House debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


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

5:26 pm

Photo of Peta MurphyPeta Murphy (Dunkley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am in continuation and I want to conclude with some comments about the desperate state of one of the seven wonders of the world, the amazing Great Barrier Reef. This government commissioned the Samuel review, but is failing to adopt the recommendations of it. There were two reports by Professor Samuel, whose background, as we all know, is in business and in regulation through the ACCC. In his review, Professor Samuel 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. Given its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

That's what Professor Samuel said: 'The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.' For most of us in this country it is unthinkable that, under this generation's stewardship, we could lose so much of the Great Barrier Reef that it will no longer be one of the seven wonders of the world and will no longer be something that we can deeply associate with being Australian—as even those of us who have never had the opportunity to go there do.

In the last 24 hours, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee provided a draft recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef should be listed as 'in danger'. It has been extraordinary to see the put-on surprise and consternation from ministers in this government. Imagine anyone suggesting that the Great Barrier Reef could be in danger! This government surely cannot pretend that it is unaware of the bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020—all years that are part of the eight long years that this Liberal and National party government has been in government. Surely the Minister for the Environment is not suggesting to the people of Australia that she didn't know that, in December of last year, the body that advises the World Heritage Committee, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, issued a report downgrading the reef's prospects to 'critical'. Surely the current minister is not suggesting that she is unaware that the government's own agency, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, issued a report in 2019 downgrading the reef's prospects from 'poor' to 'very poor'. Surely this government is not trying to tell the Australian people that all is hunky-dory with the Great Barrier Reef because of their great environmental stewardship. Is this government honestly trying to persuade the Australian people that the report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—which said that the slow progress towards targets, including water quality targets in the government's own Reef 2050 Plan, contributed to its findings—'took it by surprise' and that it was just unaware of that? Is this government asking how an international body charged with the protection of World Heritage areas would have the temerity to suggest that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger?

This government was supposed to finalise the Reef 2050 report in early 2021. But, under questioning in Senate estimates that occurred recently, we found out from the government and public servants that the government hasn't even provided the proposed final update to the respective ministers for their signatures. The government is even late in finalising the update for the Reef 2050 report! This is a minister who likes to pretend that this government is the world standard for reef protection. We have amazing scientists and marine biologists and people who work on the reef who are world leading in the work they're doing to protect the Great Barrier Reef, but this government isn't. This Morrison government isn't world leading.

And now we hear from the minister that, instead of fighting to protect the reef, she's going to be fighting to stop UNESCO from listing the reef as in danger because she has asserted that they've misled her and the government in some way. She said that UNESCO told her they wouldn't be recommending the listing. It should be of concern to every member of the government, as it is to every member of my community and to Australia, to hear that Dr Douvere, of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre in Paris, rejected what the Australian environment minister has said. Dr Douvere said there was no such indication given to the government, no indication they wouldn't be recommending the listing, and that no assurances had been provided. This is because they wouldn't normally be provided. What this government needs to do, and do urgently, is stop talking about protecting the barrier reef, stop talking about protecting the environment. Instead, it should adopt the Samuel review recommendations properly and work with us to make sure it gets done.

5:34 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. One reason it is such a privilege to be the member for Mayo—I've got to say, there are many!—is that my own values align closely with those of my community. There is no better example than this issue. The people of Mayo see the need for the value of developing our local economy and industries, and also have a deep connection to our pristine local environment and know the importance of nurturing and conserving it. They see how essential it is for economic development and environmental protection to work together and to build on each other.

Professor Samuel's review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was comprehensive and damning. It found that the current regime is not fit for purpose. It is failing to promote economic development and is failing to protect the environment. It is a scandal that the current situation is this bad. And yet we have quiet. Why is this the case? The previous review, in 2010, found the same problem as Professor Samuel. Labor failed to act then, and the coalition, I believe, is failing to act now that it is in power. And it's because of those failures that our environment is now in a state of unsustainable decline. I believe, frankly, both parties should be ashamed.

What matters now is what happens next. The government proposes that we allow state governments to handle the entire project approvals process as long as they comply with federal standards. Centre Alliance has no problem with this as long as the standards effectively protect the environment, an independent regulator can monitor processes and outcomes, and there is a broader response to the Samuel review. However, this is not what the government is proposing. The standards that the government has proposed are simply not effective. Instead, they will lock in the current failing regime for at least another two years. The regulator, as proposed by the government, is not independent. Instead, it will be part of the department and subject to interference by the minister.

Further, the government has not published a response to the Samuel review and refuses to tell us if it ever will. We simply have no idea if it intends to walk away from reform after this bill is dealt with. It is simply not good enough. This is why Centre Alliance has been working with the Senate crossbench to ensure that the EPBC bills will not pass parliament in their current form. We are not opposed to reform; rather, we think it is necessary and long overdue. But it needs to be done right. And that's not what we have in front of us.

Senator Griff, in the other place, and I, and other crossbench senators, wrote collectively to the minister back in March, setting out what that means. Firstly, we want the government to work with industry and conservation groups to deliver better standards—but not in two years time; this needs to be done today. The Senate inquiry heard that those groups have already agreed to 80 per cent of Professor Samuel's standards. So let's adopt those agreed standards in this bill and set up a process to find common ground for the other 20 per cent. Secondly, we want the regulator to be genuinely independent. We want someone who can speak honestly and openly about the problems within the system and how to fix them. We want someone who is fearless. We will not get that in this bill. That's the only way to ensure the system is effective and to rebuild public confidence. Thirdly, we want a comprehensive response to the Samuel review, with a road map for implementation. This will give us confidence that the government is not going to walk away from the Samuel review after the bill has passed.

Those were our requests that we put in writing; requests that we believe are reasonable and responsible, will improve this bill and will deliver better environmental and economic outcomes. Disappointingly, the minister, I believe, hasn't considered any of our concerns. I certainly haven't seen a letter in response. It's for those reasons, and the lack of confidence of myself and my Centre Alliance colleague, Senator Stirling Griff, that we cannot support the bill before the House.

5:39 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. The legacy of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government when it comes to protecting our environment and protecting our incredible natural habitats, our biodiversity and our flora and fauna in this country is one of national shame. It is of national shame that this government have had eight long years, three terms—asking for four; asking for 12 years—of administering this country and, in that time, we have seen a missed opportunity of protecting and increasing the protections of our environment and our biodiversity.

The EPBC Act has an inbuilt review every 10 years. The government appointed Professor Graeme Samuel because they thought that the professor was going to give them what they wanted in the review—but he didn't. He did an outstanding review and he came up with some key recommendations when it comes to protecting our environment. Those recommendations revolve around a pretty clear, simple idea: that, in order to legislate and bring the EPBC Act into the 21st century, the key principle is that the government needs national standards when it comes to managing our environment. The federal government needs to have standards when it comes to managing our environment and our biodiversity in this country. But this is now the second amendment to the EPBC Act under this environment minister, and both times they have ignored this key recommendation of Professor Samuel—this key recommendation that says that Australia needs national standards when it comes to managing our environment.

But it's hardly surprising that the government are unable to bring in legislation that reflects Professor Samuel's recommendation—because they don't have national standards. Just like the way in which they've managed the pandemic, they're managing the environment by wanting to give all the responsibility to the states. That's what they did in the pandemic, and that's what they're trying to do with national environmental standards. The other key recommendation of Professor Samuel is that there should be a watchdog, an agency, to enforce the rules, to enforce these national standards, for managing our environment. But, of course, this government again has failed to meet the recommendations of Professor Samuel.

But Labor have a different approach. I, like many Labor true believers, was proud to come together at the Labor National Conference only a few months ago. We did it virtually. Sam Lane was the MC. It was a cracking affair. One of the great policy commitments that came out of the national conference was a complete rewrite of the EPBC Act—that we as the Labor Party would respect the science; that we believe in national standards when it comes to protecting our environment; that we on this side of the House don't want to see the continuation of decades of degradation, habitat removal and destruction of our natural wonders in this country; that we on this side of the House want to see strengthened environmental protections through the federal government, legislated through this place, in our national parliament. It should not be a responsibility and a standard that's given only to the states. This should be something that this House does—and what a legacy that would be.

But, of course, the government refuse to even respond to their own review, conducted by their own review process. They are incapable of even responding to that—much like the Halton review into quarantine. They set that up. Jane Halton came up with a whole range of recommendations and they've completely ignored her and sat on that as well. What's the point of having all these reviews by these eminent Australians if you are not going to listen to them and implement the recommendations? But that is the story of this government, and that is the story of the EPBC Act under this government.

If you want to see the commitment that this government and this Minister for the Environment have to the environment, you need only look at how quickly the minister was willing to withdraw her live exports bill when she got promoted into cabinet. There was a bill under the previous member for Corangamite—who's now a member of the other place—and under the member for Farrer. It's funny what a promotion will do! They were both committed to the cause, committed to protecting animals and committed to the welfare of our animals in this country, but that was quickly withdrawn once the Prime Minister—after a bit of a stint on the sidelines, I have to say. The minister went shopping on the Gold Coast and ended up losing her spot in the ministry. But then the Prime Minister brought her back into the cabinet on the condition that obviously, clearly the live export bill was withdrawn. If you want to see the commitment that this minister has to her values you only need to look at the fact that she was willing to withdraw her own bill.

You cannot have a discussion in this country about the EPBC Act, about the loss of habitat, about the loss of Australian wildlife without looking at Australia's contribution to the reduction of global emissions. This week—it's only Wednesday! It's extraordinary. It's only Wednesday. Goodness me, it has been a long week. It started this week by the return of the member for New England to the leadership of the National Party. If ever there were a party committed to the destruction of Australia's natural wildlife and habitat it is the National Party of Australia. I have serious, grave concerns about what's going to happen under the new returned leadership of the member for New England.

If you want to see the effects of global warming you only need to look at this week where UNESCO has designated the Great Barrier Reef as an extreme danger zone. There's every chance that our grandkids aren't going to see the Great Barrier Reef in the same way that we did. So what's the member for new England's idea? What does he want to do? He wants to make the Clean Energy Finance Corporation—not the fossil fuel climate finance corporation; the Clean Energy Finance Corporation—a government body that can invest in building and invest in coal-fired power stations. I've got news for the member for New England: there won't be another coal-fired power station built in this country—it just makes no economic sense—unless the government is willing to spend billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to basically buy and fund the whole thing. That's the only way. I know they've made promises to build the Collinsville power station but it ain't going to happen unless the economic vandals on that side decide to use more taxpayer funds for their own political purposes.

You cannot have a discussion about the protection of the environment without also admitting, contributing and acknowledging that Australia must do more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in this country—they go hand in hand. Under the member for New England, the new Deputy Prime Minister, this government will do everything in their power to put more bills like this in the House which weaken environmental protection and more bills in the House which take Australia not forward but backwards. That's what this government wants. That's what the member for New England wants. He wants to take Australia backwards.

I'm proud to represent the seat of Macnamara. Inside Macnamara we are dedicated to protecting the environment. There are a number of local organisations and a number of local places that are dedicated to protecting the environment. In the city of Melbourne there is limited space. There are a lot of people living pretty close together so we know the value of a bit of open space in Macnamara.

There are two places in Macnamara that are especially dedicated to the environment. The first one of course is Westgate Park. Westgate Park is an incredible oasis near the city of Melbourne that is purely dedicated to local flora, local wildlife and indigenous plants. It is a wonderful place to be, and you can just feel the authenticity of that place when you walk through there. I was pleased to join the Australian Conservation Foundation, only a few months ago, to go and plant some trees. I planted the 10,000th tree this year at Westgate Park. I think it's still growing! And I really enjoyed that morning. It was a great morning on Saturday, where I was able to go and spend some time and plant some of the indigenous plants with some local volunteers. It's been obviously a very stressful time, but everyone there felt relaxed and felt really pleased to be in that place. It's a special place. If you ever do come to Melbourne, I would highly recommend anyone going for a walk through Westgate Park.

The other one of course is old Elsternwick Golf Course, which is being turned into a wetlands in Elwood. It's right on the border of my electorate and the member for Goldstein's electorate. That is going to be one of the most incredible local assets. It's one of the largest pieces of land that is being returned to the environment in the urban parts of Melbourne. It's a place that is, much like Westgate Park, going to be dedicated to indigenous plants and Australian wildlife, giving a safe haven to local birds and local animals. The friends of the Elsternwick Park as well as the Port Phillip EcoCentre and all of the volunteers do incredible work there. I want to take this opportunity to say, also to the Bayside Council who are doing the bulk of the work, that we are absolutely still committed to this project. It is really exciting. It's going to completely transform Elwood, and we are really proud of that project.

Can I take this opportunity to wish a big congratulations to the Port Phillip EcoCentre, located in the heart of St Kilda, and the Victorian Labor government. They were able to secure almost $3 million to build the redevelopment of the eco-centre. It was a commitment that we proudly made in the lead-up to the last election. Unfortunately, we weren't able to deliver that commitment, but the Victorian government with the hard work of the local member Martin Foley, who's the Minister for Health—and who is doing an outstanding job, working day and night at the moment to keep the people of Victoria safe—still found time to secure funding for this wonderful local organisation. I'm really looking forward to seeing this project come to life and seeing it be realised in the heart of St Kilda. It's really a hub for environmental education. It's going to be a hub for research. It's going to be a community hub as well, much like it is at the moment, but it's going to be state of the art. It's going to be renewable and fabulous for everyone to enjoy, and I couldn't be prouder to be a supporter, to have committed to it at the last election, to have seen my friend the Minister for Health, Martin Foley, commit to it and the Victorian government commit to it. It is going to be a wonderful local project.

I conclude my remarks by saying that, much like the last election, the next one will see a huge contrast in the respect and the commitment to protecting our environment and our biodiversity in this country. If you want to see the differences between the coalition and the Labor Party, one government wants to trash the environment, to release all control, to give it to the states, and on the other side, on this side of the House, we proudly say that we want to do our bit to protect the environment and to pass that most basic of tests: Did we leave this place better off than when we found it? Did we leave this country just a bit better off than when we found it? If we are able to say that our time in this place achieved that little goal, then that will be a goal worth achieving. But it won't happen if we keep pulling up pieces of legislation like this. What we need is strong national standards. What we need is strong protection for the environment, and it's clear you're only going to get it from this side of the House.

5:54 pm

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

It was my pleasure to be in the chamber for the contribution by my friend the member for Macnamara—in particular, for the proposition with which he ended his remarks. The question he asked is a question that everyone who has the privilege to stand in this place and in the other place should be able to answer: did we make decisions that led to a better future? Did we make decisions that left a legacy that's worth passing on to future generations? This debate really puts that question into a very stark focus, and it puts the positions of Labor and the present government into stark contrast.

The principal act that we're discussing now—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act—is an act that requires attention and amendment. I think all of us in this place would recognise that it's no longer fit for purpose—that great purpose of recognising, firstly, that there are things that are of national environmental significance. That's in part because of commitments we have made as a nation and in part because, frankly, of the inherent nature of our precious natural environment—our flora and our fauna; the habitats and biodiversity; and the things that I would hope make the land of this country so magical and important to each and every one of us. These are things that need to be centre of attention for any national government.

But here we have a national government that won't listen to the call articulated by the member for Macnamara. In its eight long years it has been unable to articulate a sense of a better future in any aspect of its performance. Most profoundly, that is so in terms of how it plans to safeguard our environment for future generations. I will touch on climate as well, because, obviously—and as you would know, Deputy Speaker Claydon—that's something which underpins this debate. But, in terms of how this government is dealing with its responsibilities—or failing to deal with its responsibilities—to protect matters national environmental significance, its performance is nothing short of woeful.

The proposal that's before us contained in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 will take us backwards, not forwards. It's a sorry record already and this would be worse. So I join with my Labor colleagues in opposing this legislation, which would weaken environmental protection in Australia. I will also make remarks in support of the second reading amendment which has been moved by the member for Griffith, the shadow minister. It really goes to the heart of this debate, a debate that government members seem unwilling to join—or perhaps they're incapable of joining it. That's really about the challenge of a national government in taking responsibility—a challenge that this government either fails to embrace or falters in its embrace, getting there only after having exhausted every other option. I hope that this government, after the other options are exhausted in this regard, will come on board.

There is actually a report which should have informed this legislation and which does provide a very good guide to what a decent and concerned national government would be doing to update this act and to put in place a regulatory framework that is fit for purpose, with enforcement and audit mechanisms which are independent and fit for purpose. This would allow us to continue down the path of securing economic growth that's sustainable and securing jobs without sacrificing the environment.

What did we see today? We saw the Prime Minister, through the screen, seeming to think that his role is somehow to play chicken with our responsibilities to the natural environment and to set tests for Labor. These are tests that, frankly, he would not set, much less pass, for himself. This is because he is a man who will not take responsibility for doing almost any aspect of his job, who continues to deflect and obfuscate when he needs to lead—nowhere more so than in this regard. The truth is that when it comes to the preservation of the national environment and, indeed, dealing with environmental approvals and investment in the job consequences that relate to those, the record of this government after eight long years is a sorry one.

And the fact is we're continuing to fall further behind on both of these indices: on the issue of protection of the environment, where we are becoming world leaders in all the wrong areas in terms of species extinction and habitat destruction; and, at the same time, we're not doing so well in terms of securing investment. Perhaps if we had a government that was interested in talking and perhaps if we had a minister who was interested in constructive engagement, we might also be sending signals to business about how things are to be done. We might be sending signals to the Australian community that we have a government that's mature enough to recognise these are issues that are inherently in the national interest. They are intergenerational questions, and surely this requires at least the pretence of engaging, firstly, with the review process that has led to this legislation and, secondly, with other parties in the parliament.

Because we are falling so much further behind, because the climate crisis deepens daily, this demands a sense of urgency, but, instead of this sense of urgency, this distance of determination, we see from this minister truculence at best, a refusal to see things as they are, much less the imagination to see things as they should be for future generations. The last few days have been terrible for our precious natural environment in Australia. We often say that a week is a long time in politics. I think all of us recognise that the past few days are making that aphorism true again for all the wrong reasons. The member for New England, Barnaby Joyce, has just become Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, and this signals still further intransigence, indeed, denial, when it comes to climate change; a position that is out of step with every state and territory—Labor states and conservative states. It's out of step with almost every significant business and organisation in Australia, and, as the Prime Minister should well know from his visit to the G7, it's a position that's out of step with all our major trading partners.

And it doesn't end with their position on emissions, because last night in the Senate we saw another signal of the resurgence of these climate deniers within Australia's government, with an attack on water policy and an attack on what seems to be an agreed framework to preserve and progress the Darling Basin. I know my friend the member for Kingston, and presumably all South Australian members, would be horrified about this—horrified about the substance; horrified about the impact on businesses, the environment and individuals in South Australia and elsewhere; and also horrified about the process—because this is a government that is seemingly incapable of following any of its own rules.

Just the night before last, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee declared the Great Barrier Reef in danger. Minister Ley seems upset about the process within UNESCO which has led to this declaration, but perhaps instead of this, instead of more truculence, she should look to her own responsibilities, like getting the Reef 2050 Plan updated, like recognising that there have been three bleaching events in the last five years and like fighting for the reef and all the communities and the jobs that depend on it and its health. Arguing about process with UNESCO could not be further from the point—nor, bizarrely, is seemingly to claim credit for decisions made by the Fraser government, as she did in question time yesterday. Is that the best Australia's environment minister can do—to hark back to the seventies and eighties?

Winning an argument around the cabinet table on the reef itself and perhaps some climate action more broadly might be more useful. With each passing day the case for action on climate gets stronger and the costs of continued inaction become more clear. While the minister argues pointlessly with UNESCO and implies political motivations on their part, she misses the point, which is not that Australia has been singled out somehow but that we can't take the reef for granted. Surely that's not hard to see, if not for its innate significance then for the many thousands of Queensland jobs that depend on it.

When what passes for debate in this Morrison-Joyce government is whether it's preferable to reach net zero by 2050 or whether it's something we should avoid like the plague, words fail me. What has preference got to do with it? We are dealing with a question that is existential. We have a prime minister who suggests one thing when he's at the G7, but here he's either incapable of insisting on, or unwilling to insist on, what needs to be done. This is the context in which this bill has been brought on for debate. This in itself is both an admission of failure and a demonstration of the strength of the ideological commitment that sustains this tired and dysfunctional government.

This bill has been part of a legislative package which includes another bill before the Senate, which itself is essentially a cut-and-paste copy of legislation introduced in 2014. Since then a lot has changed in Australia and for its natural environment, but some things just stay the same—like the rhetoric these reactionaries deploy around 'green tape', 'one-stop shops' and, more recently, 'single-touch approvals'. It is striking, though, how little progress the minister has made in respect of this agenda. Perhaps that's because this government is not interested in bringing people together, listening to experts—even the ones they commission themselves—or carefully weighing up and balancing competing considerations. Instead, they prefer this endless culture war, vice signalling, always seeking to divide or to find someone to blame or to hide behind, and never delivering in the national interest nor taking responsibility, even when the stakes are so high.

The final report of the Samuel review described our current trajectory as 'unsustainable'. The report states:

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.

Sadly, for Australians today, for our children and for their children, nor is our current government up to facing up to these threats, and they stand condemned for that. As the member for Macnamara said, everyone in this place should be able to say they worked to leave a better future. Members voting for this bill, which will weaken environmental protections in the context of continued habitat destruction and species extinction, can't make that claim, and they should be ashamed of that.

The Samuel review—the second review of the substantive act—has been completed, but it's not being progressed. The review found that the act does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environment matters that are important for the nation. How's that going right now? This is a significant finding and a damning indictment of this government's stewardship of our precious and unique natural environment, and the problem is being compounded through this bill. While Professor Samuel urged the government not to cherry-pick from amongst his 38 recommendations, that is exactly what this 'minister against the environment' has done. She has turned a cohesive, interconnected set of recommendations into a partial and partisan proposition, taking us back to 2014, when the challenge today is so much more urgent.

What's frustrating is that this needn't be such a divisive issue. Labor has sought to be constructive and to be open to dialogue, but this hasn't been reciprocated, and, of course, it can't be at any price. We on this side of the House will not ignore the national responsibility—indeed, the imperative—to safeguard our environment for future generations. The bill before us would, unfortunately, do just that. It would ignore this responsibility.

I want to touch on another matter briefly, and that is the ANAO report of last year, which showed an extraordinary record of failure when it comes to decision-making under the act. This is a problem of the minister's making, which she seeks to hide from. The delays in decision-making are because of her administrative failings. They are having shocking consequences for all parties in this, yet she won't confront that. She should, as we would. But, more fundamentally, she should withdraw this bad bill and work with us to deliver strong national environment standards and an independent, strongly resourced cop on the beat. Only by doing these three things can we all say to the people we are privileged to represent in this place that we have done what we needed to do to leave our country better, by reason of our actions, than it was before we came here. This is urgent. It can't wait. The minister should reconsider her position.

6:09 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this evening to table a number of concerns I have with this bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, and the manner in which this government has responded to the Samuel review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. I am proud to represent a region endowed with diverse and beautiful geography, with mountains, rivers and fertile land. We are rich with national parks and state parks, wetlands, rivers, grasslands and abundant fields, fauna and flora—from the grass tree orchards of the Warby Ranges to the native orchids in the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park. The importance of the environment to my constituents is why I, as an independent MP, will scrutinise every attempt by this government to water down its protection.

It is no secret that the EPBC Act is in desperate need of reform. Professor Samuel's recommendations are balanced, following multiyear consultations with scientists, environmental experts, community leaders and business groups. Over 600 constituents have written to me, urging me to ensure that the government stays faithful to the Samuel review. As one constituent put it: 'After the Black Summer bushfires, we should be protecting what we have left and restoring what is lost. Handing environmental protection powers to states and territories without proper safeguards in place will put our most iconic wildlife on the fast track to extinction. Of Australia's 1,800 threatened species, 327 were severely impacted by the Black Summer bushfires, including the koala, the greater glider, and the Regent honeyeater.' They said, 'This is an ecological disaster.'

Professor Samuel told the government, loud and clear, that reform must establish robust environmental standards that can't be hijacked. Professor Samuel told the government it needs an independent commissioner who has the powers to audit individual decisions. Getting these laws right matters. A piecemeal approach will only expedite the extinction crisis. I am afraid this bill fails these two important benchmarks that Professor Samuel set us. Firstly, let's look at the national environmental standards. It is unclear to me why the government isn't choosing to simply adopt the robust national environmental standards that Professor Samuel developed and enshrine them in legislation, like other hallmark protections in this country—for example, the National Employment Standards. Instead, this bill is a series of roundabouts and loopholes. Under this bill, the minister is free to consult however they wish and develop an entirely new set of standards that depart entirely from the important work of Professor Samuel. These standards could be as weak as a kitten. The first sets of standards will also not be disallowable. That means parliament won't have any power to oppose those standards if we think they are not up to scratch.

Let's think about that for just a moment. Australians who don't live in the minister's electorate will have to wait four years before their MP will have any say in the new standards that the minister decides to pick up a pen and write. That doesn't sound robust to me. It sounds dangerous. And, if you think that is bad, wait until you hear about the public interest exemption. Under division 3, the minister has unfettered power to override the standards if they think there are economic and social factors that outweigh environmental ones. So what we have here is a free pass to write whatever standards the minister wants—no parliamentary oversight for four years—and a godlike power that lets the minister bulldoze environmental concerns with economic ones. I simply cannot support schedule 1 of this bill as it stands.

Schedule 2, which establishes a toothless environmental assurance commissioner, isn't much better. Professor Samuel was crystal clear in his final report: existing compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act is weak and ineffectual. Under the current model, a shocking 93 per cent of habitat for threatened species was destroyed without any referral, assessment or approval under the act. That is outrageous. What we need is an independent cop on the beat that has the resources and powers to actually audit individual decisions and intervene when ministers and governments are abusing their power and getting away with it.

I applaud the member for Clark for the bill he introduced last month which would have established an independent Commonwealth environmental protection authority. I am also proud to second the member for Clark's second reading amendment on this bill that calls on the government to replace schedule 2 with something more respectable. Under the government's proposal in this bill, the commissioner cannot audit individual decisions, the commissioner cannot require the minister to publicly respond to serious concerns with an environmental approval, the commissioner cannot compel someone to provide it with documents and other information so it can make an informed independent decision and the commissioner cannot write its annual work plan without interference from the minister. Schedule 2 is a far cry from a cop on the beat. It's a toothless tiger with a minister permanently peering over its shoulder, ready to pull the trigger on their godlike public interest power when they don't get their way.

That's no way to treat our precious flora and fauna. As one constituent put it, 'Our unique places and wildlife in Indi are what makes it such an amazing place to live and visit.' If we don't seize this once-in-10-year opportunity to improve the act, the loss to Indi and to Australia will be irreversible and future generations might not get the chance to see some of our most iconic wildlife in the wild. I'm not prepared to support this bill as it stands and I implore the government to step up and do what the 10-year review told it to do to protect Australia's precious environment and reverse the current extinction crisis. We only get one shot at this. In 10 years time, when the next review comes around, it may be way, way too late for the flora and fauna that we love, and I'm not prepared to do that.

6:17 pm

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to add my voice to the many on this side of the chamber and the member for Indi who have pointed out the many flaws in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 and their serious concerns about the climate and the environmental crisis that this country is facing and that this bill does not address. As the member for Indi said, we do not have time to waste. We do not have another 10 years to get this right. We are at a tipping point. We are in a climate crisis. We are in an extinction crisis. It is the job of this government to address that crisis. Unfortunately, this bill puts the environment, jobs and investment at risk, so I cannot support it and I know people on this side of the chamber cannot support it. We need much better regulation than this bill gives us. Debate on this bill comes in a week when we've really seen the government nail its colours to the mast on where it stands on the environment and where it stands on climate. This week we've had UNESCO, an international body, come out and tell us how at-risk the Great Barrier Reef is. The iconic Great Barrier Reef, loved by so many Australians, known by so many Australians, the source of jobs, tourism and income, is at serious risk. This government's response to that is to quibble, to fight, not to fix. Its response is not to think, 'We're failing in our responsibility, we've got a responsibility to fix the Reef now, to preserve it for the people who rely on it now and also for future generations.' No, no, their responses is to quibble.

In the other place we see members from the other side attempting to overthrow the work that's being done to preserve the Murray-Darling Basin, again, an iconic part of Australia's natural landscape and an iconic part of what helps to make sure our country is productive. It's an important part of our agricultural system, but those on the other side play politics with it. As part of some kind of revamped Nationals leadership bid that I can't explain, they decide to play politics with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is unacceptable that that is what this government is doing with our environment. We are past the point of playing politics with our environment.

This bill falls well short of the Samuel review final report. That review was the most significant opportunity for reform of the past 20 years, and this government has squandered it. We had favourable conditions for reform. The opposition was prepared to be constructive. We want this to work. The review had a well-respected chair in place who has worked with leaders from agriculture, from resources and from business, as well as with traditional owners, conservationists and academics. But what we've got in front of us does not live up to that review. It does not give us an independent cop on the beat. It does not set the standards we know we need to preserve our environment, to make sure we're tackling the climate crisis. In fact, it's an absolute mess. Our environment needs protection. Businesses need certainty. Australians need jobs. They don't need this rehashed mess from the Morrison government. This bill fails on all counts.

We know that Australia has a jobs crisis and it has an environmental crisis. In fact, the cuts that the Morrison government have made in this area have exacerbated some of these crises. We know that they've cut 40 per cent of the funding to the environment department, which, predictably, led to job and investment delays, mismanagement and environmental decline. We know they've overseen massive delays to jobs and investment, which have exploded by more than 510 per cent under their watch. They've overseen 79 per cent of decisions which have been affected by error or been noncompliant—79 per cent! What a waste of time and money on tens of billions of dollars worth of projects! And, of course, they have overseen unprecedented decline in our beautiful and precious natural environment.

The government are also out of step—at loggerheads, really—with the rest of the world on climate change. We saw this in the last few weeks, when the Prime Minister went to the G7 Summit and fudged a little bit on net zero by 50 per cent. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was pretty sure that we were there because our Prime Minister has been 'pretty sure, preferably, maybe' we'll get to net zero by 2050. Now we find out that 'pretty sure, preferably, maybe' we won't get to net zero by 2050, because apparently the people who rule the policy in this area are in fact the National Party. The National Party were not happy this week, and we saw that they were not happy this week. They were so unhappy they had to dump the former Deputy Prime Minister and install a new Deputy Prime Minister. So this 'pretty sure, preferably, maybe' we'll get to net zero sometime by 2050—'preferably, maybe, whenever'—is not a thing. It is not a thing, because the Prime Minister cannot convince his own party room. He has a party room full of climate deniers.

As I said before, we are running out of time. There is not the time for this government to spend another 10 years ignoring the climate crisis. Not only does that do away with all our futures, in terms of addressing the effects of global warming; it does away with the jobs and the investment that this country should be reaping the benefits of. Internationally, they are there. That's what happened at the G7. That's where the agreements of the future are going to be. That's where the jobs of the future are going to be. And this country will be locked out of them, because this government prefers to play politics and is so stubborn, is so stuck on the will of the Nationals, that it can't get there.

Australia is facing an extinction crisis, and this was further compounded by the terrible bushfires that we saw in 2019-20. At that time, more than one billion animals perished; 12 million hectares of land burned; and lives, homes and livelihoods were lost. But, once again, the Morrison government was slow on the bushfire recovery, and it failed to protect our iconic species. During the bushfire crisis, we saw 10 million hectares burn—almost the equivalent landmass of the United Kingdom. Cities and towns across the eastern seaboard were shrouded in thick smoke, and there were hazardous conditions for many people. There is no doubt that climate change and ongoing drought have created drier conditions across our country. For the first time in that crisis, we saw rainforest and areas of bushland burn that had no prior history of fires. We lost countless native animals, and natural habitats were decimated. This has had and will have a lasting impact on our wildlife populations, and we have many threatened species at risk of extinction. This is a critical turning point in our history. We must conserve our native species, both flora and fauna, to ensure that these ecosystems remain for future generations. We need stronger environmental protection in place to ensure this happens. We need an independent cop on the beat. We need genuine national regulations—not what is contained in this bill, because it just won't cut it.

On this side of the House, we get it. Every major achievement in environmental protection in this nation's history has been delivered by a Labor government. Labor's legacy is that we protected Antarctica; we protected the Daintree, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef; we protected the Great Barrier Reef—we don't give it away; we don't quibble over it—we protected the Franklin; we created Landcare; and we created what was at the time the largest network of marine parks in the world. Labor has the will and the capacity to protect Australia's environment. But those on the other side do not share that commitment. They do not share that record of achievement. In fact, their record of achievement is nothing short of woeful and disgraceful.

This is something that the constituents in my electorate of Jagajaga could not be clearer about with me. I have had hundreds of people contact me and my office to tell me that they are incredibly worried about the future, that they want real action on climate change and that they do not support the weak non-protection bill that this government has put forward. They have asked me time and time again to speak up in this place for better, to speak up for the environmental protection that this country needs and deserves. So I am here today doing just that—telling this government that it must do better.

My constituents rely on the evidence of scientists, and the correspondence I've received from them and the conversations I've had express their deep frustration that we are stuck in a politically ideological war because this government will not recognise the science and will not do its job but, instead, continues to try to play politics. This is too important to be a political game. The science is real. Climate change is real. Our environment needs protection, and now is the time for this government to show strong leadership. Now is the time for a genuine protection act that genuinely protects our environment. Now is the time for a commitment to net zero—a genuine commitment to net zero, not probably, preferably, maybe, sometime. Now is the time for that commitment. We do not have time to waste.

I very much fear that the people on the other side and the Prime Minister are trying to use the cover of the COVID-19 crisis and the ongoing crisis that this country is facing to, in fact, do away with environmental regulation and to make sure that, going forward, we do not have the regulation in place that this country needs. The government's track record is terrible. It has cut jobs, and that means that the environment department hasn't been able to do its job. We've had delays. We've had decisions that have had to be reviewed. And then the government ignored its own review into this act. This government has ignored the work of Graeme Samuel, this respected reviewer, and instead of putting forward reforms that were based on that, instead of putting forward reforms that give us an independent cop on the beat and genuine national standards, it has put forward this weak suggestion.

It can't be supported. They have ignored and cherrypicked the recommendations of the Samuel review. They've ruled out a genuinely independent commissioner for our environment. We know from scientists that this act fails to take adequate account of the biggest threats that we all face: climate change and environmental degradation. It does mean our important and iconic sites and species are at risk. The Great Barrier Reef is at risk. Australians want this government to act to protect our reef. They do not want quibbling. They do not want politics. They want our iconic sites, the sites that we all love and treasure, to be protected.

We know that this government has an issue with listening to and comprehending science. I say to them: get over it. It is time for you to act and listen to the experts. It is time for you to get on with it and listen to the experts when it comes to dealing with climate change and the environmental protections that we all need. Otherwise, you are continuing to put the places that we all love at risk—not just big, iconic sites like the Great Barrier Reef but sites in my own electorate. We are very lucky in my electorate that we have the Yarra River flowing through. We have a number of natural parks and bushland. For an urban environment we are very privileged. We have a number of iconic species that live in our electorate as well. I know how much my constituents value having that natural environment. They know how much it is at risk. They know that these species that we get to enjoy, that are part of our local landscape, will not survive unless we start to do things differently, unless we do have the regulations in place, unless we have the independent cop on the beat that makes sure that development and changes all happen in a way that support our environment. That's not what this bill gives us. It is what this country needs. It is what my constituents need.

I want to assure all the people in my community who have contacted me, and who continue to contact me, about their concerns about this bill that I hear you and I will continue to speak up in this place about your concerns, about the need for the Morrison government to do so much better when it comes to addressing climate change and when it comes to protecting the natural environment that we all love. I know that I am joined by so many Labor colleagues on this side who understand that this is a crisis. It is a climate crisis. It is an environmental crisis. We must act now. We need a government that gets it. The Morrison government must act.

6:31 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. This bill and the bill that was debated, I think, last year in this place, both seek to amend the EPBC Act and to implement the recommendations of the so-called Samuel review. The EPBC Act is now 21 years old. It was a creature of the Howard government and a welcome reinforcement of the Commonwealth's role in environmental policy in this country. It was a Labor government, I think, in 2008 that decided to put in place a statutory 10-year review of the act. The first one was done immediately under Dr Allan Hawke. Ten years on there was one done under Graeme Samuel, the former chair of the ACCC and a pretty highly regarded Australian.

There is no doubt, and I have heard many say it throughout the course of this debate, that our environmental challenges are very, very significant—there can be no doubt about that and I don't think anyone in this building is arguing otherwise—but so too are our economic challenges. We need to get the balance right. As the Samuel review noted, 'Our natural environment is in a state of decline and is coming under increasing threats from human and other behaviour.' But it is also true that investors are being held back by a complex and cumbersome regulatory regime. I say 'regimes', plural, very deliberately, because projects which trigger Commonwealth scrutiny face two very long processes. Firstly, at the state level. It can take years. Then, of course, at the Commonwealth level, where, again, the process can take years.

Given the impacts of COVID-19, as we, hopefully, work our way out of it—we're all fearing tonight that we might be going back into it—we are all acutely aware that it is now more important than ever to stimulate investment and nation building in this country.

Graeme Samuel made it clear that the EPBC Act, in its current form, is delivering neither for the environment nor for the economy and those who operate in our economy. He also concluded that it's not working or delivering for our traditional owners. That is something we must fix, and we must fix it collectively. We must find a greater level of bipartisanship on this issue if we're going to do this right and if we're going to do it in a timely way.

Twenty-one years ago, the Commonwealth decided to exercise its constitutional power to engage itself more heavily in the regulation of economic investment and its impact on our natural environment, and that was a very good thing. Since 2019, the centrepiece of national environmental law, replacing a number of Whitlam-era acts, has been the EPBC Act. I think it has served us pretty well, but it's certainly not serving us well enough in the 21st century. As required by law, we are reviewing it every 10 years. Everything we discuss tonight and in relation to the earlier bill—and there will be more bills—relates to the 38 recommendations that Graeme Samuel made.

Professor Samuel also warned that the act is not delivering for our traditional owners. This is something that has been missing somewhat, I think, in this debate. I haven't heard every contribution, but I think we need to have a broader discussion about it. I can see the solutions in this bill for regulatory burden, but I haven't yet been able to clearly identify what changes there are for our traditional owners. Is that further involvement of the traditional owners happening within the bilaterals? It certainly doesn't appear to be in the interim standards. How do we intend to ensure that our traditional owners are more engaged and have a greater say in the future of their lands?

The review offered thoughtful criticisms, I thought, of the complexity of the EPBC, its failure to protect our natural environment, the brake it's putting on jobs growth and, of course, its vulnerability to vexatious legislation, which is one of the things that will be dealt with in this review, if fully and properly implemented. Graeme Samuel also noted that the EPBC is trusted neither by business nor by the environmental groups. That in itself indicates to me that we have a problem that needs to be fixed. So particular attention has been given to that two-step system that I spoke about, and, of course, that's the focus of the debate we're having tonight: how we get to that one-touch system so that proponents go through only one regulatory system rather than two, but through a system in which the Commonwealth still dictates the terms.

The review found that Commonwealth environmental approvals for big resource projects take an average of three years, and that's after the years already invested through the state regulatory process. Indeed, the Minerals Council of Australia has estimated that a delay on greenfields projects can cost up to $47 million every month—not every year but every month. The Productivity Commission has also sounded the alarm, suggesting that the total cost of a one-year delay of a big project is between 17 and 18 per cent of its net present value. You don't have to be a mathematician to work out that, on a project worth $2 billion, that's a very significant amount of money. Graeme Samuel recommended that the current system's job-destroying duplication should be addressed by improving, strengthening and streamlining the capacity of the federal government to delegate Commonwealth approval functions to state governments under bilateral agreements, but only where state processes are of acceptable quality and projects will be assessed against new, stringent and enforceable national environmental standards. I think that's a very good point. I think people are rightly concerned that state regimes might not have the resources or the capacity to properly deal with some of these bigger projects. But that will be dealt with before the process. The Commonwealth will ensure that the state has the capacity, and, of course, the states, not unsurprisingly, will be asking the Commonwealth for some money to bolster their resources and their capacity. That should be the case and I have no doubt that will be the case.

A year on from the release of the interim report, it's time to get on with the reforms needed both to better protect our iconic natural assets and to deliver a much-needed boost for our economy. The impacts of COVID-19 demand a new urgency and should generate strong and timely multi-party parliamentary support for the legislation needed to introduce the interim national environmental standards that reflect the existing requirements of the act so that legal effect can be given to them, and strengthen and make more robust the bilateral framework that has existed since the creation of the EPBC Act.

I've heard some people say that the interim standards are somewhat less than the standards that existed under the Abbott government. That would set alarm bells off for me as well, I must say. But the fact is that there were no standards under the regime of the Abbott government. These are the interim standards ahead of the introduction of the final standards. These standards are new and are an important and necessary part of the process of delegating the Commonwealth powers to the states.

We must remember that this concept of interim standards went to the national cabinet and that the national cabinet agreed unanimously that interim standards which reflect the current law should be in place so that we can get on with the job and provide protections that are no less or more than the current protections that someone would expect under the settings of the current act. I think that with the unanimous support of the national cabinet we should give very serious consideration to that. We cannot wait for the appropriate amount of time that would be necessary to put in place the final standards before taking the regulatory burden from some of these projects.

I have listened to many of the contributions and very few people have really talked directly about the act that is before us in the parliament tonight and today. I suspect that, when this bill goes to the Senate, it will be dealt cognately with the earlier bill—the streamlining environmental approvals bill. I think that would be appropriate. The key points that we need to focus on here are what emerges out of these two bills, not all the other general range of propositions that come out of the Samuel review per se. These are the things that we need to be focusing on and, on that basis, I think it's time for the parties generally to make a commitment to getting on with the job while at the same time, of course, expecting no less than the highest of standards that we can boast about and be very proud of when talking to our international partners in international fora.

6:43 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

The government's arguments in favour of this Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 are the height of hypocrisy—the absolute height of hypocrisy! We would all remember that it wasn't long ago that the government brought legislation to this parliament which we supported and which was about making sure that the federal government—the federal parliament—had control over international relations. It was about making sure that states were not given primacy in terms of the agreements that our government of Australia makes with the rest of the world. What is in front of us now is for every single environmental treaty, without exception, to be deferred to the states—every single one of them! There is nothing in the EPBC Act that doesn't have its source in an international convention. This goes all the way back to Whitlam, where the external affairs power was used to make sure that the federal parliament could have a say on environmental matters. Why? Because the state of our continent and the state of our oceans are of concern to all Australians.

Why did that become a big issue back then? Because those parties opposite us wanted to drill in the Great Barrier Reef. That's where this started. And today the government wants to say, 'Oh, well, in the name of getting decisions made quickly, let's hand all these powers to the states.' The World Heritage Convention is a federal power. The Ramsar convention is a federal power. Everything that comes under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the IUCN, is a federal power. Everything that comes under the Bond convention is a federal power.

Why did we, back in 2012, introduce a water trigger? We introduced a water trigger because underground water goes across state boundaries and is of concern to all Australians and, therefore, this parliament. The parliament decided to establish a water trigger because it felt it couldn't trust the states to deal with it in a way that involved national responsibility. What does this government now want to do? It wants to take the water trigger power and give it to the states. So a federal power that was established because the states couldn't be trusted is now going to be deferred back to the states. If you have ever wanted to know how international conventions and foreign affairs powers matter to the national government, look at the conversations that have happened over the last 48 hours about the Great Barrier Reef. If you want to argue, 'Those issues are for the states,' look at the level of national concern there is, including an answer in question time today from the environment minister for Australia, about the Great Barrier Reef, and you'll see exactly why these issues should have national responsibility.

The parliament is being asked to hand powers that only exist because of treaties over to the states. Everything the government said only a few months ago about 'Oh, well, foreign affairs is entirely the preserve of the Commonwealth, and foreign affairs needs to be run through the Commonwealth parliament' is abandoned the moment they talk about environmental protection. All of it disappears in an instant. They say, 'Oh, but Labor state premiers want to have the power.' Of course they do! Every state premier always wants to have full power over these issues. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen wanted to have full power to mine the Great Barrier Reef. It was the Tasmanian state government that wanted to dam the Franklin. It was the Northern Territory government that didn't want Kakadu protected and wanted to mine Coronation Hill. Every major environmental protection that we talk about as being iconic in this land is something that occurred when the states didn't want it and the Commonwealth did.

On the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which the National Party have tried to derail in the Senate today: does anyone think that, if we had just asked the states to handle that, it ever would have happened? We tried that for roughly 100 years. It didn't go too well. And now the government are saying, 'Let's just hand it over to the states.' What's their argument? 'It'd be quicker.' It is true that the pace of environmental approvals has slowed down, but the reason it has slowed down is that they've gutted the Public Service. The fastest level of approvals, in terms of value of production being unlocked, happened in the last term of the last Labor government. We had Wheatstone. We had the gas projects across Queensland and offshore from the Northern Territory. We had the Prelude project. We had the Olympic Dam expansion. The approval was given, by me.

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a decision for BHP! All these approvals were unlocked. It can be done if you properly fund the Public Service and if you have environment ministers who do their job. Instead, we have a government that guts the Public Service and says—surprise, surprise!—'The department's taking a long time to do its work.' Of course it is! It takes people to be employed to do the job to get approvals sorted through. Sometimes, when we hear the government talk about delays, those delays are where the department have in fact told the company, 'This is what we need,' and they're waiting for the information to come back. That is not the fault of whether it's dealt with at a federal or state level; that's simply waiting for the company to provide the information.

But if this government wants to say, 'Well, you just hand it to the states and it will be quicker,' my fear is that maybe it will be a hell of a lot quicker because a whole lot of standards just disappear. I would hate to think where we would have landed, if we hadn't introduced the water trigger, in terms of the treatment of underground water when you had major coalmines and major coal seam gas projects. I shudder to think what the states, left to their own devices, would have done on those projects, because the only reason there was an independent scientific committee was because it was in federal legislation. It wasn't something the states had ever established; it was something that was put there because this parliament made a decision that, if it is an international treaty that we have signed up to, it should be of national importance and this should be the place of government that deals with it.

This rush of just wanting to make environmental protection someone else's problem is something that, if they get this through, the government will regret. It will mean that, if you get an arcing up on an issue at an international level—like what's happened over the last couple of days with respect to potentially where the World Heritage Committee might land with the Great Barrier Reef—you can't really go there and say, 'Oh, look, we want you to say this is okay, but it wasn't really our responsibility; we'd already flick-passed it to another tier of government.' That's not going to help you. That's not going to help Australia. It doesn't help us to be the only country in the world that defers its treaty responsibilities to states and the signatory to the treaty just flick-passes it and takes no responsibility. But I guess it's no surprise that the government want this, because they have been willing to create the crisis by gutting the public service and going slow on approvals. They've done that. That's been eyes wide open from those opposite. But then the next thing they do is say: 'What a surprise. It's all taking too long; we'd better had it to the states.'

Every major environmental decision—every one of them—has come because of campaigns or governmental decisions from Labor. That is simply the history of it. When the Liberal government and Malcolm Fraser took credit for being responsible for the time when the Great Barrier Reef was put on the World Heritage List, they sort of omitted the fact that, until Gough Whitlam signed up to the World Heritage Convention, we couldn't put anything on the list. They sort of omitted that fact. There was a Labor campaign for it to go on the list. What was the Labor campaign about? It was about the fact that the other side of politics wanted to oil drilling in the Great Barrier Reef. So don't be too proud. Don't be too proud of something that you were shamed into. That's how the Great Barrier Reef ended up on the World Heritage List.

The two largest conservation decisions in the history of the planet both belong to Australia and to decisions of Labor governments. The largest conservation decision in the history of the planet was when Bob Hawke and Michel Rocard got together and turned around every other country in the Antarctic Treaty and made sure that the Antarctic would be a sanctuary for the environment and science. There was somebody on the other side of politics who said, 'That would be a great place for mining.' That person was made Deputy Prime Minister of Australia this week. Different members of parliament at different times have been sent there. There's some trip on the big orange ship, on the icebreaker, where they go down to Antarctica and they keep a diary and they take notes. No-one else has come back and said, 'Oh, that would be a great place to mine.' One member of this place has done it, and he just got elevated to the second-most important job that this place has to offer.

The second-largest conservation decision that's been made in the history of the planet was the marine parks. The response from this government was to cut them in half to make sure there was no longer a connection between the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They cut it in half. That's what they own. They resisted the protection of Kakadu. They resisted the protection of the Daintree. They resisted the Tasmanian dam's decision. They resisted the peace agreement and in fact came to office tearing up the forestry peace agreement. And we've seen the outcome of that now—that industry having missed out on the support it was meant to get from the peace agreement with markets. But, in terms of conservation, all the areas that weren't going to get logged didn't get logged anyway, so the only losers in tearing up that agreement were industry and exports. They were the only losers! That was the achievement! And why do they do it? Because they were hellbent on wanting to make sure that they could argue they were against any of this environmental rubbish.

Can I tell you that there are few things more conservative than saying, 'We probably shouldn't wreck the planet.' It's a relatively conservative sort of position to start with, but what's meant to be the conservative side of politics has always been troubled by it. And, as a result, we get to the situation that we're in today, where you have the 10-year review of the act and they decide to not implement it, because we cannot pretend that what's in front of us now is an implementation of the Samuel review. It is not. We can't take seriously what this government has said about foreign affairs, because, for all their claims that foreign affairs should be the preserve of this parliament, we have legislation now to hand over the responsibility for every treaty back to the states if it's about the environment.

Finally, the madness, which was the most recent addition to this act, was the water trigger—and the other side of politics voted for this—where we specifically said that it could not be deferred to the states. Why did the parliament do that? Because we had seen what the states were doing with respect to callous disregard for underground water. The Great Artesian Basin—there are a few conductivity points across state borders. The water doesn't actually freeze the moment you get to the Queensland, Victorian and South Australian border! But, having gone through the process of seeing how poorly the states handle this, having seen the need for federal oversight, they've decided we'll have the power but we'll let the states make the decision over it! What's in front of us is hypocritical for the arguments that the government has otherwise offered. But can I say that it's madness, in terms of implementing any of our obligations. What this will deliver is vandalism, because it will take away protections that have been put in place in every instance because Australia was concerned that state governments weren't actually reaching these standards. That was one of the reasons that we made sure we signed up to a whole series of these treaties—because there was a view that the federal oversight needed to occur. The parliament now is considering abandoning that, and I'm very pleased to stand against the madness of that idea.

6:58 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I firstly want to thank all members for their contribution to the debate on this important Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. The independent review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 found that the act is complex, a comprehensive reworking of the act is required and reform should be delivered in stages. And, as I've already said in this place, the government is committed to taking a staged, methodical approach to working through the recommendations of the review in consultation with stakeholders.

Already I have released a pathway for reforming Australia's national environmental law, which sets out the government's initial stages of reforms. These initial stages include and build on the reforms that are already underway, including the legislation debated today. I also released a time line outlining the government's proposed timing for further environmental law reform.

I want to address some of the matters that have been raised during the debate. Firstly, we've continually heard members compare this bill with that of a previous bill. There's been a lot of confusion about the narrative that relates to the reforms. Actually, the member for Hunter put it well when he said—and I'm paraphrasing him—he's heard a lot confusing words spoken about something that isn't the bill before the House. I couldn't have put it better myself. This bill delivers a framework to establish environmental national standards and an environmental assurance commissioner, a commissioner that will provide oversight and confidence that the single-touch approval system is working as intended and upholding the requirements of the EPBC Act. This shows once again that, despite the government adopting a new approach to environmental reform, those opposite continue to stand in the way. We've heard from the shadow minister claiming that her door is open to reform, a quietly echoed appeal from every speaker in Labor at the end of their remarks—'The door is open.' But what Labor says and what it does are two different things, because if Labor was serious about reforming the EPBC Act it would be supporting these reforms. If Labor was serious about supporting jobs and driving economic growth, it would be supporting this bill. If Labor was serious about delivering better environmental outcomes, it would work with the government. But, once again, all Labor does is stand in the way.

Time and time again, Labor has moved the goalposts when it comes to working with the government. The member for Watson, previously an environment minister, started to wander into a very interesting space but seemed very clearly to say that Labor does not want to see a devolution of accreditation under standards and assurances to the states. It doesn't want that. But that's not what his leader said in a letter to the Prime Minister. It is very clear from the opposition leader's letter that 'much needed reforms to Australia's environmental laws are needed' and that 'federal Labor supports the Western Australian resources sector, the jobs it creates and the export revenue it generates,' and then he goes through projects. And I think that is quite fine, because we do know that the Western Australian government wants this and is very strong. The Leader of the Opposition wrote, 'Federal Labor has never ruled out support for bilateral agreements with states with the aim of streamlining the approvals processes consistent with the Samuel review,' which we commissioned. So either Labor supports a devolved accredited bilateral agreement system with the states or it doesn't, but, again, it's not clear from the speakers which way.

When it comes to the crunch, the behaviour that Labor have demonstrated indicates that they were never really serious about improving the EPBC Act. As I said earlier this week, the Prime Minister wrote to the opposition in the spirit of working together to bring about important reforms—important, as noted by the Leader of the Opposition—that will deliver much needed jobs for the country and grow the economy while putting in place the measures that will provide better environmental outcomes. But what did Labor do? They said no. Despite continued efforts by me and the government to find a pathway forward, to work together with stakeholders, to bring about change—and all that has been constructive—it hasn't involved the Labor Party, because all Labor has managed to say is no.

Just this evening, the Prime Minister received a response, and I've already quoted from that response. The Leader of the Opposition claims to understand the need to support Western Australia's thriving resources sector. Well, if the opposition leader really understood that sector and the jobs it creates, if the opposition leader really was standing with the people of Western Australia, as he seems to be saying, he would stop saying no. He would stop standing in the way of this bill and these necessary reforms.

While Labor were also quick to criticise the government, claiming the government was under-resourcing the department and delaying project approvals, suggesting that the government was stalling projects, what they didn't mention was that this year's federal budget took total new Morrison government spending on the environment since the last election to more than $2 billion. We've also been investing in our department's resources and capabilities. So, while Labor was happy to rely on an Australian National Audit Office report from a previous period to criticise the government, what it failed to mention was that the department is currently assessing projects on time. Currently, key assessment time frames are met 99 per cent of the time, and this is a result of the government's investment to bust congestion and improve service delivery, and we have.

The shadow minister also indicated Labor was committed to a framework for durable reforms that will last for years to come, but this is exactly what this bill does: it sets up that framework, an architecture to facilitate improvements to the EPBC Act. It provides a pathway for greater environmental protections and for more jobs across Australia, jobs that would be created in electorates from the Hunter to the Pilbara, from Tasmania to Queensland. I understand the opposition leader may be planning to head to Western Australia. He will be off to the Pilbara to reassure miners and industry that Labor is in it for them. But if they really were in it for them and for the environment, they would be supporting legislative change now.

Hon. Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

There are some interjections about the border, but I don't know the exact dates. I only know there's been a lot of speculation and a lot of—

Honourable members interjecting

Excuse me—I'll take the interjection, since no-one seems to understand what I'm actually saying, Deputy Speaker Irons. I know you do, as a member from the great state of Western Australia. I don't know when the Leader of the Opposition is heading to the Pilbara, but he's been spruiking that visit in the press for a long time: 'Here I come, and I love you, resources sector.' When he gets there he might hear a different message. We know that there are others on the other side who want these reforms and they remain sidelined. These are the pragmatic members of the Labor Party, and we know who they are. They understand that these reforms represent the first step not only to providing jobs and growing the economy but to delivering better environmental outcomes.

Labor also criticised the bill for the provisions that establish the Environmental Assurance Commissioner. This is a new position that is directly lifted from the Samuel report, and what Professor Samuel recommended was a new independent statutory position of the Environmental Assurance Commissioner to provide strong and independent oversight. This bill delivers on this recommendation. The fact is that if the parliament doesn't support these bills opportunities to put in place single-touch approvals this year and the new Environmental Assurance Commissioner will be lost. As the Business Council of Australia said:

We have a genuine opportunity to improve the efficiency of decision-making while addressing the deteriorating state of Australia's environmental assets.

I will be moving a number of amendments to the bill to address the recommendations of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. I do that in good faith because throughout the process and consistent with my engagement with, consultation with and approach to all of the parties interested in this bill, I have listened, and the government will move amendments that reflect that important committee's recommendations. This bill, together with the streamlining bill, represents a starting point. This parliament must allow the journey to commence. The standards and assurance bill represents a sensible and pragmatic approach to provide transparency in decision-making and confidence in assurance and oversight.

I mentioned that I have listened to much of the debate, and so much of it is not on what this bill is actually about. So much of it shows a misunderstanding of what our EPBC reform is about. I don't know if that's deliberate or if people haven't interrogated our reforms correctly, but I want to make one really clear point.

Honourable members interjecting

All the Labor Party is doing is interjecting. I'd love to answer these questions on the floor of the House in question time, so please hold that thought. But it is really important to note that we are not handing over powers to the states, so that they can pick them up and do what they like with them. We are lifting all states to one strong national standard, so that if a state does not meet that standard it does not receive accreditation, it does not receive my signature for a bilateral agreement. There is no drop-dead date for states to come on board. There is no talk of the Commonwealth walking away. There are call-in powers for the minister. There are supervision powers. The member for Watson was talking about treaties. He must've deliberately misunderstood. There are call-in powers for the minister and there are strong national standards that will be met, or no bilateral agreements will be entered into. So we are lifting the standard of the states across Australia through that strong Commonwealth oversight. We'll do that via something that hasn't been proposed before, and that is the Environmental Assurance Commissioner.

I know that the government is really committed to this reform. I know that the Treasurer wants this bill to pass for jobs and COVID recovery. I know that the industry minister wants this bill to pass for industry. I know the health minister wants this bill to pass because the health minister understands the need for jobs as we're coming out of COVID. And I know the resources minister wants this bill to pass for the resources sector. But I want this bill to pass for the environment. I want this bill to pass because I know that this is the first stage of genuine reform to protect our unique and precious landscape and places.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Irons): The original question was that this bill be now read a second time, to which the honourable member for Griffith moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The honourable member for Clark has moved as an amendment to that amendment that all words after 'whilst' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Clark be disagreed to.

7:21 pm

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Griffith be disagreed to.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.