Monday, 1 September 2014
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014; Second Reading
It is a great pleasure to be speaking to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014 today—one which I wholeheartedly support. The coalition, as has been noted by other speakers, has a proud record of environmental protection in this country. But what we have never done is taken an extreme view that constantly says all development is bad and all development that may have an environmental impact is, therefore, prohibited, as some in our community would seek to do. We have always sought to strike the right balance between the need to develop our nation and to develop new jobs and new industries with the need to always bear in mind the impact on our environment, the need to mitigate any impacts on our environment from development and the need to constantly keep this in mind.
In this spirit, in the lead-up to the last election, the 0coalition consulted widely with businesses, industry representatives and not-for-profit organisations about the regulatory burden they face. Time and time again, we learnt that unnecessary red tape is a burden on businesses looking to get ahead. In government, we have delivered on our commitment by holding the first repeal day on 26 March, when more than 50,000 pages of legislation and regulations were repealed to save over $700 million across the economy. We are committed to further deliver on our pre-election commitment to make Australia open for business by creating a one-stop shop for environmental approvals.
The one-stop shop will slash red tape and increase jobs and investment while maintaining or improving environmental standards. To ensure Australia's ongoing security and prosperity, it is important we do everything we can to allow businesses do their work and grow the economy. For too long, there has been duplication of federal, state and local process, adding complexity and cost to environmental approvals across the country. This government will create a one-stop shop that will streamline and simplify the environmental assessment and approvals process. The high environmental standards under national environmental law will be maintained. There is no change to those standards. However, the government will deliver benefits for business and the community by cutting this red and green tape.
This bill amends the environmental protection to facilitate the efficient and enduring implementation of the Australia government's one-stop shop reform for environmental approvals. Provisions to allow for a one-stop shop have existed in the EPBC Act since it was introduced. The government is delivering on the original intent of the act. When fully implemented, the one-stop shop will simplify the approvals process with a single entry point at the state level for approvals. The government is in the process of consulting and developing bilateral agreements with the states and territories to implement this policy. These negotiations are at different stages for each state and territory, so it is vital that we get the mechanisms in place so that these agreements can be implemented as soon as possible and the cost burden on business is removed.
The government will achieve the one-stop shop through a three-stage process: signing a memorandum of understanding with each of the willing states on the key principles and confirming cooperation on achieving a single process; agreement on bilateral assessments and updating those which have already been in place; and agreement on bilateral approvals within 12 months. By eliminating duplication, we can enable Australian business to do their work, while maintaining a high standard of environmental protection.
In its submission regarding the bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and the ACT, the Property Council of Australia welcomed the one-stop shop and noted:
The experience of the industry with the EPBC Act has been characterised by a lack of clear definitions, rules and tests which has resulted little consistency or certainty in its administration.
The property industry is among the hardest hit by the ongoing failure to streamline assessment processes. With over 200 residential and over 100 commercial property developments being referred to the Commonwealth in the past 12 months, construction costs and delays could be substantially reduced through the implementation of assessment and approval bilateral agreements. It is worth noting that the property industry is one of those industries that are most significantly affected. We have seen it in my territory of the ACT, and we see it all over the country.
We see this view of the world most notably propagated by the Greens. It is, effectively, anti any development. The Greens will always say that they are not anti development but that they are anti that development; they just happen to be anti the particular development that is on the table right now. They say that they are just anti this particular mine. They say that they are not anti mining; they are just anti that mine.
I thought it was interesting that Warren Mundine challenged the Greens recently by asking, 'Where is one area where you would support a new mine in this country? Where would you support one new mine in this country?' They would not point to it because, in the end, they fundamentally oppose mining and development. That extreme view of the world is not one that this government supports. That view of the world leads to increasing costs, increasing complexity and reduced economic development.
It is often said, of the local experience in Canberra, that if we were trying to build Canberra—the bush capital—now, with all of the constraints that some would seek to place on development, the vast bulk of the city would never be built. With any development there is always an environmental impact. The role of government is to make sure that that impact is mitigated and managed. You simply cannot have any development without having an environmental impact.
We have seen, locally, examples of calls for the EPBC Act to be used and that cross-over between state and territory law—the duplication at a Commonwealth level. We saw in the main development front of Canberra in Gungahlin. The Greens representative—now the only Greens representative in the Assembly—Minister Shane Rattenbury had a view on a suburb called Throsby, one of the largest new suburbs in the growing part of Gungahlin, which was proposed to be developed. His view, basically, was that there should be no development at all because there were environmental issues. He said:
Throsby is the perfect case in point of the kind of area for which we should perhaps just put aside all notion of development ... the Greens' view is that Throsby may well be a complete no-go zone.
We need to fight that kind of attitude when we see that kind of example of 'No development here!' When you look at the way Canberra was developed you see that it always took account of environmental issues. Large green zones in the middle of suburbs protected native flora and fauna—and that protected amenity, but it allowed development in those areas. That is the fundamental balance that we always seek to get, but which some in the community do not accept.
Some people do not accept that you can find a balance. They do not accept that you can have a housing development, a mine or other developments and then remediate, in some cases, or—when it comes to residential development—arrive at a situation that takes account of the local environment, adds to amenity but still supports the desire for new, affordable housing. And that is what this government wants to do.
This government wants to maintain high environmental standards but not take this no-development approach which says, 'No development here,' or 'We don't like that development because we don't like any development,' which is the view of the Greens and some in the community.
Likewise, the Minerals Council of Australia, in their submission regarding the proposed bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales, said that they support the government's 'commitment to implementing a single accredited project assessment and approvals process'. They also noted:
Continuing the momentum will be important to the successful roll out of these important reforms.
The Queensland Resources Council said that they are:
QRC is highly supportive of the assessment bilateral and soon to be approval bilateral arrangements between the State and Commonwealth Governments. They allow for greater alignment of duplicative regulatory processes as well as providing a more facilitative process for resource projects that are large, usually complex and multi-faceted.
QRC strongly believes government needs to implement a one stop shop approvals process as soon as possible.
Furthermore, they noted:
Certainty of process is highly critical for resource projects including timeframes for each step in the process. This enables greater planning and delivery of vital information to the project assessor.
The Business Council of Australia, in their submission regarding the Queensland agreement said:
If implemented effectively, the Australian Government’s policy to streamline environmental assessments and approvals whilst maintaining environmental outcomes will foster investment and put downward pressure on business and consumer costs.
We also had Tourism and Transport Forum Australia note:
A single approval process under the EPBC Act will benefit the economy by providing investors greater certainty and confidence to inject money into new tourism products and experiences.
Those were five endorsements from different industry groups across the economic spectrum. This government wants to help their businesses thrive as part of a strong economy. That is why we are committed to cutting this red and green tape. They have each noted that this one-stop shop is an important economic measure for their ongoing success. They have also noted how vital it is that there is certainty and clarity about the process. That is what this bill achieves: certainty and clarity.
Areas of savings for business will include lower costs, as business will need only one application, assessment process and approval decision; and faster approvals, as business will no longer engage with the Australian government or wait for approval to follow a state or territory approval. This will typically save 30 to 40 business days. The legislation will provide more certainty for investors with a simpler, streamlined regulatory system which is good for Australia's international investment reputation.
The Commonwealth will maintain an important role in the approval process. The Commonwealth will still be accountable for its obligations under the EPBC Act, including international treaties. The Commonwealth will retain an approval role for actions in Commonwealth waters, on Commonwealth land, or by Commonwealth agencies. And the Commonwealth will have an ongoing role in ensuring the commitments under the bilateral agreement are met.
Environmental standards are not being weakened by this policy; in fact, they are being strengthened. States and territories must demonstrate their environmental assessment and approval processes meet the high standards set out in the EPBC Act. States and territories are working closely with the Commonwealth to demonstrate that their processes meet these high standards. In some cases, this may mean changes to account for matters of national environmental significance.
The one-stop-shop will also promote sharing of environmental information and data between business, governments and the community. Transparent and accessible information will improve our collective ability to understand and suitably manage our environment. The one-stop shop will also promote the increased use of strategic approaches to improve the environment such as strategic environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. Strategic assessments consider the cumulative impacts of environmental pressures and plan for better environmental outcomes.
By eliminating the dual state/federal approval process businesses will not have to jump over the same hurdle multiple times, but the same high environmental standards will be maintained. Some of the technical amendments to this bill will also provide certainty for proponents about the practical operation of the bilateral agreements. It will remove the need for proponents to make unnecessary referrals to the Commonwealth. These amendments also recognise that states and territories have set up their processes in ways that best reflect the circumstances in their state or territory. These technical amendments will ensure the focus of accreditation is on the process meeting the highest environmental standards, rather than on technicalities. The amendments also clarify that, in addition to the terms of the bilateral agreement, the minister can take into account all matters, such as state or territory policies and plans, that might be considered relevant when deciding whether to accredit a state or territory process. In addition, a new provision to provide ongoing certainty to the community about the operation of the agreement will allow bilateral agreements to remain in force when state and territory governments make small changes to legislation and processes, where the substance of the arrangement or process continues to meet the highest Commonwealth environmental standards. The amendments will also allow bilateral agreements to refer to and incorporate documents, such as policies and guidelines, which change over time. This is particularly important to ensure that environmental decisions reflect the latest science and best practice.
The Commonwealth will work collaboratively with states and territories to ensure that high environmental standards are maintained. A comprehensive assurance framework will be implemented, including: transparency around decisions and access to information, which will allow the broader community to be part of the monitoring process for the one-stop shop, state and territory audits, transitional and five-yearly reviews of bilateral agreements, and reporting mechanisms to enable the Australian government to fulfil its reporting obligations under the EPBC Act and internationally; an escalated dispute resolution process to resolve any issues; the federal environment minister will retain the ability to call in the assessment and/or approval of a project; and, in extreme circumstances, the minister has power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an agreement. States and territories will be accountable to the community and business, as well as the Commonwealth. This is good policy. It is good for the environment and it is good for business.
We all know the economic landscape of Australia is changing—this government is committed to cutting red and green tape so that businesses can be enterprising, can invest and can create the jobs we need. This government is committed to finding a genuine balance between the needs of our economy—the need for development, the need for jobs and the need for affordable housing—and the genuine needs to protect the environment, the genuine desire of our community to maintain high environmental standards. That is the path we are taking. It is not one that says that all development is bad; it is not one that seeks to unreasonably frustrate development; it is not one that seeks to unduly delay development with all of the costs that go with that. Those costs are passed on—when it takes too long to construct new housing, we see the cost of new housing go up. We see the great challenges for families to get into home ownership as we have seen affordability get out of control in many parts of our nation. Costs are passed on in the way of fewer jobs. We have recently seen mining developments and other developments unreasonably frustrated, and that affects jobs in the construction industry and jobs right through the economy. It is not good enough to take the approach to the environment we have seen from some I have quoted, which is effectively to oppose any development because it will have an environmental impact. All development has an environmental impact. What we need to do as a government, what the government has a responsibility to the community to do, is find ways of facilitating reasonable development, of ensuring that it can proceed on a reasonably timely basis, whilst ensuring that it does not do undue environmental damage, that it does not have an undue environmental impact. That is what this legislation is about. It is an important piece of legislation and an important reform, and I commend it to the Senate.
In my speech on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill I want first to put on the record a few of the facts that have been glossed over. Those opposite have made significant efforts to disappear the facts from this debate. I would also like to talk about what the bill is seeking to do in a practical way, and then I will make some closing remarks about the Abbott government's environmental record so far—a record that sheets home why this bill is such a dangerous piece of legislation.
I want to commence with a very short story about a delightful four-year-old I met one Sunday morning at the EV Church at Terrigal, in the electorate of Robertson on the Central Coast, which is where I live. She came up to speak to me after the opening of the church—I think she had just finished having a great time on the bouncing castle. She made her mother bring her over to me because she wanted her mother to show me a picture on her phone that she was very proud of. It is a picture that hangs in this little girl's home—on the great gallery of Australia, on the fridge, held there with a fridge magnet. I will describe the picture. There is a small, banana-type boat. There are two characters sitting in the boat by the name of B1 and B2. Behind them, Tony Abbott is seated and behind Tony Abbott is the young girl herself, watching the action. The boat is exploding with litter. Her comment to me was, 'This is the boat on the Great Barrier Reef. I want to go there and see it one day. I've got B1 and B2 in the boat with me 'cause I'm watching them to make sure that Mr Abbott doesn't get rid of them. And all that rubbish in the boat—that is what he wants to throw over the side! I am watching Mr Abbott and I can tell you that I am not very happy with the choices he is making.' This was from a very articulate and forward-looking four-year-old. A four-year-old was able to explain her concern about the environment in those sorts of terms. She is spot-on in her assessment of what Tony Abbott wants to do in terms of the Great Barrier Reef: Abbot Point and the massive expansion he seeks to approve there is part of that threat. She identified the threats to other things that create this wonderful community we have in Australia, including the ABC.
That sort of perspective on what this government is doing is absolutely lucid. What we see in the commentary from those opposite is the exact opposite of lucidity; it is obfuscation at every turn: 'Let's just do the old trick—try and hide the facts from people.' It is as if the EPBC Act is going to cause a failure of Australia's development capacity. That is the argument they are putting, that this is green and red tape that should simply be removed: 'Get out of the way of great development and it will create jobs.' But we must not forget that the reality is, with 250,000 development applications put forward in Australia each year, the number to which this piece of legislation applied was 400. It was 400 out of 250,000—and it applied to those 400 because they were of national significance.
I am proud to be here representing the great state of New South Wales but the work of this parliament means we need to look to the nation. We have a responsibility to the nation—to all the people of every state—and we need to look after our environment critically, as part of a legacy to give to all Australian. We see in this legislation a hint of what we have seen in many other pieces of legislation that have come before the chamber from those opposite: that is, a delight in removing from themselves the responsibility for the work of government at a federal level, palming it off to the states. We have seen it in the arguments they have put forward in the areas of health and education and again we hear them say: 'Hands up! We don't need to be involved. Let's just remove ourselves from this place and hand it over to the states. That'll be fine. It's not a federal government responsibility.' We see every day that they have asked the Australian people to elect them to do less. That is what this legislation is about: enabling them to do less. There will be less scrutiny, less care for the country and less looking after sites of national significance.
If I move to this bill, we can see that what it does is pave the way for Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt to simply abrogate their responsibilities to others, namely the states. Under the sorts of changes they are proposing we will have Campbell Newman approving dredging and dumping on the Great Barrier Reef. I know that would cause incredible concern to the people of Queensland. I had the pleasure—prior to starting my family—of travelling around the entire country with my husband. The three days we spent at the Ningaloo marine reserve in Western Australia, just parked in our campervan at Turquoise Bay, was one of the periods of my and my husband's life that we recall with great joy. Anybody who has travelled around Australia—all those grey nomads, some of whom might be listening right now, know what a treasure a place like the Ningaloo marine reserve is. Intuitively, like that four-year-old I referred to at the beginning of my speech, Australians know that Colin Barnett is not the kind of person to be trusted with such a national treasure. He is not that sort of person; his record speaks volumes. Down in Tasmania, there are iconic World Heritage listed forests—and Will Hodgman will be in charge. This is not a good combination and Australians know it.
I stand here proudly as a Labor senator, part of a Labor Party with a fine record of looking after the environment. Labor were the first to have an environment minister. The legacy we leave in the state of New South Wales is a massive expansion of forests for Australians—of national parks and the amenity they provide. This is Labor's legacy. We understand about the interaction between the economy, people and our natural environment. We seek a balanced, integrated model of that. What those opposite seek to do is always to upset that balance in favour of speed and dollars over people.
Development is critical. Indeed, my family—all my brothers and my father—have spent most of their lives involved in civil construction and the rolling out of new suburbs and subdivisions to provide sites for people to live. The processes of our governments can be slow in some cases. But to pretend in this place that a one-stop shop is going to eliminate those sorts of sticking points that happen as developments are pushed through is an absolute misrepresentation of reality. Make no mistake: there will be no one-stop shop; that is just another slogan—another slogan that has been proven to reveal the lies rather than the truth of what those opposite say. The one-stop planning shop will not come into being. Be very clear: people who propose developments of all kinds will have to put them through their local council and their state just as they currently do. Those two bodies will have to have a conversation. But this legislation is taking away the capacity for the federal government to have oversight of that process where a matter of national significance is involved. It is an abrogation of responsibility, in my view.
What is even worse is that beyond shifting the responsibility to another level of government—namely the state government—this legislation is also seeking to provide the ability for those same state governments to give to local government the capacity to undertake critical assessment and approval processes. It is like it is a train of thought: 'We'll abrogate ourselves of responsibility; we'll hand it on to the state but we'll build into it a capacity for them to abrogate their responsibility and hand it to local government.' There are fine local government counsellors and people working in those great parts of our community who do wonderful work. But is the decision making and the correct, detailed and careful investigation into the impact of development on sites of national significance really the work of your local council? In my area, provision of roads is the main focus of local councils, and they are resource poor. They became even more resource poor after this government came in and took away all their school improvement and financial assistance grants. Delays to local road construction have now increased because of the choices that this government has made. More and more pressure is being shifted from this government, which wants to do less and less and heap more and more on those who have the least capacity to pay. To do the kind of careful assessment required for looking into the future across decades in the interests of the Australian people is not the work of local government. Yet that is what this legislation is seeking to achieve.
Also of great concern to me as a Labor senator is the whole renunciation by the government of their sense of responsibility to quality and consistency in the processes between the states. It is ironic that in the bill itself they talk about inconsistency when what they are creating is a structure which will create incredible inconsistency and incredible inequality between the states. This bill mentions for the first time local governments having the power to approve developments across the country, taking away that sense of common transparent reality for all regions around the country. I am very concerned that the bill, along with the bilateral agreements being developed, will mean that World Heritage sites, nuclear activities, uranium mining and species protected under international treaties are going to now be put in the hands of state governments—or at least, in the first instance, in the hands of state governments, but then potentially in the hands of your local government. World Heritage listed sites will now potentially be in the hands of local governments. This is not a step forward for Australians. This is not an advancement of our nation. There is no 'advance Australia fair' in what they are doing here. It is taking away the probity that necessarily needs to be applied to the quality of a proposal for development and it will have implications for generations.
I would like to speak briefly about what it could mean to the state of New South Wales. In 2013, the former Minister for the Environment, Robyn Parker—who had an unpleasant engagement in a public place with the Orica incident in Newcastle—made the claim with regard to a major logging development that 'logging protects koalas'. Let me say it again because I could not believe it when I heard it: 'Logging protects koalas.' That was the argument of the Minister for the Environment in New South Wales. I am sure, if I asked a four-year-old, they would be able to come up with a more lucid and accurate statement than that. That is the level that this legislation is proposing to drop the decision making to, with the threat that it could fall to local government, which is even less resourced.
In New South Wales, under the O'Farrell government, we have seen nine members step aside from the Liberal Party, two of whom gave up their seats immediately and who have now decided to allow by-elections to be held in their electorates around Newcastle. Those votes will be taken and the new members will come in. We have seen nine members remove themselves from the Liberal Party because of ICAC investigations. Amongst those investigations, there have been significant comments made in the public place about the role of developers and developers' dollars in getting a hearing with the government of the day—the Liberal government. It is an incontrovertible fact that the influence of property developers of the unscrupulous kind is now on display for all the people of New South Wales to see. What they had as their protection when people did the wrong thing was federal oversight. Labor embraced that responsibility at a national level to make sure that there was some oversight.
The reality is that this government does not want to see. It wants to turn its head away. It is happy to support people who think that logging helps koalas. It is happy to see dumping on our reef. It is happy to see care for the Ningaloo marine reserve go to Colin Barnett. It is happy to see the potential destruction of things of national importance because it wants to do less. That is its mantra. The coalition are not up to the responsibility of government and to taking seriously their role as a federal body of oversight to act in the national interest. We should be scared about what this legislation can deliver because of what the government wants to do. Its qualifications in this area are already well and truly on the record.
First of all, it is pretty clear that they do not have any credibility when it comes to the environment because they do not even have a minister for science to speak to the issues of the environment. In fact, they have spent most of the last six or seven years decrying environmental fact. We have a Prime Minister who said that climate change is 'crap'. Now that man, with that eloquent speech, is, sadly, the leader of this country. It is his legislation that we are dealing with right here. The record of the government is astounding. Apart from the backward moves on climate change risking outstanding World Heritage icons, they have gone into government rushing through environmental approvals. They have disallowed the endangered community listing of the Murray River from the Darling River to the sea and, against all reason and sneakily, they have gone about having the world's largest marine reserve system reproclaimed to undo the care and management plans that gave them effect.
As I said earlier, this government has begun, right now, processing the handing over of environmental approval to the states—
Proceedings suspended from 18:30 to 19:32
To continue my remarks on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014: this is a bill, by the way, which actually does not explain what it is about to do, which is to rip away the protection of the Australian environment.
As I said earlier, this government already has an appalling record. It has begun to hand over control of the Great Barrier Reef to Campbell Newman and to Colin Barnett the control of the Ningaloo Reef, and so many other great national treasures. It has all but abandoned efforts to have Queensland's Cape York added to the World Heritage listing, it has approved every request for development in the Barrier Reef catchment that has landed on the minister's desk, despite UNESCO threatening to list the reef as in danger. This government continues to act not only as economic vandals against Australia's interests but environmental vandals, and to have a fake veil that this is in the economic interests of Australia. It is absolutely not in the economic interests of Australia.
This side of the chamber—and I stand here representing the Labor Party—stands proudly on the record of Bob Hawke and those who preceded us in establishing the first environment ministry; establishing forever and for us the Antarctic reserve, preventing unwarranted development of a pristine environment. That is Labor's strong record. We do not just talk about it; we deliver it in government. And this government has come in and is determined to pull it apart.
This government has disenfranchised communities across Australia by ripping Commonwealth funding from the Environmental Defender's Offices. They have taken away the money from the people who can stand up and defend the environment. They have ripped out the capacity of our country to be able to look after those things which are in our care at this time. They have taken us backwards on every front in the environment. They have repealed carbon pricing and ignored climate change. They want to axe the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the renewable energy target. There is nothing of environmental significance and benefit to this country that this government is not prepared to rip away.
I agree with the four-year-old I mentioned at the beginning of my comments. I, and many Australians, are not very happy with the choices Mr Abbott is making in the national interest, because they are in the national disinterest. (Time expired)
What is truly unique and iconic about my home state of Tasmania has been saved by federal oversight in recent decades. I think about the things which have put Tasmania on the map globally and what brings us nearly a million tourists a year from all around the world. They have spent billions of dollars of revenue in our economy. They come to see the iconic wilderness in Tasmania's World Heritage areas. They go to the Franklin-below-Gordon, judged recently as one of the greatest whitewater rafting rivers in the world. They come to our national parks, which are loved and known all around our country and all around the world.
When I look at these special areas, they were hard-fought for and won not just by conservationists but by lots of people around this country. In the end, while they exist in Tasmania they are owned and are the property of all Australians. In fact, when they go into World Heritage they are, of course, the property of everyone around the world.
When I think about what actually got the global Green movement going it was an absolutely stunning and unique piece of wilderness down in the south-west of Tasmania—a beach that you can land aircraft on that literally became a chapel of the open sky to lots of Tasmanians who would go there with their children on the weekends. It was called Lake Pedder.
Lake Pedder was lost in 1973 to a Tasmanian state government hell-bent on development. It galvanised the global green movement. People do not realise that the Greens in countries and parliaments all around the world now started with a fight to save Lake Pedder. That then morphed into a campaign to save the Gordon-below-Franklin. I am pleased to say that one of my predecessors, Bob Brown, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and others all came together to save that truly unique piece of wilderness for every Australian and everyone around the world. That, once again, would not have happened if the federal government had not stepped in to check the attitude of the Tasmanian government.
This issue is something near and dear to my heart because my own experience, which has led me to parliament, involved fighting what I thought was a rogue corporation—and I think history will find me to have been correct—and a rogue state government that wanted to build one of the world's biggest pulp mills in the Tamar Valley. Not only would it have led to thousands of truck movements in the beautiful tourist valley; they would have dumped 30 billion litres of industrial waste in the ocean every year. They would have dumped that into the Bass Strait. They would have dumped that into a very productive salmon fishery just kilometres from seal colonies.
As I know from personal experience, the state government was not prepared to properly assess the risks of this project to the environment, the community or even the local economy. So I and some other surfers, who are quite hard to get off their backsides sometimes, went and met with this company, Gunns Ltd, and asked them what this pulp mill business was all about. We were not happy with the response we got, so we tried to get information off the state government. A friend of mine paddled from Byron Bay down to Hobart on a sea kayak to raise money and eventually we raised enough to fund a big international report which we submitted to the Resource Planning and Development Commission in Tasmania. That was an independent assessment of what was going to be the single biggest private investment in Tasmania's history. But it was also going to lock in the destruction of four million to five million tonnes of native forest a year. It was going to be used to make pulp to send overseas into the Chinese and Japanese markets.
Those forests are now protected, thanks to the Greens and also to Labor. They have now gone into World Heritage protection. The Liberal Party has tried to rip up that World Heritage agreement in recent months. But those forests have been saved for future generations because we have had checks and balances.
Back to the pulp mill, although the RPDC process was underway, my friends and I put in a 68-page submission. I took a year off from the university study I was doing to get this done. I cared enough about it to do that, and the community cared too. But our community process was ripped out from underneath our feet as Gunns pulled out of the resource planning development process and the state Labor government fast-tracked assessment, using parliament as a planning body to bring in this pulp mill.
When we thought all was lost, we found when we went up to see the federal environment minister, who at that time was Peter Garrett, that the ocean outfall was a big problem. No-one had done the work on that. The state government was prepared to just tick the boxes. Luckily, Mr Garrett made the company go back and do that two- to three-years worth of modelling studies they needed to do. Eventually the GFC came along and the company could not raise the finance for its project. My opinion is that it was never going to be profitable in the first place, aside from all the environmental issues.
It was that federal oversight in that critical area where state responsibilities merge with federal responsibilities that meant we actually got some proper scrutiny of the risks of this project. I lived and breathed that, including making several trips to Canberra with other community groups to speak to anyone who would open their door to us. That federal oversight was critical. This is just one example of that. Tasmania dodged a bullet by not building that project. It was never going to be economically successful. It promised so many people so much, but it was never going to be able to deliver and survive in a global economy. Also, those forests have now been saved. That ocean is still full of fishermen and surfers like me who are quite happy to go and recreate there. This is just one example of the types of projects that are happening right around the country. I wanted to share my experience on this issue.
We need federal oversight. It was a Liberal government that brought in federal oversight. As environment minister, Senator Robert Hill established the EPBC Act, set up the National Heritage Trust and set in train a process of expansion of marine parks and national parks across this country. Until now, that policy framework has been largely untouched by parliament. Especially over the last decade we have had debates on this and a comprehensive review was done in 2009 by the Rudd government. That also found that the EPBC Act needed to be strengthened, not weakened. But, unfortunately, that review was shelved.
This Liberal government is unwinding the work that was done during the Howard era to have sensible checks and balances in place to make sure that rampant state governments, wanting development at all costs to fill up their coffers, with no thoughts for the long term or the sustainability of these projects, have checks and balances in place from federal oversight. That is why the Greens do not believe that handing power from the Commonwealth to the states and putting the environment at risk is a sensible thing to do. There are good reasons why the EPBC Act came into being in the first place. If you want to see what those good reasons are for yourself, come down and visit Tasmania, walk in the World Heritage forests, go rafting in the Franklin and go visit the Tarkine. It is now under threat from mining. The only thing that has held that up so far is, once again, Federal Court action which found that the EPA in Tasmania run by the local government—surprise, surprise!—was not doing its job.
I, too, rise to speak on this EPBC Act amendment bill. I find it quite interesting that we seem to be debating the idea that some terrible thing is going to happen instead of focusing on coming up with a situation where regulation does not become a burden to the productivity of our country going forward. This immediate assumption that every time we do anything we have to have some level of regulation for regulation's sake is quite silly. I think we should be approaching regulation on the basis of asking, 'What is it that we need to do to ensure that we protect'—as Senator Whish-Wilson just talked about—'our environmental assets and to make sure that we are looking after our communities?'
It strikes me as odd that we jump to the immediate assumption that, if we are going to try and reduce the level of regulatory burden on a process, it is necessarily bad. I think that we can have a reduction in regulation that will be of no detriment to our environment and at the same time will allow our economy, our communities, our businesses and our country to move forward.
I was reading this a minute ago:
The truth is business regulation is now right out of control. The quantity and complexity of regulation today is eating away at the entrepreneurial spirit of Australian business.
You might ask, 'Who said that?' Kevin Rudd said that in an address to the National Press Club in April 2007. It is very interesting that even the previous Prime Minister understood the burden of regulation. It is also really interesting that, subsequent to that, we went on to see, in the six years that Labor were in office, the introduction of 21,000 additional regulations. The result of that was that Australia's position in global competitiveness rankings actually fell—so you cannot have it both ways.
According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, multifactor productivity, assessed using quality-adjusted hours worked, fell by three per cent in Australia from July 2007 to June 2012. A study by The Economist's Intelligence Unit in August 2012 ranked Australia as the second worst of 51 countries for productivity growth, ahead of only Botswana—Australia is actually regulating itself out of the marketplace. You have to wonder what particular benefit is being generated for Australia by doing this. All we seem to be doing is making our businesses totally non-productive. When the previous government was in office it did not sit down and look at ways to address the issue of why Australia was going backwards so rapidly in this space. That is exactly what we are seeking to do here.
We understand that there are regulatory requirements to ensure that we do not end up damaging our environment so that we can be sustainable into the future, but let us not put our sovereign position in such a state that nobody in the world wants to undertake any developments in Australia. We have to realise that capital is mobile and that it is becoming more and more mobile as time goes by, so now we have a situation where a company has the choice of undertaking an investment in Australia or undertaking an investment somewhere else in the world. They will, of course, weigh up the complexity of the environments they are looking at to determine where that investment should be made. I do not need to remind senators in this place that Australia does not have the kind of capital available to meet the development needs of our country going into the future, so we do have to rely on this mobile international capital. If we continue to add regulatory burden at the rate we are adding it at the moment, we are going to see a lot of this capital dry up and go somewhere else. That is not going to be good for our country, our economy, our people, our communities and the prosperity of this nation into the future.
You can look at the reviews, reports and investigations into establishing what is happening in this space. The Productivity Commission found that there are multiple layers of environmental regulation for many, many projects. They went on to say that it is not uncommon for major projects to need 70 different types of approval. If every single one of those 70 different types of approval actually had a different and specific benefit, and addressed something different with no duplication, I do not think it likely that anybody in Australia would have a problem with this. The biggest problem we have is that, with these massive numbers of approvals, many of them are duplicated. If we are seeking to ensure that a project proponent only has to deal with one approval process—and deal with it only once—on a particular issue, I cannot see how that can be a bad outcome for Australia or a bad outcome for our environment. The Business Council of Australia identified a recent major project development which required four different assessment processes by four separate government agencies, federal and state, and all of them requested similar information. So you can understand why businesses in Australia and businesses seeking to be involved in the Australian marketplace are very, very keen to reduce the level of regulatory burden.
Another piece of evidence that was found in the Productivity Commission's report was that meeting the regulatory requirements for one major project cost its proponent $25 million. It involved 4,000 meetings and resulted in a 1,200-page report—and, after two years of assessment, the project was subject to 1,200 state conditions, 300 Commonwealth conditions and a further 8,000 subconditions. The company actually had to employ an extra 50 people for a period of two years just to meet the environmental regulatory requirements that Australia demanded of this particular project.
As you can see, it is not that anybody here is seeking to create a situation where we are going to shortcut regulation, shortcut compliance and shortcut protection; all we are saying is: let's not do it one, two, three, four, five, six or, in this case, 70 different times. Let's do it once. Let's get a one-stop shop and let everybody speak to each other so we can actually facilitate the efficient, effective and responsible approval of projects without actually putting so much burden on the proponents that many of them choose not to go ahead with their projects in Australia.
And it is not just in the mining space. We seem to hear so much about the mining space, but we have environmental and regulatory burdens. You have only to look at the impact on the Great Barrier Reef of the speculation and misinformation in relation to the marine parks. With the lack of certainty, people just are not going up there anymore. So we need to have a look at regulation in the broadest possible sense to make sure Australia is not turned into a Second or Third World country simply because we have scared everybody away.
One of the things I have said many times before in this place is that it always terrifies me when our Greens senators on the other side in particular get up and talk about the idea of the federal government and federal politicians knowing best. I do not profess to know any more or any less than anybody else. I have been put here to make judgements in relation to matters that are under federal jurisdiction, but for us to believe in centralised control and that we somehow know more and better than people who are closer to the coalface, I think, shows a level of contempt that I do not think is very complimentary of us. I know that those opposite have a more centralised viewpoint about how we manage what we do, but I am a great believer in decentralisation. I am a great believer that the people who are closest to the coalface have the best information about what is going on. That is not to say that we do not have to have some very strict and very robust structures, conditions and processes in place to make sure we protect the assets of all Australians, but to say that everything has to happen at a national level simply because we know better than everybody else is the height of arrogance and conceit. I certainly do not believe that I do.
The other issue in this space is that it is very easy to get people in the general public to become scared if you actually work up a campaign of scaremongering. I am sure the public out there, from all the hoo-ha that has been going on around this environmental approval process, probably think that the federal government actually wants to put in some approval process that is going to have a detrimental impact on the environment. I think it is irresponsible for us standing here to be misleading the public in that way. What we need to be doing is telling the public the truth: that we are trying to strike a balance with sensible, responsible, environmentally responsible development without scaring everybody away. I am really disappointed at the level of scaremongering and this absolute assumption that, just because we want to reduce regulation, we are somehow going to end up with a worse outcome. I think that is entirely irresponsible.
The idea is a one-stop shop slashing unnecessary—I emphasise the word 'unnecessary'—red and green tape. We are not slashing red and green tape for the sake of slashing it; we are only slashing red and green tape that is unnecessary. It is the responsibility of government not just to protect the environment, as some in this place would think, but also to protect jobs. We need to protect Australian businesses. We need to protect Australian communities. In making policy decisions in this space we need to be mindful of a whole raft of things. You cannot just say that one thing gets priority and everything else just gets shelved; that is not the way a responsible government behaves. For us a one-stop shop is there to get rid of unnecessary red and green tape. It is to get rid of duplication of requirement, whether it be at federal, state or local levels in terms of the processes. We need to try to remove cost from the proponents getting their projects to a point of approval. We need to make sure that, at the same time, we maintain high environmental standards. I do not think anybody has ever suggested that we should reduce our environmental standards. All we are saying is that we do not believe we need to continue on with this ridiculous duplicated situation. I think it is very important that we establish the fact that that is what we are trying to do with this particular bill. We are simply seeking to streamline a process that at the moment is cumbersome, time consuming and has massive levels of duplication.
I was listening to Senator Whish-Wilson earlier when he was talking about his favourite state, Tasmania, and the wonderful natural assets that Tasmania has to brag about. There is certainly no doubt there are some beautiful areas of Tasmania; but, in the process of turning more than half of Tasmania into a national park, what has happened to Tasmania? There have been numerous reports written about how the green tape is basically strangling Tasmania. It is strangling its economy; it is strangling its farmers. I think we need to get a much better balanced approach to this because Tasmania has suffered at the hands of the overregulated green environment over there. Independent studies have been commissioned, and they suggest that the compliance burden on Tasmanian businesses probably exceeds $1.3 billion annually. I come from a small state myself, and $1.3 billion is an awful lot of money in the economy of a state with a reasonably small population. I know Senator Whish-Wilson wants to look after his environment, but he also has to look after his community and the people who live in Tasmania.
In South Australia of recent times we had a very disappointing situation where the Olympic Dam mining expansion did not go ahead. For a state like South Australia, that was a massive blow. That project was projected to create 10,000 jobs in South Australia. Ten thousand jobs in a regional area would be a massive injection of prosperity, commitment and long-term opportunity, especially for a state with a population base as low as South Australia's. There were to be 6,000 construction jobs in building the expansion of the mine and 4,000 permanent jobs attached to the mine expansion operation itself.
This was to be a $30 billion investment in South Australia. There would not have been just the investment by BHP Billiton and the jobs created directly by this development; there would have been huge knock-ons for the regional communities that would have supported the activities. I was in Whyalla a few months ago. On the back of the belief that the expansion was going ahead there was huge investment in the development of housing in the area because people were thinking that the area would start expanding and people would not necessarily want to live on site. It is a community that is reasonably close. So they made huge investments because of the opportunity that was to be generated by the Olympic Dam mine expansion. So of course there was huge regret and great disappointment in South Australia when we found out that the expansion was not going ahead.
I speak about this project in South Australia because obviously anything that happens in South Australia is of particular interest to me as a South Australian. This kind of issue has been replicated across Australia. Our country's sovereign risk is permanently put under pressure simply because we have got in place an uncertain and challenging environment. Proponents are choosing not to invest in Australia because they are not sure what is going to happen. They are never sure when the rules are going to change. So we need to be very clear here. When we put rules in place we need to make sure they are entirely transparent so everybody knows what the rules are, everybody knows what they have to comply with and all the people of Australia can see whether those conditions and rules are protecting the very assets they want to see protected. At the same time we need to make sure that we have not got the ridiculous situation where we are continuing to put burden after burden on our developers and businesses and continue to push them offshore.
As you would know from the discussions during your time in this place, Madam Acting Deputy President Peris, there have been many instances over the last two years where Australian policy has scared off businesses from investing in Australia. I commend the establishment of a streamlined regulatory process in relation to developments in Australia. As I said before and will say again in front of my Green colleagues on the other side of this place, there is no way in the world that I and my colleagues are going to support a process that is going to damage our environment. We are merely seeking to have a process that is fair, responsible and not overly burdensome and that still delivers the outcome without the ridiculous, unnecessary and continued duplication of activity that we have seen over the past six years as our regulatory environment went berserk.
I oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. As an Australian Greens senator from South Australia, just like my colleague Senator Ruston—and I will take issue with some of the things she said in a minute—it is absolutely my responsibility to oppose this backward step in environmental regulation. I need to oppose this bill not just because I owe it to my beautiful home state—much of which is uniquely and hauntingly arid; it is the most arid state on what we know is the most arid continent of the world—that has wonderful wildlife and stunning wild places but because, despite the reassurances the government are giving us that they would not do anything to harm the environment, I have a duty to act on the environmental threats facing our whole country in this second decade of the 21st century. I am not prepared to put my head in the sand. Sometimes I wish I could because it is very frightening to hear what the scientists are telling us.
I was a teenager in the 1970s. In the 1960s and 1970s we started as a human species to become aware of the frightening effects that our species was having on the viability of the planet. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of pesticides in the environment. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of pollution. We had an increasing understanding of the effects of a burgeoning human population and the effects of our technology on the finite nature of the planet as we became more and more aware of what a fragile, self-contained planet we live on. Of course at that time we started to see an increase in environmental protection laws with the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States and an increased understanding around the world that we needed to take responsibility for what we were doing or we would end up with nothing.
It is with great alarm that I see we are going backwards at a rate of knots at the moment. I have to pinch myself sometimes and question: is there something I am missing? Is it in fact that these days we need fewer protections than we were putting in place in the 1960s and 1970s? Is it that we have sorted these problems? Is it that we can be complacent now about the risks to our current generation and the future generations that will be inheriting the earth from us? Of course not. There is a change, a short-sightedness and I think in some ways nihilism now. There is a sense that we need to give in to certain hedonism and we cannot be making those responsible decisions that we were previously making.
I will cut to the chase because absolutely nothing in this bill will protect the environment. Instead it is very clear that this bill will fast-track damaging projects and leave a legacy that will be mourned by Australians in the future as they tally up the damage. The Australian Greens have long supported a strong role for the Commonwealth in protecting the Australian environment. That is because it is in our national interest to have robust national environmental protections to fulfil our international obligations, to protect nationally significant matters and—one of the basic reasons we needed the national government to step up to protect the environment—to mitigate the risk of the development auctions that occur when states offer the lowest common denominator of environmental protections to the highest bidders.
We only have to look around Australia today to see places that would have been trashed and gone but for the willingness of Commonwealth governments to step in and take leadership on behalf of the whole community. In 1982 I was arrested in the Franklin Dam blockade and every time I return to Strahan, I am reminded of the beauty of the Gordon and Franklin rivers still flowing free. I am reminded of what we could have lost and I do not meet anyone now who says to me: 'We should have dammed those rivers. We should have dammed the Franklin.' It was only because a Commonwealth government in 1983 was prepared to step in and use its powers in the face of a recalcitrant, irresponsible and bloody-minded Tasmanian government that the Franklin River was saved. The Franklin River was saved because of the very environmental laws that are being trashed by this government in 2014.
Our environmental laws are failing us already. There is absolutely no shying away from that fact. We have already lost valuable places and wildlife to thousands of incremental and sometimes large-scale damaging developments that have already gone ahead. Senator Ruston talked about the importance of jobs—and of course jobs are important. But it is not a jobs-or-the-environment debate, because without an environment we have no jobs. In fact, without an environment, we have nothing—people tend to forget that we are indeed an animal species and we rely on an environment to survive. That is what we have to remember whenever we are thinking about the laws that we make in this place.
In my home state of South Australia, we have faced a long and difficult battle to protect precious Kangaroo Island from offshore oil and gas exploration. Our environmental laws have been less and less effective over time since the Abbott government came into power. Its streamlined processes have made it easier for oil and gas companies to get into pristine waters like those off the coast of Kangaroo Island. Although the proposal to conduct seismic testing in the area was originally deemed a controlled action under the EPBC Act, the government's reduction in standards for environmental approvals has given the final decision to the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, NOPSEMA.
Although the EPBC Act controlled action was on the basis of listed threatened species and communities, listed migratory species and Commonwealth marine areas, NOPSEMA has recently given Bight Petroleum approval to conduct seismic testing in the waters off Kangaroo Island. This is despite the concerns of the community and the many people on the Kangaroo Island whose livelihoods are at risk due to these activities. Their jobs are at risk because of these activities and none of the economic benefits that will flow from the oil and gas exploration will come back to that precious community of 4,500 people off the coast from Adelaide. It is a tourism destination that has been called 'the jewel in South Australia's crown'—and it will not be protected.
If passed, this bill we are debating tonight would facilitate the handover of Commonwealth powers to approve damaging projects under the EPBC Act to state and territory governments, local governments and other unspecified bodies. State governments do not have a good record when it comes to environmental protection. South Australia is no exception. Recently, the South Australian government has approved mining on the Yorke Peninsula. It is a mine that will be 2.4 kilometres long, one kilometre wide and 450 metres deep. The mountain of overburden from the digging up of that hole in the ground is equivalent to a multistorey building. The life of the mine is 15 years. As a result of that mine, many hectares of some of the best barley-growing land in South Australia will be put out of production for ever.
It is on the record. The environmental assessment shows that. So do not tell me it is rot. That is a decision that this government is prepared to make because it does not have an eye on the future. South Australia has a very small amount of arable farming land and the government is prepared to allow a 15-year mine to put that farming land out of commission. One of the issues that has been raised about that mine is that an estimated 3 million kilograms of dust will be produced annually. It is a copper, gold and ore mine that could include radioactive uranium and its decay products, called 'radon gas' and 'radon daughters'. That has been acknowledged in the studies undertaken by the proponents of the mine themselves.
There is a concern that the dust blowing from the mine will affect other farming land and the residents living on the Yorke Peninsula. That is the sort of decision that the South Australian state government is prepared to make. I am also particularly alarmed by the proposal in this bill to hand over the recently gained federal protection of water from significant impacts by coal and coal seam gas mining, better known as 'the water trigger'. This move is a slap in the face to all communities facing the onslaught of coal and coal seam gas mining on their land, affecting their water supplies. Giving away these newly acquired federal powers to act in the national interest to protect water, and by extension farmland, communities and the climate, is nothing but a capitulation to the big miners—the mates of the government. I have visited the south-east of South Australia and I have spoken with winegrowers and graziers—people the National Party profess to represent—who tell me how concerned they are about their precious and finite water supply. They want their water to be protected from unconventional gas mining. They are concerned that people like the National Party, who profess to stand up for them, are deaf to their concerns when it comes to passing legislation in parliament. Shame!
This bill puts the water trigger in its sights, so I do not support this bill. I do not support this bill, because I care about South Australia. I do not support this bill—because I am a Greens senator and I care about the environment of Australia and I care about future generations. The Australian Greens do not support this bill and we will continue to be strong and resolute in our opposition. We are a voice for the environment and a voice for all those Australians who do know that we need to protect our environment and want to see that environment protected.
I cannot start my debate without referring to Senator Wright's comments. She is very concerned about the wonderful wildlife. It is amazing how the Greens are just happy to lock-up country—lock it up and leave it and let it burn. Senator Debate interrupted. Natale is in the chamber. Let us talk about the Black Saturday bushfires, when thousands of hectares of land were burnt because of the fuel levels.
I'll go there all right. Lock up country and leave it, and do not control the fuel levels on it—burn the country; kill the animals. There are 90 million tonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere—that is not counted, because the grass will grow again and that will neutralise it, according to the Greens. It is just amazing. What you need to do is talk to Professor John Wamsley and learn about managing the environment. You have no idea. You are environmental wreckers, because you lock-up country, let the fuel growth, let the lightning strike it— and burn it from one end to the other.
Go up to the Pilliga—where it burnt, four years ago, from one end to the other. And you are concerned about the koalas. I showed a Greens senator this week a photo of a koala out the front of my house. It will not get burnt, because the farm where the koala lives is managed. The fuel levels are kept low.
Let's go back to what went wrong and why. In the last hundred years, 50 per cent of the threatened species have been listed in Australia and 50 per cent of the species that have become extinct are in Australia. I will tell you why it is. Along came to Australia a thing called a fox. It killed the native animals that grazed the country that kept the fuel levels down. Now we have the Greens and their National Parks Association locking-up country. The Labor Party is in bed with the Greens in New South Wales, locking-up all of its land, and it is not managed. It will burn and it will burn. It is only a matter of time that the red gum forests in the south of the state, around Deniliquin, will burn and destroy that timber, and the animals live in it. You must control your country and manage it. This is a problem. So much land is locked up, and it is not managed. That is a fact of life.
They will not allow grazing. They do not allow sheep and cattle in there to reduce the fuel levels. Once the fuel levels become greater than five or 10 tonnes to the hectare, with a 40 degree day and a 50 kilometre wind the fire is uncontrollable. Some of that country that burned in Victoria had up to 150 tonnes to the hectare of fuel—grass and twigs six millimetres in diameter or less. It was uncontrollable. Lives were lost. It was an absolute disgrace. One day you will learn to manage the environment instead of letting it burn and destroy the timber, with the hot fires in the crown of the trees. The fires are that hot. And the native grasses and the seed on the ground. God help the animals there. I am glad that I manage my little place I live on, and I am sure that Senator Nash and her husband, Dave, are exactly the same.
When it comes to environmentalists, the greatest environmentalists in this country are our farmers. They have the national interest of their land for their generations to come. If you want to look after the farmers, the first thing you need—to look after the environment—is for the farmers to have money. But no, you want to stop the live export of cattle and let the cattle producers in Australia go broke. What a disgraceful situation that was when you were part of the last government and you signed an agreement to ban live exports of cattle to Indonesia. It caused so much financial suffering to those especially at the top end who were devastated with the loss of jobs and income and now have to face their bank managers.
Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I know we give people quite a bit of latitude in this place to range freely, across many topics, when discussing a bill, but we are four minutes into this and all we have heard is a critique of controlled burns—which have nothing to do with this bill—and we have had a critique of the live-animal export trade. I am just trying to work out how either of those points are even the faintest bit relevant to the bill we are discussing.
No, what we were talking about was this. He travelled in an aeroplane with a Greens senator who carried a leather handbag—and flew in an aeroplane made of aluminium, from bauxite, and lots of electricity. The hypocrisy is amazing, it really is. Let's talk about the EPBC Act.
Honourable senators interjecting—
I have livened them up on my right! That's good. Who introduced the act? Answer the question.
An honourable senator: John Howard!
Senator Robert Hill, a Liberal senator in this place, introduced the act to protect the environment. It is as simple as that. I know the truth hurts you—
It is very difficult when you hear the rubbish coming from them. It is very hard to ignore them. I will take your advice and I will ignore them. The background of this bill:
Amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in relation to bilateral agreements by providing that: states and territories can be accredited for approval decisions on large coal mining and coal seam gas developments likely to have a significant impact on a water resource; all states and territories can be declared under the Act for the purposes of requesting advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee (IESC); states and territories undertake to seek and take advice from the IESC for approval bilateral agreements which may have a significant impact on a water resource; the IESC provide advice to the Commonwealth about the operation of a bilateral agreement in relation to large coal mining and coal seam gas developments likely to have a significant impact on a water resource; an approval process can be completed when an approval bilateral agreement is suspended, cancelled or ceases to apply to a particular action;
I will repeat that so the Greens can hear it:
… an approval process can be completed when an approval bilateral agreement is suspended, cancelled or ceases to apply to a particular action; state and territory processes that meet the appropriate standards can be accredited for bilateral agreements …
We went to the election promising a one-stop environmental shop. It is called reducing red tape, reducing green tape and reducing costs. The coalition's commitments to high environmental standards remain. I will give you an example: the Green Army Program of $300 million over four years. Just a couple of weeks ago, I met EnviTE, which is revegetating coastline at Byron Bay. It is part of the Green Army Program carrying out environmental improvements.
This legislation is about the establishment of a one-stop shop and slashing at red tape and at cost. If a business wishes to put in a plan for a development, why should they go through paper after paper and questions after questions, then feed it to the federal government, do the same thing to the state government and then, in many cases, also do the same thing for the local government? It is triplication—that is what it is. It costs time; it costs money. It has no benefit in the long term because the one-stop shop can go through the whole process of every issue. No-one in this place is about destroying the future for our children—no-one. That is why we, on this side of the parliament, are adamant that the high level of standards of environment protection must be maintained.
A report in 2012 found that 44 per cent of businesses spend between one and five hours a week complying with government regulatory requirements—sitting there filling out forms, applying for forms, reporting business activity and completing compliance forms. Seventy two per cent of business said that the time they spend on red tape had increased in the preceding two years. Cost to business is cost to our nation. Never forget it: it is a fact that we live in a free-enterprise economy and our nation's wealth is derived through the private sector. Governments do not have money; we take money off the people. John Laws has been telling me that on the radio for 40 years—governments do not have money. The stronger the private sector, the stronger the whole nation.
If you want to look after the environment, the first thing you need is money. That is why I suggest people have a look at a map of Australia. I do not know exactly how much is in the hands of farmers and graziers, but I will have a guess of 50 per cent plus. How can they look after the environment and how can they be green when so many are so far in the red? That is the issue. And I take you back to the banning of live exports of cattle. What an absolute disgrace. Those people did not have enough money to pay their bank interest every month, let alone look after the environment. If you fill the farmers' pockets with money, they will spend that money on preserving their land for future generations. That is the most vital thing.
I bought a small block of land of 400 acres 12 months or so ago. The first thing I did was get the bulldozer in. That was the first thing—and I get a laugh from Senator Rhiannon, or whoever, on my right. I rebuilt the contour banks. I pushed them up four or five feet high so that, when we get a thunderstorm, that valuable topsoil is not going to be washed away. The greatest asset of our nation is our topsoil. You must have good, healthy soil to grow healthy food. If you have soil washed down a river, it is gone forever. That is the first thing I did, for environmental reasons—to protect the soil. It is vital, but we give little attention to soil. We give more attention to trees, in many respects—and those on my right are having a bit of a chuckle over there. 'Trees are more important,' they say. Look around us; everything we see in this building either comes from trees—the timber I am touching now—or is dug out of the ground. The big difference is this: what is dug out of the ground is finite. It will finish; the hole will be emptied. The tree is renewable; it is a renewable resource. Just like growing a wheat crop and harvesting a wheat crop, timber is the same.
I was amazed when I went to Pilliga state forest just a few weeks ago. There is an area left for timber milling. All the poor, twisted, inferior timber is for the timber mills to mill. It is useless. The good timber is locked up in the national park. Well, we know what is going to happen to that. It is going to burn—nothing surer. As sure as I stand here, it will burn.
Fifty four per cent of those people in business said that complying with government regulations had prevented them making changes to grow or expand their business. We talk about jobs, but you need to grow your business. First of all, you need to maintain your business so that you do not go broke. Then you need to grow your business to employ people. Fifty four per cent said that complying with government regulations had prevented them making change to grow and expand their business. Red tape stifles jobs, investment and expansion. We are committed to cutting red tape and green tape. This was an election promise that we stand by—a one-stop shop to remove the cost on business and to see the environment is protected, no matter what application it is.
As I said, this legislation is about cutting duplication of federal, state and local processes. It is keeping it simple by simplifying the environmental approvals process with a single entry point. It is just simple—one lot of bookwork and one lot of approval, but stringent regulations with a high bar as far as environmental approvals go. The business and community benefits from these simple procedures of simply reducing the time and the cost of filling in forms. The cost is a big saving to business. The Commonwealth maintains an important role under the one-stop shop. That is a fact—the Commonwealth maintains that important role. The Commonwealth remains accountable for its obligations under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, including international treaties. It retains an approval role for actions in Commonwealth waters, on Commonwealth land or by Commonwealth agencies. It has an ongoing role in ensuring that the commitments under the bilateral agreements are met. States and territories must demonstrate their approval processes and meet the high environmental standards set out in the EPBC Act. I will repeat that: states and territories must demonstrate that their approval processes meet the high environmental standards set out in the EPBC Act.
The one-stop shop will also promote sharing of environmental information and data between business, government and the community. That is important. When you gather the information, it is important to share it so that all can learn more and maintain that high level of environmental standards.
Transparent and accessible environmental information will improve our collective ability to understand and sustainably manage our environment. Eliminating the dual state-federal approval process will mean that businesses will not have to jump over the same hurdle multiple times, but the same high environmental standards will be maintained. The one-stop shop will also promote the increased use of strategic approaches to improve the environment, such as strategic environmental assessments under the EPBC Act.
Strategic assessments consider the cumulative impacts of environmental pressures and plan for better environmental outcomes. Business will have lower costs. There will be certainty for investors. It will boost productivity and create jobs. There will be a fast approval process, and transparency will mean that the environment will be protected.
There will be a five-yearly review of agreements and an escalated dispute resolution process to resolve any issues. The federal environment minister can still call in the assessment and/or approval of a project. That is most important. In extreme circumstances the minister has the power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an agreement. That is also important; I will repeat it. In extreme circumstances the federal minister has the power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an agreement.
This is simply a case of reducing costs and red tape and green tape paperwork. It delivers on an election promise to develop a one-stop environmental shop. It does not lower the bar one bit for environmental standards. Sure, many around me oppose mining. I get quite amazed about that. What should we do? Should we drive around in cars made of tree leaves or ironbark off an ironbark tree? No; the things we have these days are made from stuff that comes from the ground. I know that many opposite me in this place would like to return us to the Stone Age. With a bit of luck that will probably not happen, unless they happen to get their way. I do not include you, Senator Bullock. I delete you from that comment.
I commend this bill. It is about cost reduction, paperwork, red tape, green tape and an election promise. That is why this bill should be supported.
I congratulate my colleague Senator Larissa Waters for her coverage and the details that she has presented on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill. This is legislation that is certainly not needed. Her colleagues have outlined a very clear case of why, around the country, we still need a federal level of oversight.
Being a senator from New South Wales, I certainly know how much we need the EPBC Act. You just have to look at current goings-on at ICAC, our corruption watchdog, to see so many examples that further underline why we need to retain this legislation in its present form. In fact, it should be strengthened.
I will start off by giving you a couple of quite small examples that underline the importance of the legislation. These are examples just from the Bathurst area. The RTA started bulldozing a $3 million bridge realignment. It turns out that this is where the Bathurst copper butterfly is. I notice that the previous speaker, Senator Williams, has left the chamber now. He will often have a laugh about these sorts of things but they are very important in terms of our biodiversity. It is actually very impressive how all levels of government have responded with a rescue plan. It has involved two local government councils, five state government agencies, two Commonwealth government departments, community groups, industry and landholders, coming forward with a very clear plan to save this really stunning butterfly, the Bathurst copper butterfly. The bridge realignment was about to wipe out the site. The site had not been identified by the EIS consultant. Fortunately, an on-site consultant identified the species, and that immediately helped stop the project, with the federal government department coming in very quickly with back-up as to why the protection was needed.
Staying in the Bathurst area, the Bathurst City Council, on another occasion, was bulldozing trees along the river but 80,000 grey headed flying foxes use this area as their temporary camp. The ecologist referred from the federal department was able to get the work stopped immediately when he recognised that this was important habitat.
These are just some small examples, but when you move over to look at the role of the mining industry in New South Wales you start to butt up against some really big cases that further underline the problems of the laws in New South Wales and the network of deceit and corruption that is going on. That further underlines why we need another layer of government protection. This example is from Bulga in the Upper Hunter. As I said, it is another reminder of why we cannot leave environmental protection up to the state government. Rio Tinto, one of the world's biggest mining companies is involved here. It wants to undertake open-cut mining in a biodiversity offset area, where there is some very significant environmental species. We also have an endangered ecological community—the Warkworth Sands Woodlands—and a number of threatened animal species.
I will give you a little bit of history. Rio Tinto had promised to permanently protect this area but there has been broken promise after broken promise. They have lost two court cases and we are seeing an alarming level of collusion with the current state government. A lot of this is not before ICAC at the moment, but when you look at how the scandals have rolled out with respect to Labor, it is extraordinary how the coalition—the Nationals and Liberal Party—in New South Wales are doing things that are not that dissimilar.
Rio Tinto is just too close to government departments. Within days of Rio Tinto receiving environmental requirements for its Warkworth coalmine expansion plan it was able to respond. If you listen to these statistics you will see that what they were able to produce in record time is simply unbelievable—'unbelievable' in the true sense of the word. Rio Tinto received the requirements for both its Warkworth and Mount Thorley expansion projects on 22 May. About three weeks later—on 15 June—it submitted its response. That response was huge—two 400-plus-page environmental impact reports, along with 33 attached consultants reports running to thousands of pages
How can you do that in three weeks? How did they know what was required? They could do this because they are in the tent, so to speak. They are in the tent with the relevant government department. The reports that are now out are that Rio Tinto had been workshopping the response required with representatives of the department of planning in New South Wales for some considerable time. Again, this is a real reminder of why we need another level of government, why we need this EPBC Act. It can assist in a whole range of ways.
Staying in New South Wales, just moving a bit further north, we come to Maules Creek—an area becoming more and more famous for some outstanding nonviolent protests. Here we come up against the New South Wales Deputy Premier, Andrew Stoner. He did some interesting things when he was in opposition that are starting to catch up with him. When he was in opposition, he met with Aston Resources chairperson, Mark Vaile—well known here, obviously, as a former Deputy Prime Minister. He was lobbying for Maules Creek. This unsavoury web is even more extensive because, as well as the previous Deputy Prime Minister, Aston's lobbyist for Maules Creek in 2010 was Liam Bathgate, of Australian Public Affairs—close to Mr Vaile and a former New South Wales National Party secretary. He contacted the planning department four times in 2011 relating to the Maules Creek project, and set up meetings where Mr Vaile did the lobbying for the coal loader and associated projects.
We are still joining the dots on everything that has gone down here, but we do know that Buildev, the company involved, was donating heavily to both sides of politics. There are some interesting connections there across the political divide, a lot of them involving Mr Obeid. In the case of the Aston donations to the National Party, we find out that they were never disclosed. Donations from a developer should be disclosed while the planning process is going on. The company pleaded guilty and paid a $20,000 fine. I acknowledge that we are still learning about the ins and outs of that story, but I share it with the Senate tonight because it further underlines the problems that many people in local communities have when they are up against laws that are stacked against them and when they are up against departments that are colluding with mining companies and developers—they need another layer of protection in the law and from the federal government.
I congratulate Senator Larissa Waters for her comments about the water trigger and the EPBC Act. This is another area that has been important for New South Wales—particularly for NSW Farmers. We have heard particularly National Party senators tonight denigrating this legislation and trying to negate its importance for farming communities trying to protect their water resources—clearly essential if we are going to have high levels of productivity for the farming land that we are fortunate to have. One example is the Liverpool Plains. This water trigger has become so important because those coal seam gas and coalmining projects can no longer just be given the go-ahead unless independent scientific advice concludes they will not damage our water resources. That was an important protection put in place, and many communities are looking to activate that. Around the Liverpool Plains, I have come to understand from my many visits how aquifers work and why they need to be protected. The industry complains that they have uncertainty with this legislation but the uncertainty is just that they may need to wait a bit longer while these studies are undertaken. Surely such investigation should be the priority; surely the Nationals in this place should raise their voice strongly for that. There are so many reasons just from New South Wales alone for having this legislation at a federal level. It needs to be retained and it should be improved for the environment.
I rise to speak on what is a bill not only of great environmental significance but also of the real economic importance. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill will slash red tape and increase jobs and investment while maintaining and improving environment standards. It is not uncommon for major projects to need 70 different types of approval. I am sure the Greens senators in the chamber are acutely aware of all these approvals, because fundamental to their opposition to this bill passing is their relevance. They are implacably opposed to all reforms that would streamline development in this country.
As an example, an upstream LNG program could require up to 390 regulatory approvals through state and federal agencies. The Port Phillip Bay Channel Deepening Project was subject to over 70 different pieces of environmental legislation and policy, most of which were at the state level. Imagine a project where it cost $25 million to meet regulatory requirements alone, that had 4,000 meetings and a 1,200-page report which, after two years of assessments, was subject to another 1,200 state conditions, 300 Commonwealth conditions and a further 8,000 subconditions. We do not need to imagine this—it actually happened. The Business Council of Australia identified another recent project which required four assessment processes by four separate government agencies at both federal and state levels, all asking the same questions.
The one-stop shop will slash red tape and will increase jobs and investment, and it will maintain, or more likely improve, environmental standards.
The duplication of federal, state and local processes adds complexity and cost to environmental approvals across this country. The one-stop shop will streamline environmental assessments and approvals by removing all that unnecessary duplication between the Australian government and the states and territories, and will deliver benefits for business and the community. It will achieve this while maintaining high environmental standards.
It is all about increasing jobs and getting investment into Australia at a time when the ramping up and establishment of the mining industry is winding down as we go into a production phase. This will be very important. We are not looking to diminish any of the environmental standards. In fact, we are looking to improve on those. The duplication—gone; streamlining environmental assessments—present. That is what this act does—it just removes the unnecessary duplication between those state and territory local agencies, and it will deliver. When fully implemented it will simplify environmental approval processes with one single entry point.
The bilateral agreements with each state and territory, which will be agreed upon by the Commonwealth government with each of those jurisdictions, will ensure the observance of the law and that the intention of the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation act will be maintained. I am very proud to say this act was introduced by a South Australian senator, Robert Hill, at the time minister for the environment—a fellow well-known to me for his care for the environment—
Senator Singh is mischievous in interjecting, saying otherwise. It has existed and it has been ingrained in this legislation since the time it came into existence.
Senator Singh interjecting—
No need to point, Senator Singh. I do have a right to be heard. I have not interjected tonight myself. I would like to get my contribution on the record.
Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. You asked Senator Colbeck to withdraw the inference he made towards me. I am asking you to act on that ruling.
On the point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: I did not make a reflection on any senator in this place. If I had, and you had asked me to withdraw, I would certainly have withdrawn it.
As I said before I was interrupted, the delays in approvals can cost millions and millions of dollars. I have experience in that because tragically, in 2012, stage 2 of the Olympic Dam in South Australia was delayed indefinitely by BHP. It was a tragic blow for the working men and women of South Australia who were looking forward so much to the growth and the prosperity that would have provided. You can lay a lot of that squarely to the environment: it was incumbent on that company to perform, or to jump through the hoops, so that it could get its approval. It got its approval; the delays in getting its approval were some years. What happened then? It built uncertainty, and time is a great destroyer when it comes to mining because mining is a global business and we are exposed to global production pressures. Markets change; markets go up and down. Countries become unstable; countries become stable. With all of these processes—the approval processes, all the hurdles the Greens senators in this chamber would love to see doubled and tripled—it became moribund; completely bound up in the approval process. The mining industry would be captured by this ideology which would stop investment. That is what happened in the case of South Australia. There is no other reason that can explain why a company would go through so much investment in approvals and the many delays that they had to put up with. It must have been heartbreaking for all the people who worked on that task force within BHP to finally come to a point where the years had passed so much that the very aspiration which they had when they went for those approvals was no longer the driver for why they would develop that mine.
Let me talk about environmental standards. They will be strengthened under this change. Before the Commonwealth environment minister can enter into any bilateral agreement with the states and territories, they must demonstrate to the minister that their environmental assessment and approval process meets the very highest environmental standards set out in the act. That is evolving, and the community has an expectation. It is not just the franchise of the Greens in this chamber to protect the environment—although they would tell you otherwise. People on this side of the chamber are as concerned as they are on the other side of the chamber about environmental outcomes not only for Australians but also for the planet. The minister will still ensure that the states and territories meet the highest possible standards in environmental protections. This may indeed mean that some of the states and territories will have to make changes to meet the minister's high standard of regulatory and environmental approvals. They must clear that high-jump bar before the minister will sign off on their right to be the sole arbiter when it comes to this act being implemented.
It also introduces certainty, with profitability and prosperity for industries which this country has enjoyed over the last generation. It will introduce business certainty. There are a number of people on the other side who have been in business and know business. Senator Bullock, Senator Sterle and Senator Bilyk, you know that business needs certainty. We on this side of the chamber all know it because we have all had to convince a bank manager about the certainty of our business plan. If you go into a bank and say to the manager, 'I want to build a mine,' or, 'I'm a production company,' or, 'I'm an explorer,' or, 'I want to raise $10 million on the stock exchange,' the first thing the banker will ask is, 'Have you got your approvals?' You might say, 'Well, no, I haven't got my approvals, Mr Banker. But I know the system here in Australia. I will have to go through the Commonwealth, I will have to go through the state or territory, and then I will have to go through the local government. I will have to deal with all of those, not necessarily all at one time, and there may be some duplication.' By then your banker's eyes will have glazed over. By then your banker will be looking at you, saying, 'Oh, really? What you are now going to have to do is go out to the equities market and sell your story around the traps with all the stockbrokers so that you can raise your money.'
This bill introduces certainty. It is a one-stop shop. You go to that agency and you get your approval and you meet those standards which our society, quite rightly, across this country expects. Our federal government, which holds ultimate authority over this act, gets what it expects and gets certainty. It will also strengthen the system. It will improve all those environmental standards that we are looking to achieve. As I said, the Greens do not have a franchise on environmental responsibility. They try to assert themselves over it, but they do not have it.
The bill will also mean that, if we get agreement and get these amendments through this chamber, there will be, for the first time, a sharing of environmental information and data between businesses, governments and the community. This means that, according to this legislation, information will be shared between the Commonwealth, the states, local governments and businesses, and all that data will finish up in the ABS. How sensible would that be, instead of silos of governments with bureaucrats protecting their information and not passing it on? This is what the information age is all about. It is about sharing that information. It is about getting that data so that we can improve the social, business and environmental outcomes that we all want. That level of sharing provides transparency that we have not had before. It provides transparency on environmental information and our collective ability to understand and manage the key issues in our environment. The elimination of the dual state-federal approval process will remove that one big hurdle that stops investment.
Business does benefit—and, God forbid, we need businesses. Do not tell the Greens, but we do need businesses and we do need profits. We want profits because profits are reinvested to grow businesses. When you grow businesses you employ more people. When you employ more people you have fewer people on welfare. When you have fewer people on welfare that is less of a burden. Then we might have a chance to pay back some of the debt that the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government left us with.
The increased certainty for investors, faster assessment and reduced costs will obviously boost productivity and lead to those jobs of which I just spoke. Business will rejoice if you all get together and pass this bill. It will lower the cost and it will lead to faster approvals and more certainty. The transparency, the audits, the transitional and five-yearly reviews which are proposed are all reporting mechanisms contained in these amendments, which will ensure that the expectations of our community in 2014 will be met. These are mature amendments in line and in keeping with what we expect and with what we expect of ourselves.
The federal environment minister, quite rightly, will retain the ability to call in an assessment and will still retain the right of veto for the approval of the project. In extreme circumstances the minister has the power under this bill to suspend or indeed to cancel an agreement. The states and territories will be accountable to the community and business as well as to the Commonwealth. I do not know why it is assumed in this chamber that we have any fewer people in our state and territory governments looking after the environment than we do here. These are all smart, intelligent people elected to state governments of all political persuasions and I am sure that they are eminently capable of carrying out the duties of their functions at a standard which the community desires at any point in time. I do not know why we think that we should assert ourselves over them. We will still have the right—the minister of the government of the day will have the right—to ensure that the standards are maintained.
In the short time that I have available to me now I will just go to a contribution that Senator Wright made in relation to our home state of South Australia and some of the concerns which she shared about a couple of issues there. She talked about her time of growing up in the seventies and the impact that our species had made through evolution. She spoke quite passionately about pesticides, pollution and the effect of our technologies. Of course, I agree with Senator Wright; there have been mistakes made. Pollution has been emitted and there has been the effect of technology. But that is exactly the evolution that Senator Wright talks of—there will always be an evolution. It is up to the responsible governments—state, territory, local and Commonwealth—to get this right. They will, and they have a good track record of getting it right.
If you talk about the environment protection agencies of the United States of America, we have our own contained at every state, territory and local government level. That is exactly what they are for. We have made a progression and we do, indeed, seek to continue to make progression all the time. That is what we are doing.
I do get somewhat concerned when emotive issues like oil and gas exploration and controlled actions on Kangaroo Island are raised, without any kind of substantiation about protection from what—what is the threat? What was it that the agency failed to do in the approval of these? It is just scaremongering and rhetoric that are provided in the contributions to this chamber and which go largely unchallenged. But I say to Senator Wright: if there are things where she believes there have been shortcuts in environmental approvals or if there is damage being done, do not talk about it in here. Bring it to those agencies—the Environment Protection Authority in South Australia. Bring it up! There is the approval of the Rex mine on the Yorke Peninsula—that is an area which is 0.05 per cent of that peninsula. I urge her to get behind that project. (Time expired)
I too would like to commend the work of our spokesperson on this issue, Senator Larissa Waters, who has been a tour de force on the issue of protecting our environment and using our environmental laws to enable us to continue to protect the wonderful Australian environment.
When it comes to this specific bill, it is so bureaucratic and so dense that you almost need a hatchet to get through the thicket of bureaucratic complexity. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014—it says a lot, doesn't it? That is why we have a debate that has been reduced to a few slogans. We hear words like 'streamlining', 'duplication', 'certainty' and 'abolishing bureaucracy'. We hear about 'green tape' and 'red tape'. All I know is that this government is giving everyone the blues.
We hear about a 'one-stop shop'. What is a one-stop shop? If this bill is effectively creating a one-stop shop it has to have a drive-through so that any proponent can come into the shop, without getting out of the car, and have their approval waived through without having to do so much as the smallest bit of work. The simple message here is this: 'Let's cut through all the nonsense; let's cut through the slogans and the one-liners. Let's have an honest debate about what's going on here.' The coalition thinks that environmental protection has gone too far. They want to wind it back and they want to make it easier for business. That is the honest debate that we need to have.
Let's get beyond this nonsense around 'one-stop shops' and 'simplifying overburdensome regulation'; this is simply about whether our Australian environment needs to be protected or whether those protections should be weakened to allow developments across a number of industries to proceed. That is what it is about and that is the debate we should be having.
John Howard did not have the same view as this government—that is why these laws were introduced by the former environment minister Robert Hill. They did not believe that states would provide the protection that threatened species needed. That is why these laws were introduced. I do not think that handing over powers to the states is a bad thing because states are evil. There is a reality here: we have state governments with limited capacity to raise revenue who are always going to favour developments that they see might bring a few extra dollars to their state.
You do not need to look too far to see this. Look at what is going on in New South Wales with some of the scandals at the moment around a whole range of approvals. You do not need to look too far to know that when state governments are faced with these rivers of gold they find them very hard to turn down. That is why federal laws were introduced. It was because we recognised that a continent with the worst rate of species extinction anywhere in the world needed to have laws in place at a federal level that recognised the reality of what state governments do when faced with the prospect of a bucket of money through a development proposal versus protecting the environment. That is why these laws were introduced.
In my own state of Victoria right now we are having a debate about the unconventional gas industry. It is a boom that is going on apace. It is a boom that, if it has its way, will turn some of the most productive and important farmland anywhere in the country into an industrial wasteland. We have some of the best farms anywhere in the world. We have wonderful dairy country. We have a whole range of progressive farmers who are involved in closed loop systems and reutilising a lot of the waste that is produced on their farms. We have a wonderful agri-forestry industry. We recognise that we can have environmental benefits and productive farms going hand in hand. We have shelterbelts being planted to produce shelter for stock but also to control soil erosion and salinity. There is huge biodiversity. This is bringing in bird species that have not been seen in these areas for a long time, and there is timber to be potentially harvested down the track. We have some great things going on in western Victoria and yet here we have an industry that is looking to turn this farmland with its very precious water supply into an industrial wasteland. That is why we need these laws. We need these laws because we know that state governments will never stand up for the environment in the way that a federal jurisdiction will.
You only need to look at the current state government in Victoria and Premier Napthine's contribution to the review of the renewable energy target to see that. In the state government submission we saw a request to recognise gas as a renewable resource. Just think about that. It is a fossil fuel, millions of years in the making, and a state government wants an independent panel to recognise it as a renewable resource! You need look no further than that submission to understand what is driving the Victorian state government right now and what has been the driving force behind many state governments over the decades.
We should not be weakening our protections. We should recognise that we do not have a good record in this country when it comes to protecting our biodiversity, with among the greatest loss of species of any continent anywhere in the world. Instead, we should be beefing up our protection. Rather than seeking to get rid of the water trigger that was introduced in the last parliament, we should be expanding that to ensure that it is not just coal seam gas but all unconventional gas that is subject to the water trigger. Why not add a greenhouse trigger to the EPBC Act so that any further developments that are proposed are tested by that measure? After all, there is no greater threat to biodiversity on this planet than climate change.
This is a very backward-looking measure. It undoes the work of previous Liberal governments that recognised that these laws were important. It is hard to believe that here I am, standing up and defending the environmental record of the previous Howard government. At the time, I thought things could not get much worse, but I was wrong. They are getting worse. This is not a debate about regulation. It is not a debate about red tape or green tape. It is not a debate about whether we have a one-stop shop. It is actually a debate about whether we want to protect our environment. That is what this is about. We have one party that says, 'We need to make things easier for big business,' and then we have those of us on this side of the chamber who think our environment needs to be protected.
The reason we are not having the debate in those terms is that the coalition know what the Australian people's view on protecting the environment is. They know that when measures come forward that mean we are going to put further pressure on our precious natural environment the Australian people do not like it. That is why we have had to have this phoney debate with this maze of complexity about what these laws actually mean. It is very straightforward: this is a choice between making things easier for big business and putting further pressure on our already strained natural environment. It is about whether we will protect what we have—building on it and making it stronger. Those of us on this side of the chamber will always stand on the side of making sure that our environmental protections are the strongest of any country anywhere in the world.
On the weekend I started reading Paul Kelly's book, the one he put out a couple of weeks ago, Triumph and Demise: The broken promise of a Labor generation. It is a bit of a yarn about the Labor Party. It is a sad book because it tells the story of the death of the modern Labor Party in some ways. It is continuing to be sad here tonight with the Labor Party seemingly opposing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, given it is something that they actually supported for many years and given that it is something that is meant to be pro-business and pro-development. But, once again, they are turning their backs on that aspect of their tradition and history, on the Hawke-Keating legacy if you like, and facing their future, which seems to be one of being wedded to the Greens. We do not have so much of an Australian Labor Party anymore; we have a Green Labor Party—a GLP has come into existence.
To start with, I just want to quote a little bit from Paul Kelly's book. In the book he tells the story of the COAG Business Advisory Forum. Chapter 30 starts by saying:
The breach of trust between Julia Gillard and Australian business was sealed on 6 December 2012 when at the COAG business advisory forum Gillard pulled the plug on plans to rationalise the dual Commonwealth-state environmental approval project system. The forum chaired by the PM was a high-powered group that comprised the Premier, senior business figures and the peak business bodies. In the prelude to the meeting the Greens had waged a public campaign to kill the reform, and at the penultimate moment Gillard reversed the government's position.
The story is starting to come out here that it was actually the Greens who killed this reform and I think Senator Waters is taking credit for that—
No, I am sorry, I missed that, Senator Singh. It goes on to say that the President of the Business Council, Tony Shepherd, said:
We felt that we had made a lot of progress. Extensive work had been done at a public service level. The idea was to remove unnecessary Commonwealth-state duplication and have a single approval agency. We saw this as a tremendous breakthrough, saving time, energy and risk…
And then Tony Shepherd went on to say:
…at the last minute we were told, 'The PM does not believe this is a good idea and we will not proceed.' We were extremely upset. We felt we had been misled by the government and I saw this as a breach of trust. We were dealing with a government that was not trustworthy.
It is unfortunate that the Labor Party is turning its back on that tradition. We know how costly these duplications of process are. This is not something new. This is not something that was thought up during the election campaign last year or by this government since it came to power. This idea that we need to streamline environmental approval processes in this country is something that has been debated now for many years, long before the COAG Business Advisory Forum in 2012.
Indeed, it was actually the Labor Party that led the charge on these changes. I went back and had a look at what happened. I remembered from my previous career at the Productivity Commission, before I came to this place, that this was one of the key reforms of the Rudd government. They had a name for those reforms: Towards a Seamless National Economy—very grand, very Kevin Rudd. This was one of the reforms—
Streamlined environmental assessment processes will stop the time wasting process of two groups of environmental assessors looking at the same information and holding up approval processes.
That was in early 2008 and later that year we had the 2020 summit. Do you remember the 2020 summit? One of the ideas from that summit was to remove the duplication in environmental approval processes. The 2020 document says:
Rapid development, fast-tracking, time-sensitive—Australia's processes for developing project approvals in getting regulatory approval to be dramatically accelerated.
Now the Labor Party have walked away from that.
Craig Emerson, in 2011, told Madonna King, an ABC Brisbaneradio presenter:
A better way is for the federal government to recognise the integrity of state environmental approval processes and avoid this duplication. It is one of the main complaints of business in this country, and that's what we're trying to do, streamline the process—not to weaken environmental standards, but not to have them duplicated.
And now they are walking away from that. As I said earlier, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard walked away from that in late 2012, but that was not the end of the story. There was one more convolution to happen in that four-month Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government—they eventually brought Kevin Rudd back. Kevin Rudd came back and he gave a speech at the National Press Club. It was a very well-marketed speech. Perhaps you had something to do with it, Acting Deputy President Dastyari. Kevin Rudd had seven points—this was as late as July last year, only just a year ago—and the fourth point was:
We need a new approach to the regulatory impost of business from all levels of government. This particularly applies to multiple and conflicting environmental assessment requirements for state and federal governments. Surely it lies within our wit and wisdom to begin by integrating the assessment procedures and reports, at present separately mandated by the Commonwealth and the states.
That was just a year ago. Like many things in the former government, there was lots of talk, but they never actually got around to making any laws, to putting it in place and putting it into effect.
We see today that they are still taking their riding instructions from the Greens, that they are still in bed with this party. Today is the fourth anniversary of their marriage. We all remember the signing ceremony. We all remember the day, because it was the same day as today; it was on the day we had our wattles on our lapels—sorry, I do not have mine on tonight; I missed that. Maybe on this side of the House they will be a little bit tarnished, because it was four years ago that that wedding ceremony took place. We all remember it. We all remember the registry being signed by Bob Brown and Julia Gillard, and they had their little wattles on their lapels just like at a wedding ceremony. They signed the registry book. They went and had a party. They even had a hangover; it was called minority government. We lived with that for three years in this country. We are, unfortunately, still living with that because the Labor Party have not woken up to themselves yet and got on the side of jobs, economics and development—instead of just being anti all of those things, as they are being here tonight.
There was good reason that support for streamlining these environmental approval processes was bipartisan and something that both levels of government supported. There was a good reason for it—it was because it made a lot of sense. There were a lot of people making complaints about these issues, and I had some direct experience looking at them. I remember being up at Lake Argyle, at the Ord, a few years ago. The Ord is a remarkable place. I have been there twice in my life and I was astounded both times. I still remember flying into the place. The Ord, or Lake Argyle, is Australia's biggest dam. It is a dam of massive scale—something like 40 times the size of Sydney Harbour.
And, of course, those on my right will usually say that dams are environmental catastrophes, that any dam is going to wreck the environment. This is a dam that is nowhere near an environmental catastrophe; indeed, it is now an internationally recognised environmental asset. The Ord, or Lake Argyle, the lake formed by the Ord scheme, is now a Ramsar listed wetland—one of the few Ramsar listed wetlands in our country, and it is formed by a dam. It is an artificial, man-made lake; but, because it is a Ramsar listed wetland, every time we want to do something with the Ord we need to get federal government approval because Ramsar listed wetlands are one of the matters of national environmental significance under this act.
As you might know, the Western Australian government are putting forward a proposal to develop the Ord, to go to stage 2 of the Ord at the moment. I was talking to the project manager about this process, and they had to get EPBC approval. He had some Commonwealth government bureaucrats come and visit him one day to discuss this approval. I remember him telling me that the bureaucrats asked him how often the river ran. He replied, 'It always runs,' and they did not believe him. They did not believe him, because it used to be a seasonal system, but with the dam it maintained continuous flows. It took him eight weeks to convince the Canberra bureaucrats that actually it does flow all the time because it is a dam and dams hold water up. When you hold water up, you sort of have water all the time—or at least you do in the Ord because it is very, very big.
There was another saga. Word came back from Canberra that they were worried about some migratory finches in this part of the world. They sent up a questionnaire asking this person how the finches were going to migrate over this road. He was going to build a road there as part of the project. He told them they were going to fly over it. The bureaucrat told him, 'I don't think you're taking me seriously,' and apparently he told him, 'I'm taking you deadly seriously.' Eventually he was able to get approval; but, because of how it works under the EPBC Act, he had to pay for an offset. The offset that they agreed on at the time was $1.5 million for shark research in the Indian Ocean. The Ord is on the Indian Ocean side of the country, but it is about 200 kilometres from the Indian Ocean. It is a long way. This project had nothing to do with sharks in the Indian Ocean, but that was decided as the environmental offset because he had to pay a penance. He had to pay a penance because he was obviously annoying some green god. He had to pay some money—some greenmail, if you like He wanted to fight that; he thought it was ridiculous to have to do that. He thought he should go through a regulatory process that was normal and sane; but, no, it was not normal or sane, and the Western Australian government told him: 'Look, don't worry about it. Just pay the money. It's only $1½ million.' Only $1½ million! But that is what happened.
There is another project I have some familiarity with, and it is the Nathan Dam in Queensland. That has gone through multiple sagas through the EPBC Act. It was originally proposed in the Queensland parliament back in the 1920s. It was held up. It was approved by David Kemp about 12 years ago now but taken to court by the Wilderness Society or some green group. There was a landmark ruling that said the minister had not considered the indirect impacts of the dam. Those impacts included the fact that the water was going to be used for cotton production. Cotton production at the time used endosulfan, and endosulfan could possibly end up in the reef. That was all fair and reasonable, but the cotton industry does not use endosulfan anymore. It uses GM crops and does not use that, but the Nathan Dam still has not been built.
It has not been built, because a few years ago the Queensland government was trying to get approval—this was a Labor government at the time—for mining projects in the region. The federal department again had to be involved because we have these duplicative regulatory approval processes. The federal government said to them they found 850 boggomoss snails. The federal government said to the state government: 'You can't go ahead with the approval, because we've found these snails. You have to now go and do a few years of seeing if the snails can be relocated and still survive.' This was a snail-pace development, and it was held up by snails!
About 18 months later the Queensland Labor government found 18,000 of these boggomoss snails in the reef. They were living there and thriving. So they were allowed to restart the process but had lost 18 months in the interim. That project still has not been built. I was happy to see on the weekend that the coalition government has shortlisted the Nathan Dam as one of 30 dams that have some promise, so maybe it will get built. Certainly if we pass this legislation it has a lot more chance to get built; and, if it has a lot more chance to get built, that will mean there will be a major project in Central Queensland. That will mean there will be thousands of jobs in Central Queensland. That will mean we will have water for a burgeoning coalmining industry in Central Queensland. That means we will have water for irrigation in Central Queensland and probably a future water supply for Toowoomba as well because water could go from there to it.
Those anecdotes are not the only reason we need to pass this bill. It is also true that the body I used to work for, the Productivity Commission—they did this work long after I was gone though—in 2013 did a major report on development assessment processes. That was a report commissioned by the former Labor government. They had some pretty clear findings from this report. They said a one-year delay to a major offshore LNG project cost in the order of $500 million to $2 billion. That is a lot of money. They found on page 197, I am reliably informed, that processes take too long or are highly uncertain. A Business Council of Australia told us it took 10 years to get some basic service centres approved in Western Australia. Another said it took five years to have a relatively straightforward mine deepening application approved. Not knowing how long the approval process will take is a deterrent to business investment. The Minerals Council of Australia stated that the average period for approval related activities for a thermal coal project was just over three years, compared to 1.8 years in the rest of the world. These findings led the Productivity Commission to recommend that government should aim to establish a one-project, one-assessment, one-decision framework by restarting negotiations on bilateral approval agreements between the Australian government and states and territories. Such agreements must assure the environmental standards are not compromised and the rights of appeal are no less than those in the EPBC Act.
Since then, of course, the government has put in place a water trigger, and some changes are being made to that water trigger. What we are doing is ensuring that the water trigger in this bill is treated exactly the same way as every other matter of national environmental significance in this bill. I accept that the water trigger is a very important part of this bill, that the protection of our aquifers in particular and all of our water resources is very important and that we should go through a process to make sure they are protected, but I do not believe that those aquifers and water resources are any more or less important than the Great Barrier Reef, are any more or less important than migratory species and are any more or less important than our natural springs and our Ramsar wetlands. So if those matters are treated in a certain way and they are all potentially subject to bilateral agreements with state governments, I see no reason why the water trigger should not be as well. As other speakers have said in this chamber, even after the changes in this bill the Commonwealth will retain the right to step in and cancel a bilateral agreement at any time and will retain the right to not approve a project before the state government provides that approval.
I want to finish though by talking about my state of Queensland and in particular the north of Queensland. This bill is very important for the Nationals because most of the projects we are talking about are in regional areas. They are mining projects, irrigation projects and tourism projects. The Greens opposed a tourism project near Rockhampton, where I am going to live in a few months time. I could not believe they would oppose the Great Keppel Island project, but they opposed that too. That needed EPBC approval.
All these projects are in regional areas. That is where our wealth is created. The one project in particular that has really frustrated me over the last few years is the proposal to build a bauxite mine south of Weipa—the South of Embley bauxite project. It was a $1.5 billion project in an economically disadvantaged part of our nation. There are not a lot of jobs and growth in that part of our country, unfortunately. Many Indigenous people live there and there is great need for employment.
Rio Tinto proposed a few years ago to spend $1.5 billion developing this bauxite mine. On 13 September 2010, according to the Environment website, this project that was referred to the department was first released for public comment. It was approved initially, and then the clock was stopped and it was reopened again by Tony Burke I think in early 2011. Finally, after years of consideration, the Labor government approved this project on 14 May 2013, last year. There were 975 days between 14 May 2013 and 13 September 2010. It took the previous Labor government 975 days to say yes to a $1.5 billion project at Cape York. It was a disgrace because during that time the world moved on, prices had changed and Rio had changed—they had changed CEOs—and were not of such a mind to go ahead with it. There is still a chance it might go ahead. It has more chance of going ahead if we pass this bill.
We need to pass this bill because in this country we need to focus on how we are going to create jobs. In this country we need to focus on how we are going to get development projects approved so that we can do that, particularly in the areas I represent. I have been in this job only two months, but the thing that most people in Central Queensland talk to me about is jobs because in the last couple of years alone 10,000 jobs have been lost in our coalmining industry. I am not blaming anyone for that. Prices have fallen and it is a tough time in a cyclical industry. But by passing this bill we can help that industry create more jobs and make sure people have the opportunity and the dignity of having employment where they want to live and in the industry they want to work in.
I speak in opposition to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. We have heard a lot in this debate about what impact this legislation is likely to have on a whole range of special places and wildlife that are too precious to lose. In my first speech last week I spoke of the need to create the Great Forest National Park to protect the Leadbeater's possum, Victoria's faunal emblem, so I want to focus tonight on the impact that this legislation would have on these forests and on Leadbeater's possums.
The Leadbeater's possum, or Gymnobelideus leadbeateri, is a tiny possum that lives in the magnificent mountain ash forests of the central highlands of Victoria, right on Melbourne's doorstep, just to the east of the city. Fully grown it is about the size of your hand, with a long club-shaped tail much the same length. It is a magical little animal that Victorians are naturally very proud of. It was presumed to be extinct until it was spotted again in 1961. The possum is now listed as a threatened species in Victoria and is classified as 'endangered' under the EPBC Act. Currently a review is underway to list the species as 'critically endangered'.
The biggest threat to Leadbeater's possums is the loss of hollow-bearing trees due to logging and fires, as the possums need hollow trees in which to build their bark nests. These hollows take more than 150 years to develop in living trees. We are losing them due to logging activity and bushfires. Logging of the mountain ash forests in the central highlands for woodchips for paper production has resulted in the loss of vast areas of Leadbeater's possum habitat. Devastatingly, almost half of their prime habitat and population was lost in the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Their population has dropped to fewer than 1,000 animals. Despite this, the Victorian government failed to adjust the regulations around logging in the remaining half of the possums' native habitat. It has been virtually business as usual, with only small changes to the area available for logging by VicForests.
The scientific consensus is very clear: the species is at great risk of extinction in the near future. Leadbeater's possums need national protection and strengthening, not winding back, of the national legislation that should be protecting them. Professor David Lindenmayer, a world expert on the mountain ash forests that the Leadbeater's possums call home, has called on the Victorian government to expand the current Leadbeater's possum reserve system to include all the remaining habitat in the new Great Forest National Park. This would protect the possums and be a really positive move for tourism, for water protection and for carbon
stores. Furthermore, contrary to the wild assertions of Senator Williams earlier this evening, recent research by Professor Lindenmayer and Dr Chris Taylor has shown extensive logging can contribute to the severity of bushfires in wet forests. Regrown forests are more fire prone than older forests, so stopping logging would mean greater protection from bushfires as well.
The pulp mill that receives the wood from Leadbeater's possum habitat in the Central Highlands is well on the way to using plantation wood. The Greens want to see this transition sped up so that we get clear-fell logging out of our native forests within a few short years. That is how we will be maintaining jobs and protecting our forests. That is the economic and environmental certainty that we should be working towards.
There is incredible community support to protect Leadbeater's possums too, which should be reflected in the national legislation. The Friends of Leadbeater's Possum is just one of the hardworking community groups working to protect the possums. They are a group of volunteers who came together on National Threatened Species Day in 2004 to give a voice to these animals. National Threatened Species Day is on 7 September, this coming weekend, which is going to mark the 10th anniversary of the Friends of Leadbeater's Possum group. I commend their efforts and I will be joining them, MyEnvironment, the Knitting Nannas of Toolangi and other wonderful community groups and campaigners in the forests this weekend to celebrate their efforts with them and keep building the campaign for the protection of these possums.
What is required is the political will to act on the scientific knowledge and community support for protecting these magnificent forests and Leadbeater's possums. This bill is taking us backwards in this regard. We cannot rely on the Victorian government to protect Leadbeater's possums. We need strong national laws to protect these animals. The Victorian government is set to preside over the extinction of our own state faunal emblem by subsidising the ongoing logging of its habitat. Victoria's state owned logging company, VicForests, gets free access to Victoria's forest assets, an economic model that creates a distortion in the market by favouring the logging of Victoria's native forests over plantation forestry. In their 2012-13 annual report, VicForests promised a $1.2 million dividend last year, but they ended up paying nothing. They have not paid a dividend to the Victorian Treasury—that is us, the Victorian taxpayers, since 2007. In fact since 2005, VicForests has accrued operating cash flow losses of $11.9 million on its core forestry activities and investment losses worth $10.2 million. Is this the economic certainty that this legislation is designed to facilitate? As my colleague Greg Barber at the Parliament of Victoria has noted, 'It's a terrible use of our native forests, which have more value in the water they produce and the carbon they store.'
Set against this backdrop of economic madness, the Victorian government has created a veneer of care for Leadbeater's possums. They set up an advisory group but included forestry industry representatives, including the Victorian Association of Forest Industries and the CEO of VicForests, in the group. How could this group provide unbiased advice with those interests involved? The advisory group came up with recommendations which were roundly criticised by expert biologists. The Victorian government's record of environmental vandalism cannot be ignored and it provides clear evidence that the Commonwealth must retain powers to protect our vulnerable species. Otherwise, it will be the 'one-stop chop' not the 'one-stop shop'.
I stand with my Greens colleagues in opposing this bill. This bill winds back decades of hard-fought environmental protections. The poor track record of state governments provided the original rationale for the EPBC Act. So the handover of approval powers is a serious backward step. Successive Victorian governments have not demonstrated any capacity to resolve the conflict between local economic development and the interests of our environment.
This bill also allows local governments and potentially other bodies, such as unelected expert panels, to be accredited to make approval decisions under the EPBC Act. I am very supportive of the work of local governments, having been a councillor myself, but they are simply not equipped to undertake this work with such important national consequences. As for the furphy that the state legislation will have to meet the national standards, as has been asserted in this debate by the government, this legislation actually says, 'The state standards can be reflected just in policy and guidelines, not legislation.' This is a major weakening of our environmental protections.
The Commonwealth needs to strengthen its environmental laws, not hand them over to the states or other bodies. All Australians have an interest in the protection of our native species and biodiversity. For this reason, the Commonwealth must retain strong powers for protection of species of national significance under threat, like Leadbeater's possums.
I rise tonight to talk on the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. It is fabulous news. It is great to be here because this is a bill that we have been waiting to bring in. The level of environmental regulation and red tape that has been wrapping up great projects out in regional Australia has been phenomenal. It is costing jobs in my communities, from Gippsland right through to Capricornia in the north. To actually be able to get all the states on the same page to ensure that we can make arrangements to approve bilateral assessments and approvals is a good news story. It is indeed something that former Prime Minister Gillard wanted to make happen, who was proud to make happen, and then all of sudden, quicker than you can say 'Stab me in the back', it was done. Mr Acting Deputy President Dastyari, I notice you are laughing at that particular comment but I think I have got more important things to do, such as talk about this fabulous bill before us.
So the one-stop shop that we would like to implement will simplify, as I said earlier, environmental approval processes with a single entry point assessment process and decision at the state level. It means no reduction in the integrity of the environmental assessment process; it just means state processes are going to have to be up with the federal environmental processes, so it is not as some would argue a 'watering down'. It is actually ensuring that right across the nation we make it easier to get environmental approvals, not that they are going to be any less rigorous.
We have also heard tonight of the importance of environmental standards. There are many in the chamber who are concerned that the government is sacrificing environmental consciousness for the sake of reduced cost, but what we are actually doing is improving our environmental standards. Before the Commonwealth environment minister can enter into a bilateral agreement, states and territories must demonstrate with confidence that their environmental assessment and approval processes meet the high environmental standards set out in our EPBC Act. It has to be a good thing to have the whole nation absolutely behind the high environmental standards. In fact, I would argue that this nation has some of the highest environmental standards in the world, particularly when you come from regional Australia. We are out there competing with our fabulous product on the international market, and our farmers are doing it whilst being incredible environmental managers and conservationists on farm, particularly with the way they manage their soil and water. This means the states and territories must make changes to account for matters of national environmental significance. It has to be a good thing. We have already seen some states like Queensland and New South Wales introduce legislative amendments to ensure that they are well placed to meet these high national standards. The one-stop shop will also promote sharing of environmental information and data between businesses, governments and the community, making it easier and simpler for businesses to do what is right and to meet our high environmental standards. Instead of having to jump through a variety of hoops at the local, state and national level, we are simplifying it for businesses so that they can get on with what they do best, and that is developing particularly regional areas in the context of being sympathetic and responsible with how their business practices impact on our magnificent natural environment. This side of the House is committed to getting the best result for our environment—