Monday, 14 September 2015
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014; Second Reading
It gives me great pleasure to continue my remarks on this particular piece of legislation, which I began remarking on just over a year ago. I make it very, very clear that we are not sacrificing environmental standards; I want to be very, very clear on this. We are not altering our government's solemn promise—our solemn commitment—and the long history of coalition governments' commitment to high environmental standards and environmental integrity. We are improving it. We are creating an easy system—one system instead of two complex ones. We are asking this: if there are nearly 250,000 applications lodged each year and just 400 are seen by the federal government, then why should there not be a streamlining of processes to create a more effective and efficient system?
Our states and territories will have to step up. They will need to ensure that their environmental protection laws are of a high standard and that there is a synergy across our nation, where some state governments—and I am thinking in particular of certain Labor governments' environmental approval standards around particular mining practices over the past decade—could have done with little leg-up. I hope that is why the opposition will be supporting our moves to ensure that state governments' environmental protections are going to be significantly increased as a result of stepping up to this legislation's hopes.
Some states have already begun working on how to improve their environmental legislation, but it must be noted that our government is not sacrificing environmental standards for a simpler system. The federal environment minister will still retain the right to have the final call in the assessment or approval of a project and may even be able to suspend or cancel the agreement if it is an extreme example. We are not fully relinquishing power; we are simplifying it. That has to be the key message here.
We are implementing a comprehensive assurance framework that will ensure that we have a transparent system. We want the environmental information to be public so that the broader community—including the Greens; it is great to have three of them in the chamber today—can be part of the monitoring processes involved. We are proposing audits during transition stages and then every five years, as well as consistent reviews of agreements and new reporting mechanisms.
Furthermore, we want an escalated dispute resolution process, where only the necessary questions will be asked so that we can be called to address extreme issues. The states and territories themselves have fully supported this. Every state and territory has signed up to the one-stop shop because they understand what Australian businesses and projects—and the significant amount of local jobs associated with that investment into Australia and particularly into regional Australia—stand to gain from a much simpler process.
A project that stands to gain is one in my home state of Victoria. With the Port Phillip channel we can see a classic example of how overly complex our system is. The Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project was specifically examined by the Productivity Commission. There are over 70 pieces of environmental legislation and policy relevant to the Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project. Do not worry, Madam Acting Deputy President—I know you have a strong interest in environmental legislation, but I will not go through all 70. I will name just a few. The key regulatory frameworks governing this project are the Victorian 1995 Fisheries Act, the Victorian 1975 National Parks Act, the Victorian 1978 Crown Land (Reserves) Act, the Victorian 1988 Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, the Victorian 1975 Wildlife Act, the Victorian 1989 Water Act, the Victorian 1994 Water Industry Act, the Victorian 1994 Catchment and Land Protection Act, the Victorian 1958 Land Act, the 1997 Victorian biodiversity strategy and the 2002 Victoria’s native vegetation management: a framework for action. It can cost a major but necessary project like the Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project $25 million—that is a lot of jobs—to meet these regulatory requirements. It can mean as many as 4,000 meetings, a 1,200-page report, and being subject to 1,200 state conditions, 300 Commonwealth conditions and as many as 800 subconditions.
The Productivity Commission heard that one company needed to employ—wait for it—50 new staff over two years just to meet the environmental standards. Jobs should be created in the process of building the projects rather than in the administration of them. In the same report, the Productivity Commission recognised that this is ridiculous, stating:
Australia’s federal system of government, where responsibilities for matters (such as environmental protection) span all levels of government, gives rise to overlap and duplication, which the Commission considers can be greatly reduced without lowering the quality of environmental outcomes.
That is the key phrase here. What the Productivity Commission recommended, and what the government has studiously sought to implement with this legislation, is that we get rid of the overlap and duplication but do not compromise our environmental outcomes. First and foremost we will not compromise them. I believe that this legislation goes to the very heart of ensuring that that can occur. Some of the states and territories are going to have to work very hard to make sure that their environmental protections are up to standard. Do not forget that the federal environment minister does have the power to intervene if deemed necessary. What we are getting rid of is that overlap and duplication.
If you are parties that represent bureaucrats or the majority of white-collar workers, then you would want to see paper-pushing jobs protected rather than the jobs of working-class Australians who will be building projects like the channel deepening project in my home state of Victoria and who will be building dams around Australia—the projects that are subject to these overlaps and duplications between the state and Commonwealth environmental legislation frameworks when it comes to protecting our national environment. The significant problem with overlaps is that they cause delays in the process. Getting approval by state and federal governments on the 70 pieces of legislation would not have been a timely process for the Port Phillip Channel Deepening Project. An assessment of the federal government's Office of Best Practice Regulation found that the savings from implementing a one-stop shop could be more than $420 million. That is a cost incurred purely because of delays.
The Productivity Commission also looked into the implications of delays, examining two different scenarios of delays—one and two years respectively. It found that by 2025 Australia's real GDP would be 1.5 per cent higher, or $32 billion higher in today's dollars, if the average delay in project approvals were reduced by one year. This GDP gap would increase to 2.4 per cent, or $51 billion in today's dollars, if the average delay were reduced by two years. That has got to be good for us. It has to be good for either side of this Senate to have billions more dollars to dedicate to education, to health and to ensuring that the taxpayer's dollar is targeted to those in the very greatest need, whilst at the same time ensuring projects worth billions of dollars are employing many more Australians. Over the 12 years from 2014 to 2025, the cumulative real GDP gains would be $160 billion and $280 billion respectively.
Although I do not expect the Labor Party to know this, a major infrastructure project should run on time. I have so many examples from my home state, including the desalination plant, but I will not go through them because I will run out of time—and I have so much more to say on this legislation. Infrastructure projects should run on time. As a federal government, we are often asking the same environmental questions that state governments have already asked. Why not streamline the process? Infrastructure is so crucial, especially in areas like Port Phillip. It provides employment, stimulates investment and offers benefits to the wider community. All these processes, forms and applications are restricting Australia's future growth. It is not just major projects that have been impacted by these unnecessary processes. Farmers and people in regional areas have to adhere to these complex systems. They cannot afford to hire 50 new staff to help them out. The National Farmers' Federation has fully supported our decision to move to a simpler process, claiming:
Navigating regulatory requirements in relation to environmental approvals is difficult and cumbersome.
The NFF identified that there are too many duplicated processes, especially for irrigators. They identified that, because of requirements for rural water authorities to provide information and data to state and national irrigators, irrigation farmers bore—pardon the pun!—an enormous cost that was passed on directly to them. Just at the Commonwealth level, rural water authorities are required to report information to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, to the Bureau of Meteorology, to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and to the National Water Commission. Each regulator requires similar information to be provided in different formats for different timescales. These are just the Commonwealth requirements. These irrigators still need to report to the state government.
Why are we imposing such costs on those who cannot afford it when we are asking for information similar to that which state governments already request? How can a local farmer provide employment in community or supply the community with goods when they must pay additional costs to meet environmental standards? We would like to see a much simpler process. The NFF have provided us with advice saying:
… the one-stop shop model must address not only those areas where there is direct overlap of Commonwealth/State regulation. Full harmonisation is required so that the current ambiguity created by different Commonwealth and State regulations can be clarified.
It is interesting that the Australian farming and business community today has come out reiterating its support for the one-stop-shop approach to environmental approvals. The important reforms are strongly supported by the farming and business community, including the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, the Business Council of Australia, the Minerals Council of Australia, the National Farmers' Federation, the Property Council of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia. They state that:
… one of the biggest drags on Australia's international competitiveness is lengthy and costly delays in securing project approvals.
These delays stem from the duplication of Commonwealth and State processes and impact a wide range of industry sectors, including agriculture, minerals, oil and gas, property and construction.
… … …
The Commonwealth Department of the Environment has reported that Australia's average time for project approvals is 37 months.
The Productivity Commission reports that even a one-year delay in a project costs $51 billion. Wouldn't we like to have an additional $51 billion in our economy, flowing through to business and workers? They further state:
The Department has also shown that implementing the One-Stop Shop for environmental approvals would provide economic benefits to Australian business in the order of $426 million every year.
That is a lot of jobs and that is a lot of people employed as businesses can stop paying for paper pushers, when they can streamline that process of getting environmental approval through for their projects.
Senator Cameron interjecting—
Instead of paying for paper pushers to get the same environmental outcome, you know what they can do? They can employ more Australians. That is what I want to see. You would think, as a former union organiser, that that is exactly what you would like to see too—more Australians employed, building those massive infrastructure projects, wealth-generating projects, so that our nation can go from strength to strength without any decrease in our very strong track record as a nation of protecting our very, very unique and very, very precious environment. Nobody wants to see the level of environmental integrity decreased in this country, but what we want to do is ensure that our businesses and our farmers are as internationally competitive as they can be, because that means that they are going to be employing more Australians. You would think that that would be a good thing, but no—those opposite are not interested in assisting businesses to employ more Australians.
Reducing the duplicative processes will bring a substantial economic benefit over a wide period of time. I commend to the Senate: what we want to see is one application, one assessment, one approval process and one decision; not the multidimensional confusing and expensive model that currently exists.
Senator Cameron interjecting—
We want to create an economic efficiency that Julia Gillard could never achieve. It was her idea; we are just trying to bring it to conclusion, Senator Cameron. We believe that governments have a responsibility to the wider community as well as to the environment, which we protect. This bill is here to ensure that the integrity of our environmental standards is maintained whilst looking out for our economy and community.
Senator Cameron interjecting—
You once supported it. We believe that by streamlining the process, projects like the Port Phillip deepening project will have to face fewer hurdles, ensuring they can reduce costs. We want to stimulate investment. (Time expired)