House debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2024


Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024, Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024; Second Reading

10:30 am

Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise to speak in favour of this important bill that is the next stage of this government working towards the Nature Positive Plan. This involves two elements: firstly, the creation of Australia's first national independent environmental protection agency, the EPA, which will be a body with strong new powers and penalties to protect nature; secondly, it is a step forward when it comes to accountability and transparency with a new body called Environment Information Australia. This will give government more information when it comes to its important strategic decision-making and it will give businesses earlier access to the latest high-quality environmental data. It will also report on progress on national environmental goals and release State of the environment reports. This is part of a broader agenda.

The Albanese government went to the last election promising a strong national, independent environment protection agency and, with this bill, we are delivering on that. In addition, since coming to government under Minister Plibersek's leadership, passion and diligence in this portfolio, we have already passed laws that strengthen environmental governance and legislation. Last year, the first stage of the Nature Positive Plan was introduced when we passed the nature repair market, enabling businesses to invest in the rehabilitation of nature in a rigorous and clearly monitored way. We have also increased the reach of our environmental laws so that the Minister for the Environment and Water is able to, and indeed must, assess all gas and fracking projects in relation to their impacts on water resources. It is important to note that we are delivering more than ever in relation to programs, projects, policies as part of our broader nature positive Australia.

This bill is part of the broader response to a number of recommendations that were put forward in the Samuel review. The Samuel review was an independent review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is undertaken every 10 years. These are very important reviews that allow government, parliament and other stakeholders to see if the act is operating as it should. This particular review of the act, which was led by former ACCC Chair Professor Graham Samuel, was released in 2021, and this report made the case for serious reform.

One of the major themes of the report was the need for greater Commonwealth-level involvement in a range of areas of regulation. Some of the key recommendations were recommendation 1, which stated that matters of national environmental significance should be dealt with by Commonwealth responsibilities for the environment. Recommendation 3 was that the EPBC Act should be immediately amended to enable the development and implementation of legally enforceable national environmental standards. There were also a number of recommendations that related to compliance: recommendation 30, which is the Commonwealth should immediately increase the independence of and enhance Commonwealth compliance and enforcement; and recommendation 33, which was to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the EPBC Act, and the Commonwealth should immediately and—there was a sub part of that recommendation—establish a national environmental standard for environmental monitoring and evaluation of outcomes to ensure that all parties understand their obligations to monitor, evaluate and report.

There were a number of issues identified in relation to audits. An audit ordered by Minister Plibersek found that one in seven projects using environmental offsets under our environmental laws had either clearly or potentially breached their approval conditions. A separate audit found that one in four had potentially failed to secure enough environmental credits to offset the damage they were doing.

There are a number of aspects to this. One is the difficulty of matching offsets with projects, and, indeed, this is an area of microeconomic reform, which I think is extremely important, and I do remember speaking on that particular bill. It's very important that we improve these markets and have improved those markets. We can have aspirations for offsets, but, unless we have markets that effectively match projects with environmental offsets and unless we monitor those offsets effectively, then the whole scheme won't operate as it should. And those audits just confirmed that without redesigned markets, which this government has legislated, we wouldn't see the kinds of offsets that are needed. It's also another reason why the EPA is needed at the Commonwealth level.

This bill, in part, is setting up a new independent Commonwealth environmental protection agency. This will be Australia's first national independent environmental agency with strong powers and penalties to protect nature. At the same time, it will be based on a number of other recommendations from the Samuel review, ensuring that it is possible to make fast and better decisions. It will be charged with delivering accountable, efficient outcomes-focused and transparent environmental regulatory decision-making. The EPA will provide assurance that environmental outcomes are being met.

Of course, part of this will be increasing penalties. For extremely serious breaches of federal environmental law, courts will be able to impose penalties of up to $780 million, in some circumstances. Those kinds of penalties would only be for particularly egregious breaches and for particularly large organisations, but it is important that penalties match the scale of activities in a regulatory area, and, in this particular area, it is important that penalties be increased for deterrence and rigour to be in place.

The bill also sets up Environmental Information Australia. This will be an independent position with a legislative mandate to provide environmental data and information to the new EPA, to the minister and also to the public. Environmental data collections will be collected and integrated by the EIA. This will mean that there is consistent and reliable information on the state of the environment across the country. This will inform decision-making and rigorously track our progress against goals—for example, our goal of protecting 30 per cent of lands and oceans by 2030. The EIA will work with Australia's experts, our scientists, our First Nations people and other key stakeholders to collect the highest quality data and to produce consistent tracking of the state of Australia's environment.

Lord Kelvin, a famous scientist, a famous engineer, once said that unless one has the ability to measure something, one has a poor and meagre understanding of it, and this is true in a regulatory area such as this. Unless we have high-quality data, unless we have consistent data over time, unless we are tracking that data and unless we are publishing that data, for transparency purposes, so that it is accessible for third parties, then I think our regulatory arrangements won't be functioning to the extent that they should be. So this is a really important step forward.

Indeed, the EIA's promotion of accountability and transparency was a key element of Professor Samuel's review. Recommendation 11 of that review was that the Commonwealth government should increase the transparency of the operation of the EPBC Act by immediately improving the availability of information as required by national environmental standards. This is something that Professor Samuel well understood—that information is absolutely key if our regulatory ecosystem is going to function well. The EPA will use high-quality data that is collated by the EIA, and it will deliver proportionate and effective risk based compliance and enforcement actions, using that high-quality data and information. It will provide assurance that environmental outcomes are being met.

A number of stakeholders have commented on this, of course. It has been an area of great interest. The business community has expressed strong support for providing more rigour in this area. The Business Council of Australia, for example, has said:

The establishment of the Environment Information Australia is a positive step in ensuring businesses and communities have transparency in their data.

We know that business, firstly, desires certainty in regulatory arrangements, particularly where they're making long-term decisions. In this instance, not only is there certainty in the decision-making that the EPA will undertake, as a result of the regulatory arrangements established under the bill, but, as they said in that quote, there will be greater transparency for businesses, for the public and for other stakeholders, such as academics and scientists, given that the EIA will be making high-quality data more available. Professor Graeme Samuel said that, in the broad response to his report, the government and the minister are doing exactly what they should be doing, and he also acknowledged the complexity of this policy space.

As I mentioned before, we have the Business Council of Australia reflecting positively on the fact that the government is taking steps to provide stronger but also more transparent regulatory arrangements, and we have the Urban Development Institute of Australia providing broad support for the direction that the minister and the government are taking. The National Farmers Federation has said that, for a number of years, its members have indicated that the current act is broken, so they indicated a desire for reform as well. When it comes to stakeholders in the broader environmental movement, the WWF has indicated that the EPA is a potential game changer and the ACF has indicated that it welcomes the government announcement to set up an agency to enforce environmental laws.

What we have is a very complex policy situation. We have a situation that had not been attended to for far too long. We had a major review undertaken by Professor Samuel, which pointed to a number of serious problems in the previous regime, problems which had been acknowledged across the gamut of stakeholders engaged in this sector, whether it be environmental groups, business groups or other stakeholders involved in the regulation of the environment. What they all said was that we need, firstly, more rigorous and certain decision-making at a national level. It's taken far too long for a national independent regulatory body to be established. Secondly, there was an acknowledgement across the stakeholder community that it is absolutely critical that we have published information of the highest quality, collated from a range of sources.

In terms of local stakeholders, I've received many emails and other forms of communication from my electorate, indicating that my community wants to see progress in this area—that they support the establishment of a national regulator and that they support efforts by government to create and publish more rigorous information in this space in order for there to be greater transparency. And that is undoubtedly also the case for many other members in this place. This is an area where there is a broad groundswell of community support for timely and, one might say, overdue action.

So this is an important response. It's not the first response of this government. As I mentioned earlier, there have been a number of other acts already in this term, important acts in this space, but these two very important bills respond to some of the key recommendations of the Samuel review, a very important review of a piece of legislation that needs reform, which this government, in recognition of its election promise and that review, is delivering.

10:45 am

Photo of Monique RyanMonique Ryan (Kooyong, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act consolidates Commonwealth environment laws relating to environmental impact assessments, national parks, World Heritage and endangered species. Successive statutory reviews and other inquiries have deemed this act a failure. In 2020, Professor Graeme Samuel described it as 'gobbledygook'. He said that the regulatory framework 'has been an abysmal failure over the last 25 years'. Decision-making under the auspices of the EPBC Act is not based on good science or good data. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters. The act is not fit to address current or emerging environmental challenges.

This government's response to the Samuel review, its Nature Positive Plan, includes three stages. The first was the establishment of the nature repair scheme and the expansion of the water trigger to all forms of unconventional gas development in December 2023. The second phase of the nature-positive reforms is this legislation for the establishment of an independent environment protection agency. The third stage will be substantive reform to the EPBC Act.

The minister has told us that the EPA is being established ahead of the broader reforms to avoid teething problems in the establishment of new agencies and to allow a smoother transition of responsibilities from the department to the new agency. The Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill establishes Environment Protection Australia as a new Commonwealth entity, with the chief executive officer as its accountable authority. That CEO can establish an advisory group to provide advice regarding the performance of the agency, but he or she will not be bound to follow or to publish that advice. The EPA will not have a statutorily appointed board. The minister will issue the EPA with a statement of expectations, but they will not otherwise direct the agency. The minister will be able to call in decisions and to approve new developments with negative impacts on matters of national environmental significance where this is felt to be in the national interest. The EPA's proposed powers also include the ability to issue stop-work orders and substantially higher penalties.

The accompanying bill establishes Environment Information Australia within the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water. This division will develop and implement a national environmental data strategy and oversee the national environmental information supply chain, including the Biodiversity Data Repository.

While new institutions like the EPA and the EIA may be steps in the right direction, if they act within the existing frameworks they will not—they cannot—protect native species and ecosystems.

It's profoundly disappointing that the government is presenting us with this legislation in June 2024, having been in government for more than two years. We have no guarantee of seeing the final tranche of EPBC legislation in this 47th Parliament. These bills fail to provide strong governance structures or clear objects and duties for the EPA. It's my hope that the minister will accept the amendments proposed by the crossbench to address some of these deficiencies.

Firstly, the bill does not provide a definition of 'nature positive' which is in line with internationally recognised best practice definitions and focused on measurable repair and recovery.

Secondly, the EPA should be governed by a skilled and experienced independent board. Its CEO should be appointed by and should report to that board, not to the minister. Decision-making by the agency has to be based on the best available science and on clear rules. The EPA should be adequately funded and functionally independent. Its independence must not be undermined by call-in and exemption powers. Any call-in powers should be strictly limited and defined in legislation as situations in which the EPA has declared that it has a conflict of interest, for projects with a demonstrable public interest determined by quantifiable criteria or where projects meet clear criteria regarding national defence, security or other emergencies. It's laudable that the government is committed to community engagement and consultation during the development of this new EPBC legislation, but the legislation does not include provisions for merits review, which is key to ensuring public involvement in accountability. Merits review should be introduced for project decisions, and it has to be retained in those areas of the act that currently provide for it.

The EPA should not be able to delegate decision-making on matters of national environmental significance to state and territory governments and to other statutory authorities. We cannot trust states and territories with this decision-making. Look at the Northern Territory government, which signed a contract for Beetaloo Basin gas with Tamboran without a competitive tender process, in clear contravention of its commitment to the directives of the Pepper inquiry and without Beetaloo having approval from the NT EPA. The existing EPBC legislation requires Tamboran to self-notify if it anticipates a potential environmental risk, unless the NT government does so. We know that the NT government does not act in the best interests of Territorian on climate or on environmental issues. Given the risk to the Territory's water supplies and its quality from the fracking of the Beetaloo Basin, and in the absence of a self-referral from Tamboran, we're waiting for the federal environment minister to exercise her call-in powers under the water trigger. Until we see her do so, we simply cannot trust this government to enforce the EPBC Act in this country's best interests.

Similarly, the EPBC Act's exemption for logging under regional forestry agreements has been disastrous. In Victoria alone, more than 300 breaches of logging codes were reported to the regulator between 2009 and 2017. None were prosecuted. The state government and VicForests have frequently acted with impunity and in active contravention of the EPBC Act. The Victorian government now claims to have stopped native forest logging, but it has launched an unsupervised forestry transition program, which will clear areas greater than those previously allowed for logging. It is removing trees which have high retention value and which are not hazardous. The VNPA, Forest Watch and Environmental Justice Australia have appealed for ministerial intervention under section 70 of the EPBC Act for the protection of tree geebungs, southern greater gliders, yellow-bellied gliders, leadbeater's possums and other threatened species. They've not yet seen action from the minister.

In Tasmania, we've seen the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal approve a Filipino-owned windfarm on the migration path of the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot and the endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle. This move was applauded by both the Labor and Liberal Parties at a state level. How can we have faith in our environmental protections when the federal minister fails to intervene on such repeated and wilful acts of environmental vandalism?

Delaying and splitting the EPBC reforms undermines the Albanese government's commitment to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. It's especially disappointing when we've seen legislation prioritising fossil fuel projects receiving higher priority. We're putting off legislation for stage 3 of the EPBC legislation while this government brings bills to this House to facilitate sea dumping and new gas projects while Woodside acts to secure permission to mine gas from the Browse Basin, putting at risk not only the Scott Reef but also pygmy blue whales, dolphins, seabirds, green sea turtles and dusky sea snake species which rely on that habitat.

A fortnight ago, the Albanese government approved a new gas pipeline. A week later, it approved the Gina Rinehart-backed Atlas Stage 3 Gas Project. This is a plan for 151 new coal seam gas wells in Queensland—a state in which fracking has contaminated water supplies. Water bores have been drained, and cropping country is sinking. Atlas will produce gas up to 2080. The minister told us last week that the project is permissible under the Albanese government's Safeguard Mechanism and the existing EPBC Act. If this is permissible under the current legislation, then that legislation is a failure.

Australia has a tragically high rate of species extinction, including the first extinction attributable to the effects of climate change in 2009. More than 100 endemic species have been lost from the wild since colonial settlement in 1788. More than 2,200 Australian species and ecological communities are actively threatened. One-in-six of our bird species is at risk of extinction. BirdLife Australia tells me that in my own electorate of Kooyong we have three threatened bird species: the swift parrot, the gang-gang cockatoo, and the white-throated needletail.

Habitat loss is a huge and continuing problem. Between 2000 and 2017, 7.7 million hectares of habitat for threatened species was cleared, and 93 per cent of that was not referred for assessment and approvals under the EPBC Act. Most recently, we've seen the minister give the green light to the clearing of bushland at Lee Point in Darwin. This is bushland which is crucial habitat for the critically endangered gouldian finch. Again, if this is permissible under current legislation then the current legislation is a failure. The legislation before the House today will do nothing to prevent even further loss of habitat.

Many key threats to threatened species and ecosystems generally, whether we're talking about habitat loss, invasive species and disease, adverse fire regimes, climate change and severe weather, are poorly addressed or are not addressed under the framework provided by the EPBC Act. It fails to deal effectively with cumulative impacts and it overrelies on offsets for biodiversity destruction. Climate change is a foundational, pervasive threat to the matters of national environmental significance that the EPBC Act is intended to protect.

In the Black Summer bushfires, more than 500 plant and animal species lost their entire known habitats. At least 100 threatened species lost more than 50 per cent of their known habitat. In the decades to come and in the absence of more effective action on climate change, such events will continue to affect us with increasing frequency and severity and with cumulative, compounding effects on nature. Nowhere in the current environmental assessments regime is this increased likelihood of future events taken into account when addressing or assessing the overall impacts and risks of specific developments.

The government still has not committed to introducing a climate trigger to guarantee that emissions from new projects will be directly regulated under the EPBC Act. Instead, it has argued that this should be done through other laws such as the Safeguard Mechanism. It is a ridiculous anomaly that our national environmental law barely mentions and does not effectively address climate change. We have to have a climate trigger included in the EPBC Act. It has to be inclusive of all emissions, including scope 3 emissions from new projects, and it has to include a proper assessment of the cumulative impacts of all decision-making by the government on climate. It should also include a mechanism for emergency listing of species or ecological communities where such is required after a climate related event such as a bushfire or a reef-bleaching event.

Four years on from the Samuel review, a comprehensive package of environmental reforms is finally on our national agenda, but delaying and splitting these reforms breaks the government's explicit promise to our electorates. It undermines the Albanese government's commitment to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. We need new laws that deliver robust national standards and better protections for critical habitats. We need them now. At a time when Australia is already experiencing increasing and compounding climate impacts, we cannot afford any further delays in protecting our environment.

My electorate of Kooyong wants this government to act on climate and environment more quickly, more decisively and more effectively. I ask the government to accept the proposed amendments from the crossbench. They will significantly improve this legislation. Australians have lost faith in our environmental and climate protections. We need the government to act now to restore that faith.

10:59 am

Photo of Matt BurnellMatt Burnell (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—The Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill and related bills embody our Labor government's commitment to safeguarding our environment and addressing the pressing issues of biodiversity loss and ecological degradation. They represent a significant move towards a sustainable and thriving future for all Australians and the natural surrounds that we occupy and act as custodians over for the next generation, ahead of successive generations to follow them in the future, highlighting our commitment to environmental stewardship and the wellbeing of future generations. These bills also highlight another commitment, an election commitment, to establish Australia's first national environment protection agency.

The Nature Positive Plan forms the backbone of these bills, offering a strategy designed to reverse the decline of Australia's natural environment. This plan aligns with our international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement, demonstrating our resolve to take decisive action on climate change and biodiversity conservation. This bill also establishes Environment Protection Australia, an independent statutory authority responsible for ensuring the effective implementation and enforcement of environmental laws. The 2021 State of the environment report revealed the alarming state of Australia's ecosystems, highlighting widespread habitat loss, declining species populations and growing threats from climate change. These findings underscore the urgency of our task and the need for robust legislative measures to address these challenges.

Upon receiving the 2021 State of the environment report, it sat in stasis on the desk of the member for Farrer, who was the minister at the demise of the Morrison Liberal-National government. Perhaps even the member for Farrer came to the same conclusion that we did when reviewing the report after taking office: the state of the environment was indeed, in many instances, in a state of disrepair. The Samuel review, the Independent Review of the EPBC Act, provided detailed analysis of the current state of Australia's environmental laws and their implementation. The review identified significant shortcomings in the existing framework, including the lack of effective enforcement, inadequate protection of critical habitats and insufficient integration of climate change considerations. It was evident from the review that significant change is necessary to protect our natural heritage.

This bill aims to strengthen the regulatory framework for environmental protection by enhancing the powers and functions of the EPA. It introduces stringent standards for environmental assessments and approvals, ensuring that all projects and developments undergo thorough scrutiny. By incorporating these standards into this framework we aim to prevent further environmental degradation and to promote sustainable development practices. A notable feature of this bill is the establishment of the nature-positive fund. This dedicated funding mechanism supports conservation and restoration projects across the country. The fund will provide financial assistance to community groups, landholders and Indigenous organisations engaged in activities that enhance biodiversity and ecosystem health. It prioritises projects that deliver measurable environmental outcomes, fostering innovation and collaboration in the conservation sector. Additionally, this bill introduces significant improvements to the transparency and accountability of environmental governance. It requires the EPA to publish detailed reports on its activities and the state of the environment, enabling the public to track progress and to hold the government accountable. Furthermore, the bill introduces provisions for greater community engagement in environmental decision-making, ensuring that the voices of local communities and stakeholders are heard and respected. We owe a debt of gratitude to our environmental scientists, conservationists and Indigenous custodians for their invaluable contributions. Their knowledge and expertise are instrumental in shaping effective environmental knowledge and practices. By working together, we can harness the collective wisdom of our communities to achieve our shared vision of a thriving, resilient and nature-positive Australia.

The Albanese Labor government remains committed to addressing the root causes of environmental degradation and to ensuring the sustainability of our natural resources. This bill is part of a broader legislative package that includes the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024 and the Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024. Together, these bills provide a comprehensive framework for environmental protection by integrating ecological considerations into all aspects of policy and planning. The Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill establishes Environment Information Australia, a new statutory authority responsible for collecting, analysing and disseminating environmental data. This authority will play a critical role in enhancing the quality and accessibility of environmental information, supporting informed decision-making and fostering public awareness.

By improving our understanding of environmental trends and impacts, we can develop more effective strategies to protect and restore our national heritage. The Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024 amends the EPBC Act to strengthen its provisions and align it with contemporary environmental challenges. This bill introduces new requirements for strategic environmental assessments, landscape scale conservation planning and climate change adaptation. It also enhances protections for threatened species and ecological communities, ensuring our most vulnerable biodiversity is safeguarded for future generations.

The reforms embodied in these bills reflect a broad consensus on the need for stronger environmental protections and more effective governance. Our approach integrates recommendations from the EPBC Act review and extensive consultation with stakeholders, including environmental organisations, industry representatives and Indigenous groups. These reforms are not just about environmental protection, they also create opportunities for economic growth.

Investing in nature-positive projects can stimulate job creation, particularly in regional and rural areas, and support industries that depend on healthy ecosystems such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries. Moreover, fostering a culture of environmental responsibility can enhance the resilience of our communities to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters. Our environmental policies are grounded in a comprehensive approach to sustainability, integrating environmental, social and economic objectives. The Climate Change Act, which enshrines our emissions reductions targets in law, and our renewable energy transition plan, which outlines a pathway to a low-carbon economy, are key components of this strategy.

Alongside the Nature Positive Plan, these initiatives form a cohesive framework for an environmentally sustainable future. The State of the environment report provided us all with an extremely sobering reminder of the work that lies ahead. It reveals the extent of environmental decline and the urgent need for action. The report's findings highlight the importance of protecting and restoring our national landscapes, ensuring the health and resilience of our ecosystems and addressing the systemic drivers of environmental degradation.

The Nature Positive Plan addresses these challenges directly. It focuses on protecting and enhancing biodiversity, restoring degraded ecosystems and ensuring sustainable management of natural resources. The plan includes ambitious targets for habitat restoration, species recovery and pollution reduction, backed by substantial investments in conservation and environmental management.

The nature-positive fund, a cornerstone of the plan, provides the financial resources necessary to achieve these targets. Through a mandate to support a diverse range of conservation and restoration projects, the fund fosters innovation and collaboration, enabling communities and organisations to develop and implement effective solutions. The fund also prioritises projects that deliver tangible environmental benefits, ensuring that our investments generate meaningful and lasting outcomes.

The EPA has been designated to perform a central role in implementing the Nature Positive Plan. As an independent statutory authority, the EPA is empowered to enforce environmental laws, conduct assessments and approvals and monitor compliance. The bill strengthens the EPA's powers, ensuring that it can effectively oversee the protection and management of our natural environment. The EPA is also tasked with integrating traditional ecological knowledge into its operations, recognising the vital contributions of Indigenous custodians to environmental stewardship.

Transparency and accountability are crucial to the success of the Nature Positive Plan. The bill mandates the publication of detailed reports on the state of the environment and the EPA's activities, providing the public with clear and accessible information. Community engagement is another key aspect of the Nature Positive Plan. The bill includes provisions for public consultation and participation in environmental decision-making, ensuring the voices of local communities and stakeholders are heard. In fostering inclusive and participatory processes, we can build broad based support for environmental initiatives and ensure that our policies reflect the needs and aspirations of all Australians. The nature-positive bill complements these efforts by enhancing the quality and accessibility of environmental information.

Environment Information Australia, the new statutory authority established by the bill, is tasked with collecting, analysing and disseminating environmental data. This authority will provide accurate and up-to-date information on environmental trends and impact supporting information decision-making and public awareness. High-quality environmental information is essential for effective policy development and implementation. By improving our understanding of environmental conditions and trends, we can identify emerging threats, assess the effectiveness of our actions and adjust our strategies as needed. Environment Information Australia will play a critical role in this process, ensuring that decision-makers have the information they need to protect and manage our natural resources effectively.

The Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill further strengthens our legislative framework for environmental protection. This bill amends the EPBC Act to introduce new requirements for strategic environmental assessments and landscape scale conservation planning. These measures ensure environmental considerations are integrated into broader planning and development processes, promoting sustainable and resilient landscapes. The bill also enhances protections for threatened species and ecological communities, recognising the urgent need to safeguard our most vulnerable biodiversity. By strengthening the EPBC Act we can ensure our environmental laws are fit for purpose and capable of addressing contemporary challenges. The bill includes provisions for climate change adaptation, recognising the need to build resilience in our ecosystems and communities in the face of a changing climate.

The reforms introduced by the nature-positive bills are grounded in extensive consultations and evidence based policy development. We have engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, including environmental organisations, industry representatives and Indigenous groups, to ensure that our policies are robust, inclusive and effective. The EPBC Act review, conducted by an independent panel of experts, has provided valuable insights and recommendations that have shaped our legislative proposals. The nature-positive bills represent a balanced and pragmatic approach to environmental governance. They recognise the interdependence of environmental health and economic prosperity, and they aim to create opportunities for sustainable development and social wellbeing. By investing in nature-positive projects and enhancing our environmental laws, we can protect our natural heritage, support economic growth and improve the quality of life for all Australians.

It is imperative we recognise the broad support these bills have garnered. Environmental organisations have applauded the government's commitment to meaningful action. The Australian Conservation Foundation, for instance, has highlighted the critical role these bills play in reversing environmental decline and fostering biodiversity. Industry representatives have also expressed their support, recognising the economic benefits of sustainable practices. This collaborative approach underscores the wide-ranging benefits of the Nature Positive Plan. By fostering a nature-positive culture we are setting a precedent for future generations.

The integration of traditional ecological knowledge into environmental management is a testament to our respect for Indigenous wisdom and our commitment to inclusive policy-making. Indigenous communities have been the custodians of our land for millennia, and their insights are invaluable in shaping sustainable practices. This bill acknowledges and incorporates their contributions in ensuring that environmental stewardship is a shared responsibility.

The Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, along with the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024 and Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024, represents a transformative step towards a sustainable and prosperous future. These bills reflect our government's firm commitment to taking decisive action on climate change and biodiversity conservation, ensuring that Australia remains a global leader in environmental stewardship. Ultimately, these bills represent a critical step towards realising our vision of a nature-positive Australia. I am proud to stand in support of them, as I have done at each step of the Nature Positive Plan along the way. I commend these bills to the House.

11:14 am

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

This is socialism again. One of the things that drove me into this side of the political fence is the belief of the individual having primacy over the state—that the state is there only for service to the individual, and the individual resides above the state. Over and over again, you get socialism in a George Armani suit: It turns up. It's always the same—it's the belief that we don't know what we're doing and that we need the state! We need the state to come in once more with its fingers into the rights of private ownership. It's just like the other day, in getting rid of the live sheep trade—these incursions into your capacity to earn income. Now it comes in on what you own, it comes in on how you earn your money and it comes in on what you can say! Every day the state takes another step to diminish the individual's rights.

Then we have the silly dance where we all come out, and one side says, 'We love farmers; farmers are alright, we love farmers.' Then we come out and say, 'We love the environment; we'd never hurt the environment.' And maybe both of them are correct. But what happens in the meantime is that it doesn't come down to free choice, it comes down to laws: 'You're not allowed to do that anymore. You're not allowed to touch that anymore.' It's hard when you're trying to understand that the centralisation of the state is very close—

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Supermarket break-ups and nuclear power!

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection—the centralisation of retail and the centralisation of production. It's the centralisation of wealth when we have massive wealth held by small groups, such as super funds. And there's the centralisation of ownership.

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

You sound like Marx!

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take the member for Gellibrand's interjection. He says it sounds like Marx, but that is ultimately their gospel—

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

That's what you're saying!

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member is entitled to be heard in silence.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

We believe in a multiplicity of buyers, the multiplicity of sellers and the transparency of transactions because these are the things that give the individual the capacity to transcend through the economic and social stratifications of life to their highest levels, limited only by the individual's innate ability. It's called 'freedom', and it's a marvellous thing. Freedom allows you to say what you want. Freedom allows you to be who you want to be. Freedom allows you to hold an asset, whether it's your house or a business, and say: 'This is mine. Because I've got this, I've got security and I have protection.' But when you get things like this Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024—they never come out and say it's the 'socialism bill'; they always come up with this marvellous nomenclature. The 'nature-positive bill': who wouldn't believe in positive nature? Of course you'd believe in positive nature. But we have other things which are all part of this nomenclature. They always have this impending catastrophe which comes hand-in-glove with legislation and which always does the same thing: it imposes on the rights of the individual.

We've heard about renewables, and that sounds good. Who wouldn't support renewables? But they aren't actually renewables. In fact, when they finish with them and they have a period of obsolescence, these swindle factories bury them in landfill. It's intermittent power. And who sits behind it? Centralised wealth and people who have a bucketload of money—multiple billionaires who are turning themselves into more billionaires. It isn't your intermittent power; you don't own it. You have to pay for it, though, through your power bill. Every time you turn on that switch, money goes from you overseas to Chinese real estate companies, Singaporean companies or Dutch companies. It goes straight off to a billionaire.

And we accept that because the nomenclature says that you're a guilty person; you're below contempt and you aren't an enlightened person unless you unquestioningly believe in their right to take money off you. That's how they do it. They do it by virtue-guarding themselves and reaching into your pocket. And then they talk about wind farms. Farms? Farms grow carrots, peas and spuds. These are towers and transmission lines, all subsidised! They have capital investment schemes which are secret. You're not allowed to know how much the government is paying those billionaires to build them. It works like this, basically: no matter what they do, they get money. Even if they produce fairy floss, you pay them. If you're going to rip someone off, you need to say nice things before you do it. As I say, you need to kiss me before you go the next step—this is how they do it in a commercial sense.

Let's go to a deeper morality about this nature repair bill. This is about closing down the land so that it goes back to scrub. If you do that, you close down some of the capacity for us to produce food. The world is going towards 10 billion people. We are past eight billion people. Now, because we had the big green revolution back in the 1940s—fertiliser, better genetics, all started in the late forties.

Go back and read about it. We then had the capacity for the world to catch up to its food task but now we're falling behind again, so the number of people who are starving is now increasing exponentially. But you don't see them because they eat from the bottom of the food stack. They are in the Horn of Africa. They are in Central America. They are in the Pacific Islands. They are in parts of South-East Asia. They don't eat anymore. Well, they might get one meal every couple of days but there is a real paucity in their diet. The more we take food out of that food stack, the more people will starve. They are not going to starve just because Australia doesn't produce; we are not the food basket of the world. But we are on the moral positive; we add to that food stack. This says that, for the purpose of a feeling, you are going to remove food from that food stack. So absolutely you are connected to basically exacerbating the issue of starvation, and it is as pure as that. If you don't think so, are you adding food to the food stack or taking it away? Because if you are taking it away, you are exacerbating the problem because it is very connected.

This is paying for the philosophical zeitgeist of socialism. 'We are that far into our term, getting close to an election, better fix up the live sheep trade—close that down. Better shut down some more country and put it in the hands of the state.' You don't even need to buy it; you just put so many caveats on it that ipso facto the state is the owner, and that is socialism. That is all it is: socialism—the social ownership of assets. That is what this is: 'We need to pay these people off before we get to the election, square the accounts with them.'

We have also seen the Murray Basin Plan. We have to save the Murray River. What happens? We stop producing food. It is really simple: we stop producing food. We remove people's opportunity to get ahead. Overwhelmingly, the people who become farmers didn't go to university, many of them. They are just people who, by the sweat of their brow, got ahead. And if it is not them, it is the contractors who work for them.

I just got off the phone. I heard about another form of socialisation. Up there in the Hunter Valley, protesters are sitting on the railway line so we can't move coal. They are doing that because they believe it is morally proper that somewhere in the world they can't turn on their lights, can't afford their power. They want to shut down the coal industry. Once more, it is for the moral paradigm—I want to save the world. But in saving the world, there is a pensioner somewhere who can't afford their power bill right now.

New England gets cold—very cold. Woolbrook, where I went to primary school, cracked a record once. It got to minus 17. That's pretty cold. At minus 17, if you leave the window open, you die—a very simple equation. People who are poor, and there were a lot of poor people in my area, have to stay warm, so they either cut firewood or turn on the heater. Poor people have poor electrical appliances that cost a lot of money. They have poor cars that cost a lot of money to run, they have poor electrical appliances, and we moralise about making them poorer. We think it is morally good that poor people become poorer, and that is exactly what happens.

It amazes me that we say we want to look after Indigenous Australians—they call themselves 'Aboriginal' in my area. A lot of poor people in my area are Aboriginal. I know them very well—very well. They're the ones who are hurt the most. But we don't worry about that, because it's not the kind of vision we want. We've got a different vision of what we want to see. These 'nature positive' bills are really just another mechanism for socialism to creep, by caveat and by addendum, further into the capacity of private ownership.

We've seen this with vegetation management. Once upon a time, the hydrocarbonaceous material that rests below the land was actually owned by the landholder. The gas, coal and oil were owned by the landowner. Then, through laws, they said, 'It's proper that we vest this in the state,' and they did. But then the war ended and they never gave it back; they just kept it. The last part of that was under Neville Wran. Then it became an environmental issue, a biodiversity issue, and they decided to take the vegetation—the trees you owned. They didn't pay for them; they just took them. They just made laws: if you touch them you go to jail, literally—but not the swindle factories; they don't. They can do whatever they like. That's the billionaire lobby group, the intermittent power lobby group. They are very powerful. They have orange lanyards and they get whatever they want. They're very clever. When you've got big money, you've got big lawyers and big solicitors and you go a big way in this building. You can basically buy what you want. And they say, 'Don't argue about it, otherwise you're a denier. You don't believe. You're contemptible.' We lost the vegetation and now this is the next intrusion. We still pay the rates, we still pay the insurance, we still have to try to employ people and somehow produce food, but more and more of our lives is owned by the state or controlled by the state.

It's great to see the member for Parkes here, who's now in the New England electorate. I say to my side: you've got to understand why you come into this building. If for nothing else, it's your belief in private ownership, the liberty of the individual—that you can go unmolested through life; live your own life, not be ruled by the state, not have another boss; live by your own corporate manual, not the state's corporate manual; dress in your own uniform, not the state's uniform; go to a job on your own terms, not the state's terms; own your own house, not have the state own your house or your property; get the state out of your life and be free. Be free. Enjoy that freedom. It's a fading concept across the globe.

Be very sceptical about things such as this, the 'nature positive' bill. Any time you see that euphemistic nomenclature, start looking very closely at exactly what is going on. Be the cynic. There is nothing wrong with being the cynic. Be the cynic and ask the questions. Don't blindly accept that intermittent power is renewable. Don't blindly accept that wind funds are farms. Don't blindly accept that a whole heap of private overseas companies, billionaires, are trying to look after you when they put in intermittent power. Don't go without question. Ask the questions: 'Who are you? How much money are we paying you? What are you actually doing? Are you really looking after the environment, or are you making yourselves a bundle of money?' If you come to the conclusion that they are, call it what it is: 'This is a swindle. It's not environmental; it's a swindle. You're swindling me out of my dough. That's what you're doing.' And when you see this, which goes hand in glove with that, just be cautious.

I don't support this, because I've been around here too long. I've seen this game too long. I'm telling you: when you fall down this trap, you become the endorser of socialism at the expense of private enterprise and freedom.

11:29 am

Photo of Anne StanleyAnne Stanley (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024 and the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024. The introduction of these bills marks another important milestone in the protection of Australia's unique ecosystems, another milestone that builds on the Albanese government's strong action on climate change and environmental protection since coming into office in 2022.

On climate change, the government has already increased Australia's woefully inadequate emissions reduction targets, bringing us into line with the rest of the world, and enshrined them in legislation. It has passed changes to the Safeguard Mechanism to ensure Australia's highest emitters reduce their emissions in line with our emission reduction targets. It has introduced and then tripled the Capacity Investment Scheme and set a target of 82 per cent renewables in the NEM by 2030. Only recently, I spoke on the bill to permanently introduce the Net Zero Economy Authority to help manage the transition to net zero, another critical step in climate action.

On the environment, the Albanese government has expanded the water trigger to ensure all new gas developments consider their impact on water; protected an extra 40 million hectares of the Australian ocean and bush—an area which is the size of Germany; and invested $500 million to better protect Australia's threatened plants and animals, tackling invasive species. It has doubled funding for national parks, introduced the world's first nature repair market, rescued the Murray-Darling Basin plan after a decade of neglect under those opposite and delivered $1.2 billion to protect the Great Barrier Reef. And the list is not finished there.

In two years, this government has done more for the environment and climate action than the previous government did in the decade they were in power, because this government understand the importance of protecting Australia's unique and fragile ecosystems, and we recognise that is much more to be done. It is no longer good enough to protect nature; it is vital that we also restore it, which is why the Albanese government released the Nature Positive Plan at the end of 2022, committing to not only protect nature but leave it in a better state than what we found it.

'Nature positive' is not just a slogan, and these bills properly define what it means. Simply, it will be the improvement of our ecosystems as well as the species that rely on them, and that is important because it will mean that there will be a legislated definition and baseline that the environment can be measured against. It will be the first time a country has defined and legislated 'nature positive'. This forms the building blocks to the government's approach to environmental protection and is fundamental to the other measures established in these bills, the first of which is Environment Protection Australia, or the EPA.

In the establishment of an EPA, the Albanese government delivers on another election commitment. It is an important step in environmental protection. The EPA, once fully established, will play an important role in delivering on the Albanese government's Nature Positive Plan and will reinforce Australia's environmental laws. It will be independent and have strong new monitoring, compliance and enforcement powers. This follows a recent audit by the Minister for the Environment and Water, which found that one in seven developments may be breaching their offset conditions. Additionally, the Samuel review found that the regulator failed to fulfil the necessary functions of enforcing development conditions. It found that enforcement was rare and that penalties must be more than simply the cost of doing business.

The government has also commissioned and released the audit into environmental offsets, which highlighted further failings in the current system. These bills form part of the Albanese government's response to the audits and the Samuel review while the work on the next stage of our environmental reforms continues. The EPA will have a wide range of powers, including the ability to issue environmental protection orders, or stop-work orders, to those breaking the laws, and it will be able to audit businesses to ensure compliance. The body will also advise the minister and the government on how Australia's environmental laws can be improved. Importantly, the government will be increasing penalties to ensure that they act as a genuine deterrent. The new civil penalty formula will be in line with those applied to financial crime, and, for the most extreme and serious breaches of the law, courts will be able to impose penalties of up to $780 million.

These bills will also establish Environment Information Australia. The head of EIA will be an independent decision-maker with a clear legislative mandate to provide authoritative, high-quality environmental data and information to EPA, the minister and the public via a public website. It will track and report on the progress of Australia's environmental goals, such as the Albanese government's commitment to protecting 30 per cent of Australia's land and seas by 2030, and it will publish the state of the environment report every two years instead of five to encourage greater transparency on the health of Australia's environment and allow for more responsive action. The bills will also make it a requirement that the government of the day commit publicly to the national environmental goals in response to the report, and the government will be required to report on that progress.

The EIA will develop a database that can be easily accessed by business to make federal environmental approvals smoother and to help avoid duplication in scientific studies. The EIA will work in collaboration with the EPA to ensure that the EPA is acting on the best available data, alongside state and territory governments, to enable better availability and use of that data, both in planning and decision-making. Currently, environmental information is fragmented, of an unknown quality and often difficult to access. The EIA will play an important role in providing reliable data and information, which is fundamental to effective protection.

The Albanese government went to the 2022 election promising a strong EPA, and this is what these bills will deliver. They will ensure not only that there is a strong compliance body—and stronger penalties to ensure compliance—but that there is also reliable and robust information to inform environmental decisions. These bills represent the second stage of the Albanese government's ambitious environmental reforms, and I look forward to working with the minister to better protect what makes Australia so unique. I now commend the bills to the House.

11:36 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

This Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024 is the thin edge of the wedge. What really perturbs me and so many others, particularly farmers, is that their lives and livelihoods are being encroached upon more and more. They have so much difficulty doing what they do now, without another layer of bureaucracy being placed over their occupations, their industries and how they go about their business.

What really concerns many as well is what happens if, after the next election, there is a minority Labor government operating in conjunction with a crossbench and, in particular, the Greens political party, because that would be disastrous for this nation—because the Greens political party is not just an environment party; the Greens political party is much more than that. They, dangerously, want to change the way we live. They, dangerously, want to rewrite history. They, dangerously, want to pervert the future such that the way we have modelled our society is altered for the worse in years to come.

The simple truth is that this bill is bad for business and it's particularly bad for rural and regional and remote communities. Why? Because it's yet another example of more restrictive, and worse, regulation. This regulation—red tape, green tape, green lawfare; call it what you will—is being foisted onto small and local businesses. They don't have chief financial officers. They don't have compliance officers. They don't have human resources managers. But hang on; yes, they do, because they're all of those things. The mum-and-dad businesses are doing all of that and so much more. And if they do employ people—and that's becoming increasingly difficult for all manner of reasons—then they often pay that person or persons more than what they take home themselves. They never have a holiday.

It's particularly hard for those businesses which operate somehow, somewhere in a space involving environmental laws. It's just making it harder to employ people. The barriers they face are forcing them to not employ people, to do it all themselves, to work harder and harder and harder, almost into an early grave. Take the phasing out of gillnet fishing on the Great Barrier Reef: provisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the EPBC Act, means it is becoming increasingly difficult. I know that some of what we face here is state compliance, state law, but—come on!—do we really need another environmental protection authority overseeing everything?

When people come to your electorate office and complain about this, that and everything else under environmental law, it becomes so difficult to know whether it's going to be a state EPA or the Commonwealth's jurisdiction. It all gets caught up, and I think sometimes that's what government wants; that's what the bureaucracy wants. They want these things to be tied up for years and years and years. It's no wonder nothing ever gets done. It's no wonder nothing ever gets delivered. It's no wonder it's so hard to build infrastructure. Every time you try you've got another layer of cultural law and green lawfare and minority groups that just want to stop everything.

We had a policy that we wanted to build dams. It was so difficult because the Commonwealth can't build dams without the say-so of the states. And it wasn't just the Labor states saying no; sometimes it was those states that were wearing our own political colours, political stripes, that made it so difficult to get on and build water infrastructure for flood regulations, to stop communities being flooded, but also to store water for valuable food and fibre production. And it shouldn't be so. I mean we're smarter than that—well, we should be!

It is becoming so onerous on businesses, on ministers just to get something done. I do feel as though there is this insidious creep of more and more compliance. All too often ministers are being made to just comply with what the bureaucrats tell them is necessary, tell them is so. And look out if they don't, because they could potentially end up in the federal National Anti-Corruption Commission if they don't follow what the public servants, the bureaucracy, has told them must be done.

We need to protect the environment. There's absolutely no question about that. We haven't got a planet B at the moment, and I get the fact that we need to protect the planet, but we also need to protect people in jobs, we need to protect people who want to build things, we need to protect people who want to just live a commonsense life. And heaven help us if the Greens political party forms a power-sharing agreement with Labor after the next election! We've seen just this week the move to ban live sheep exports. We know that this is not an animal welfare thing. We know that this is not good for the environment. It's just bad for business, bad for Western Australia, bad for the agricultural industry full-stop. It's sad to say that the biggest budget expense for agriculture, for farming, in the federal budget handed down on 14 May was $107 million to stop farmers farming. That's a fact. So, heaven forbid what is going to happen if the Greens are in a power-sharing arrangement.

They have a Horse Racing Transition Taskforce that's going to co-ordinate and shut down the horseracing industry. Yes; let's go and do that! It only employs 70,000 people. It only engages with hundreds of millions of dollars back to mainly state coffers, but also in the form of federal taxes. It is one of our biggest industries but if the Greens get their opportunity, they will shut it down. It just doesn't make sense. This is where all this overregulation is headed. I was being facetious when I said, 'Yes; let's do that.' It is just getting too much.

And then, of course, we had the Labor-Greens love-in with their agreement to strip water irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. That was where we had the budget come down with 'NFP' next to the amount the government will pay to buy back water, and 'buying back water' is code for those river communities which rely on irrigation to almost cease existence. Many of those communities were formed as part of the soldier settlement plan, certainly in the Mirrool district and the Griffith district in the southern and western Riverina areas. But they've been told that what they do is environmentally unsustainable. It's just like our farmers—the best stewards for the environment in the nation get told to stop farming. They get paid, incentivised, to do so. This is just a nonsense! The NFP I referred to in the budget papers is 'not for publication', so we don't know how much money the government is going to spend on stopping irrigation farmers from growing the food and fibre that is the best in the world. We need it here for domestic purposes. We need it for our exports, but not according to the government and, certainly, according to the Greens. The government should realise this and put the Greens political party last on their how-to-vote cards. This legislation is absolute overreach. I wonder where it will all stop? We don't know because Labor and the Greens are always plotting against their natural enemies, which are our farmers.

What we see in this place—and I know that the member for Parkes has often said it, and that member for Herbert here would agree with me too—is that we just get tired of getting lectured to by MPs who come in here and whose electorates are about as big as this. That's my handkerchief, for those who can't see this. They represent these all-holy, pure and pious people who don't understand that their food just doesn't come from the supermarket. It actually gets to the supermarket via trucks, and they're against them and against the drivers who drive them. It comes originally from a paddock. But they don't understand that, they just think it comes from the fridge at the supermarket.

The government puts everything in place, this legislation included, to stop farmers doing what they do best. We have the best in the world, the best international practice, for growing the food and fibre that is second to none anywhere. I don't ever hear those opposite, and certainly those who sit on the crossbench, say thank you to our farmers: 'Thank you for doing what you do. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.' That's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Without a farmer, that doesn't happen. We don't get food on the table. It's legislation such as this, with, 'Oh, yeah, let's just have more public servants.' How many did we get in the budget? Tens of thousands more.

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Processing veterans' applications—

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

And that's important, and I certainly take that interjection from the member of the Gellibrand, the minister at the table opposite. Veterans are important, and I know we've introduced legislation today about veterans. Nobody knows this more than the member for Herbert here, a fine veteran himself. I'm a former veterans' affairs minister, so I certainly don't need to be lectured to about how important our veterans are. We need to look after them. But we also need to look after those people who feed the veterans. Let me tell you a little fact: some of those veterans go on to become farmers once their uniformed service is over. Once they're done serving in our Air Force, our Army or our Navy, they actually go and take up the land—just like they did more than 100 years ago in Griffith, in Leeton, in Narrandera and in the Mirrool Creek area. But what are we doing? We're putting more legislation in to stop them doing what they're doing.

Even in my own electorate, we've got Riverina landowners up in arms as destructive solar farms are taking valuable, vital, prime agricultural land. That land is being covered with solar panels, and they say it's good for the sheep! Go figure: it's good for the sheep! It might be good for their leasing arrangements so that these Pitt Street farmers don't have to worry about the land for the next 10, 20 or 30 years but, ultimately, those solar panels are going to have to be recycled, and at the moment we can't do that. They end up in landfill, and that's got to be bad for the environment. But, then again, we've got Greens political party Senator Mehreen Faruqi. The environment's all well and good until it comes to her own Port Macquarie property. She's planning to bulldoze dozens of trees to subdivide a Port Macquarie investment property into three luxury rentals.

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I hear the member for Herbert say, 'What?' They're well and good to come in here and lecturing about what's good for the environment, biodiversity, shutting down those terrible farmers who feed us three times a day and closing down the Murray-Darling Basin, but, when there are a few trees—I shouldn't say 'a few' as it's more than a few; it's dozens of trees—that's okay. They say, 'Let's just get the bulldozers in.' What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander, but I tell you what—how hypocritical is that! And they'll come in here—and she's one to talk. She tells us that all those terrible miners that we have in this country have caused the global warming in Pakistan. That's what she has said. That's what she is on the public record as having said. You can't make this stuff up.

I can hear your incredulity, member for Herbert. It is right. This nature positive environmental bill is just another overreach; it's just more bureaucracy. I mean, we know where it starts, but the question is: where does it end? That is the major problem, and yet we've got a Labor government that is not actually doing all that well in the polls or anywhere else at the moment. The people out there are palpable with white-hot anger about how they've governed this nation, and if they lose enough seats and end up having to power share with the Greens after the election then God help Australia.

11:51 am

Photo of Michelle Ananda-RajahMichelle Ananda-Rajah (Higgins, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In Australia, we pride ourselves on having a pristine natural environment—from white sandy beaches to forests teeming with life and birdsong to the quiet power of our central desert. Our spiritual connection and economic dependency on nature are indisputable. More than half of Australia's GDP is moderately to highly dependent on nature, such as tourism, food production and, indeed, pharmaceuticals. Seventy per cent of our food is reliant on pollinators like bees, insects and bats. The economic argument I've outlined complements the spiritual fulfilment we derive from nature. Yet in the Australiastate of the environment2021 report, which the previous Liberal government suppressed, our environment was described as poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species and resource extraction.

Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction, with more than 100 endemic species becoming extinct or extinct in the wild since colonial settlement, with scientists describing some of these extinctions as predictable and probably preventable. The facts are sobering. Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent. For the first time, Australia has more foreign plant species than native. Habitat the size of Tasmania has been cleared. Plastics are choking our oceans—up to 80,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre. Flow in most Murray-Darling rivers has reached record low levels.

The Samuel review gave a devastating assessment of the EPBC Act, which we are now undertaking reform to. In April 2024, Professor Samuel described this act and its associated regulations as 'gobbledygook' and said the regulatory framework had been an abysmal failure at protecting our environment over the past 25 years. In response, our Nature Repair Market Bill, a world first, was passed at the end of last year, and it included expanding the water trigger to include unconventional gas.

This second tranche of reform that I'm talking about now will establish the national Environment Protection Authority as a regulator and the Environment Information Australia as a harvester or gatherer of data and information, to be used in as close to real-time as possible to better inform our decision-making. This legislation package, including the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, aims to foster a sustainable future by enhancing environmental protection, improving information transparency and ensuring smooth transitions in regulatory frameworks.

This Labor government not only intends on repairing nature but making it Liberal proof. We intend on delivering a Nature Positive Australia, and we need to after a decade of energy chaos, climate denialism and the climate wars; it goes on and on. To that we can add the dereliction of duty with respect to the environment. Nature Positive means repairing nature to leave it in a better state than we found it in, going above and beyond the minimum of repairing loss alone. This will be the first time that any country has defined Nature Positive and introduces a requirement for Australia to progress towards that outcome.

The EPA bill is the cornerstone of the Nature Positive legislation. It seeks to establish EPA, or Environment Protection Australia—an independent statutory body dedicated to enforcing and regulating environmental standards across the country. The creation of the EPA is a significant step towards ensuring that environmental protection is not only a priority but is also effectively monitored and enforced. The EPA will provide independent oversight, comprehensive environmental standards, public participation and transparency and enhanced monitoring and reporting.

Under Labor, we will fix our laws so they are less bureaucratic and provide more certainty for business. But we will also make sure that they improve nature, protect our unique native plants and animals and prevent extinctions. These are ambitious goals, but they have to be ambitious, given the scale of degradation that we are currently facing. The EPA would be a truly national environmental regulator that Australians can be proud of, responsible for a wide range of activities, including recycling, hazardous waste management, wildlife trade, sea dumping, ozone protection, underwater cultural heritage and air quality—one of my favourite topics. We are investing in our people, planning and systems to speed up development decisions, deliver quicker 'yeses' and, where necessary, deliver quicker 'noes'.

An audit ordered last year by Minister Plibersek, who I commend for driving this legislation, found that around one-in-seven developments could be in breach of their offset conditions. That is where a business had not properly compensated for the impact a development was having on the environment. This is unacceptable. The EPA would be the tough cop on the beat, enforcing our laws through new monitoring, compliance and enforcement powers. The Samuel review into Australia's environmental laws found that the current regulator is not fulfilling this necessary function. Professor Samuel also found that serious enforcement actions are rarely used and that penalties need to be more than simply the cost of doing business.

Our bills respond to these deficiencies. That's why we are increasing penalties for serious breaches of federal environmental laws. Courts would be able to impose penalties of up to $780 million. The EPA will be able to issue environment protection orders or stop-work orders in order to prevent imminent, significant environmental risk or harm. The EPA would also be able to audit businesses to ensure they are compliant with environment approval conditions. The minister will retain the power to make decisions where they wish to do so and, in practice, will make decisions based on advice of the EPA.

The EPA would work hand in glove with Environment Information Australia, or the EIA, as well as state and territory governments to enable better use of environmental data both in planning and decision-making. We recognise that informed decisions require reliable data. Centralised environmental information will help facilitate better decision-making. Achieving a Nature Positive Australia relies on good data and useful environmental information. This information will inform investment, policy and regulatory decisions by government, the private sector, community groups, academics, scientists and philanthropic groups. In other words, it's available for everyone.

We know that national environment information and data is fragmented. Its quality is uncertain, and what is available is not readily accessible and usable. When businesses are more easily able to select sites which minimise impacts on nature, projects can be approved more easily and completed more quickly and save money, both for the taxpayer as well as for business. Legislating for independent, consistent and authoritative environmental reporting will mean that no Australian government can hide the truth about the state of the environment like the previous government did, to their enduring shame. The bill also provides more transparency of the critical information and data that underpin regulatory decision-making. This was a key recommendation of the Samuel review. It delivers on our promise at the last election to provide consistent and reliable information on the state of the environment across the country. This bill will require reports to be published online every two years instead of every five years. It will allow us to get on the front foot and better apply and track protections where they are most needed.

Australia's environment is a national asset and responsibility. We are the stewards of our environment. This is why the state of the environment reports include a new requirement to report on the progress of the government's national environmental goals. The bill makes it a requirement for the government to commit publicly to national environmental goals. When Labor was first elected, Minister Plibersek released the official five-yearly report card on Australia's environment. This is known as the State of the environment report. The former government received it before Christmas 2021 but chose to keep it hidden, locked away in the back cupboard, until after the 2022 federal election because the findings were so damning. It was a distressing read, and it shows just how much damage a decade of Liberal and National Party neglect—in fact, ineptitude—did to our environment. The Leader of the Opposition in his budget reply this year stated that he would defund the Environmental Defenders Office and speed up approvals to unlock gas. Conspicuous was any mention of protecting the environment. That should send a shiver down the spine of every single Australian who enjoys recreating and travelling through this great land. In contrast, establishment of an EPA and EIA future-proofs our environment from bad governments and commercial overreach. Importantly, it has broad support across environment, business, farming and community groups. A few of these groups have put forward testimonials in support of this. Professor Graham Samuel said: 'The government and the minister are doing everything exactly as they should be doing. I don't underestimate the complexity of what has to be done. From the ACF:

The ACF welcomes the government's announcement that it will set up an agency to enforce environment laws—something previous governments failed to do.

And the WWF, World Wildlife Fund, said, 'The EPA is a potential game changer.'

By establishing robust regulatory frameworks, improving data accessibility and a ensuring smooth transition, the Albanese government's nature-positive plan sets the stage for a sustainable and resilient future. This legislation not only addresses current environmental challenges but also lays the foundation for long-term ecological health, economic prosperity and social wellbeing. It is a crucial step towards ensuring that Australia remains a vibrant, healthy and thriving nation for generations to come. I commend this bill to the House.

12:03 pm

Photo of Kylea TinkKylea Tink (North Sydney, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia's primary environmental law, the EPBC Act, is broken. The state of our environment is deteriorating, and right now this government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen Australia's environmental framework. But the legislation before us today—the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024 and the Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024—falls short of that opportunity, and it simply doesn't deliver on the promises made by the Labor Party during the 2022 election campaign. Back then, to win our confidence and many people's votes, the party promised to do three things: (1) fix the broken system; (2) end the extinction crisis; and (3) overhaul our broken environmental laws. Those promises may have been ambitious at the time, but many, including myself, expected to see them delivered. After all, a focused government can move mountains, as we have seen with the scale of the industrial relations reform this government has successfully pursued.

To be clear, we need both a national environmental protection agency and a national agency to oversee the collection of environmental information. But while two pieces of legislation in front of us right now seek to establish those bodies, the lack of public participation and community consultation in them and the government's failure to progress the full reform agenda as promised in the Nature Positive Plan is concerning. I'm also disappointed that, despite significant engagement with myself and others on the crossbench discussing amendments that may increase my community's confidence in the legislation, the minister has chosen to proceed without change. For this reason I support the crossbench senators who were able to refer the bills to the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee last week, as I believe independent scrutiny of this legislation could make it stronger.

Recently I held a forum in North Sydney with representatives from five environmental organisations, for my community to hear from them directly on the progress of the environmental protection reform agenda. Sadly, there was broad consensus amongst the panellists that the current reforms do not live up to the government's commitment to end extinctions and rebuild public trust. The insightful questions asked by the audience that night and the discussions I had with community members both before and after the panel made it clear that there is still a trust deficit when it comes to environmental decision-making in this country, and people do not doubt that the current legal system designed to protect our environment is broken. This government has made much of the 2021 State of the environment report, which told us of the condition of rivers, reefs, wetlands, soil, native vegetation and biodiversity and its continued decline at a terrifying rate, whilst the list of plant and animal species identified as threatened or endangered has been lengthening.

Australia has lost more mammal species than any other continent. It has one of the highest rates of species decline in the developed world and is the only developed country that is a deforestation hot spot. Meanwhile, climate change is compounding damage from deforestation, invasive species pollution and urban expansion, and this poor environmental scorecard is arguably only being enabled by our broken Commonwealth environmental law.

Professor Samuel's scathing review of the Howard-era EPBC Act painted a dire picture of a dysfunctional legal framework lacking integrity and a need of fundamental reform. Professor Samuel found that the lack of public trust in the act's ability to protect nature stems from poor transparency, inadequate opportunities for community participation in decision-making and approval processes, limited pathways for legal review and perceptions of poor accountability for government decisions. Yet, two years into a three-year term, we have seen no significant improvements in any of those areas from this government.

In 2022 the Albanese government released the Nature Positive Plan, articulating its commitment to reform Australia's environmental laws. The plan was ambitious but nothing more than what was necessary. Late last year, the government introduced the first stage of reform legislating the nature repair market and expanding the water trigger in the EPBC Act. At that time I expressed concerns we were putting the cart before the horse, building a mechanism that allowed those that wished to destroy to simply pay their way out of it. The minister assured my community that my concern was not warranted, that the national protection standards would be in place before the market came into effect. Then, in April this year, the environment minister announced the nature-positive reforms would not proceed as planned but, rather, would move forward in a slower, staged manner. Concerningly, we now don't have a definitive timeline for the delivery of the one thing that absolutely underpins all this reform—the new national standards. It seems this government has overpromised and will now underdeliver.

Establishing the EPA and the EIA were identified as two priorities within the government's nature-positive reforms, but, as they exist in the current legislation, many, including myself, are concerned they do not meet the ambition originally promised. Many of the objects, functions and duties of the EPA in relation to public participation, transparency of decisions and accountability in government's mechanisms are not included in this overriding governing legislation. As a result, with an election due in the next 10 months my community is concerned the next critical stage of the nature-positive reforms will not be delivered. That would leave us with flaccid agencies that are as impotent as the laws they are tasked with enforcing.

With significant aspects of the nature reform package relegated to stage 3 with no due date, the new tough cop on the beat, the EPA, will be a rookie cop, enforcing the same, weak, out-of-date laws. I acknowledge that the Samuel report recommended a staged approach to the nature-positive reforms and that Professor Samuel has, himself, supported the minister in the approach the government is taking. Even so, I remain concerned that if this government fails to deliver all three stages in this parliamentary term, the reform to date could be wasted. Two years was long enough for this government to deliver the most significant industrial relations reform this country has seen in decades. Two years should have been long enough to also get this work done if it had been prioritised to the same extent.

I'll speak now to the specifics of the bills. The Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024 establishes the head of Environment Information Australia, setting out their functions, including preparing a reporting framework and state of the environment reports, maintaining environmental economic accounts and identifying national environmental information assets. Looking at it in isolation, I'm broadly comfortable with it. The second piece of legislation, the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, establishes a statutory agency to be known as Environment Protection Australia, and it's that bill and the Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024 that I want to focus on.

The nature-positive plan promised an independent EPA would be established to undertake regulatory and implementation functions under the EPBC Act and other relevant Commonwealth laws. Within that context it's arguable that independence and trust will be predicated on access to information and meaningful consultation to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity in environmental decision-making. Therefore, these principles should be at the heart of the EPA and be present in the primary legislation, yet they are not there currently.

The recent Narrabri gas project in the Pilliga Forest provides a great example of what can and will go wrong when meaningful consultation is not at the centre of project development. This project, which involves drilling 850 gas wells over a thousand hectares of land in a project site that cover two-thirds of the Pilliga Forest and overlies part of the Great Artesian Basin, is close to my home town of Coonabarabran. Given this, I can attest to the fact that, as the largest native forest west of the Great Dividing Range, the Pilliga is a beautiful place to visit. Importantly, it's home to several threatened species, including the koala, the Pilliga mouse, the regent honeyeater, the superb parrot, the spotted-tail quoll, the south-eastern long-eared bat and the swift parrot.

When this was proposed, a phenomenal 23,000 submissions were made with 98 per cent opposing the project. However, the then environment minister's statement of reasons for approving the project only addressed public submissions in five of 670 paragraphs, and the community got no explanation of how their submissions had been considered in coming to the final decision. That says everything that needs to be said about how broken this current system is. Under it, ministers can tick the consultation box, but that doesn't mean they have meaningfully engaged with the community. Rather, meaningful public participation occurs when a decision-maker engages genuinely with public feedback, uses it when coming to their decision and explains to the public with full transparency how they got to the final decision. To not have those requirements in this primary piece of legislation seems to make it fundamentally flawed.

Genuine consultation should be understood as, at a minimum, the decision maker's duty to respond to the substantive concerns and arguments put forward in the public submissions process. As Professor Samuel said himself:

Effective, outcomes-based decision-making, where the community can engage with the process and understand the reasons for decisions, is the primary way to improve trust.

Leaving consultation to matters of policy and giving proponents the power to control if, how and when that consultation happens is not in the spirit of the recommendations, observations or calls to date. The regulator should have the responsibility to ensure access to information and meaningful consultation, and the time to ensure that responsibility is now when the legislation is before us to establish the EPA. That's why we'll be proposing amendments to bring this level of responsibility, integrity and accountability into the EPA through this bill before us. Ultimately, the fix is not hard. It simply requires the bill to be strengthened to ensure the EPA is responsible for community access to information about proposed developments and that the community has an adequate opportunity and timeframe to express their views. As it currently stands, this is not the case. That responsibility is delegated to project proponents. I've got to say, that's a bit like putting the cat in charge of the milk.

There are several other elements of this bill that I believe should be improved. They include the governance model of the EPA, which many in my community currently believe is inadequate. As the agency will be established as a single-member regulator, the legislation does not allow for a statutory board to provide independent guidance or strategic direction to the EPA CEO. Rather, an advisory group will provide expert advice to that person to support decision-making. However, as it's currently drafted, both the make-up of and the advice received from the advisory group will be opaque. This risks enabling politicisation or conflicts of interest, but could be easily fixed.

Secondly, the EPA's objects and CEO's functions are currently nondescript and do not reference several important concepts, including community rights and climate change. Again, these could be easily addressed, were the legislation to be amended to include clearer objectives and duties to the public, including the provision of information about proposed actions and a responsibility to ensure meaningful consultation.

Interestingly, unlike many state EPAs, the national EPA is currently not required to develop or implement a charter of consultation, and this is more than a little concerning, given it's a break with current best practice. A charter of consultation would assist in ensuring the EPA has clear functions relating to community consultation from its inception, and it's critically important given the proposed community engagement and consultation standard will not be implemented until stage 3.

While the bill provides for information about decisions to be published on a register, it is silent as to the level of transparency required, and again I think this is a missed opportunity. Best practice is to ensure crucial concepts are defined and contained in primary legislation, and I urge the minister and her team to please ensure that is the case here.

Finally, it's unarguable that climate change is the biggest threat to our environment, yet climate considerations are not currently integrated into our national environmental framework, nor is it proposed that they be under this new legislation. Now, many on the crossbench have already spoken to this, so I simply want to echo their calls. While the argument against including climate change in this legislation has been that it is best covered by the safeguard mechanism, I'd suggest that an issue as large as climate change should be referenced across multiple legislative instruments.

Ultimately, enabling these improvements to the EPA falls squarely within the scope of stage 2 of the nature-positive reforms, and I continue to encourage the minister and her team to seriously consider adopting some of the suggested amendments.

A strong, independent environmental regulator is in the best interests of everyone, as not only will it reassure the public but it will also act as a second point of reference or support for projects the government wishes to see proceed. For example, just this past week, the government approved gas expansion plans in the Surat basin that will see more than 120 new gas wells developed out to 2080. That announcement follows the recent gas strategy that was also announced by this government, and consequently many across my community are concerned that the government is pursuing an agenda which is contrary to achieving our net zero target. The presence and input of a strong, independent, community minded EPA that is obliged to prioritise community voices would go a long way to reassuring the community in circumstances exactly like the two I've just spoken about.

In closing, I recognise that the establishment of the EPA and the EIA is important, and it's important to ensure the bureaucracy is put in place as soon as practicable. I also recognise that Professor Samuel himself has supported a staged approach. Yet there are serious deficits in the bills before us, particularly when it comes to acknowledging a bureaucracy's responsibility to the community it serves.

Finally, I remain extremely concerned that tranche 3, including the national environmental standards, may never happen. Fixing our broken system and restoring nature won't be possible without substantive legislative reform that has nature protection, community consultation and integrity at its heart. And no member of the government or any political party should ever assume they have another term to get essential work done. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.