House debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2021


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021; Second Reading

12:13 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a great privilege to get up and speak on the bill before this chamber, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, because, as you know, Speaker, at the heart of liberal ideals and liberal values that I as well as many other members bring to this chamber is a commitment to environmental stewardship and making sure that we define laws that protect the health and wellbeing of our nation. But it runs with other competing principles around economic progress, social inclusion and advancement, and making sure that we have a competitive federal environment so that we do not have monopoly Canberra dictating to people in their communities across the country how laws should be interpreted.

This reform comes off the back, as you know, Speaker, of the review that was completed by a fine, upstanding Goldstein constituent—the former chair of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel—who looked at the EPBC Act and its sustainability, and the extent to which it needed to be modernised. Mr Samuel came back and rightly identified that the EPBC Act was outdated and no longer fit for purpose for advancement of environmental protection in Australia, particularly when compared against state legislation and the mounted inconsistencies that it was not serving Australia's best interests and that we needed reform. One of the critical things that Mr Samuel outlined, correctly, was the need to keep implementing reform and to do it across stages so that we got the best outcome for environmental conservation and wellbeing while also making sure that industries like agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism and manufacturing received the benefits and what they needed from the EPBC Act to advance it and to drive improvements in legislation in this country.

Of course, there is a binary contest in environmental conservation. We hear this all the time, as though it's simply a choice between red tape and green tape—which is good if it's around the environment versus the trade-off that comes as a consequence. One of the most important roles of responsible legislators is not just to look at different types of regulation and their benefits but also their costs. People want to throw everything into a prosperity-versus-protection, conservation-versus-commerce framework. Frankly, that's naive and it's arrogant because it fundamentally misunderstands the trade-offs that we face in this chamber every day around getting the laws right to conserve the best interests for the environment for our country. We want to achieve prosperity and protection, not versus. We want conservation and commerce, not to set them up in a binary contest against each other.

This is for no other reason other than we're aware of the benefits of environmental conservation but also its utilisation to advance the interests of the environmental stewardship of our great country. There's an old saying, and the National Party members in this chamber are familiar with it and fond of saying it: if you don't grow it, you dig it. The reality is that a lot of renewable technologies, which members of the opposition and the Greens are fans of, require digging out of the ground. We don't just create concrete out of nothing, or silicon out of nothing or semiconductors, lithium ion or the like out of nothing. They have to come from extractive industries. We need extractive industries for these sorts of technologies to build a cleaner economic future for this country, and to simply set a contest up between prosperity and protection, or conservation versus commerce, then you're deceiving and misleading the people on the nature of the challenge that we face because you're becoming the greatest barrier to environmental stewardship as well as to economic stewardship and progress.

That's one of the great frustrations, frankly, on this side of the chamber: the binary nature in which members, particularly in the Australian Greens but also in the Australian Labor Party and other parties, conduct themselves. They try to set things up as a simple binary contest when they're not so simple or straightforward, and the damage is actually done to our environment, not to its enhancement. That's why we understand the importance of implementing legislation.

The other reason is because we actually want high standards. I recently had a group from a community-based organisation that came to see me about EPBC Act reform. I don't take away their good intentions, but they wanted a very singular national approach, with national standards that imposed from Canberra a monopoly world view about environmental conservation. I outlined not only the limitations around the federalist framework which we have—where we, justly, have states establishing laws—but why we actually want states to have laws. If we don't, we get monopoly outcomes which invariably race to the bottom and the lowest common denominator. They don't find smarter, better and more innovative ways to deliver outcomes with fewer burdens and less cost. This is the basis on which we have this legislation: the recognition of states seeking to improve their outcomes while removing obligations so that the nation benefits and the environment benefits, despite the rigidity that some people would wish on our environmental conservation through a monopoly outcome.

I make no apologies about my commitment to competitive federalism because on so many occasions I have seen that when we try to take power away from citizens to community organisations, from community organisations to state capitals and from state capitals to Canberra we get broader standards—sure—but they become harder to change. In order to get agreement you have to lower them and you get worse outcomes. It's a simple proposition: is it harder to change the outcomes in your own family circumstances around the kitchen table versus the decisions of a state government? The answer is self-evident.

If you lift it even further, up to the national level, you don't get a better outcome; you just get one that's lower and harder to change. We want competitive federalism. We want a system that drives standards, improvements and outcomes up. We want a system that enables environmental conservation to be dealt with in a way where we're actually advancing the environmental and the economic interests of the country, and breaking down the foolish, dismissive and disingenuous binary nature of so much of the environmental discussion in this country. As I said before, we seek prosperity and protection, conservation and commerce. We do not simply pit them against each other.

That is what phase 1 of the reforms to the EPBC Act is designed to achieve. Consistent with the Samuel review, it very much works with the states to improve outcomes and have cross-referencing between their different regulatory standards in the hope that that will improve environmental outcomes for the nation while removing needless, pointless and arbitrary red and green tape which don't actually improve environmental outcomes; they simply impose costs for no benefit. This approach is completely consistent with the decisions of the national cabinet. As members would remember, it is a process that was established in the context of COVID-19, to enable state premiers and territory leaders to buy into the process to improve governance across this country. But, again, I stress that it should be done in the context of a competitive federalist framework. Whether it will achieve that or not is a different matter, but we will leave that discussion for another day.

The bill seeks not only to modernise the EPBC Act but to remove unnecessary duplication of red and green tape. Duplication serves no real purpose except for ticking boxes on bureaucratic forms. It doesn't actually improve environmental outcomes. We should want environmental assessments to be streamlined, efficient and outcomes driven, because, again, it isn't a contest between protection and prosperity; they work hand in hand with good law. We want to improve efficiency for business and have projects assessed to deliver more jobs and a stronger economy. We want to make sure that decisions are made swiftly so that people can repurpose capital and get on with the job, as is appropriate and consistent with environmental conservation. It will also include greater certainty for community groups and communities who are affected by environmental approvals. Of course, principally, the bill's objective is to deliver better environmental outcomes. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get these laws right, and my hope is that the Labor Party will support this bill's passage through the parliament this week.

As I understand it, there hasn't been as much conversation about this in the great state of Victoria as there has in the great state of Western Australia. I understand that within the Australian Labor Party at the moment there's a significant fight, a war going on, between members about their commitment to this bill, which is dependent on whether you understand the actual wealth-creation basis of our economy, as members on this side of the chamber do—and a select number on the other side of the chamber do as well—or hold the modern progressive world view that seems to be completely disconnected from any reality or understanding about how wealth is created and the opportunities and jobs that flow from it. It's one of the reasons the Labor Party should rename itself, because it has not been a 'labour' party for a very long time. Today, if anything, it should be recognised as the 'Party of Organised Workers'. Really, it is the 'Party of Organised Capital'. They see wealth creation in this country coming not from growth in jobs and industries that improve the health and welfare of the Australian people; they see it from the perspective of financiers and from the perspective of urban capital rather than rural and regional communities where primary industries are heavily based. But that is their cross to bear and their issue to resolve.

The choice the Labor Party need to face this week is whether they're going to support passing this legislation, because there are very real consequences. Significant environmental and economic opportunities exist in Western Australia—and I see the member for Fremantle coming in; I understand he is one of the great advocates against improvements to the EPBC Act, but that, of course, is his choice. There are other Western Australian colleagues who are more supportive of reforms to improve economic and environmental outcomes.

The opportunity in this update of this legislation to improve the EPBC Act is to get projects advanced across the country to improve economic and environmental outcomes and to deliver prosperity and protection, conservation and commerce. That's the basis on which this legislation is introduced. That is the basis of the way in which we approach the environment. We ask: what do we need to do to conserve its health while recognising its potential not just to improve the economic and social welfare of Australia, though that is of critical importance, but also to create the jobs and opportunities and innovation for new industries that will help improve the future of the country? Again, you can't have many sectors in a more environmentally sensitive economy without a recognition that they are built on older industries, particularly extractive industry. We look at what we can do to make them clean and green to improve the health and welfare of the whole of the community. That's the basis on which I support this legislation. That's the basis on which I'm sure that most members, at least on this side of the chamber, support this legislation.

It is now up to Labor to show their cards. It is now up to Labor to say who they back—the economy and the environment, or the environment and the economy, whichever way they wish to put it, conservation and commerce, prosperity and protection—or are they simply going to indulge in their own internal fights because they don't actually know who they stand for or what they stand for, or what they're prepared to trade off. I know there are some state premiers that are looking at this parliament as we debate this legislation. Mark McGowan, in particular at the moment, is no doubt, despite his rhetoric, looking at this nation's parliament and saying, 'Are the Labor members of this chamber going to vote to advance their state, or are they going to draw a line in the sand and put their ideology ahead of the interests of the Western Australian people?' I know where we stand. My hope is that they do the right thing, and I see the member for Fremantle has walked in. He is, of course, a very, very distant cousin, a fellow Wilson. He's probably related to Geoff Wilson as well. I call on those opposite to do the right thing and to stand up for the best interests of this country.

On that basis, and on the hopeful commitment of the member for Fremantle and others, I call on those opposite to stand up for the best interests of this country, rather than moving what we might call pious amendments and virtue signalling—actually, virtue signalling implies that virtue is behind it; it's just elite signalling. I hope that they will stand up and do the right thing to improve the environmental protection of this country and stand up for what we know to be true and just, so that the next generation of Australians can look to environmental conservation and say that this parliament has its back with sound and proper laws that create the opportunity for environmental conservation to create the jobs that the next generation of Australians need and, of course, will put them in a better position not just to have jobs based on a framework for environmental conservation with more stewardship but to create the bounty, wealth and prosperity for future generations to invest in cleaning up the legacy of environmental degradation that preceded us. That's what stewardship is about. It's about handing over to the next generation something better than we inherited.

12:28 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a delight to follow the member for Goldstein in speaking on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. He is a man so oblivious that in the week in which the National Party rolled their leader over climate change, with the Deputy Prime Minister of the nation changing as a consequence, and when we're in a global pandemic, the member for Goldstein thought he'd accuse us of self-indulgence and focusing on ourselves. It's quite a breathtaking assertion from the member. Talk about leading with your chin, Mr Speaker, when someone on that side of the House says the words 'self-indulgent' or 'focusing on yourself' during this extraordinary week. It's quite surprising in some ways, but in other ways it's completely par for the course for the member for Goldstein. Of course, we've also heard some of his really strange attempts to try to set up a dichotomy between Labor and the Liberals and Nationals in respect of which of us cares about conservation and commerce and which of us is self-indulgent. I think any fair observer would notice that, throughout the discussion of the 10-yearly review of the environment protection and biodiversity conservation legislation, it is Labor that has stood up for jobs and the environment, and it is the government that has been waging ideological warfare. And we see that again today with this proposed legislation.

To recap the circumstances: of course, we've had the second 10-yearly review of the EPBC Act. The conditions for review were very favourable. The government has majority government, and the government has a Labor opposition that has said, 'We will not rule anything out, we will not cherrypick, we will be open to considering anything sensible and constructive that the government wants to put forward to us.' Those are the conditions in which this 10-yearly review has been conducted.

The government received an interim report from the reviewer, Professor Graeme Samuel, an eminent Australian, who has written two very solid reports: as I said, an interim report and now a final report for this review. After the interim report was handed down to the government, they said, 'Thanks very much', then they took the recommendations of that interim report and moved them to one side. They then went over to the shelf, dusted off some Abbott-era failed legislation and lobbed that into the parliament instead. And what happened after the final review report came out? Well, they've done the same thing. They've now created this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill, and in support of this bill they have promulgated in a bit of a leak to the press—kind of, not really—some draft interim national environment standards, and those draft interim national environmental standards are materially the same as the draft environment standards that were drafted in support of that Abbott 2014 one-stop-shop bill. Once again the government have gone back to their old cupboard full of ideological warfare items and dusted off some 2014 proposals. In doing so, they've completely junked the hours of work and the millions of dollars that went into the Samuel review. They've completely disregarded that review's proposal for a range of interconnected reforms to be the first tranche of reforms.

I therefore move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes the Commonwealth government's abject failure to deliver durable reform to protect the environment and create jobs".

The reason why it's important to move that amendment is that the government has before it some serious challenges. We have a government that needs to create jobs and we've got a government that needs to do more to protect the environment. The Samuel review has given them a clarion warning on the latter. Professor Samuel, as I said, an eminent Australian, whose background is in regulation through the ACCC and in business, has said to this government:

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 … will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline.

… in its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

Those are the words from Professor Samuel through his review of the EPBC Act. It is very clear from his language that the government need to take immediate action for environmental protection, yet what they have served up to this parliament and, by extension, to the Australian people is a reform proposal that does nothing to improve environmental protections. On their own account, the standards they have drafted do nothing more than replicate the obligations under the existing EPBC Act—that is the government's own account of these standards. They say there is not an inch, not a millimetre, of additional environmental protection in these standards compared with the EPBC Act. That's what they're asking us to support.

The imperative for environmental protection ought to be very clear to this government and to everyone watching on. That is a matter that should be crystal clear to the environment minister, to the Prime Minister and to everyone in this parliament—and to everyone in this country—yet their response is: 'Look, just trust us. We'll put in place these standards that just reflect the current settings. Then what we'll do is in two years time we'll provide some standards that have improved environmental protections.' I don't think that's good enough, and I don't think the Australian people think that's good enough either.

The government is trying to pretend that what they're doing is consistent with the Samuel review and that somehow we are arguing for an all-or-nothing approach. The minister has made this claim. That's not the case. The Samuel review recommends staged reform. Labor is happy to consider a first stage of reform that is consistent with that review, but this ain't it; this is not it. We've said to the government that we are prepared to consider anything serious that they want to put forward that is consistent with the Samuel review. We've made very clear in our public comments and in speeches in this place—we have made it crystal clear—that we want to see strong national environmental standards. We want to see a tough cop on the beat for the environment. We've also made it clear we want to see them take genuine action to remedy their own disasters in environmental decision-making, including the delays and the poor decision-making on approvals for projects. We couldn't have been clearer, yet what they've given us is quite the contrary. They've given us no strong national environmental standards, only the Abbott versions from 2014. They've given us no tough cop on the beat.

What they've done is provide an assurance commissioner proposal in this bill. It's very clear to us that Australians would like to see a set of institutional arrangements that can restore public trust in the EPBC Act and the regulatory arrangements. But they've come up with this proposed assurance commissioner, which is an audit function. This just seems to provide a different entity to undertake that audit work. Now, the design of this new entity has been criticised by third parties as lacking sufficient independence and the statutory powers necessary to give effect to its role. I think Australians would like to see this government do better in relation to the audit and monitoring power to ensure genuine independence and also to make it clear what powers the entity will have to undertake that audit and monitoring function.

The Samuel report also recommended, as part of the first tranche of reforms, beefed up compliance arrangements. There is nothing of that nature in this bill or in the other bill. There's no commitment to that in this government's so-called first stage of reforms. It's just not there. It's just missing. I think Australians want to be able to have confidence that conditions are being met and that issues like, for example, making sure that native grasslands aren't being poisoned are being monitored correctly and that we make sure that we do have a tough cop on the beat for the environment. But this government is not interested in that. They've done nothing on these points.

It is incredibly important too that Australians have confidence that there will not be unnecessary delays in approvals of projects. Every delay that's unnecessary for a project is a delay for jobs, and it's a delay for investment. Now, this is something that Labor has consistently put at the heart of our discussions of this review. We have been consistently critical of this government's failures when it comes to making decisions on time, because their failures are causing delay. Their failures are causing delays in jobs. Their failures are causing delays for investment. Their failures are causing delays for projects. You don't just need to take my word for it; the Australian National Audit Office's report on decision-making under the EPBC Act laid bare this government's failures in relation to project approvals. I've seen a bit of material from this government complaining that somehow Labor doesn't support mining approvals when in fact it's their own government that is causing problems for mining approvals and for other project approvals. It is the Morrison government that is responsible for the fact that their own decision-making is full of delay and full of error. The Audit Office report, when it was handed down, found that in a single year 95 per cent, almost every single key decision under the EPBC Act—that's controlled decisions, assessment decisions and approval decisions—were made late, outside the statutory time frame. That's what this government does for project approvals and for other processes.

The same report found that 79 per cent of the approval decisions it considered are either noncompliant or affected by error. It's a report that found that between the beginning of this government's time in office—I know it was eight long years ago; they're a tired and old government—and the time of the report the delay for approval decisions had increased by 510 per cent. It had gone from 19 days late to 116 days late. That's the government's record. That's the record of this government when it comes to approval decisions. This government came into office and they thought: 'You know what we should do? We should cut the environment department funding by 40 per cent. That won't have any negative downsides, will it?' A 40 per cent cut to funding! What's the consequence of that? Jobs are delayed. Investment is delayed. There are project delays. When this government asks rhetorically 'Who's on the side of the resources sector?' I'll tell you who it's not. It's not the Morrison government, because if it was the Morrison government they would actually be taking real action to make sure that these decisions can be made on time, not cutting 40 per cent of the funding from the environment department and then saying: 'You know what? You know what the problems is? It's not our cuts to the funding, it's not our own mismanagement, it's not the errors that we make, it's not the delays to approvals and other key decisions. It's: we need to do something with law reform.'

Well, it's not good enough for the government to cause these massive problems and then try to point the finger at Labor, in the west or anywhere else. It's not good enough, and people won't cop it. People will see right through it, because, as we have said in the west and everywhere else that if you have got something serious to put to us we will consider it, but it's got to be serious. Strong national environmental standards, a tough cop on the beat and a fix to all of the problems that your government has caused through its own mismanagement—that's what we want to see.

On that point, this government has been trying to take Western Australians for mugs. They really have. It's really disgraceful behaviour. But I think Western Australians and all Australians will see it for what it really is, and that is just a continued attempt to create a political opportunity. It's always a political management question for this government; it's never about the merit. They're just trying to create a political opportunity for themselves. But I just want to say to them: after all of this time, throughout this entire review process, the position still remains—we haven't ruled anything out. We are open to considering anything serious that the government wants to put forward to us, but you've got to come to us with a package that can enjoy broad support.

All of the stakeholders that I've spoken to, no matter what their interest, whether they are environmental non-government organisations, whether they're resources sector peak bodies, whether they're business industry bodies. regulators or lawyers, they've all had an open mind and a willingness to negotiate and to compromise. And the reason that they have all had that is because they want reforms to be durable. They want them to get through on a bipartisan basis so that people can have certainty over several coming years and decades. Durability takes compromise and negotiations. Stakeholders recognise it. Labor recognises it. But what is the government doing? They're saying: 'No, it's our way or the highway. Cop it sweet.' Well, come back to the table, keep talking to us. We're happy to talk, but come to us with something we can meaningfully put back to all of the people who have an interest in this.

I might just add that the government's proposals under this bill and their other bill are to push onto other jurisdictions the obligation for doing some of the work under the EPBC Act, but what they haven't done is made any commitment of any additional resourcing to those jurisdictions. This should be ringing alarm bells for people because, if there's no commitment to resourcing and if state bureaucracies are going to take on additional workload without any additional resourcing, then it's very possible that will lead to greater delay, not less delay, in decision-making. It's entirely likely that that would lead to more problems for jobs and investment, not fewer. I noticed that, in the media statement put out by a number of resources bodies just this week, they made the same point. Those resources peak bodies said to this government: 'You've got to come up with a funding commitment for those state bureaucracies. You've actually got to come up with some assurance that not only will they be able to get accredited to make approval decisions under the EPBC Act but also they'll get some additional funding in order to be able to do so.' I think the government would be aware, because they talk to the same stakeholders that I do, that stakeholders are incredibly frustrated by the government's reluctance to afford the resourcing and support that is needed to make sure that these decisions can be made on time.

There will always be valid reasons why some decisions take longer than others. But, where the delay is caused by poor management, underfunding or workloads being too high, those are not legitimate reasons for these massive projects that generate jobs, investment and economic benefit to be delayed. Government mismanagement—and this government's mismanagement—is not a valid reason for Australians to miss out. The government would be aware of the cost of their delays to the economy and to the Australian people. With the Productivity Commission having estimated in 2013 that a one-year delay to a major offshore LNG project could cost between $500 million and $2 billion—and that was cited in the Senate dissenting report that Labor senators provided in respect of this bill—the government would be aware that their failures and their delays have real costs to the economy and to jobs.

My state, Western Australia, and all states in this nation want to see major projects going ahead. We want to see jobs. We want to see investment. These things are incredibly important. But what you don't do is create the problem of delay and then try to blame something else. You don't cut the funding by 40 per cent and then say, 'The problem is that we haven't had enough law reform.' You don't say, 'We're going to get the states to do all this work and not provide them with any comfort about the additional resourcing that they will need to use in order to do that.' Yet that's what this government is asking. They can take out all the attack ads they like in the west and they can try to point the finger at us, but it's just a desperate attempt to cover up their own gold-standard incompetence when it comes to jobs, when it comes to investment and when it comes to environmental protection. I don't often agree with the member for Goldstein, but I will agree with him on this. There's not some contest between environmental protection and jobs. You've got to be able to deliver both. You've got to find the win-win.

The stakeholders I talk to across the board—environmental, legal, regulatory, resources, business, industry, farming, property—all know that there can be a win-win. They all have that optimism that we can use the talents that we have as a nation to find a way through the problems that we face, to make our processes work better, to make sure there's better compliance, to make sure decisions are made on time, to make sure jobs aren't delayed, to make sure investment isn't delayed and to protect Australia's iconic native species and natural places. We can actually do that, but it takes a lot more than someone standing up and saying: 'Well, here's what we did in 2014. Take it or leave it.' And that is what the government is saying to us, to the parliament, and to all Australians right now. That's what you're saying to us: 'Take it or leave it. We are not prepared to propose any increase in environmental protection in those standards. You just have to take our word for it that you will get those increased environmental protections, those stronger standards, in two years time.' They're asking us to just trust them. That's what this government is doing. They're saying to the Australian people 'trust us'. I don't think the Australian people are going to trust them.

The bill that we're considering now, the bill that we've been working through, is just not enough. It's not good enough. The package is comprised of this bill, some draft standards that are rehash of 2014 and a reheated 2014 bill. How can the government seriously be asking us to support those things when we have outlined very clearly what it is. It's principles based. It's not prescriptive. We're not saying we rise or fall on Samuel to the letter. We just want something more meaningful, more substantive and more useful that we can take back to the Australian people, and that's in everyone's interest.

I think we would like a settlement. I'm not talking about buying and selling a used car here; I'm talking about a great settlement of environmental and project approval issues that can find that win-win, that can be durable, that can take us through the next years and decades, so we don't have to have another fight about what the environment laws are in a year's time or two years time or three years time. Let's find a way to set up that framework so that we continue to adapt. But at least business resources firms, farmers, property developers, environmentalists, regulator, lawyers and Australian people can have some certainty about what that framework is going to be. If we want that durability the best path for that is bipartisanship. The best path for that is having the parties of government being able to reach a genuine agreement, informed by stakeholder views from across the board, about what the settings should be and how they should work moving forward. I know that sounds difficult, but if our job isn't to create durable policy settings that help make Australia better then what are we all doing here? That's what we're doing here.

I don't need to tell you about the environmental problems in this country. You all know them. We're a world leader in mammal extinctions. We're in a situation now where we're in a biodiversity crisis. We're in a situation now where Australians are worried after the bushfire crisis, after what they're hearing about climate change, after what they're hearing about the extinctions. They're worried about native species. They're worried about whether their grandkids are going to be able to see live koalas. They're worried about what's going to happen with all of the native species that're under threat. They're worried about the fact that this government seems to have just given up on getting recovery plans done at all, let alone on time, that they don't seem to be able to get the key threatening processes documents together to abate those threats, that they seem to be comprehensively unable to respond to the gauntlet that's been thrown down to them by Graeme Samuel through this process about the state of decline that our Australian environment is in. Australians are worried about that.

Australians are also worried about government mismanagement and waste. They're worried about the fact that the department has had these massive cuts. They're concerned about the delays. They're concerned about the problems in environmental decision-making, the errors, the non-compliance. They're concerned about some of the issues that've been raised about failure to manage conflicts of interest—and if anyone is interested in that just go back and have a look at the Audit Office report. And today of all days they're worried about whether this government is doing enough to protect our world heritage properties, our natural wonders of the world that we're so fortunate to have, and our cultural wonders for that matter as well.

I want to encourage the government: stop pointing the finger at Labor, stop complaining that we don't want to cop your 2014 reheat. You've made it really clear. Come back to the table. We've been clear but not prescriptive. We are open to discussion. We are ruling nothing out. We want to you come to us with a first tranche of reforms that can be meaningfully considered. It's not a blank cheque. I'm not buying a pig and a poke. But if this government can come to us with some serious reforms, as a package of a first stage of reforms, if you can do that, then we will absolutely continue to keep talking to you, to properly consider them, to work with stakeholders from all backgrounds, from all perspectives, to find a durable set of improvements to the nation's environment laws. We would also support the government to fix some of the really serious problems in EPBC decision-making that are leading to delays, mismanagement and problems in the community when it comes to major projects. We will absolutely do all of that. Just come to us. My door's open. You all have my number. Let's see if we can't keep working on this and come up with some proposals that actually do meet some of the challenges that Professor Samuel and many, many others have laid down for us over a number of years.

If I could just be indulged, I want to thank all of the stakeholders. Every single stakeholder in this—from resources, industry, business, environmental organisations, lawyers, regulators—has engaged really constructively with this process. They have engaged really constructively with me. We haven't always agreed, but there has always been a spirit of willingness to talk, willingness to try to meet each other, and willingness to try to accommodate the different views and perspectives and imperatives that everyone faces. This review process has been a demonstration of what's great about Australian pragmatism, and good faith and open-mindedness. It has actually brought out the best in a number of those organisations and stakeholders. I think it should be reassuring for the government that, if they keep working with all stakeholders on this, there is a prospect—sure, you won't get anything that everyone is 100 per cent happy with, but at least, if we can keep working with all stakeholders on this and find something people can live with, there could be some win-win outcomes. If we don't see environment as oppositional to jobs and we don't see law reform as a zero-sum game and if we see that there are opportunities to improve environmental protections and reduce delays for projects that give rise to Australian jobs and investment in the Australian people—if we can all just bear that in mind—then we can actually find a package of first-stage reforms that do provide those win-win outcomes that actually support all of those different objectives that environmental law should support.

I commend my second reading amendment to the House. I ask the House to oppose this bill. In fact, I ask the government to withdraw this bill. As Labor senators requested in their dissenting report for the inquiry into this bill, Labor asks:

… that the government withdraw this bill and instead propose, for the parliament's consideration, an interconnected suite of reforms that:

        Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        Is the amendment seconded?

        Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

        I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

        12:58 pm

        Photo of Garth HamiltonGarth Hamilton (Groom, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I thank the shadow minister for her comments, and I'd like to respond to some of those in my contribution here. But I would like to frame my contribution as someone who spent a good part of their career as a mining engineer in the mining industry. Of course, when we enter this place we leave a good part of our history behind, but it's an industry that has been very, very good to me, as it has been to a great many people, certainly, from around Queensland and across Australia. In my particular case, it was a way for a young boy from Ipswich to find a way towards good employment. Quite a few people of my generation will remember the great mining industry there was in Ipswich only a couple of generations ago and how proudly we looked upon those of us who sought good careers in that industry and went forth. For me, the pathway was through mining engineering.

        Unfortunately, in the broader debate that we have on mining and environmental protections, sadly, it has become a 'for or against' situation. Often, the mining industry has been demonised across the spectrum and not seen as what it is: both a great contributor to the nation, across a number of fields, and a sector that is very highly regulated. It is a sector that, in Australia, is asked to do a lot, and it does a lot. We can be very well assured that the mining industry does step up to the requirements we place upon it, and, in the very rare instances where it operates outside of them, it's inevitably caught and made to act on it. I hope that, through this debate, we can reframe the role that the mining industry plays in our environmental protection going forward.

        The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was created in 1999, and since then we've seen significant changes in technology and the types of projects being pursued. I'd give the example of tailings dams. For a long, long time, tailings dams were the hardest barrier for a mine to cross, in terms of seeking its environmental approvals. This is probably for good reason: tailings dams have a very bad and, unfortunately, in a lot of cases, a well-deserved reputation for the impact they have and the lasting damage that can be caused when they are poorly managed.

        I've been very fortunate in recent years to work with one of our great CRCs, CRC ORE—Optimising Resource Extraction. This is a CRC that looks at ways of reducing water consumption and energy consumption in the mining industry. And, of course, by doing that it vastly reduces the carbon footprint of mining operations that take up that technology. When it comes to tailings dams, some of the great work that has come out of the CRC ORE has been the potential in some cases to reduce the requirement for tailings dams altogether, and in others to significantly cut back the scale of tailings dams required, sometimes by beyond 50 per cent. This is a significant change in a project. As you would expect, with technology developing so quickly, we are able to better manage these projects. We're able to get better environmental outcomes. Mines today are better able to respond to the requirements that we have. We must see that these are important steps that have taken place since the time that this act was brought into play. But, as per the independent review released earlier this year, some serious reform is required to ensure this act remains fit for purpose.

        I think balance is what we're looking for throughout this debate. In the case I'm presenting, it's balance between the mining industry and environmental protections. But balance between state governments' and federal governments' responsibilities is also very important. And what is very clear is that, throughout this process, the central theme of what we're trying to achieve here has been agreed by the state governments. This is very much a process of state governments and the federal government having a similar issue that they would like to address—that being simplification of this process and greater clarity and consistency in the application of standards contained in the act, to ensure that all projects are treated fairly and are subject to the same scrutiny.

        From my point of view and, I think I can say, from my long time and experience in the mining industry and beyond, what I'm looking for out of this is not more yeses. I'm not looking for something that guarantees more approvals. What I'm looking for is something that provides less maybes, because it's in that inconsistency that we find troubles. It is important that we acknowledge—and I certainly do—that, within the mining industry, there is good mining and bad mining, in terms of the practices undertaken, the commodities extracted and the issues of social licence and national benefit. There are many ways that we can address a mine's value, and we need to have that nuance in this discussion.

        In my region, unfortunately, we've seen firsthand the impact that uncertainty on projects can have. I am speaking again to a broader issue, part of which this legislation addresses—that is, the uncertainty that currently exists across a number of jurisdictions in terms of major project approval. One thing I can wholeheartedly agree with the shadow minister on is that delays have a terrible impact. It goes beyond investment. It goes beyond a business statement, a statement of commerce. I'm talking about the impact that these delays can have on people's lives, on families and on communities. Unfortunately, the case in my patch that is very relevant to this is the New Acland mine. For 14 years this mine has been going through approval processes, back and forth. The state government's position on this mine is that it won't make a determination on granting a mining lease while there are still active legal cases, but there are a number of other mines, like Olive Downs and Adani, where that policy has not been applied. There's significant inconsistency in the policy that's been applied there.

        That has meant that the 350 people who've worked at Acland for 14 years have had uncertainty about their future. To put it into a little bit of context, that's putting a kid through their entire school education while being unsure as to what your future employment options look like. Sadly, this is a result of a government choosing to delay an approval process. The upside to this is that we can see the advantages that could have resulted had we reduced that delay 14 years ago. The investment by New Acland and the investment by its supply chain could have been deployed elsewhere, and it could now be a mature asset delivering elsewhere.

        I've had the privilege of standing on many mine sites around Australia and around the world, and seeing the good and the bad. Very honestly, I'm not looking for more yeses; I'm looking for fewer maybes. That could not be a more important issue today. In the context of reducing uncertainty, the context in which this bill is being put forward needs to be considered.

        We have come through a very difficult period for many people across the nation during the pandemic, health-wise and throughout the economy. This government has acknowledged that and has extended funding into major projects. The $110 billion pipeline is where we sit at the moment. They are important projects. The idea of delivering these projects is to build things that increase our productivity across Australia so that we're able to do more with less. It's a very simple view that we need to have when it comes to infrastructure, that there's a purpose and a point to it. Once we've decided that, once we understand what we're trying to achieve and once we see the productivity gains that we're trying to realise for this nation to put it in a better place in the future so that it's able to pay down the debt that we have accumulated during our response to the pandemic—that will have to happen. The only way to do that is to increase our productivity so that we can bring in more. But for those projects to go ahead we need certainty. We need it not just for us now but for our kids and our grandkids. We need the certainty that we can invest today in these projects and know that within a set time frame they will be mature projects delivering the benefits they were designed to deliver. That is very much the scope of this bill.

        In this amendment bill there are some very strong measures that I hope will go some way to ensuring the act is used more efficiently. I've talked, of course, about the single-touch environmental approvals which are underpinned by national environmental standards. I'm pleased that all state and territory leaders have agreed it is an immediate priority to pass necessary legislation to streamline approval processes and assist in the development of national standards which will provide greater clarity for proponents and the community. Consistency across jurisdictions will be vital in ensuring Commonwealth requirements and obligations are upheld regardless of who makes the project approval decisions. I think we've had a great example of this during the pandemic. In a number of ways—national cabinet being the headline mechanism—state and federal governments have worked together to get a better outcome for the nation. I think that was a very important thing that we did, and this bill in part reflects that. I hope businesses will have confidence to put forward their proposals knowing there is a clear set of principles that will be applied in assessing them.

        The single-touch decision process will support this government's commitment to delivering, on time, key decisions and faster approval of major projects. I will step back to my patch again and look at what Inland Rail will bring to our region. It's a great project not because of what it is in itself but because of how we will use inland rail. Much like a bridge provides a conduit between two places, inland will provide the ability for local producers to move their product. We've already had some great conversations in Toowoomba about significant industries wanting to come into the area and take advantage of the great confluence between the wonderful Western line, which runs all the way out to Roma, and inland rail. This will be a significant project that will require approval. Those people, in order to move their operations to the area, need to have confidence in taking that step forward. They need to see this government bringing forth legislation like this so they can see we understand the challenge they face: the great challenge of confidence, of knowing that there will be a return on their investment. These are the things that the business community looks for. These are the things that employees look for to make sure they have job security going forward.

        I've been blessed to be able to see major projects around the world overcome significant issues. I remember being in London and watching a project there, the East London line, overcome significant environmental hurdles. We had to employ archaeologists; we had to do all sorts of inventive things to meet the requirements there. I think it's important for me to reflect that the rest of the world is addressing these concerns; the rest of the world understands that we need to overcome these challenges, not just fall at the first hurdle. It's so important that we continue to provide our major project proponents with this security.

        1:13 pm

        Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        I rise today to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. Labor will not support the weakening of the environmental laws. We're in the middle of a biodiversity crisis, an extinction crisis, and we should be doing so much better than this. We should be strengthening environmental laws, not weakening them. As the member for Griffith, our shadow minister for the environment, said, we're very happy to work with the government on getting these changes right if they will scrap this bill and come back with something that delivers stronger protections for our precious natural environment; a better solution for businesses, who are waiting too long to get approvals through; and a tough cop on the beat to ensure that the decisions that are made have proper compliance attached to them.

        We have a real opportunity with the Samuel review—the 10-year review of the EPBC Act—to actually address some of the problems with these laws, which have been shown not to deliver in the way that they should. Professor Graeme Samuel said in his final 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 animals and invasive plant species. The impact of climate change on the environment will exacerbate pressures and contribute to further decline. In its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

        Those are very important words from Professor Samuel, words which we in this place should be listening to very carefully as we decide what sorts of laws we want and what sort of role we want for the Commonwealth in ensuring that our beautiful and precious natural environment here in Australia is protected into the future.

        These words are a clear and succinct indication of what's at stake. Australia's natural environment and iconic places—the Great Barrier Reef, our national parks, Kakadu, alpine areas across the Great Dividing Range, unique cool-temperature rainforests in Victoria, ancient First Nations cultural sites, our world-renowned beaches and the Twelve Apostles, to name but a few—are at risk and the legislation designed to protect them, the EPBC Act, is not up to the job. And neither is this legislation. The Samuel review paints a bleak picture of what inaction to protect our environment means. It's a call for this parliament to act and, unfortunately, it's a call that's being ignored by the Morrison government. It's coalition partner, the Nationals, and the environment minister are all ignoring this important call. The measures in this act demonstrate this unequivocally.

        Labor will not support this bill, and the reasons for this are outlined in Labor's dissenting report to the inquiry conducted by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. This dissenting report was damning and, while critics may argue that this is unsurprising, it is my view that the dissenting report merely pulled together the huge body of evidence that demonstrates not only how bad this bill is but also how bad this coalition government is at due process and quality public administration. One such example highlighted in the dissenting report was the findings from June 2020 by the Auditor-General. The dissenting report summarised the Auditor-General's findings as follows:

              There's clearly a serious problem here—a serious problem that needs serious legislation to address it, and that is not what we have here in this bill. The dissenting report summarised the impact of this:

              These administrative failures have real and significant adverse consequences for jobs and investment.

              Obviously, the key concern here is that our natural environment is not being protected in the way that it should, but we also have a situation that's really bad for business and investment. We can have both; we can protect the environment and have a process that actually works for investors but, again, that's not what we have here. We would think that this government, for all their talk about the importance of the private sector, would actually want to address these issues which are putting a handbrake on investment. The Auditor-General's findings show that they're all talk and no action when it comes to red tape. We have a perverse situation where both the environment and business are losing out, and that means that Australians are losing out due to this government.

              As the Labor senators who contributed to the dissenting report also observed, under-resourced decision-makers are at risk of making lower-quality decisions, leading to greater vulnerability to legal challenge. They noted that the audit report stated:

              If the court finds that the decision is not compliant with the EPBC Act or otherwise subject to legal error, it can set the decision aside and require it to be reassessed. This result is costly for the department (which must conduct the assessment again) and the regulated entity (which loses certainty of approval and must delay any action until reassessment).

              How have the Morrison government and Minister Ley allowed this to be the state of play when it comes to environmental protection and reasonably using our natural resources in Australia? It is damning and it should not be this way. Nonetheless, this amendment and previous amendments to the EPBC Act presented to this parliament over the last eight years of this coalition government show that the government intends to make our system of environmental protection, as governed by the EPBC, much worse than it already is.

              Labor senators recommended that the government withdraw this bill and instead proposed, for the parliament's consideration, an interconnected suite of reforms that provide for stronger environmental protections to address the overall state of decline and the state of increasing threat; establish a tough cop on the beat to help restore trust; and support efficient and effective decision-making under the EPBC Act in the interests of avoiding unnecessary delays to jobs and investment. The recommendations put forward by the committee are simple in their expression, but indicate how inadequate the government's ambition for reform is.

              We must have strong environmental protections in this country. Our natural environments are at risk or already seriously degraded. Not only should we be protecting our natural environment, but we should be putting more resources into maintaining and rehabilitating them. A tough cop on the beat has already been directly called for in the Samuel review. It is sorely needed because, even if we reform the EPBC laws, we need to ensure that they are applied rigorously. This is not happening now and it makes a mockery of having a regulation scheme for environmental protection in the first place. The final recommendation, to support efficient and effective decision-making under the EPBC Act to avoid delays, is vital. We know this Morrison government has decimated the capability of the public service during its eight years in office. It is an abomination that a country like Australia can legislate but then fail to properly resource the administration of that legislation.

              I turn now to what this bill is actually proposing to do. The bill will establish a framework for the making, varying, revoking and application of national environmental standards and establish an Environmental Assurance Commissioner to undertake transparent monitoring or auditing, or both, of the operation of bilateral agreements with the states and territories and Commonwealth processes under the Act for making and enforcing approval decisions. This bill comes alongside the streamlining environmental approvals bill, also known as the Abbott 2.0 bill because it effectively replicates the Abbott government's failed one-stop-shop policy of 2014. That's all we have here, a rehash of something from 2014. These bills are the government's response to the second 10-yearly statutory review conducted by Professor Samuel, which was received by Minister Ley in October 2020. While the government has proposed national environmental standards, it is laughable to say that they align with what Professor Samuel has proposed.

              The standards recommended in the Samuel review are much more detailed and considerably more protective than the standards proposed by the government. The Samuel review's overarching national standard refers to important concepts such as: the principle of non-regression—that is, no backsliding in environmental protections; addressing cumulative impacts; and decisions being based on the best available information, compared to adequate information in the government's proposed standards. These concepts all appear to be absent from the government's proposed standards, and they should be condemned for this. The bill provides that there is to be an Environmental Assurance Commissioner which is established as an independent statutory position within the department. The minister said:

              The Environment Assurance Commissioner will be appointed by the Governor-General, will be independent and will not be subject to directions by the minister.

              Conservation stakeholders are critical of the bill's model because of the inability of the proposed commissioner to investigate individual decisions related to projects, labelling it effectively toothless. When introducing the bill the minister said:

              The Environment Assurance Commissioner will not have a role in monitoring or auditing individual decisions. It is not a second decision-making body, and it is not a replacement for, or a precursor to, legal review processes for decisions.

              The Commonwealth should always have a role in environmental protection. They must always be able to step in and protect our vitally important things—the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, our national parks. It's so important that the Commonwealth has that role, and Labor will not support anything that devolves that role to the states without stronger compliance around these laws. Environmental groups in my electorate, including the ACT Conservation Council, have raised this issue with me specifically. They question why the government would establish an assurance body that has no powers to undertake assurance. This is a mind-boggling piece of policy developed by the Minister for the Environment.

              Reform of the EPBC was a significant policy commitment for Labor at the last election, including bringing climate change into the laws for the first time. Labor committed to establishing an environmental protection agency which would manage development approvals, ensure compliance with environmental law, collect data and evaluate progress. Labor has consistently called on the Morrison government to establish a genuinely independent cop on the beat, and the Samuel review recommended the establishment of a new independent statutory position of environment assurance commissioner to provide oversight, be free from political interference and responsible for public reporting on the performance of the Commonwealth and accredited parties. It is obvious from this bill that the government's commissioner is weaker than both the options proposed by Labor at the last election and proposed by Professor Samuel. It is weak and it will not do the work that we need an assurance body to do—that is, to protect the environment.

              The bill also gives the minister the power to make national environmental standards for the purposes of the act. The bill doesn't include a set of proposed standards within it, but rather provides the framework for a set of standards to be implemented. We know from media reporting that the leaked standards are not up to the job of protecting our environment. According to the explanation memorandum, when a national environmental standard is first made it will be treated as an interim standard until it has undergone its first review, with the first review to be undertaken within two years of the standard commencing. The government's proposal is to establish standards that replicate the status quo and then, over subsequent years, seek to improve them. Needless to say, this point makes me very nervous as past behaviour indicates that we cannot trust this government when it comes to protecting the environment. I am also concerned that, rather than using the parliament to consider and reform the standards, these will be left to the minister. For something as important as environmental protection, the standards must be scrutinised here in this place.

              Perhaps most concerningly, the bill allows the minister to make a decision or do something that is inconsistent with the national environmental standard where the minister considers it to be in the public interest. This government claims it may be necessary to balance environmental considerations with the social and/or economic impacts of a project. Stakeholders have expressed concern about this, and I want to put my concerns on the record too. We should be relying on a robust set of environmental standards to protect our environment, not allowing a minister to do whatever they want.

              I just want to reiterate that Labor will not support any weakening of our environmental laws. We want to see strong Commonwealth laws to protect our precious natural environment, and we also want to see a better situation for investment where things can be done quickly. We want to see a tough cop on the beat to actually ensure that these laws do what they were intended to do. We want to protect our environment for the next generation and for its uniqueness in general.

              Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

              The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.