House debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


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

10:51 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Republic) Share this | | Hansard source

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is one of Australia's most important environmental laws. This legislation was established to protect the environment, not to make it easier to destroy it. But unfortunately that is what the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 will do if it is passed. This bill seeks to establish a framework for making, varying or revoking an application of the national environmental standards. It also establishes an environmental assurance commissioner to undertake auditing and monitoring of the operation of bilateral agreements with states and territories and a process for making and enforcing approval decisions. All of that sounds good. But, like a lot of things associated with the Morrison government, particularly when it comes to environmental protection, the devil is in the detail. This bill, like many environmental bills that are introduced by this government, is very Orwellian in its language because, in effect, what it does is it actually undermines the sanctity and the importance of this particular piece of legislation in protecting the environment in the future.

This is a piece of legislation that has recently been independently reviewed. The act has undergone its second statutory 10-yearly review, and that review was conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel. The report was handed to the minister in October 2020 and released to the public in late 2021. The final report that Professor Samuel handed to the government painted a picture of an environmental system, an ecosystem or a natural environment in Australia that is under enormous stress. Australia has a record that we as a nation don't want to have, and that is the highest number of mammal extinctions of any nation in the world. A number of protected species are under enormous threat under our watch, as members of this parliament. The effects of climate change are increasing exponentially year on year on year and causing more and more damage to our environment. We will never forget the bushfires of 18 months ago that cut a swathe across landscapes throughout Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, in particular, but also Western Australia and, of course, resulted in cities being blanketed in unprecedented amounts of thick smoke for up to months at a time. In his final report, Professor Samuel pointed out that the current EPBC Act 'is ineffective' in that:

It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

The report made 38 recommendations to improve Australia's stock of environmental protective legislation, particularly noting the importance of having an agreed and established set of national environmental standards through which prospective projects can be assessed to ensure that we're protecting and maintaining the stock of natural heritage that we have throughout this country and, importantly, that we're consulting with and liaising with First Australians about their views on environmental protection. Let's face it: you don't exist on a continent for 60,000 to 70,000 years unless you're doing something right around protecting the environment, learning to live within that environment and then surviving and thriving. That is of course what our First Nations Australians have been able to do.

Importantly, Professor Samuel recommended a number of interim national standards. This particular legislation gives the minister power to make national environmental standards. The bill doesn't include that set of proposed standards but a framework for them to be implemented. The explanatory memorandum to the bill states that the national standard will be an interim standard until it has undergone its first review, and that will be within a two-year period. The Samuel review included a proposal for a set of interim national standards. These interim national standards were the result of extensive consultation over a period of almost 12 months. It was a consultation with stakeholders in putting these interim national standards together. So here we have the independent reviewer consulting with all parties throughout the country and coming up with a set of interim national standards. Do you think that the government has adopted those standards? Of course not—no, they haven't!

They've developed their own national environmental standards. This is why Australians should be worried and this is why I said at the beginning that the devil is in the detail with this government. Those standards that the government is proposing are vastly different to those which were recommended by Professor Samuel. How do we know this? The government's standards haven't been released publicly, but they have been leaked. They were leaked by someone in the government because they weren't happy with the way that this was headed and what it would mean for environmental protection in Australia.

We know that those leaked standards fall well short of the Samuel version. They're materially the same as draft standards that were prepared in 2014 under the Abbott government, when they were trying to water down the EPBC Act and to introduce a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals so that we didn't have that two-step process of the states and territories and the Commonwealth looking at a proposed project and ensuring that it met all of the necessary environmental standards. So this government is trying to go back to what they proposed in 2014—which, thankfully, was rejected by the parliament at the time—to ensure that they're watering down what was proposed by Professor Samuel. The standards in the Samuel review are more detailed and considerably more protective than the standards proposed by the Morrison government. Samuel also proposed separate and detailed standards relating to Indigenous engagement and participation, compliance and enforcement of data and information. Again, that hasn't been included to the same extent in the government's proposals.

The other point to make about these standards is that they'll be a legislative instrument, but that the first set of them that will be made will not be disallowable. So once this first set are made it's likely that they'll be in place for two years before they become a disallowable instrument and the parliament can have another look at them to see whether or not they're adequate. So, in effect, the government is proposing to have a set of standards that are inferior to what was proposed by Professor Samuel, for the next two years, to ensure that we're not meeting the standard that was set by the independent reviewer.

This new bill will also allow the minister to make a decision that is inconsistent with the national environmental standards where the minister considers it in the public interest, and we all know what that means. We know that means the government will try and undermine those national standards and undermine the protection and conservation of natural environments here in Australia with a view to fast-tracking proposals that ordinarily might not meet the national standards and get approval.

The second element of this bill which is of concern is in relation to the assurance commissioner. This bill establishes an independent statutory position for an environmental assurance commissioner, and the functions are set out in section 501C of the act. They basically relate to monitoring and auditing through a number of agreements, but, in particular, the concern is with the function that the Environmental Assurance Commissioner will have in respect of the monitoring and auditing of the operation of bilateral agreements. These are the agreements between the states and the Commonwealth to streamline the process of environmental approvals. The concern here is that the assurance commissioner will actually be toothless when it comes to ensuring that the national environmental standards are adhered to. Conservation stakeholders are being critical of the bill's model because of the inability for the proposed commissioner to investigate individual decisions relating to projects, and they've labelled it, effectively, as toothless. When the minister introduced this bill the minister was quite specific when she said:

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will not have a role in monitoring or auditing individual decisions.

So the notion of having a tough cop on the beat to police the enforcement of those national environmental standards is completely undermined by this government's own bill—again, there's that great use of Orwellian language of doing the opposite of what the bill actually says it's going to do. It's on that basis that we have deep concerns about this and, indeed, many Australians, particularly those that work in the conservation space, have deep concerns about this.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Australia is a nation that is under enormous pressure when it comes to conserving our natural environment, particularly given the effects of climate change. We've got an unenviable record of having the largest rate of mammal extinctions of any nation in the world. The only way we're going to turn around such a record and protect the numerous species that are going onto that threatened species list on an annual basis and ensure that the Great Barrier Reef survives into the future is if we have a decent set of national environmental standards that are complied with and that are policed by appropriately resourced and empowered organisations. That will ensure we uphold those principles in this act and do what we say with our environmental laws and protect and conserve our natural environment. This legislation should be established to protect the environment, not make it easier to destroy it, but, unfortunately, if this act is passed, that is exactly what it will do.

11:04 am

Photo of Dave SharmaDave Sharma (Wentworth, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The EPBC Act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation we have here in Australia. Members here would be familiar with some of the objectives of the act: to provide for the protection of the environment, especially on matters of national environmental significance; to conserve Australian biodiversity; to provide a streamlined national environmental assessment and approvals process; to enhance the protection and management of important natural and cultural places; to control the international movements of plants and animals, including wildlife and wildlife specimens and products made or derived from wildlife under conventions such as CITES; to promote ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of resources; to recognise the role of Indigenous people in the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity; and to promote the use of Indigenous peoples' knowledge of biodiversity, with the involvement of and in cooperation with the owners of that knowledge. There are a number of matters of national significance that come under the EPBC Act: World Heritage properties, National Heritage places, wetlands of international importance, Commonwealth marine areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—the subject of some news coverage in recent days—and listed threatened species and ecological communities.

This landmark piece of legislation, which has done a huge amount in its somewhat over two decades of existence to protect and preserve our environment, is now 20 years old. Under the terms of the act itself, under section 522A, a review is required every 10 years to examine the operation of the EPBC Act and the extent to which its objects have been met. A 10-year review was conducted in 2009—by Dr Allan Hawke, from memory—and the legislation that we're discussing and debating today, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, is the result, the fruit of the second such review.

This second statutory review commenced on 29 October 2019. It was led by Professor Graeme Samuel, who was appointed as the independent reviewer. He was supported in this by an expert panel, which provided advice to Professor Samuel on a number of specific issues. Professor Samuel, as a result of his first round of consultations, published a discussion paper in November 2019, to which submissions were invited, and, in fact, a huge number of submissions were received. There were over 3,242 unique submissions and a larger number of replica submissions, which indicates the wide range of public interest in this topic. As members would be aware, Professor Samuel delivered his interim report in July of last year, and his final report was released on 28 January this year. Before proceeding further in discussion of the substance of this legislation we're debating here today, I do wish to put on my record my appreciation and commendation for Professor Samuel, and for the expert panel who advised him throughout this, on an important piece of work.

Undoubtedly, Australia's environment, with the variety and uniqueness of our natural assets, is one of our great national blessings. We are blessed with some of the most remarkable and amazing species in the world, many of which are unique to Australia. We have some of the most amazing sites of natural beauty in the world—places such as Kakadu National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, the alpine ranges, the Daintree rainforest and the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, to name just a few. We also have one of the largest and most significant marine jurisdictions in the world, which hosts many forms of life about which we still know very little. Our natural environment is central to our conception of ourselves as a people and as a nation, just as it was to our Indigenous Australians during the tens of thousands of years they inhabited the continent before white settlement. And whilst it's central to our own self-conception, it's also a key part of how the world sees Australia: as a continent of phenomenal natural beauty and striking ecological diversity, home to a disproportionate share of the world's marvels.

This is why this review is so important. Professor Samuel, in this review, made a number of quite profound and quite concerning findings, and I think it's worth quoting from elements of the final review he has handed down. Professor Samuel's overall finding was:

Australia's natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. They are not sufficiently resilient to withstand current, emerging or future threats, including climate change.

Professor Samuel also found:

The EPBC Act is out dated and requires fundamental reform. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively fulfil its environmental management responsibilities to protect nationally important matters. The Act, and the way it is implemented, results in piecemeal decisions, which rarely work in concert with the environmental management responsibilities of the States and Territories. The Act is a barrier to holistic environmental management which, given the nature of Australia's federation, is essential for success.

And finally:

The EPBC Act requires fundamental reform, and a sensible and staged pathway of change is needed to achieve this.

…   …   …

New National Environmental Standards should be the centrepiece of fundamental reform of national environmental law

The standards and assurance part of the EPBC Act is the subject matter of the bill and the legislation we're discussing today.

Professor Samuel, in his review, recommended that national environmental standards should be made in early 2021 supported by reforms to implement an independent environment assurance commissioner; expert advisory committees; transparent decision-making; access to data and information; strong, independent compliance and enforcement; effective monitoring and evaluation; access to justice; and exploring investment in this duration. Comprehensive enabling reform should be completed within 12 months, according to Professor Samuel's recommendation, and a full overhaul of the EPBC Act should be completed during 2022. These are the recommendations we are dealing with today from the Professor Samuel review.

As part of his review, Professor Samuel recommended that national environmental standards should be the centrepiece and should be the first stage of the reform. Together, leaders at the state and territory level, meeting through the national cabinet, have agreed that the immediate priority of reform is to implement single-touch environmental approvals underpinned by national environmental standards that reflect the current requirements of the EPBC Act. In August last year, the government introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 into the parliament. The purpose of that piece of legislation was to ensure that bilateral agreements and the accreditation of state authorisation processes which give effect to single-touch approvals are legally robust and durable. The bill we are debating today is really the second stage in implementing the first wave, if you like, of Professor Samuel's reforms. This particular bill, the standards and assurance bill, together with the streamlining bill that has already passed the House, represent the initial stage of this reform process.

It has always been the intention of the government that bilateral agreements with the states and territories be underpinned by strong national environmental standards developed by the Commonwealth. The bill delivers on this commitment by establishing a framework to develop legally enforceable national environmental standards. This bill, the standards and assurance bill, will ensure that approved bilateral agreements with states and territories are underpinned by strong national environmental standards, are supported by strong assurance and contain strong oversight mechanisms. What national environmental standards will do is set the requirements for decision-making to deliver outcomes for the environment and heritage and ensure that Commonwealth requirements and obligations for environmental approval and other decisions are upheld regardless of which jurisdiction makes the approval decision.

The Samuel review also identified the need for strong independent oversight of environmental assessment and approval systems, including the accredited state and territory systems, to provide confidence that the outcomes of the environmental standards are being achieved and the requirements of the EPBC Act are being upheld. This bill does both of things. Firstly, it establishes a framework for the making, varying, revoking and application of national environmental standards. These standards will be allowed to be made by the minister. These standards will underpin accredited environmental assessment and approval processes under bilateral agreements agreed with the states and territories. The accreditation of state and territory assessment and approval processes will be contingent on those processes not being inconsistent with the national environmental standards.

These standards will be established as a legislative instrument, which means that they have the necessary flexibility for the standards to respond to new information and changing circumstances but they're subject to the same protections that are inherent in legislative instruments, including consultation requirements. It is anticipated that the national environmental standards will be developed in consultation with science, Indigenous, environmental and business stakeholders as well as, of course, with the states and territories.

These interim standards initially will be required to be reviewed within two years to ensure the right balance is being struck. States and territories that wish to be accredited under the EPBC Act to make approval decisions—this is for the single-touch approval envisaged and sought by the states and territories—will need to demonstrate that the systems that they put in place can support and uphold these national environmental standards. What this means is that bilateral agreements between the federal government and state and territory governments, underpinned by these national environmental standards, will harmonise environmental approval requirements across all jurisdictions. We won't have the situation that we have now where we have different states and territories taking different decisions which lead to different protection outcomes for our environment. It will also remove the considerable duplication that currently exists between state and federal approval processes.

Professor Samuel, in his review, also recommended that a government should retain the ability to exercise discretion in individual cases. The bill provides for this but makes sure that discretion can only be exercised very sparingly. I think that is an important point. Any decisions that the minister makes to deviate from these standards will require that the minister publish a statement setting out the reasons why the minister was satisfied that the decision taken was in the public interest, and the statement must be published on the department's website as soon as practicable after the decision is made.

The bill also ensures that our approval systems, including under the EPBC Act, will be supported by strong oversight and assurance. It does this by establishing the Environment Assurance Commissioner as an independent statutory office holder within the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. This is consistent with the Samuel review recommendation which identified the need for strong and independent oversight of environmental assessment and approval systems, to provide confidence that the national environmental standards are being achieved and that the requirements of the EPBC Act are being upheld.

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will provide strong, rigorous and independent assurance that approval systems are working well and are delivering outcomes for the environment, for business and for the community. The bill goes into some detail to specify the arrangements governing the commissioner's appointment and the exercise of the commissioner's functions and powers, including the preparation of annual work plans and reporting requirements. The establishment of the Environment Assurance Commissioner, together with national environmental standards, will give stakeholders and the community confidence in the single-touch approval system. It should make decision-making faster and easier but provide a higher level of protection for our environment.

I noticed that the member opposite, the member for Hunter—I know we quote him quite often in this place—did have something quite interesting to say on this in an opinion piece published in the Daily Telegraph on 21 June:

Jobs versus environment: it's not a new battle. One or the other it need not be, we can protect our natural environment and create jobs too.

It's a sentiment with which I certainly agree. I think the member for Hunter was arguing for the passage of this legislation in that opinion piece.

This bill, together with the streamlining bill considered and passed by the House earlier, is the first step on an important journey of implementing the Samuel review, of ensuring the EPBC Act remains fit for purpose and of ensuring that robust environmental standards apply across all jurisdictions. The standards and assurance bill, together with the associated streamlining bill, will establish the framework and the architecture to modernise the EPBC Act, to remove unnecessary duplication and red and green tape, to improve efficiency for business in having their projects assessed, to provide greater certainty for the community and to deliver, most importantly, better environmental outcomes.

There are other elements of the Samuel review which will be canvassed and addressed at a later stage; that is my understanding. The government has recently, in June 2021, published a pathway for reforming national environmental law, which lays out four stages that mirror the stages recommended by Professor Samuel. Stage 1 is the national environmental standards in the state and territory agreements to allow for single-touch approvals. But subsequent stages deal with things such as: the respectful inclusion of Indigenous Australians' knowledge and views in decision-making; the full transparency of decision-making; independent auditing of decisions; appropriate legal review and access to justice; and strong and independent compliance and enforcement. As outlined in the government's own pathway for reforming national environmental law, once the bills are passed—the streamlining bill and the national environmental standards bill—we will move on to the second stage of reforms, which will include things such as additional national environmental standards, including for areas such as Indigenous engagement.

In the time remaining to me, I note that the passage of this legislation has widespread support from the states and territories. Indeed, the Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, with whom the federal government does not always agree or see eye to eye, was in the media today urging the passage of this legislation. I have a copy of a letter here that was provided to me, which has been sent to the Leader of the Opposition from bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia, urging that Labor support the passage of this legislation. I urge those opposite to consider this legislation favourably, and I commend to it the House.

11:19 am

Photo of Julian HillJulian Hill (Bruce, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have been on chamber duty listening to a few of the contributions of government members. I have to say: you can't disagree with the majority of them, because they faithfully recite all the stuff the Samuel report has said predominantly. The fundamental problem—this is why this is so disappointing—in looking at the detail of this legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, is that it doesn't properly respond to what was in the Samuel report. When you look at the government's whole package of responses, such as they are today, they do not implement what's in the Samuel report. It is kind of word association.

I will say at the outset—I will make a few introductory remarks—that this is a critically important law. The EPBC Act is meant to be the national law which protects and enhances the environment and which regulates development or changes in nationally significant environmental places through the environmental assessment process. Three stages are: referring things to the Commonwealth minister to decide if a formal assessment is needed; if so, then a formal assessment based on the act and the regulations and then approval—in theory approval or rejection, or approval with conditions more often than not

I was a bit of a sceptic about the Samuel review. It was probably last year that I actually picked it up and spent a bit of time reading it. I was a healthy sceptic I suppose when you look at what I perceive to be this government and the Liberal Party's record on environmental protection. We hear the same rhetoric over and over again, that it doesn't have to be a trade-off between the economy and the environment. The previous speaker quoted the member for Hunter. I agree with the member for Hunter's sentiments. It's hard to disagree with that. You do need to find ways to do both. It's called sustainable development. It's not a new concept. The problem is when you actually look at what the government does too often they don't protect the environment. They only take one part of the equation. So I was a sceptic when I looked at the report. But I compliment Graeme Samuel on this work. It is a really robust bit of work. It's persuasive and it's convincing, in my view, and, indeed, it's sometimes challenging given the Labor Party's long-standing concern around large-scale devolution of decision-making powers to states and territories. It sets up what I think personally—this is not necessarily party policy—is a pretty compelling framework, which we've said we're open to considering in its entirety.

The review was pretty damning on the performance of the EPBC Act. It said it's ineffective, it needs fundamental reform, it's not fit to address current or future environmental challenges. There's no community trust, there's no trust from traditional owners across the country in the act and overall—my words—it's obsessed with process, not with actual environmental outcomes. That was a key takeout right through the report. It said that there's also no evidence that the environment actually gets any better with the administration of this act, particularly after eight years of this government. The report states:

The EPBC Act does not facilitate the maintenance or restoration of the environment. The current settings cannot halt the trajectory of environmental decline—

let alone reverse it.

That government's response has been lacklustre—lacklustre is an understatement. There was an interim report which broadly recommended two things: national environmental standards and an independent environmental regulator. The government's response was to say: 'We will do some national environmental standards. We'll reject the independent environmental regulator and we'll just charge ahead regardless with delegating decision-making powers to the states and territories,' so on they marched. The companion to this, if you like, the flawed bill, is still stuck in the Senate where I hope it will die, because what these two bills do together—they're linked to the Samuel review. The government's pretending they're implementing the Samuel review but they're really just resurrecting Tony Abbott's failed one-stop-shop approach, which was an agenda to weaken environmental protection. Then, regardless, the government was kind of doing its thing over there, which they were always going to do anyway it seems.

The final report had 38 recommendations proposing reform in three tranches. Importantly, there was a warning. It should have come with big red letters. It should have had its own page. It was pretty clear language:

Governments should avoid the temptation to cherry pick from a highly interconnected suite of recommendations.

That was a key warning in the Samuel reviews report. 'Do not cherrypick and just pick the bits you like, because it won't actually implement reform the improve environmental outcomes.' The four key components, as I would describe them, included national environmental standards that have to be legally enforceable, binding, focused on outcomes and actually requiring and generating improvements to environmental outcomes, not just more paperwork and process. This bill, shamefully, is on track to implement weak standards, even weaker than were proposed in the Samuel review, as the draft standards—which was illustrative. They weren't meant to be the things adopted, but if they get this legislation through the government's going to try to implement the same weak standards as Tony Abbott proposed in 2014.

The second aspect to accredit states and territories for decisions with safeguards, as the Samuel review said, would include formal independent checks and an accreditation process, not just a delegation process—a really important difference—and it would be subject to parliamentary disallowance, so really tough scrutiny from both houses of the Commonwealth parliament on any decisions or delegated decision-making framework given to the states and territories. That's really important. This stuff is really risky for the Commonwealth parliament to give away. I've heard some of the other contributions to this debate, but I believe the Australian people do expect the Australian government and the parliament to actually take responsibility for matters of national environmental significance, not just to say, 'We're a federation and we'll just delegate all of that to the states and territories, not worry about the outcomes and not keep an eye on what they're doing.' I think this is really important.

I understand the pressures. I think the report talks about the pressures, and many stakeholder submissions bagging and opposing this bill talk very clearly about the different pressures that state and territory governments are quite rightly under. They have a more direct responsibility for economic development and a more direct set of stakeholders, frankly—planners and developers and the like—pushing for approvals. I used to work in both the state planning department and the state environmental department in Victoria, and we dealt with these things. I fully agree with the criticisms that Professor Samuel made. It is an act, in the way it's regulated downstream, that is obsessed with pieces of paper, process and procedure, not with actually looking at outcomes. But those pressures on state and territory governments are immense, and they're not things that the Commonwealth feels day to day. It's a really important reason for the parliament to understand that we should not be rushing to give away decision-making powers to states and territories without making sure that all the other bits of the equation are right: a tough cop on the beat, tough environmental standards and tough oversight of the whole system.

Importantly, No. 3, the Commonwealth environment minister has to retain the intervention power and responsibility for national environmental outcomes. Fourthly, strong audit and oversight through an Environmental Assurance Commissioner will give us confidence that decision-makers—states, territories, whoever—are adhering to standard and bilateral accreditation arrangements. It was an integrated package of reform. I'll say again: the warning that came with this set of proposals was, 'Do not cherrypick.' You can't choose just the bits you like and that you developer mates that the government may be listening to say are necessary. It's shocking that there's still no comprehensive response to the 38 recommendations. The government's rushed ahead now with two bits of legislation, but they still haven't actually responded to the 38 recommendations that were in the Samuel review. The government's legislation is not consistent with the Samuel review. As I said, as other members have said and as submitters have said, they're dredging up the Abbott government's old proposals which died in the Senate. They were weak and, importantly, things like the environmental standards that are being proposed are not disallowable. If this bill passed and the government got their way, they'll put in place these weak environmental standards that will be there for at least two years and that the parliament can't disallow, and then they'll say to the states and territories, 'Off you go,' with no independent oversight that's actually tough enough to keep an eye on what they're doing. It's a really dangerous recipe. I think that, if the public really understood the detail here, there would be no community support for this.

The shadow minister's rightly said that Labor's open-minded. We will consider real implementation of the Samuel review and, as I said, there are aspects of that which are challenging for some of us on this side of the House. That's a conversation we're prepared to have if it's done as a package, not as a cherrypicked set of little bits that the government happens to like. We need tough national standards, a tough cop on the beat. The government's proposal has no real powers, no real teeth. It has just an audit review function, but no ability to scrutinise or examine individual decisions. As some members have pointed out, I'd say that, importantly, a big part of any serious set of reforms has to be to fix the capability and capacity of the Commonwealth environment department. Graeme Samuel was clear that the Commonwealth minister has to retain, even if the government got its way, the ability to intervene, and that means the Commonwealth environment department has to lift its game massively on its ability to process referrals and maintain that professional capability. Only then could Australia consider, in my view, large-scale devolution of these decision-making powers to the states and territories.

The only way to describe the action of the Commonwealth environment department is eight years of neglect, cuts and disasters. Now we see the hypocrisy of the government claiming with a straight face, as some government members have tried to do: 'We need these reforms because decisions are too slow. Industry is telling us that decisions are too slow in the Commonwealth environment department—green tape.' Well, it's their failures, their delays and their decisions. They've been in government for eight years. It's their failure to make these decisions, which are, in many cases, as people quite rightly point out, leading to delays in jobs and investments being made.

But it should be no surprise; when the government came to office eight long years ago they cut 40 per cent of the funding from the Commonwealth environment department, they cut thousands of the public servants from that department, including the many who are supposed to make these decisions, and then they scream, 'Shock! Horror! The decisions are taking longer.'

I just want to make a couple of remarks about the recent Australian National Audit Office report. It's shocking. I'm the deputy chair of the audit committee, I do look through just about all the audit reports which the Auditor-General tables, and this is a shocker. You can hardly find a single positive or even slightly nice sentence in the report. The frustration of the Auditor-General shone through—95 per cent of decisions are made late or outside the statutory time frame and 79 per cent are noncompliant or affected by error. In 2013, when the government was elected, on average decisions were made about 19 days late. It was 19 days when Labor left office. Now, on average, it's 106 days late, and somehow, therefore, the answer is: 'Oh well. We give up. We'll give it all to the states and territories with weak standards.' That's not good enough. Even under this package, we have to be assured that the Commonwealth department has the capability and the capacity to make these decisions and make them in a timely way, because that's what the public expect.

I might just read a couple of bits of the audit report while I'm at it. I'll just draw a contention. I'll quote from the Auditor-General:

Despite being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since the commencement of the Act, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act is not effective.

  …   …   …

Referrals and assessments are not administered effectively or efficiently. Regulation is not supported by appropriate systems and processes, including an appropriate quality assurance framework.

  …   …   …

The department is unable to demonstrate that conditions of approval are appropriate. The implementation of conditions is not assessed with rigour.

  …   …   …

The department does not have an appropriate strategy to manage its compliance intelligence—

It's not good.

Conflicts of interest are not managed.

This is a good one. This is a good trick the government does when their performance is falling off a cliff. They actually just take out the performance measures. They just cancel them! It's like vaccines: 'It's off-track, so we'll just stop the targets. We'll just give up. We don't have any aim anymore. We're just going to bumble along and do what we can and hope for the best.' The Auditor-General said:

All relevant performance measures in the department's corporate plan were removed in 2019-20, and no internal performance measures relating to effectiveness or efficiency have been established.

  …   …   …

Systems and processes for referrals and assessments do not fully support the achievement of requirements under the EPBC Act.

That is, they're not properly complying with the law! Proxy indicators—the ANAO went and developed their own indicators, and back applied them with the data, and said: Actually 'the efficiency of referrals and assessments has not improved over recent years.' As I said, everything is just running late. It's no surprise, it is? When you cut 40 per cent of funding from the environment department that things slow down. Who knew!

In summary, the government has tacitly acknowledged the enormous mess that they've created, because last year they gave the environment department $25 million. It was a big announcement, 'Oh, look! We're going to give the department some money to clear the backlog that we created because we cut the budget.' What a brilliant set of geniuses! As the Audit Office said to me though, 'From our perspective, that just looks like they're at great risk of hurrying up their mistakes and making more bad decisions quickly with that $25 million, because they haven't actually made any of the fundamental changes.' So, in summary, I think it's a terrible situation.

The act doesn't protect or enhance the environment—it's obsessed by process. I think we can all agree on that. The government's made a total mess of the process, as the Auditor-General said, and has to actually fix the department's capability—but whether or not they do this! But the report that charts a credible way forward is being ignored by the government, who are pretending to implement it but just dragging out Tony Abbott's failed proposals, which would see environmental degradation continue and probably accelerate.

As many speakers have said, this should not be a choice between the environment or the economy. We should be able to have both; it's called sustainable development. I call on the government to withdraw this bill and sit down and actually come up with some legislation that implements their own review. If they did that, I'd be confident that it would meet with broad support.

11:34 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. In doing so I will say there's one thing that this bill does absolutely: it cements this government's abysmal record on environmental protection. We've seen 22 policies in eight years and we've seen a divided government—even more divided in the last few days, with a Deputy Prime Minister who is absolutely resolute in not changing anything to do with the environment or climate and a Prime Minister who perhaps has a 'preference' to look at some action on the climate and the environment. There's an inability to commit to any clear, firm targets, and that's what this policy does: it cements the government's position on their inability to protect the environment.

It's no wonder that Australians and Australia have become laughing-stocks on the world stage when it comes to the environment. Just recently, at the G7 meeting last week or the week before, we saw Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Britain, praising the Prime Minister for committing to net zero 2050—that was in Boris Johnson's words. It was the journalists who pulled him up at that point and corrected the British Prime Minister by saying that Australia's target is not a commitment; it's a preference. The Prime Minister has said it's 'preferable' by 2050.

What does 'preferable' even mean? What is preferable? When you go to a restaurant, perhaps you prefer pasta over a salad, and if you don't get the pasta you shrug your shoulders and say, 'Okay, well, I'll have the salad.' But when it comes to environmental protection, when it comes to protection of the climate and climate change, and to protecting our biodiversity so that our children and grandchildren, the next generation of Australians, can live in a healthy world, it's not a question of preference. It's a question of action and it's a question of priority. We have a duty, as legislators, to hand over a healthy environment and climate that the next generation can live in.

So it's a question of actions and clear targets—targets that will deliver. But this government is just not delivering. For example, just yesterday UNESCO recommended that the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on the list of World Heritage sites that are endangered. This is our Barrier Reef—our iconic environmental reef, one of the largest in the world. UN officials are urging Australia to take accelerated action at all possible levels on climate change. All experts have warned that ongoing inaction on climate change and lack of environmental protection could cause irreversible damage to our reef. When we have UNESCO saying that it's endangered then something terribly wrong is going on. And yet the Minister for the Environment here in this place insists that the Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the world. How can that be? How can that be when we have UNESCO recommending that the Barrier Reef be placed on the list of World Heritage sites that are endangered? They didn't say that it was in good condition or that it should be put up on a pedestal as a model; they said that it's one of the heritage sites that are in danger.

This is just another example of the government having a preference—it prefers its version over that of experts. We've seen that quite a bit over the years. When we look at this government, it's actually very sad. It has one of the poorest records when it comes to the environment. Unfortunately, this bill is just another example of this fact. It's one more example of the poor record of this government. The 10-year review of the EPBC Act was an opportunity. It was regarded as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen our environmental laws and to make them more effective so that we can hand over a healthy environment to the next generation—to our children and our grandchildren. But that is not the case.

This review was conducted by a very well-respected professor, Professor Graeme Samuel, who didn't hold back in his report and in his scathing assessment of the current act. Graeme Samuel's final report states that 'the EPBC Act is ineffective' because 'it does not enable the Commonwealth to protect environmental matters that are important for the nation'—as a nation—and that 'it is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges'. He also said that, unless the government implemented the fundamental reforms that were recommended by the review, it will contribute to:

… the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems.

Including the Barrier Reef. But it's clear that this government once again prefers not to listen to the experts, because its response to the review, judging by this bill, is nothing short of disappointing.

This bill is the second of proposed legislation to be considered alongside the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020. That bill is commonly known as the Abbott 2.0 bill, because it effectively replaces the former Abbott government's failed one-stop-shop policy from 2014. It just replaces it. We on this side of the House opposed the Abbott 2.0 bill, which was introduced into this parliament in 2020. As I said, it was referred to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report. Labor senators, in their dissenting report, found that the standards in this bill will do nothing other than duplicate existing obligations.

We've been calling for a genuinely independent cop on the beat for the environment. This is absolutely necessary. You need a cop on the beat with teeth. It is necessary if we're serious about protecting our environment and restoring the Australian public's trust in the EPBC Act. Australians need to be able to trust their national government to preserve our precious natural environment. They also need to trust that there won't be unnecessary delays in environmental decision-making that in turn lead to delays in jobs and investments—and have we seen delays! In these eight or nine years of the Morrison government we have seen no decisions and delay after delay, costing us jobs and investment. That's what we have seen from this Morrison government—repeated cuts to the environment department and to resourcing. This has led to unnecessary delays in decision-making and a greater chance of errors occurring.

We're calling for legislation that will offer stronger environmental protections to address the overall state of decline of and increasing threat to the environment. There is a decline, as has been said over and over again by UNESCO and other bodies and as we saw with the Great Barrier Reef. We need to establish a tough cop on the beat to help restore that trust. We need legislation that supports efficient and effective decision-making under the EPBC Act in the interests of avoiding unnecessary delays to jobs and investments.

In his final report, Graeme Samuel included a set of proposed interim national environmental standards which was the product of extensive consultation with stakeholders. But this government has produced its own set of proposed interim national environmental standards. These standards fall well short of the Samuel version. They do nothing more than replicate the act's existing arrangements—like a mirror image—and are materially the same as the draft standards that were prepared back in 2014 in support of the Abbott government's failed bill, which was the one-stop shop. They are no different.

So, after spending millions of dollars—vast amounts of money—and countless hours on the review, this government has delivered second-rate so-called standards that are inconsistent with the Samuel review final report. How can Australians trust this government with our most precious asset—our environment? True to form, the Prime Minister and his ministers refuse to take responsibility for the environment and for their jobs failures. If we had taken action, we could have created jobs as well. Instead of delivering jobs and protecting the environment, this government has focused on spending a billion dollars on marketing itself and on advertising and many other things that really are great on spin and great on announcements but are zilch on the delivery. We've seen this time and time again from this government: they think more about their own jobs. It's about how to be re-elected, not about what's delivered and the benefit for Australia. When you're in this place, when you're in government, you always have to take the view of what's best for the nation, not for the short term but for the long term.

As I said earlier, the environment and climate change are areas where we have an absolute responsibility to take action to ensure that we hand over to the next generation of Australians a healthy environment and a climate that we can live in. Without a climate that is able to sustain us, there'll be no farms and no industry. All we'll have is a dust bowl around the world. We'll all just be extinguished at some point if we don't take action. It's really important. This debate is about the future generations on our earth. Again, this particular bill is about our nation and those iconic environmental places. There has been no action on any of these areas. We support the introduction of strong national environmental standards underpinned by legislation—which this bill doesn't provide—and these standards must ensure that all jurisdictions in Australia comply with the national standards and with our international obligations. This bill doesn't even have any standards in it. It does nothing to protect the environment; it just duplicates what's already in the act. This is not deregulation, and it's not protecting the environment.

The entire point of this bill and this act was to set standards and, unfortunately, the bill is not setting any standards. Without those standards, we on this side of the House simply cannot support this bill. Any proposal needs to have a strong role for the Commonwealth, especially when it comes to matters of national environmental significance, and the Commonwealth must retain the right and the ability to undertake assessments and approval of any matter of national environmental significance. This is crucial. Imagine what would have happened if the decision in respect to logging in the Daintree, drilling on the reef and the Franklin dam had been entirely left to the states. It took Labor, when we were in government in those days federally, to put a stop to this environmental vandalism. Labor is the only party in this House that is serious about protecting our environment. Our national environment is a driver of tens of thousands of jobs and, unfortunately, we've missed that opportunity.

Professor Samuel made it clear in his report that the Commonwealth must continue to have oversight of environmental protection, and I believe that the majority of Australians agree, especially when it comes to sites of national significance. That's why we're insisting on the establishment of an independent compliance watchdog with teeth which is genuinely independent and which will provide ongoing parliamentary scrutiny. I believe that Australians also agree. Australia cannot afford to allow the continued and alarming environmental decline that we have seen under this government.

11:49 am

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, you and some of our colleagues may have seen the movie Back to the Future. Do you remember that great American movie franchise in the eighties, the Back to the Future trilogy, with Marty McFly and Biff Tannen? It was a great set of movies—all those different versions of the future and the past. Well, this bill is a case of back to the future. It's a bit of a theme this week. We've had the return of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. What version are we going to get this time?

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would just caution the member for Wills that he'll refer to members by their appropriate names.

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Deputy Prime Minister—what version are we going to get this time? It's: 'What version of Biff Tannen are we going to get?' It's like when we watched the movies. It's all going to be a bit different, isn't it—slightly different but still somewhat horrifying as you're watching it unfold?

This bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, is another example of the government's theme of going back to the future, pushing everything way back into the past, if they can, to change the future. It's kind of a minimalist approach, isn't it, Mr Deputy Speaker? This government is pushing responsibility away from the Commonwealth and towards the states and territories. Are we going back to pre-Federation days, with power to the colonies? Is that the theme of this government? Actually, it's fast becoming the signature of this government. Whether it's the vaccine rollout or quarantine, it's about the federal government saying: 'It's not our responsibility. Let's give this to the states and territories.' We've got to wonder why the government keeps abrogating responsibility in so many areas. This bill is another example of this theme, if you like, of abrogation.

There are few areas more important than environmental protection. Ostensibly, much of the bill that has been presented for debate in this place has been driven by the second 10-yearly review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The review was undertaken by Professor Graeme Samuel, and we thank him for that work. In reality, however, this government doesn't want to make the necessary changes that were proposed by the Samuel review. It's worth repeating that, in the report, Professor Samuel found that the 1999 act:

… does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Clearly, he found that the legislation, which is more than 20 years old, is no longer fit for purpose and we should look at enhancing environmental protections based on the new evidence and expertise that has developed over the decades. The Samuel review, in its report, put forward a suite of 38 recommendations to improve the legislation. Unfortunately, we're not debating those recommendations, are we, Mr Deputy Speaker? The government—extraordinarily, cynically—has produced its own interim national environmental standards. Whether that's back to the future or back to the past, I'm not quite sure; I'm getting confused myself. But what I'm not confused about, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that the standards fall well short of any of the recommendations put forward by Professor Samuel.

I have established that this government wants to go back to interim standards that are actually as bad as when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister in this place. That's certainly going back to the future. These are the half-baked standards that we're actually debating today—something that was there seven or eight years ago. Fundamentally, the current proposals make no change to the existing flawed regulations. They are really just a reheated serving of former Prime Minister Abbott's failed 2014 one-stop-shop bill. It's interesting that the government will bend over backwards to hide—well, maybe not to hide but to take expert medical advice, as they should—when there are unpopular decisions to be made during a pandemic but suddenly know better when they receive expert environmental protection advice during what is probably the most critical time in our struggle to combat climate change and protect the environment. They know better and they write down their own standards—standards that were there 10 years ago.

I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there are probably a few members here who do not actually believe that climate change is happening or that we're going to see its catastrophic effects in our natural world, and they don't make protecting the environment as high a priority as they should. It's important to note, though, that in the Samuel review it was really made quite clear that decisions be made on the best available information. That sounds pretty good, doesn't it? That sounds like a sound evidence base for your policy development. Yet, the government don't like to source the best available information, because a lot of the time the actual information that's provided to them by the experts, by the scientists, actually is in raging disagreement with what the government want to do and where they're headed and what path they're taking. So, to get around this, the government just water down some of these recommendations so that they only source adequate information—I think that's the word they used: adequate information—ahead of making a decision. What does that even mean? Rather than the best available, they want adequate information. This is a government that's pressing on with its great noble and ambitious desire for adequacy! That's what this government is about: adequacy—'Let's not be the best. Let's just be adequate.' I think that's a nice way of saying mediocre, though I think it's even a bit of a stretch to call the government mediocre. But that's what they want to do.

Instead of showing national leadership, instead of taking responsibility and putting a firm hand on the wheel, which is necessary to guide and drive the protection of our environment, as a Labor government would do, this coalition government is instead pushing away all its responsibility, mitigating its risk, washing its hands of this and getting others to do the work and take the responsibility that it should be taking. This bill makes it clear that the Morrison government has no interest in the Commonwealth having the power to make such important decisions of national environmental significance. He wants the states to make those tough decisions to enact legislation they see fit to protect the environment, without any national guidelines or at least not with guidelines that are sourced or developed on the best available information. We might call them adequate guidelines. That would be the best way to describe what they're trying to do. We don't think that's good enough. As the parliament of Australia, for all of Australia, we must have responsibility and we must have a say on how we protect the environment.

This government, this coalition government, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government—I can't start naming the Deputy Prime Ministers; I'll run out of time—has vacated the field on any form, any semblance of environmental leadership. Under this government, our natural environment actually goes backwards. Tony Abbott, when he was Prime Minister, tried to strip areas of world heritage protection. Malcolm Turnbull, for all of his pontificating as Prime Minister and his demonstrative, or performative, element of showing how progressive he was, took the largest step backwards in conservation by any government anywhere in the world by stripping back Australia's marine parks. He also awarded nearly half a billion dollars to a small private foundation instead of directly investing in restoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef. That was his decision; that was this government's decision. And Scott Morrison, as Prime Minister, has virtually turned add blind eye to what's happening in the Murray-Darling Basin. Of course, we've all seen the pictures of him throwing around lumps of coal in the parliament as a stunt.

This government has presided over an explosion of 510 per cent in job and investment delays through environmental decision blowouts. A staggering 95 per cent of environmental approval decisions were delivered late and outside statutory time frames in 2018 and 2019, and environmental decisions contained errors or were noncompliant in 79 per cent of approvals. Surely even this government sees that asking legislators to blindly extend regulations we've been told are failing is not something that we should be considering.

Now, on our side of the House we do have a plan to protect Australia's unique and precious environment and ecosystems. At the last election, we committed to establishing an environmental protection agency, an EPA. This agency would be charged with protecting oceans, rivers, bush, coastlines and native species, and it would bring, frankly, Australia in line with many western democracies, including the United States. It was actually Richard Nixon, a Republican president, who established the United States of America's EPA 50 years ago. Where are we?

Labor took to the last federal election a plan to strengthen our environmental laws so that they factor in climate and water impacts. It has been Labor governments that have protected our environment over the generations. We know the history there. It was a Labor government that created the environmental protection laws and Labor governments that acted to protect Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. As an opposition, Labor has called on the Morrison government to introduce strong national environmental standards, to establish a genuinely independent cop on the beat for Australia's environment and to fix the explosion of unnecessary job and investment delays caused by the government's massive funding cuts in this space.

This is a flawed bill and the government know it. They've wilfully and consciously watered down most of Professor Samuel's recommendations. They're seeking to give ministers more power to make whatever decisions they want, regardless of environmental impact and based only on 'adequate' advice—not the best available advice, just the adequate advice. Let's all just be adequate, not strive for the best. They've ensured that the new Environment Assurance Commissioner will be toothless, with no practical powers. Despite these very obvious shortcomings, these underhanded tactics to water down Australia's environmental regulations, they've asked us to trust them—trust that they can do the job to protect Australia's environment. That's what they're asking for, and they're asking this despite their woeful track record on the environment.

I don't trust the government to protect Australia's environment. I don't trust them on environmental protection. I think the Australian people don't trust them on these matters. I don't trust the government to welcome oversight and advice that they should be taking—the best possible advice from environmental experts and scientists. They just won't do it. They're much happier to degrade it down to adequate advice which suits them. I don't trust the minister to make decisions to put the people, the wildlife, the animals and the land ahead of corporate interests. I just flat out don't trust this government, and that's why we are opposing this bill.

12:02 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. May I start by thanking the many people, organisations and communities around Australia who submitted to the Samuel review and put on the record their concerns about our track record of protecting the environment, as well as the many who have engaged with me and my office in relation to this legislation and these amendments. I would remind my colleagues in this place that many, many people are watching what you are doing in this place.

This bill will make significant changes to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. For 20 years this act has been Australia's primary national environmental law. It is key to protecting Australia's wildlife, its heritage and its fauna, and it must do so because Australia is blessed. We are unique. We are a continent with the most amazing diversity of unique plants and animals in the world. Rather than taking that for granted, we need to celebrate it, respect it, ensure that we conserve it and ensure that we protect it. From the quokkas on the sandy beaches of Western Australia to the kookaburra's laugh you can hear as you walk to work, Australian wildlife is unique and so, so precious. It is so easy to take for granted that we have it. It's only in moments of dire circumstance, like the bushfires of 2019, that you're reminded of how precarious it can be. The scientists in the field see it a lot, but for most people it was only those incredible images of our wildlife fleeing and burning that really reminded us what it means to be Australian, what is unique about our fauna and flora, our animals in Australia—and that people care. You only had to see the outpouring of support and donations to help protect and assist with the wildlife and the animal rescues to know how much Australians do care about that part of their environment.

Australian wildlife is under threat from man-made climate change, deforestation, predation by feral cats and invasive species. We have so many aspects that we need to take care of through this legislation to ensure that we protect it. That is our responsibility and duty to future generations. We are at a crucial point. Species are going extinct every year. Populations of animals are being decimated. This is supercharged by events like the bushfires. If we don't reverse course, if we don't, in this place, start to put some value on this and show respect, we stand to lose what makes Australia a global natural treasure. There is no doubt about it: if we don't change course and we don't implement some strong protections, that is the course we're taking. Our grandchildren will only know about unique plants and animals of Australia through pictures in a book or on a computer screen, or through those left over in museums and zoos. They will not exist in nature.

Many Australians care deeply about our environment and want us in this place to be doing our utmost to protect it. There have been so many emails from constituents. This issue has absolutely galvanised people. In every survey and at every touchpoint with the electorate, people—from children to adults to retirees; they're of all political persuasions, and all ages and demographics—always list the environment, the health of our environment and the uniqueness of our environment, as the No. 1 issue to be protected. It's the No. 1 issue for schools. I'm always astounded by the passion and the knowledge our children have about this, because they know what is so precious and what is at risk. Young people, I would say, are so much more environmentally conscious than anyone in this place, and certainly me and my peers when I was at the same age. We simply didn't have that education to remind us what was at risk, what we were at risk of losing if we blindly followed a path of not properly protecting it.

It is extraordinary that the government, after such a lengthy review and after such a detailed report from Graeme Samuel, would propose a suite of bills that are entirely insufficient. They ultimately do nothing to really protect the environment. We heard many times in this place that it was about cutting green tape, because that green tape is really getting in the way of developments and progress. They're completely overlooking the price that will be paid if that is the focus. There has to be the right balance. I was really hoping the minister would take a better approach to this, but, unfortunately, this bill is cementing the Morrison government's poor record on the environment. And the irony is that we are debating this bill a day after UNESCO warned Australia that the Great Barrier Reef may be classified as 'in danger'. The reef is one of the most unbelievable treasures of the world, a source of huge amounts of revenue to Australia because of the tourism and industry that surrounds it, and yet it is in danger because we are failing to properly protect it.

The Samuel review was extensive. Professor Graeme Samuel was appointed by the Minister for the Environment to do that independent review of our Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The review was really clear. It found that, in the current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand the threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable. Samuel slammed the performance of the act. He said:

The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

The review had 38 recommendations to improve the performance of the act. Some have been agreed to by the government. But key to those recommendations were the protections that needed to be implemented. Sadly, they are lacking; they are what is missing in this bill today. He recommended the streamlining of environmental approvals by accrediting the states and territories to make those decisions. I appreciate that this is trying to reduce green tape, or to accelerate that process of approval. But let's be clear: that can only occur—and it is the Commonwealth's responsibility—if we have assurances of clear standards that are going to be maintained. Unfortunately, policies change so much from state to state, and states have a vested interest in allowing developments to go ahead. They don't always give environmental concerns at least the same billing, or above, and make sure those protections occur.

Underpinning Graeme Samuel's recommendation were supposed to be national environmental standards and an environmental assurance commissioner, as well as an office of compliance and enforcement to ensure that the standards were complied with. These recommendations are key; they're not just 'might be nice to have'. They're key to anything in this proposal actually working. The report spoke a lot about regaining the trust of the Australian public and stakeholders in the act. Samuel felt that the community and industry do not currently trust the EPBC Act and that the regulatory system which underpins its implementation is lacking. Maintaining and enhancing trust must mean that transparency has to come from any reform.

Unfortunately, the Morrison government rammed the first tranche of reforms—the one-touch approvals—through in a single day of parliament, without allowing people to speak on them, without allowing debate and without allowing even the moving of amendments in the consideration in detail stage. It was a shameful episode for the Minister for the Environment to come into this place and push through the suspension of standing orders to go straight through the bill without even a consideration in detail process. Many in the community have written to me, absolutely despairing about those occurrences and the situation we have with the weakening of environmental laws by the government. It's really incredibly disappointing that the incredible images we saw in 2019 and 2020 with the bushfires have not moved the government to take this on board and actually ensure that we implement the protections necessary.

Now we're debating the next tranche of reforms. Graeme Samuel recommended several preconditions to accrediting states and territories with approvals. The precondition that was most important was the national environmental standards. These are the centrepiece of the reforms. According to the review report, they:

… describe the outcomes that contribute to effective environmental protection and management as well as the fundamental processes that are needed to support the effective implementation of the EPBC Act.

Further, the standards should be:

… relevant to all decision-makers operating or accredited under the EPBC Act.

They should ensure that the Commonwealth requirements and obligations for environmental approval and other decisions are upheld, regardless of which jurisdiction makes an approval decision. We're bound under a number of international treaties and yet we're devolving everything to the states, without a national environmental standard.

Schedule 1 of this bill introduces powers for the making of the standards. I welcome the power to make the standards, but it has to be improved to actually give us some certainty. Several clauses need complete reworking. Subclause 65H(1) provides that decisions must not be inconsistent with the standards. But then straight after that, in 65H(7), we have a public interest exemption that allows for the circumvention of this requirement. So you can get around the fact of needing to comply with standards under public interest. And there's no definition of 'public interest'. It's always in the detail that you can see the flaws. That leaves extraordinary room to just ignore the standards. Not only is the government handing over the decision to the states but it's also giving them the defence that they don't even need to comply with the standards if they can say it's in the public interest. Clause 65G provides for review of the standards, which is important. However, there's no real requirement that the review be conducted by an independent expert—just 'persons'. Again, where is the transparency that Graeme Samuel says is so important for this reform to work?

There also needs to be a public consultation phase in any review. Clause 65H(2) provides that, in assessing whether a decision is not inconsistent with the standards, various activities, including government programs and policies, can be taken into consideration. So the assessment criteria are unnecessarily broad and further weaken scrutiny. Under the current wording, anything could be considered relevant by the decision-makers, ultimately. The Law Council of Australia has pointed to the problems in 65H(1) and 65H(4), stating that there is uncertainty regarding the potential for certain processes and decisions to be excluded from the application of standards under this power. It absolutely needs to go back to the drawing board. Given the government's record on the reef and on so many aspects of our environmental protection and given the events only this week with the change of leadership of the Nationals, there is clearly no consensus on environmental protection within the coalition party room. Our national environmental standards cannot be left to secret negotiations behind closed doors. Minister Ley should be putting these forward as part of this reform so that we can have certainty about what the standards are going to be.

Recommendation 23 is for the establishment of a new independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner. That is important in providing independent monitoring and auditing and transparent public reporting on the operational and administrative performance of all parties. It really is important that these things be implemented. So many recommendations from the Samuel review have been overlooked and ignored by the government. How can we be assured that there will, ultimately, be the kind of environmental protections that are necessary? The government has cherry-picked recommendations and has failed to put forward the consensus and the full extent of the protections that Graeme Samuel requested and strongly recommended.

We need to have provisions in relation to the standards, and I will be moving amendments to that effect in the consideration in detail stage to ensure that we have those. We cannot afford for these reforms to go wrong. It is incredible to think that anyone in this place who is a member of the 46th Parliament would like to be named as part of the generation and the parliament that failed to protect Australia's wildlife, plants and uniqueness—animals like koalas that are likely to become endangered and unable to survive in the wild. That will be a huge, huge stain on everyone in this place if it's allowed to happen.

12:17 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am proud to stand with Labor and oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 today. The Morrison government should withdraw it and, instead, propose real reform in keeping with the recommendations of the Samuel review.

In my first speech in this place, I spoke about how my first experience of activism was actually environmental activism, sparked when I saw land-clearing in a rainforest which sent koalas fleeing for refuge into my parents' front yard in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. For the past 30 years, I have lived in the electorate of Corangamite in Victoria, and I continue to love, and fight for, Australia's environment—our beautiful country, our incredible wildlife, our magnificent ocean and waterways and our amazing big blue sky. That love continues to motivate my work in this place. I know that people in my community are also extraordinarily passionate about protecting our environment. In recent weeks and months, I've had more than 500 individuals and groups contact my office about the government's proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, contained in this bill. This is the message that the members of my communities want the Prime Minister and the Morrison government to hear loud and clear: they do not want our environmental protections watered down, they do not want a return to failed Abbott-era policies and they certainly do not want the Commonwealth to give up on our environment. But the evidence is in. Yesterday, UNESCO released its draft decision to include the Great Barrier Reef on its endangered list. Tragically, instead of protecting our iconic environmental assets, like the Great Barrier Reef, the Morrison government has decided to wage ideological warfare on our environment, on climate change, on zero net emissions by 2050, on biodiversity and on protecting our native species—and, with that, the millions of jobs in tourism and small business that rely on healthy, sustainable environments.

This bill would hand decision-making and approval powers to the states, which could directly impact protection of threatened species and habitats. It puts the onus not on the federal government but on the states to make decisions without proper resourcing. Put simply, the Morrison government is abdicating its responsibility with this legislation, providing no improvements to environmental protections. It could not be worse. It is a resurrection of Tony Abbott's failed one-stop-shop reforms and, if passed, its measures will represent the most significant change to the EPBC Act this century. This legislation would be bad for the environment, it would be bad for business and it would be bad for jobs. It fails every single test, and it is a fail for this complacent, eight-year-old government, which has the dubious honour of being a world leader in mammal extinction.

The EPBC Act is our principal instrument of federal environmental law. Its second 10-yearly statutory review was conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel. Professor Samuel found that Australia's natural environment and iconic places, like those in my electorate, are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. Professor Samuel said:

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 … will exacerbate pressures, contributing to further decline. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

This finding is not surprising. Even before the recent horrific bushfires, Australia was in the midst of an extinction crisis. So many animals, like the tiger quoll and the koala in my area, are at risk. Since the fires, over one billion animals have died. Professor Samuel also found that the current EPBC Act is woefully ineffective, saying:

It does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important to Australia. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

He pointed out:

Fundamental reform of national environmental law is required, and new, legally enforceable National Environmental Standards should be the foundation. Standards should be granular and measurable, providing flexibility for development, without compromising environmental sustainability.

When the government publicly released Professor Samuel's interim report in July last year, the Minister for the Environment said that the government would introduce strong, rigorous environmental standards that had 'buy-in across the board'. Well, yet again, we see this government failing to deliver, but this time it is our environment at stake.

It is important to note that the national environmental standards have been released but all they do is replicate the obligations under the current provisions. The bill also sets up an independent audit capacity but it will not be truly independent and will not have sufficient powers to do its job anyway. What a lack of vision! What utter complacency! What a sad day for our environment.

The Morrison government's bill is just a rehash of Tony Abbott's failed 2014 approach, putting the environment, jobs and investment at risk. It is remarkable that a government that calls itself conservative is shrinking its responsibility to conserve and protect this country's natural heritage for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. Instead of resurrecting failed Abbott-era policies, the Morrison government should start to fix the problems that Professor Samuel has identified and which Australians are witnessing every day. This means introducing strong national environmental standards, establishing a genuinely independent cop on the beat for Australia's environment, and fixing the explosion in unnecessary job and investment delays caused by this government's massive funding cuts.

I am so fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. Corangamite contains some of the most famous beaches in our nation, including Bells Beach, Fairhaven and Thirteenth Beach on the Bellarine and Swan Bay in Queenscliff, to name just a few. From the stunning waterfalls and tree ferns in the Otways to Lake Elizabeth near Forrest and the Ramsar wetlands in the Bellarine, my electorate is nothing short of spectacular. Everyone in our community is proud of our environment. Driving along the heritage listed Great Ocean Road is a wonderful reminder of just how lucky we are to live in Australia. The steep cliffs that ribbon the coast, the golden sand, the massive stands of eucalypts and the sound of crashing waves below—it takes your breath away every time. Often in this chamber we debate matters that might seem abstract. But what is at stake in this debate is all too clear. It's our parks, our beaches, our native animals, our World Heritage sites and our forests. It's our communities and it's their livelihoods. Our environment is 100 per cent intertwined with jobs and our economy. We need one to sustain the other. Each year prior to COVID more than six million visitors came down the Great Ocean Road to explore our scenic wonders and spend locally.

I know that my community would not be the same without the incredible natural environment around us. Our beaches, forest and coastline create and sustain jobs in our region. They bring people to the area for work, to visit and to live. As the population expands in my region, there is growing pressure on our environment to keep jobs, to keep the millions of tourists visiting the region and to keep our way of life. We need to ensure we protect our natural environment. This includes the vistas to the ocean, the green belts between townships and our extraordinary coastline. So much is riding on it, including jobs. Today I want to share with you some of the feedback I've received from local residents and groups about the government's proposed changes and how important it is for us to fix our environmental laws. Many who wrote to me were angry and despairing about this government's lacklustre performance on the environment and the EPBC Act. Marilyn, a voter in my electorate, said, 'I'm extremely concerned we will end up with weaker environmental protections than we currently have.' Marilyn is just one of hundreds of constituents who have urged me to stand here today and oppose this bill. Annie asked me to 'not pass the buck on Australia's extinction crisis'. A young businesswoman, Elle, told me it was my duty to protect our most vulnerable wildlife. I agree with her; it is my duty, it is our legacy.

To quote another constituent, Tony said, 'Only together can we stop Australia's extinction crisis.' But we can't do this without strong environmental protections. We need a plan to stop the extinction of much-loved animals like my region's hooded plover. We need a plan to halt coastal erosion. We need a plan to clean up and sustain our waterways for the next generation. We need a plan to protect our iconic wonders, like the Twelve Apostles, from invasive exploratory drilling. I want to thank the many organisations and individuals who wrote to me, phoned me and got in touch with me about this bill. Your stories are powerful and your commitment to our local environment is nothing short of extraordinary. Labor is and will continue to be committed to protecting the environment. Every major achievement in environmental protection in this nation's history has been delivered by a Labor government. We protected Antarctica. We protected the Daintree and Kakadu. We protected the Great Barrier Reef and the Franklin, and Labor created Landcare.

Going forward, Labor will fight for laws and policies that conserve biodiversity, protect the environment and address the extinction crisis. Labor will reduce the unnecessary delays in decision-making so that appropriate projects can go ahead sooner and ensure high-quality decision-making so that decisions are made lawfully and well, with science at the centre, while respecting First Nations people's authority and knowledge, including the Wathaurong and Eastern Maar people in my electorate. Finally, we will have robust policy that tackles climate change head-on.

The impact on biodiversity, our ecosystems and our environment will be catastrophic if we do nothing. I will continue to be a passionate advocate for environmental protection, because our coast, our local species, our forests, our communities and our jobs in Corangamite rely on it.

12:30 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. There are lots of things we love to talk about in Australia, where we say our country is punching above its weight, and we celebrate every time we appear on the podium internationally. But there's one place where we're coming first that shames us as a country: Australia is the world leader in mammal extinction. More species of mammals die here than anywhere else. We're also a place that has the first recorded and attributed climate change extinction—species going extinct because of the growing climate crisis. We aren't just in a climate emergency; we are in a climate and extinction emergency. We are at a point in history where, if we don't act, we are going to see the fellow species that we inhabit this wonderful planet with wiped out at a rate that we have never ever seen before. They are already being wiped out, but worse is still to come. In Australia there's something this parliament can do about it. There's something this parliament can do to ensure that the other species we share this land called Australia with are protected.

Most people would think that if you have a piece of legislation called 'the environment protection act' it does what it says on the tin—that it protects the environment. But it doesn't at the moment, and we know that not just because wilderness and environment and conservation campaigners have been pointing it out, and pleading with us for ages to do something about the fact that we are wiping out species at a rate of knots; the government's own commissioned inquiry told us that. The government commissioned an independent inquiry, and it found that there are holes in the legislation big enough for whole species to fall through. It is the reason we see development approval after development approval end up with species going extinct—with, as I said, mammals going extinct the fastest; Australia has become the world leader there.

The independent review told us we need legislation that puts in place strong minimum standards, and it backed in many respects what the Greens have been saying for some time—that we do not have a strong set of minimum standards. Not only that; we also devolve too many decisions to state governments. A big problem with that is that state governments are the ones most often captured by the big developers. The developers take those developer donations, and come in and say, 'We want to bulldoze this area of land, we want to mine this area and we want to blow up that area, and, by the way, here's a bit of money to be donated to your political party.' It's the state governments that very often go rogue and have to be reined in, because they're in the pockets of the big corporations and the developers that do things that see species go extinct. That's what came out in the review. It made it clear that too often not only do we not have any standards but we're letting the wrong people make the decisions about protecting our environment. The review also told us we don't have a tough cop on the beat. We have these weak standards. We devolved so many of the decisions to the people who are actually the problem in the first place and who are captured by the big corporations and the billionaires, but then we don't have a tough cop on the beat to come in to check that those weak standards are being complied with.

The government's own independent report came back to it and said: 'Fix those things. Put in place strong standards and have a tough cop on the beat.' What does the government do? The government says: 'Well, we'll cherry-pick some of that. We won't take the strong standards bit. We won't take the "tough cop on the beat" bit. What we might do is pass legislation that gives even more power to those state governments that should have less power to begin with.' The first piece of legislation that the government came to us with was to say, 'Let's contract out even more of it to the state governments.' It's no surprise that this parliament has said no to that so far. It has said: 'We can't support that. You cannot support going against the spirit of your own report.' The minister said at the time: 'Well, no, it's okay. We promise to fix it up. We promise that there'll be strong national standards in place. Just take our word for it.' Of course, there's no reason to trust this government when it comes to stopping the extinction crisis and stopping the climate and environment emergency that we're facing.

Then the government says: 'We'll tell you what we'll do. We'll introduce a bill about standards.' A few of us thought, 'Well, you've got an independent report that says "lift the standards to protect Australia's environment", so maybe this bill is going to do that.' But this bill that we've been debating today does nothing of the sort. All it says is, 'We're going to take the existing inadequate standards that are in the legislation, that've been roundly criticised by everyone, including the government's own hand-picked reviewer, and we're just going to put it in a new bill and legislate those, but still leave pretty much everything up to the discretion of the minister.' This is an attempt at a fig leaf that, on any reading, completely fails to do what the independent review asked and what environment groups, wilderness and conservation campaigners and scientists have been saying for ages is needed.

You only have to listen to what the Academy of Science said when this bill was being inquired into by the Senate to understand just how terrible this is. The expert evidence from the Academy of Science about the so-called standards in this bill was this: 'The standards that are now proposed as interim standards are not scientifically credible.' It is staggering that, after this massive review process and all of these submissions, the government bowls up a bill called the standards and assurances bill to protect the environment, and the scientists tell us it is not scientifically credible. It's not surprising, because this government, like the state governments, takes donations from the billionaires and big corporations that are wrecking our environment. So it's no wonder they come up with a bill that scientists say is not scientifically credible.

The Humane Society International and the Environmental Defenders Office, having reviewed the latest version of the National Environment Standards tabled by the department on 30 April of this year, told the committee that: 'The latest versions of the standards have further weakened possible environmental outcomes.' So the expert evidence is, again, not only that the standards have no scientific credibility but that the standards might even potentially weaken environmental outcomes. The National Environmental Science Program's Threatened Species Recovery Hub summed up the overarching problem very succinctly when they appeared before the Senate committee. Talking about these standards, this piece of legislation, they said:

I see no basis to be enthusiastic about where this would leave us. I think it's going to leave us, at best, in the same position we're in, which is a parlous state. We are in the middle of an extinction crisis.

When our environment, our koalas, our precious wildlife is under such threat, what does the government do? It bowls up a piece of legislation that the scientists say has no scientific credibility and that the analysts say will not halt the extinction crisis. At best, they tell us, it's going the leave us where we are now, and, at worst, it will take us backwards. Still the government refuses to implement that other recommendation of the inquiry and have a tough cop on the beat, because then they'd know standards might actually have to be enforced.

We have an appalling situation in this country where it's possible for a big corporation or a developer, while they are awaiting an approval from the environment minister for their project to go ahead, to make a donation to that environment minister's political party. Because we have this terrible situation in this country where billionaires and big corporations make these donations to the big political parties, the big political parties then put in ministers who have weak pieces of legislation. The government can then be making decisions about projects at the very same time as money is being paid to their political parties, through the back door, in the form of political donations. That is what is contributing to us being the world leader in mammal extinction. That is why we are in an extinction crisis. What we need is legislation that introduces the tough environmental standards that the scientists have been calling for, that ensures that we have got a tough cop on the beat and that doesn't let the rogue state governments who are so easily captured by the developers and big corporations that are wrecking our environment make the decisions about whether to approve projects or not.

This is a bad bill. The government needs to go back and read its own independent report more closely—not just pick particular recommendations but understand the holes that were being pointed out in the legislation—and come back to this parliament with legislation that introduces the best possible environmental standards to stop our species going extinct. But that's not this piece of legislation. This piece of legislation, as it is, will do nothing to halt the extinction crisis that we are in and may well, in fact, accelerate it.

12:43 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I disagree with the member for Melbourne: I don't think this is a bad bill; I think it's a terrible bill. It's an appalling piece of legislation. Yes, it will do some things. Yes, it will give the minister power to set environmental standards. But let's look at that for a moment. The proposed requirements for environmental standards are weak and unclear. The power to make standards is discretionary. Definitions of key terms are missing, and review requirements are vague. It would allow the government's weak interim standards to remain in place indefinitely, and environmental groups, lawyers and experts have consistently rejected the government's proposed standards, which just reflect the failing legislation we already have in place.

Yes, the bill will establish the Environmental Assurance Commissioner, but let's look at that for a moment. The commissioner would be limited to a 'general' audit with no power to investigate proponents, to compel information or to investigate individual decisions related to projects. There is no compliance or enforcement power for the commissioner, and the minister has input into work plans, meaning the commissioner isn't properly independent. The commissioner can't conduct unplanned audits. There are no requirements for particular expertise or qualifications for the commissioner. There are poor public disclosure conflict-of-interest requirements. And it's a far cry from the strong cop on the beat recommended, quite wisely, in Professor Samuel's interim report. In fact, in essence, the commissioner that we would get from this piece of legislation is a toothless tiger, one that will basically ensure business as usual. I think I've made myself quite clear: this is a terrible piece of legislation. So, in response, I'm going to move an amendment. I move:

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


(1) noting that the bill:

(a) does the bare minimum by giving the Minister unclear, discretionary powers to create weak environmental standards with poor oversight;

(b) establishes a watered-down Environmental Assurance Commissioner with limited powers and little independence, which is a far cry from the strong cop on the beat recommended by Professor Graeme Samuel AC in his Interim Report of the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999; and

(c) will do little to protect Australia's precious environment or reverse the current extinction crisis;

(2) the House:

(a) declines to give the bill a second reading; and

(b) calls on the Government to instead pass the Commonwealth Environment Protection Authority Bill 2021, which sets up a completely independent body with the power to strengthen environmental regulation, ensure accountability and achieve real environmental outcomes".

In essence, what I'm proposing is that the parliament ditch this terrible piece of legislation and instead adopt the Commonwealth Environment Protection Authority Bill that I tabled and spoke about in this place in March 2021. That bill, a much superior bill, would ensure that the EPA would be created, which would effectively and transparently exercise the administrative functions currently held by the Commonwealth concerning the EPBC Act, as well as any other federal legislation relating to the environment. This would include issuing approvals, granting permits, auditing environmental impact assessments and monitoring postapproval impacts. The EPA I propose will have the power to undertake both systemic and individual investigations into applications, environmental impact statements or any other documents received in support of an application. Moreover, the EPA I propose will have the power to terminate an approval or even issue a stop-work order in circumstances where serious environmental harm has been caused or is imminent. Importantly, the EPA I propose will also have a call-in power for monitoring, compliance and enforcement even when a state or territory bilateral agreement has been made. Moreover, the EPA I propose will be headed by an appropriately qualified CEO who is independently appointed for a fixed term and supported by a newly established parliamentary joint committee on the environment and energy. And, to avoid even the perception of bias, the senior staff will be prevented from having any potential conflicts of interest, including employment as a politician or lobbyist in the five years preceding appointment to the EPA.

I call on both major parties—the government and the opposition—to support the bill that I propose through this amendment. What I propose is practical, has community support and will deliver real outcomes for our environment.

This is not a contentious proposal. Regularly, independent statutory watchdogs are created to oversee complex areas of policy or where there is a risk of bias, corruption or conflicts of interest. Communications and media companies are overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Consumer Law is overseen by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission is charged with looking after markets and financial services. I've been working with my crossbench colleagues for years to establish an independent commission against corruption to clean up our political institutions and to tackle corruption. So now, when we're seeing the imminent collapse of precious ecosystems, when Australia is a world leader in extinctions and when we're already facing unprecedented threats from climate change, a strong independent regulator is more important than ever. But a strong independent regulator will not be the outcome of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, which is before us today.

The bill I propose we pursue through this amendment is supported by Places You Love Alliance, a group of key environmental groups which represent communities across the country. This includes groups like World Wildlife Fund Australia, the Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation, BirdLife Australia, Humane Society International and Environmental Justice Australia. I leave the amendment before the House, and I ask for the support of both the government and the opposition. It is not too late to abandon this legislation that the government brings to the House and to chart a different course, to instead be fair dinkum about looking after our environment, to arrest the extinction crisis, to take the power to intervene away from the government and give it to a genuinely independent body, made up of experts with no conflicts of interests, who can intervene, have punitive powers and who can genuinely look after our environment across the whole of the country. They can certainly do a much better job than what's being done currently by state and territory governments.

On that point, I'd make the observation that the Tasmanian government is doing a dreadful job of looking after the Tasmanian environment and the Tasmanian natural environment. That's why we need a strong cop on the beat at the federal level, just like we already have strong cops on the beat to look after any number of other matters. I will leave it there. I look to the government and the opposition to support this amendment, and then we'll be charting a much more effective course into the future.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

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

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

12:52 pm

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to support the amendment moved by the shadow environment minister, Terri Butler. We can't say any louder than we have been that Labor wants to work constructively with the government on getting a decent set of environmental laws. We have reached out our hand to the government but we can't force the government to take our hand on this matter. So we're left with a rehash of old legislation put forward by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a bill that failed then and fails now not only because it puts Australia's natural environment at greater risk but also because it puts jobs and investment at risk. We are very clear that this needs to be a piece of legislation that provides for the long term, that gives stability and that is a win-win. Our environment has to win out of this. But people who are looking to have projects assessed also have to have certainty out of it.

When we look at why this matters, we really have to look at the state of play that we have at the moment. There are some extremely serious challenges before the government, and the environment is not the least of those. I turn to the words of Professor Graeme Samuel, hardly a bleeding lefty, a greenie or any of those terms that those opposite like to throw around; he is an eminent Australian whose background is in regulation, through the ACCC and business. This is what he has said to the government:

Australia's natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat.

He goes on to say:

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.

I just want to say that again:

In its current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand these threats.

He goes on to say:

The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.

Those are Professor Samuel's words, through his review of the EPBC Act, and it is so obvious from the language that he uses that we have a need for immediate action to be taken.

I have a personal interest in this, given that I, along with my constituents, live in the middle of World Heritage, an area that the world identifies as being exceptional and unique. The World Heritage Greater Blue Mountains Area covers more than 10,000 square kilometres. The reason it has been declared World Heritage is the exceptional diversity of eucalypts. It's estimated that there are about 91 different eucalypts found in the World Heritage Greater Blue Mountains Area. There are outstanding examples of how those eucalypts have evolved and adapted on our continent. We have a wide range of habitats, from wet and dry sclerophyll forests to woodlands, mallee heathlands, grasslands and localised swamps. Besides the eucalypts, we also have primitive plant species such as the Wollemi pine.

That means, of course, that we have exceptional animals as well, which live in and around our eucalypts, and the flora is extraordinary. From a fauna perspective, 400 species have been recorded in our World Heritage area, everything from koalas and red-necked wallabies to squirrel gliders, platypus, tiger quolls, echidnas, gliders, eastern grey kangaroos and mountain brushtail possums—I don't think they're going to be on the endangered list soon, but many of other ones are, especially koalas. We also have rare reptiles and amphibians, such as the Blue Mountains water skink and the green and golden belt frog. We have 4,000 moths and 120 butterfly species. We're considered to be an important bird area, with a high number of significant bird species, such as flame robins, glossy black-cockatoos, white-browed babblers, white-eared honeyeaters, superb lyrebirds and diamond firetails.

It is an extraordinary place. It's spread over a large area, but each separate habitat is vital for the survival of those species. Of course, the bushfires have affected that area really badly. A total of 79 per cent of the World Heritage Greater Blue Mountains Area was burnt in the 2019-20 fires. That's 855,000 hectares that was burnt, and there were consequences of that. People say, 'Well, the bush bounces back really easily.' No, this bush hasn't bounced back very easily in every area. There's still black as far as the eye can see in some valleys, and we know it has a really long way to go. But, in terms of the impact on native fauna, the estimate is that 15 million mammals, excluding bats, 17 million birds and 110 million reptiles died. That's a shocking toll, and I have to say that I think we've done very little. This government has done very little to properly audit and then look at how we recover from some of the losses that have been experienced there.

When you look at this legislation and you think about the things that we're facing, that was just one natural disaster. Yes, it was one of the worst fires we've ever seen—the largest fire the world has seen from a single ignition point—but we know that those fires are coming increasingly frequently. We know that they're bigger. We know they're wilder. Therefore, there's even greater reason for us to have strong environmental and biodiversity protections.

The Australian government has acknowledged that 13 of our endemic species, including 12 mammals and the first reptile known to have been lost since European colonisation, are gone. It puts us in the shameful position—I've heard it described as 'unenviable', but actually it's shameful—of being No. 1 in the world for mammal extinctions, lifting to 34 the total number of mammals that are known to have died out. When I looked into this, no other country is even close to us. We've really excelled at this, and that is a disgrace. The updated list of extinct animals means that more than 10 per cent of the 320 land mammals known to have lived in Australia in 1788 are extinct, and we've managed to lose that 10 per cent in a really short time frame. I'd like to see laws that slow down and, ideally, reverse that process, but these laws don't offer us the sorts of protections that we need. These laws don't strengthen what we have. They do nothing to help reverse these trends.

We all know that koalas could soon be listed as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT because those populations in particular were smashed by the bushfires. In my own area, a couple that were rescued have now been re-released. We had one of the few chlamydia-free koala populations, but they have taken such a hit that no-one really knows whether they will be able to come back from it. What we do know, though, is that koalas could be extinct in New South Wales by 2050 unless urgent action is taken, yet here we have a piece of legislation that indicates no sense of urgency about the threats that we are facing. Even the kids at Winmalee Public School have a greater sense of urgency. I want to commend them for the work they've done just recently with a koala expert, Dr Kellie Leigh. They've been working to plant habitat that is considered one of the favourites for koalas. This is a mass planting at Deanei Reserve in Springwood. Well done to the Winmalee Public School kids! It's the school my children went to, and I know there has always been a strong sense of wanting to protect and enhance the environment that their school nestles in, with their suburb surrounded by a World Heritage area.

While we're talking about environment laws, I also think it's significant what the world expects of us. There are certain expectations that the laws that are put in place, both in this place and in New South Wales, are actually there to enhance our World Heritage area. It isn't any surprise to see that the New South Wales government has been asked by UNESCO to submit the environmental impact study on its plan to raise the Warragamba Dam wall so that it can be reviewed before final approval. They're concerned about the damage the project will do to wildlife and Indigenous culture in the World Heritage area. That's the latest request. It aligns with the concerns that the UN body has about areas like the Great Barrier Reef, which they consider to be in significant danger. These aren't just minor issues. We're not in a grey zone here; we're in a really clear zone where there are threats and where there are projects that create ongoing threats. There's the threat that the community and the wildlife faces from the flight paths of the new Western Sydney airport. We don't even know where those flight paths are going to be. Will the sound impact this World Heritage area in a way that nothing ever has before, and what will that do? Maybe not in the first week or in the first year, but, over a long period of time, what environmental consequences will there be in an area considered to be exceptional?

Those are some of the reasons why this legislation is inadequate. It's also inadequate because Australians have to have confidence that, when a project is put forward, it can be assessed in a reasonable time frame. Every single unnecessary delay in a project that has an environmental impact is a delay for that investment and therefore a delay for the jobs. We've been really consistent in the discussions about this review. We've been critical of the government's failures to make decisions on time, but consistent in saying that you need a piece of legislation that enables those processes to happen efficiently. And yet this legislation fails to do that. What we'd like to see, of course, is a government that's willing to work with us on this. I don't understand why a government that uses the word 'bipartisan', throws it around so happily, is unable to actually put it into effect.

An opposition member: Because it doesn't know what it actually means.

Maybe it doesn't know what it actually means. More likely, it knows what it means but just doesn't care and always wants to politicise what is going on, rather than acting in the best interests of the country. What we see as a consequence of this legislation, should it go through unamended, is that it's likely to lead to even more problems, not less, for investment and for jobs. We're not the only ones who have made this assessment; it's in statements from resources peak bodies and from businesses that recognise that it is inadequate legislation. I really urge the government to rethink this legislation. We are still offering to work constructively on it. How about we come up with something that is actually agreed by this parliament, across the aisle, so that it has longevity? We all want our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren to enjoy the environment that we have been gifted in Australia. But legislation like this will just continue to allow it to be trashed, and I blame the Morrison government for doing that.

1:06 pm

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

I'm very pleased to speak against the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 because it's dangerous. It aims to sacrifice the interests of the Australian environment at a critical time for the political interests of this hopeless, reckless coalition government. Anyone who votes for it is condemning Australia's biodiversity to further harm at a time of enormous risk. Anyone who argues for it has been sucked into this government's cheap self-serving game. The most important task when it comes to the EPBC Act is to fix it so that we get effective environmental and heritage protection. Why? Because quite clearly we don't have that now. After eight years, three terms, of this government we have a failed environmental protection system which is leading to animal extinctions. It's leading to coral bleaching. It's leading to marine heatwaves. It's leading to the destruction of ecosystems around this country. The No. 1 imperative of this government, when it comes to the EPBC Act, should be ensuring that that environmental protection framework works. They've had four or five environment ministers in that time, one of them sitting here at the table, and yet they've failed to deliver an environmental protection framework that does the job. A year ago Juukan Gorge was destroyed because the protection framework is not good enough. Yesterday it was noted that UNESCO intends to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger. In March another 10 species were gazetted on the EPBC list as extinct. We know that the Australian sea lion—our only endemic sea lion species—was listed as being critically endangered earlier this year and we know that the koala is at risk of being extinct in Australia by 2050. Yet all this government wants to do is rush headlong towards the devolution of decision-making powers, pushing its own responsibility along with the present dysfunctional framework, with no additional resources for the states.

The truth is it only wants do that so it can perform some silly dance posturing as the best friend of the mining and resources sector. It could so easily accept Graeme Samuel's recommendations, which would begin to improve what are howlingly bad environmental outcomes, and it could so easily improve the position when it comes to assessment times and decision-making clarity, but it doesn't want to do that. We are hearing from members in the chamber today exactly why it doesn't want to do that—because it wants to pick a silly fight. That's what it wants to do. It wants to try to cosy up to the resources industry and perhaps to some state governments rather than undertake its responsibility to the Australian environment. It would be sensible if it were to listen to its own government appointed reviewer and apply the changes he has recommended. We would consider that a responsible step to take. We would consider that a responsible approach to the Graeme Samuel review and to the desperately needed reform of the EPBC Act. But that isn't what the government wants. The government wants to play a cheap political game. It wants more slogans and more stunts, and it wants to create a point of difference between itself and Labor, even at the cost of sacrificing Australia's environment and Australia's biodiversity. The one thing this bill will guarantee, if passed, is further environmental decline and further biodiversity loss, because that is what is happening right now under the EPBC Act, under this government. Nothing the government has proposed in this bill does a single thing to improve that position.

What I find really disappointing, to be honest—this is an important debate. We know that the last time they brought in an EPBC bill they had to gag the debate at the last moment because I think they realised as it progressed what a disaster it was going to be; we've not seen that bill again. But with this bill, which is relatively momentous, there has been a tiny handful of people on the government side who have come in and been prepared to speak about it, and not one of them have shown that they have the faintest idea of what is in it. I've never seen a greater instance, in my time here, of people coming in and simply saying what must have been written on the piece of paper for them—that this bill is magically going to improve environmental conditions and the timeliness of decision-making and assessments. They say that as if it's a mantra that's been handed down to them from on high. They have no understanding whatsoever of the actual detail of the bill.

I'm also surprised that some industry representatives, in the aftermath of Juukan Gorge, don't seem to have a basic grasp of what the government is trying on here and are not calling on the government to do its job. This is a government that presided over a 510 per cent blowout in assessment times. Ninety-five per cent of all decisions have been late. Seventy-nine per cent of all decisions have had compliance failures. That is the incompetence of the current government that has led to environmental damage and biodiversity loss but has also meant that assessments and decision-making are woefully slow and woefully inefficient. Why hasn't the industry been saying to this government, 'For God's sake, do your job for once'—that would make a nice change—'and deliver an effective environmental protection framework which can be the basis for clearer and more timely project assessments'?

People in the community watching this debate should hold on to five key points to help them understand what is going on here. First, our environment has already suffered enormous harm and is on a trajectory of further decline. We are the world leader in extinctions. Thirty-five per cent of all mammals that have gone extinct since 1500 are Australian. If you look at North America, they've had one mammal extinction in the post-colonial period. We've had 30. We are a world leader, shamefully, when it comes to mammal extinctions. In March this year, the government listed as extinct in the EPBC Act the desert bettong, the Nullabor dwarf bettong, the Capricorn rabbit rat, the great hopping mouse, the western barred bandicoot, the south-eastern striped bandicoot, the Nullabor barred bandicoot, the long-eared mouse, the blue-grey mouse—and that's just in March! Those were extinctions listed in March. That is what is happening to our environment. The Great Barrier Reef has had three bleaching events in five years—the only bleaching events in history. We had a marine heatwave in 2011 that destroyed an enormous amount of seagrass in Western Australia. This government has presided over enormous environmental decline. Graeme Samuel himself said to the government that the trajectory is for further decline, and this bill does nothing to improve that.

Our environmental protection laws and supporting mechanisms are not working. So (1) the environment has been smashed and (2) the environmental protection laws and supporting mechanisms under this government are not working. The framework is stuffed. They've cut 40 per cent out of the environment department, and they've made ridiculous decision after ridiculous decision that puts our biodiversity at risk. It is quite possible, and any sensible person would argue it is necessary and urgent, for us to do something to improve our national environment protection framework.

Graeme Samuel, who was appointed by this government to undertake a statutory review of the EPBC Act, provided a very clear blueprint for this government as to how it could be achieved: improve national standards and put in place a watchdog with teeth. It's really simple: improve national standards and put in place a watchdog with teeth. He even drafted the interim standards for the government. He's provided them with the interim standards; all they have to do is put them in place. But this utterly hopeless, reckless, self-interested government, after eight years and three terms, has ignored its own government review. Straight out of the blocks, the Minister for the Environment—the fourth or fifth environment minister—said: 'We're not having an independent watchdog. Don't worry that 79 per cent of all the decisions have got compliance failures, we're not doing that.' That was her very first decision. That was after the interim report. The government hadn't even got the final report and they were ruling that out. They have not accepted the interim standards that Graeme Samuel proposed.

By the way, on Indigenous heritage protection, Graeme Samuel, in addition to saying that the current laws were not working and were being behind community expectations, recommended that the national environmental standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making that he had formulated should be immediately adopted. This is in the aftermath of Juukan Gorge. He said those standards should be immediately adopted. Can the government bring itself to do that? No. It is not in this bill and it wasn't in the previous bill. This bill has not picked up one recommendation of the Graeme Samuel review, not one iota. It hasn't adopted the interim standards that he has recommended.

This bill isn't putting in place an independent watchdog with teeth. This assurance commission that is contained in this bill will be housed in the department. The action plan of the assurance commissioner has to be approved by the minister. The assurance commissioner will have no power to look into, to inquire into and to assess individual decisions. It is a sop. When the minister last year said, 'We're not having that altogether,' that was just a little bit of a bridge too far. Too many people—perhaps some people in the government, and certainly some sensible people out in industry—said: 'Hey guys, there are only two recommendations from this government review. You have to at least make a show of accepting one of them.' That's what the assurance commissioner is. It's just a weak, mealy-mouthed gesture towards that recommendation without actually putting in place the changes that are needed.

The only driving imperative in this bill is silly, cheap, idiotic, super dangerous political stunts and games by a desperate government that wants to hang on. That's the only thing that's going on here. People in Western Australia know that. I think people in industry should have a closer look at that. I've been speaking to people in industry in Western Australia from the time the government embarked on this process, and I've said: 'Do yourself a favour. Talk straight to this government. Tell them that you would like to see the EPBC reformed properly. Tell them to improve the environmental protection framework, which we must have for the benefit of our environment, our biodiversity and to meet community expectations. Do that.' Graeme Samuel has given you the blueprint. It's not that hard. You just have to follow what he's recommended to you, which is what you actually commissioned him to undertake. Implement that, and then, on a bipartisan basis, if you could ever bring yourself to do that, move towards a system where you might get some improvements in assessment times. But this government has no interest in that, and people in the sector should know that.

I got this letter hot off the press today, telling me I should get serious about this bill because the Graeme Samuel review highlighted there was an immediate opportunity to devolve decision-making without compromising environmental outcomes. Except, that's exactly what this does; it compromises environmental outcomes. The environment in this country is being smashed. We are seeing more extinctions and more ecosystems under threat with each passing day, and it's because we have a failed environmental protection framework, and we have a hopeless government that has done everything in its power to defund and weaken the environment department.

The government implemented a threatened species strategy. The first version was an abject failure. It set out to improve the position of some targeted species. If you take mammal species, for instance, there were 20 targeted mammal species that they hoped to see improved trajectories for. It included animals like the Gilbert's potoroo, whose home range is down around Albany in Western Australia. The Gilbert's potoroo is the most endangered mammal in Australia. There's a few hundred of them left. Of those 20 targeted species, how many did they get an improved trajectory for? In their report, they said eight out of 20. When you looked a bit closer, of the eight, the improved trajectory of four—so half of the species for which there was improvement—was because they are declining less quickly. So that population is not increasing; it's still decreasing—it's still slipping towards extinction—but just a little bit more slowly than it was before. That's the record of this government. They followed that failed strategy with a new threatened species strategy which was delivered late, with—guess what—no targets, no actions and no funding. That will all be supplied, we're told, by the end of the year. We've got an environmental crisis and these people just twiddle their thumbs.

People in the community should know what this is about. This is 100 per cent a stupid game by a stupid government. It is simply an attempt to create political division to suit their own needs. It is an abdication of their responsibility, after eight years and three terms in this place, to protect the Australian environment and our biodiversity. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It has been hammered through habitat loss, through feral animals and now through climate change. It desperately needs a protection framework that will reverse what Graeme Samuel has said is a trajectory of decline. But the government cannot bring themselves to do it. None of their ministers for the environment stand up for it and they get pushed around by the member for Tangney and other people, who spend all their time designing what they think of as clever ads for the pages of the West Australian rather than doing their jobs.

1:22 pm

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

I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 as the voice of my community of Dunkley, as I do on all manner of legislation and issues that come before this House. I can tell this House that I have received hundreds and hundreds of emails from members of my community about the environment and specifically about this government's attempts to reform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Not a single one of those hundreds and hundreds of emails has asked me to support this legislation—not a single one.

This morning I received an email from Christine, from my electorate. I'm going to read it to the chamber because it personifies those hundreds and hundreds of emails that I have received from members of my community across Dunkley. It reads:

Dear relevant senators and Ms Murphy, my federal MP

I am extremely concerned that the Morrison government is continuing to push through amendments to the EPBC Act to hand over national decision-making responsibilities to states and territories with no commitment to the national standards Professor Samuel has recommended. Professor Samuel's recommendations are balanced, following a year of consultation with scientists, environment and business groups and the community. I am alarmed that the government is proposing a weaker set of standards.

Christine goes on to say:

The streamlining bill will put Australia's wildlife and habitats in further peril. I think devolving environmental approvals to the states and territories is taking a reckless gamble with our environment. If the government persists with devolving approvals for matters of national environmental significance, it must implement the full recommendations of the independent review, including Professor Samuel's suite of national environmental standards, an independent statutory environment assurance commissioner with teeth, and an independent office of compliance and enforcement.

Christine ends with this sentiment:

Now is not the time to weaken environmental regulations and pass laws that will have detrimental impacts on nature, but instead to ensure that our environment is put at the centre of our thinking and laws, strengthened and enforced.

As I said, Christine's email reflects all of the input that I've had from my community about this legislation and about the Morrison government's reckless attempt to pretend that it's doing something to protect the environment whilst actually weakening protection laws.

In this country we know that 10 species were gazetted as extinct under the EPBC Act in March of this year—10 species! If that doesn't cause every single member of this chamber to have concern then I don't know what would. Our iconic koala is under significant threat. As I will talk about later in this speech, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World—something that every single person in Australia, no matter where they live, identifies as a glorious environmental jewel in the crown for Australia—is endangered and has been for way too long.

As the shadow minister said in her contribution to this debate, Australia is a world leader in mammal extinctions—not something you'd ever want to be a world leader in, is it? We're in a biodiversity crisis. Australians have seen the impact of those terrible fatal bushfires last year. Australians know what is happening to this country as a result of climate change. Day after day, week after week, Australians have to hear about iconic Australian indigenous animals and plants becoming extinct. Something that we've all been so proud of, and taught to be so proud of, is that all of the animals that we have in Australia are ours and they're nowhere else in the world. Yet under this government more and more of them are becoming extinct. What we are presented with, which we're supposed to believe will protect them, is legislation which isn't even a handkerchief of coverage on this government's failure to act and to act properly.

It's extraordinary how many times the Morrison government commissions independent reviews and reports and then refuses to implement their recommendations—over and over again. What we also see is this pretend attempt to say that they're implementing recommendations and then when we look at the detail they just aren't. It's all trickery. It's not good enough. Australians know it's not good enough. How can it possibly be that we have people in our country at the moment who are concerned that their grandchildren are never going to be able to see a live koala in the bush? It was just recently in my community in Langwarrin, which is an outer suburban community, that we had koalas in the gum trees. Imagine if that can never happen again.

This government should be working day and night on recovery plans but they really don't seem to be. They're more concerned about personal leadership, about spin, about how they might pretend to Australians that they're leading when they're not. We can't have much more of this in this country if we want to have a future where the state of decline of our wonderful, unique environment is halted. That's what we all want but it's not what this legislation will do.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It being 1.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.