't able to speak. And for what? For what? It now appears the government has put those daft changes into the freezer box, at least temporarily.
When it comes to protecting the Australian environment, there are some who will be quick to say, 'Of course we have to look after the environment, but it's all about striking a balance,' and they're usually the same people who rabbit on about the terrible burden of green tape and the terrible inconvenience of local environmental activists who resist unacceptable degradation and the terrible inconvenience of traditional owners who dare to stand up for the health and heritage of their country! What is hard to believe is that some of the people who have spouted that rubbish in the last few years are not just members of parliament; they're not just ministers in the government; they're literally the people whose role is minister for the environment.
So let's be completely honest with ourselves. That balance that we're supposed to be striking is badly out of whack. That balance right now is steeply tilted away from a sustainable environment. The green tape, if you want to call it that, is not strong enough. We cannot keep putting our environment and our native plants and animals into profit-yielding stress positions in the name of striking a balance. We're in a situation of stark imbalance right now, and it's getting worse. Right now, if we want to keep dozens and dozens of species from the brink of extinction, if we want a clean ocean and a healthy coastal environment for our children and their children and if we accept our responsibility as custodians of Australia's incredible biodiversity, we have to radically improve what is a failed environmental protection framework. (Time expired)