Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013; In Committee

10:27 am

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | Hansard source

So eager are the Greens to collapse debate on this that they are now moving all of their remaining amendments in one fell swoop, despite the fact that, of course, there is absolutely no linkage between any of these amendments. They cover three completely different issues and areas and, indeed, two of them are completely unrelated to the bill before the chamber. Two of them are using the fact that we have a bill that seeks to amend the EPBC Act to amend it in completely different ways that have nothing to do with water or coal seam gas or large coalmines whatsoever. It is a remarkable approach by the Greens, who are coming in here and wanting to simply push through as much change to Australia's environmental laws as possible, without any assessment or consideration of the impact of those changes but the shortest of possible Senate debates.

After I finish speaking, the government will probably try to gag debate again, because the last two debates on amendments have been gagged—and gagged, indeed, after only the most fleeting of consideration. Most remarkably, the last time around, Senator Conroy stood up, having been asked some specific questions, and completely ignored those questions in gagging the debate.

So I again emphasise to Senator Conroy the specific questions. He could at least, before he gags the debate, do the industry and those interested in these matters the courtesy of answering the questions. The questions were in relation to the significant-impact criteria being developed. Will he outline what the minimum level of consultation on the drafting of those significant impact criteria will be? Exactly what opportunity does he expect industry, stakeholders, landowners, environmental groups and others to have to comment on those significant impact criteria? Exactly how long will they have and when will they have that opportunity? Secondly, having informed the Senate earlier in the debate that, yes, there is a draft and, importantly, that until those criteria are finalised all assessments under the amendments to the EPBC Act will be considered against those draft criteria, will he also inform the Senate how those draft criteria deal with matters of exploration and appraisal? I really hope that Senator Conroy might do the Senate and stakeholders the courtesy of at least answering those two questions; just answer those two questions, at least, when you stand up and before you decide to gag debate yet again on the legislation.

Now, to the three Greens amendments that we have before us: firstly, the amendment regarding the timing of assessment of applications. The Greens essentially are seeking to make this legislation have a greater retrospective effect than it already does. The Greens basically want to ensure that projects that are already well advanced in the assessment phase suddenly find that the parliament has changed the rules on them—that, having already spent time and money and effort in going through and complying with existing laws, proponents and applicants will suddenly have to comply with different laws. Now, the coalition stands resolutely against retrospectivity. And we note that there are already concerns that the bill, even in its existing form, has an unfair and unacceptable level of retrospectivity to it. The Senate inquiry heard evidence from those concerned about the retrospective application of aspects of the existing bill. Mr Hooke from the Minerals Council urged the Senate committee to:

… remove the retrospective application, the trigger for projects not undergoing EPBC Act referral. This is not a good point of law, to have retrospectivity applying in a situation where it creates great uncertainty for projects which may be currently undertaking activities, including ancillary activities. The legislation should clarify the grandfathering exemptions provided in 22(3) and 22(4) to expressly acknowledge that changes to grandfathered projects do not impact on the status of prior environmental authorisations of unchanged components or where changes are immaterial to the significance of or impact on a water resource.

Mr Hooke was not the only one to identify concerns. The Australian Coal Association equally had concerns about the retrospective application of the bill that is before us in its existing form. They submitted:

Industry is also concerned with the retrospective application of the new trigger to projects that are already well advanced in the approvals process. These projects now face further uncertainty and potential delays. There is also the potential for the water trigger to capture established coal developments even where there are no significant changes to their operations. The exemptions should clarify that new provisions apply only to existing projects where there is a major new development proposal.

They are concerned about the level of retrospectivity that exists in the bill as it currently stands. Yet the Greens have identified that they want to increase that level of retrospectivity, that they basically want to take it back and be able to cover pretty much anything that may not already be well and truly under operation. The Greens obviously want to do everything within their power to hold up and stall the types of developments that are being considered. The opposition emphatically rejects those moves by the Greens and emphatically rejects their attempts to increase the retrospective elements of this legislation, whilst expressing our concern at the level of retrospectivity that exists already within the bill before the chamber.

The second of the amendments that the Greens seek to apply is completely unrelated to coal seam gas, completely unrelated to large coal developments and completely unrelated to water resources. It is an amendment that is basically yet another attempt by the Greens, because they have done this on multiple occasions, to try to ensure that we lock into law forever in this country a dual system of state and federal environmental law that maximises the expense, that maximises the duplication, that maximises the bureaucracy, that simply would create an unacceptable situation wherein, now and into the future, no government of any persuasion could ever try to sit down with the states and say, 'Let's actually harmonise the assessments and approvals processes and get a one-stop shop in place.'

Everybody knows it is the coalition's clear policy that has long been stated. It is our policy to have a one-stop shop for environmental assessments and approvals. Much as the government and the Greens and others may accuse the coalition of not having policies, this is a substantial policy and a policy that we have had announced for a long period of time. It is something that we are determined to implement in government. What the Greens' amendment seeks to do is simply stymie, block and make it as hard as possible for the coalition, should we win the election later this year, to implement that policy. As I said, it is amendment that has nothing to do with what the bill before the chamber is about. It is an amendment that is a sheer act of bastardry from the Australian Greens to try to block and stop the coalition from being able to implement our policies should we win a mandate from the Australian people later this year.

Such is the contempt of the Greens for the views of the majority of Australians that they are not willing to let the coalition go to the election with our policies and see whether the people endorse us, elect us to government and endorse our policies in that process. They want to take pre-emptive action before the election to close the door on the coalition's ability to implement those policies. This is obviously a taste and a sign, should we succeed later this year, for just how obstructionist the Greens will be, for just how destructive the Greens will be, for just what lengths the Greens will go to to try to block and harass the coalition in the application of our policies.

We have grave concerns at the approach of the Greens in introducing these amendments. They would lock into law existing duplication, which I assessed and commented on earlier in this debate, and which Deloitte Access Economics have identified as costing around $1.19 billion in excessive duplication of bureaucracy that we have at a state and federal level around environmental approvals. The coalition believes there must be a better way when it comes to environmental approvals. We want to uphold the highest standards, we want to uphold the very important matters of national environmental significance that are contained in the EPBC Act, which we brought into law when we were in government. Our commitment to those standards is in no way under any doubt because those standards were identified in laws that the Howard government passed. But those laws provided for the capacity to say that we should be able to align assessments and approvals processes at a state and federal level and, in doing so, remove the excessive duplication. The Greens amendments would seek to strip out that capacity to align those assessment and approvals processes.

I trust that the government, despite their complete flip-flopping on this important issue of reducing green-tape regulation, will support the coalition in opposing the Greens amendments. I hope the government will show just a scintilla of support for the judgement of the Australian people later this year when it comes to whether or not the coalition should be in a position to implement its policies. I hope the government does that because, of course, it was the government's own policy. Just a year ago the government was proposing to do, through the COAG processes, exactly the same thing. The Prime Minister said, back in 2012 when it was the government's policy:

Today COAG acted on that concern—

Concerns around duplication and costs—

and the Gillard Government and states and territories agreed to fast track arrangements to use state assessment and approval processes by March 2013.

Instead of delivering on that commitment made at the start of 2012—and why would we expect Prime Minister to deliver on a commitment when all she does is routinely break them?—the government, by the end of 2012, had abandoned it completely. They abandoned it so much that already built into this legislation is a limitation on the future operation of one-stop shops insofar as the new water trigger applies. If the Greens got their way, and if the government were reckless enough to support them, we would see a complete blockage on one-stop shops.

Lastly, the Greens propose another remarkable amendment completely unrelated to the bill before the Senate. This amendment would put in place a new section to the EPBC Act relating to national parks. It would add another five pages of legislation relating to how activities in national parks can be governed. This of course is a knee-jerk reaction of the Greens to decisions being made, justifiably, rightly, by state governments. Once again, the Greens want to tear up a century of federalism in this place. The Greens want to tear up the understanding of where responsibility lies in the Commonwealth for different activities and provide a whole new swathe of powers to give the Commonwealth minister capacity to encroach upon the activities of the states and the right of the states to govern their own national parks and to make their own determinations about land use.

These amendments once again have nothing to do with coal seam gas, nothing to do with large coal development and nothing to do with water resources. Nonetheless, the Greens seek, with no consultation, no opportunity for comment by anybody, to at the last minute bolt on to the legislation before the chamber, and simply sneak through, dramatic new changes to our laws. Again, the coalition rejects these efforts of the Greens.

In closing, I urge the government to allow a proper debate on these Greens amendments around national parks, because I know there are colleagues who want to have a contribution. Because the Greens have done these amendments all together, I have only been able to say a couple of words on them. But these are significant changes and they deserve to be properly debated, not gagged. (Time expired)


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