Senate debates

Monday, 1 September 2014


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014; Second Reading

11:32 am

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

( I rise to speak in opposition to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. Labor opposes this bill because it clearly does absolutely nothing either for environmental protection or for biodiversity conservation. That is something that has been very much a commonplace mainstay of this government—doing nothing for environmental protection and nothing for environmental conservation.

What Labor also opposes in this bill, apart from the watering down of the critical water trigger, is the creation—in the now-customary shambolic manner of the Abbott government when engaging in law reform—of a sprawling and inefficient new regime of environmental approvals. It might be termed an 'eight-stop shop' in which the central authority of the Commonwealth for environmental approvals is delegated down to the level of state governments and territories, and even to local councils. There will be at least eight different jurisdictions' worth of green tape. It is not a one-stop shop but a shopping mall.

Neither the Minister for the Environment nor the Prime Minister has once said that this bill is designed to improve environmental outcomes. This bill is designed to fast-track developments that negatively impact environmental issues of national significance. This government will not make a decision that explicitly protects Australia's environment. This bill is another crystal-clear demonstration—as if we needed one—of this government's conviction that the environment is an obstacle to be cleared and not an asset to be managed. By giving these powers to states and territories we will see significant transformation in the way in which the environment is considered and decisions are made around it by government. Under these changes, the government will trust Campbell Newman to approve the dredging and dumping of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of mud on the Great Barrier Reef. They will put Colin Barnett in charge of the Ningaloo Reef. They will put Will Hodgman and his clear-felling administration in charge of Tasmania's iconic, World Heritage listed forests.

But the bill goes to something beyond the pro-development at any cost attitudes of state governments. It provides the ability for these same state governments to accredit local government to undertake critical assessment and approval processes. The Mayor of Mackay will have more practical influence on the state of the Great Barrier Reef than the Australian Minister for the Environment. Allowing states to approve state backed projects that impact on environmental issues of national significance is worrying enough, without further diluting accountability by putting local government in charge of Australia's natural assets.

One of Labor's serious concerns with the whole process is the lack of quality and consistency of processes between the states. In fact, this bill specifically mentions the inconsistency—while doing nothing to address it. The bill acknowledges the different systems and standards in each state but ignores any issues that this might present. At the same time it mentions, for the first time, local governments having the power to approve developments that currently need to go through, at a federal level, a robust process that is consistent across this country.

The government is adamant that it will maintain environmental safeguards; but it is unclear how it will do so as it devolves approval powers to severely compromised state government departments. We know the real work of delegating approval powers is being done in the bilateral agreements with the states. We know the work is being rushed by an underfunded task force in an undermanned federal department. I understand there has been a lot of emphasis in recent discussions about this bill on the threat it poses to the water trigger. On that issue, I would like to note and at least acknowledge Tony Windsor's work in the last parliament on getting the water trigger recognised as a matter of national environmental significance and his ongoing support of the independent expert scientific committee and the importance of the water trigger mechanism. However, if only the water trigger is protected by amendment at the cost of allowing the bill to pass, then all of the other matters of national environmental significance lose their protection under the EPBC Act.

This bill, along with the bilateral agreements being developed, will mean that World Heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the Tasmanian wilderness, nuclear activities such as uranium mining, and threatened species protected under international treaties will be, at best, put in the hands of state governments. Labor oppose this bill because we believe the national government is responsible for matters of national environmental significance. It is important to highlight the flaw in the logic upon which this bill is based. In the same breath as recognising that some approvals are of such significance to Australia that they should be designated as national, it allows the national government to evade its national responsibility for them and, instead, handpasses responsibility to states and councils that are less equipped to make the hard, legally sustainable decisions necessary in this area and less interested in taking the long-term and wide-ranging perspectives on the Australian environment that the Commonwealth must.

It is important to remember that UNESCO's World Heritage Committee report expressly referred to this bill when it described as premature the notion that the Commonwealth's environmental protection powers would simply be handed over to the Queensland government. The Great Barrier Reef not only is one of the seven wonders of the world but also literally underpins billions of dollars of economic activity in the Queensland area and the work of 60,000 or more employees, largely in the tourism industry. This is an incredibly important matter for Australia from an environmental, social and economic perspective. The possibility that the reef would be put on the in-danger list would have very serious ramifications for Queensland's tourism industry, as much as it would reflect the very serious state of crisis that the reef finds itself in environmentally.

The centrality of the Commonwealth to decisions affecting matters of environmental significance across the country is well established in Australia and emerged as a result of dedicated activism and prolonged struggle to save our wilderness. Just as Tasmania is now a central node in questions of national significance around ecology, conservation and clean energy—with the Abbott government's pathetic attempts to delist parts of its World Heritage area at this year's UNESCO meeting—so it was that the decision over the Franklin dam in Tasmania in the 1980s played a central part in the establishment of the authority of the Commonwealth in protecting matters of national environmental significance.

The Franklin dam judgement of the High Court ensured that the role of the national government was recognised and its laws would prevail in relevant areas of the protection of the natural environment. And now the draft bilateral agreement with my home state of Tasmania has been released. The draft agreement could present an opportunity to improve the overall environmental assessment regime in Tasmania. But it will not. The EPBC Act objectives of 'protecting the environment' and 'promoting the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources' have been replaced in this draft agreement with less direct objectives of avoiding 'unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance'. That is not good enough. The Tasmanian Environmental Defenders Office—another environmental protection and obstacle to development defunded by the Abbott government—has also noted that rigorous, efficient and effective assessments are not possible unless adequate resources are available.

As Will Hodgman's Liberal government takes the axe to native forests and its Public Service, there is no prospect of the Tasmanian environment department being able to carry out rigorous, efficient and effective assessments. They might be swift assessments, but they are not good ones. Such regulatory work requires a national perspective as well as an international one, with the Commonwealth sitting at the nexus between the international community and the laws and agreements which govern international environmental regulation and cooperation. It is important that the level of government that mediates between the domestic and the international levels also has appropriate powers to look after Australia's commitment in these areas. The exercise of the Commonwealth's powers in this area are, however, appropriately limited to certain categories to ensure that they are used only in some circumstances. The decision must be connected by one of nine matters of national environment significance to trigger the Commonwealth's involvement. The Commonwealth has a greater capacity to consider the relevant issues in these matters through the Department of the Environment than many state environmental departments—resourced, as they are, to provide state-specific rather than nationwide advice and often under budget constraints. They are not responsible for international obligations and are also not appropriate bodies to assess the impact of environmental matters that cross the borders of several states, as many major questions of environmental impact assessments do. Furthermore, whereas some states may have particularly strong economic interests in one area or another, the Commonwealth is able to take an overarching perspective on these matters without the potential for conflict that a different level of government would bring to the task.

Given the extensive negative environmental effects that this bill carries with it, it is timely to reflect on the Abbott government's record on the environment. I would like to call upon the representatives of the government in this chamber to speak up and tell us about its achievements in protecting the environment. Now is an opportunity to inform the Australian public just what their policy priorities are in regard to environmental protection and to tell us what they think are their greatest environmental successes have been.

I ask this question in all honesty because, as we near the first anniversary of this Abbott government coming to power, the only actions that are able to be identified in this area are those that are failures. There is an extensive list, which I will assist those opposite by quoting from.

The first, of course, is a double failure: the attempt to remove 74,000 hectares from the protected forests and landscape of Tasmania listed as a World Heritage Area. This was a failure in two parts. The first was the attempt to pursue the delisting, making the claim—later to be contradicted by the government's own environmental department—that the areas were degraded and failing to recognise the need for continued protection of Tasmania's remarkable wilderness. The second failing was in the government's incompetence in executing its policy, with the application being soundly rejected by the UN committee, with Portugal describing it as a 'feeble attempt to remove protection from an important area'.

Another important failure of the government was the defunding of the Environmental Defender's Offices and its abolition of the Climate Commission. This assault on the environment went hand in hand with its removal of the price on carbon, in doing so playing its part in exposing Australia to the unpredictable and dangerous effects of climate change. While it had promised to implement its own policy to replace the price on carbon and engage in direct action so far this has not occurred, leaving the country without a policy in this important area—having taken this country completely backwards on climate change policy.

Another prominent failure is the removal, at the stroke of a pen, of Australia's system of maritime reserves—the largest in the world. Will we see them being re-proclaimed at some stage in the future? Perhaps—I do not know. The only certainty here is that on questions of environmental protection the government, as it stands, cannot be trusted. Of course, on top of that, we are yet to see where the government will go in relation to the renewable energy target—a bipartisan policy for so long, going back to 2001 under John Howard's leadership. And yet, through the politically-motivated Warburton review and its findings as of last Friday, we are clearly put on notice by this government that its response will certainly be nothing but negative and another broken promise when it comes to a bipartisan policy position in supporting the current legislated renewable energy target in this country.

Labor continues to support streamlining and improving environmental standards and environmental assessment processes for major projects, but final approval on matters of national environmental significance should remain with the national government. Labor began negotiations with the states to establish agreements to reduce regulatory double-up in 2012. Throughout these negotiations it became clear that some states could not be trusted with Australia's unique environment. The Australian government has a responsibility for protecting Australia's precious environment and the EPBC Act in particular accounts for matters of national environmental significance.

The Abbott government clearly has no interest in protecting Australia's environment for the future. Not for our future, but for our children's future. Since coming into government, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt have made bad decision upon bad decision that have hurt our environment. At this time I have not heard a single response from the government about what is going on within it as a government, its response to UNESCO at an international level or any success or positive outcome in environmental policy that it is doing within itself.

But this is the furthest that this government has gone in terms of putting our environment at risk to irreparable damage by leaving decisions of national environmental significance to state premiers and local councils. It is something that Labor takes very seriously. It is something that Labor will not support, because we need to have our national government in charge of the assessment processes for those important projects that have major national significance. That is why Labor will not support this bill. I conclude my remarks on that note, to say that Labor will not support this bill.

11:50 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak with the most vehemence possible in opposition to this ridiculous Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. Surprise, surprise! Tony Abbott wants to trash the environment and make it even easier for the big miners and big developers to trash the place. Well, he has gone too far—far too far.

We have had 30 years now of the gradual stepping up of the Commonwealth government to take on more responsibility for the environment. It has been through international developments with things like the World Heritage Convention, the biodiversity convention and the Ramsar Convention. Of course, there was that famous High Court case of 30 years ago, where the federal government stepped in and said, 'No, you can't dam the Franklin; this is of world heritage significance.' That was when we established the principle that the federal government had a role to play in protecting the environment. Up until then it had basically been up to the states.

Thank goodness that that decision was taken, because prior to that, and in the intervening 30 years, we have seen continued poor decision making by state governments right across the country, continually putting the interests of short-term, private profits and promises of jobs—that rarely eventuate, I might add—ahead of protecting the environment—ahead of clean water and clean air and a sustainable future for all of us. We have had that for 30 years now, with the Commonwealth stepping in only for the worst of the worst projects—only when there is likely to be a significant impact; a very high threshold—on a matter of national environmental significance. Already, it is just a sliver of the thousands of proposals that go ahead every year. The Commonwealth only ever looks at the worst of the worst, and it has been able to stop some of those most damaging projects.

We saw a couple of years ago, to my great disappointment, a proposal by the then Gillard government to give away those approval powers that the Commonwealth had fought so hard to win over 30 years to state governments, who have a terrible track record of, as I say, letting anything go and letting those private interests trump the public interest of a healthy environment. With concerted community and environment sector campaigning, and with some internal advice that revealed what an absolute dog's breakfast that plan would turn out to be, thankfully the Gillard government resiled from that proposal to hand off those powers.

We are absolutely thrilled that the Labor Party have now changed their view and have today and at other times in recent months confirmed that they agree the federal government should keep what limited environment powers it has to try to protect things such as World Heritage, species that are nationally threatened and internationally significant wetlands. We really welcome that and thank them for that.

I am particularly concerned about the Abbott government's plan not just to give away approval powers as the previous government planned but to, with this bill today, make that go even further. Nothing is sacred with this bill. The water trigger is on the chopping block. People might recall that, in the last parliament, the Greens, the Independents and the then Labor government finally came to an agreement whereby the federal government would start protecting water federally from things such as large coalmines and coal seam gas. We know the huge damage that can be done to aquifers when you punch a hole through them to try to get to coal seam gas. We know the contamination risk is very real—both from the fracking fluids and from the mobilising of naturally occurring carcinogens in the geology. We know the potential for the groundwater table to drop once you start messing with that pressure. So we know the need for the water trigger. I was so pleased when Tony Windsor agreed with the Greens that we needed to keep that power in federal hands. That is why this Abbott government needs this bill. It is because they want to give that away, as well as everything else. Well, 'Over our dead bodies' is what we are saying today.

But it does not stop there. This bill, completely unbelievable in its appallingness, says it is not just the state governments that should take over national environment decision-making powers. It says it is okay for local councils to do that as well. I am a huge fan of local councils and, in the main, I think they do an excellent job within their jurisdictions. But I do not think we should be giving them control over the management of World Heritage areas and internationally significant wetlands. They do not have the expertise for that, and they do not have the personnel to properly perform the role. That particular part of this bill is an absolute outrage.

The third and sneakiest part of this bill is to do with the federal standards, which this government has crowed about and said, 'It does not really matter who is in charge; it will be the same standards being applied by the faceless men making these decisions.' One of the amendments in this bill says that those very standards actually do not have to be reflected in state laws and therefore can be ignored. It makes an absolute farce of the claim that federal standards would ever be adhered to. If they are not in the state laws then of course they are not going to be adhered to. Where is the obligation to adhere to them? The absence of logic in this government's rhetoric boggles the mind. They are the three key awful changes that this bill would facilitate.

There are two stages to this process. The actual hand-off of powers happens by agreement between the Commonwealth and the states, because John Howard put that provision into these laws when they first passed 14 years ago. So there are deals already being done with the states to give away federal environment powers. The Greens intend to block those as well when they come to this chamber. I hope that we will have the support of other parties to do that as well. We need to stop both this bill and those bilateral agreements to make sure that the Commonwealth can still look after World Heritage and things such as the Great Barrier Reef and water that stands to be affected by coal and coal seam gas.

The government have gone to great pains to claim that there will be all sorts of safeguards, that nothing bad is going to happen and that it does not matter who is making the decisions. They have said that that is irrelevant. There are so many reasons why that is wrong. I will touch on some of those today. I have already mentioned the fact that those standards will not now need to be reflected in state law if this bill passes. That makes a mockery of the claim that the standards would be upheld. We know that the states simply are not going to act in the national interest. That is not their job. Why would they? They are state governments. They are meant to act in their state's interests. They are not going to and nor are they obliged to act in the national interest.

My concern is also that when many of the proponents for the most damaging developments—large infrastructure projects such as ports and the like—are state governments you will have the fox in charge of the henhouse if this government's proposal goes through. What an absolute conflict of interest. How they cannot see that flagrant conflict of interest and how they can live with not putting in any parameters on managing it is beyond me. We know that the standards will fall when the decision maker changes. We know there will be these huge conflicts of interest that will not be able to be managed. We know that those standards will not be reflected in law, and we know that the state laws are already atrocious when it comes to looking after the environment. There have been countless legal analyses of them. No state or territory in the whole country currently meets the standard that the federal environmental laws do. They are just not strong enough. So the notion that you can somehow give the states more powers and that miraculously they will start caring about the environment is truly ridiculous. We know they are not up to the job.

We know that there have been many staff sackings not just federally but also at the state level. In my home state of Queensland, Campbell Newman has been on an absolute rampage to sack almost 14,000 public servants and a large proportion of those from our environment department. We know that there have been 220 staff sacked from the environment department. Where are the personnel to take on this additional federal responsibility? They are not there; they have been sacked or pressured to take a voluntary redundancy. There are not the people to do this work. There is not the legislative safeguard to ensure that the same sort of decision would be made. There is no guarding against this massive conflict of interest of states ticking off on their own projects.

The government might say, 'That is fine. We've got this great call-in power in our draft agreements with the states,' but I have had a very close look at that and it will not work. There is a highly prescribed test for when the Commonwealth minister can miraculously have a state of mind where he or she knows that something fishy is going on at the state level and can call that back in—but it has to be before the state has already issued the approval. How are they going to know that something fishy is going on when they are moving staff on from their own assessment department, and when it is in the state government's interest not to tell people that they are dodgy? I mean—hello, how could that test ever work? The state governments are not going to dob themselves in, so the federal minister will never know, in a timely enough manner, when to step in in the time frame that this so-called safeguard provides. It is a complete farce. The Commonwealth already has only a tiny shred of environmental responsibility and this safeguard, which, frankly, reads like it has been written to fail, would not provide any protection at all.

In the short time that we have had Campbell Newman as our Premier in Queensland, he has set about attacking the environment like there is no tomorrow—perhaps he is intending on there being no tomorrow. I have a list of more than 30 changes: be they repeals, be they watering downs or be they abolitions.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I know there is support from Senator Macdonald for such an anti-environment agenda. We did not need any confirmation of that, but thank you anyway, Senator Macdonald. I will just catalogue some of those. In those two years there were more than 30 changes made to our environmental laws in Queensland. The Great Barrier Reef, which is very close to my heart, is on the radar of the World Heritage Committee for possible inclusion on the World Heritage list of sites in danger if we continue to trash it with mass dredging and dumping and new and expanded ports for fossil fuel export, which will, of course, damage the reef by way of climate change impacts. When asked about all of those concerns and the international shame that the Newman and Abbott governments are bringing to Australia based on how we treat our reef, Campbell Newman says:

We're in the coal business.

That was his response to concerns about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, the 69,000 people who rely on it staying healthy and being on the World Heritage List for their job and the $6 billion that reef tourism brings in every year. Our Premier says, 'We're in the coal business.'

Apparently we are also in the uranium business, because Campbell Newman has lifted the ban on uranium mining in Queensland. He is allowing the release of legacy mine water. It is no longer just a pilot program. He has now locked that in and extended that out, so we are now treating the reef like a toilet bowl with dirty mine water that is polluted with all sorts of heavy metals and other toxins.

The shale oil mining ban has been lifted as well, thanks to Campbell Newman. The right as a member of the public to object to mines that you are concerned about, for whatever reason—be it your own private interest or be it environmental concerns—has been removed as well. Campbell Newman is shutting down community input into that process.

The Stradbroke Island mining issue has been very controversial. He got a rather large in-kind contribution from a Belgian mining company in the course of his election campaign. That is on the public record. Sibelco helped him out to the tune of about $90,000. What do you know—once he assumes the premiership he then retrospectively reinstates their expired mining lease. If that is not corruption, I do not know what is.

The list of changes goes on. Of course he has defunded the environmental defenders office, because they actually care what the law says and they want people to be able to enforce it—so they must be silenced. He has disbanded the office of climate change, cut the solar feed-in tariff and junked the support for the Solar Dawn project. I have already mentioned the job cuts. He has cancelled our state planning policies, particularly the coastal state planning policy which might have actually helped the Great Barrier Reef. It is now more expensive for community groups to challenge poor and unlawful decisions in the courts. He has released a port strategy that is a glossy version of 'business as usual'. It is fine for cows to go into national parks now. It is fine for hotels to be built in national parks now. Vegetation management—protections for vegetation have been watered down. The waste management levy has been scrapped. Fancy that! Other states are now dumping their waste in our state because it is cheaper for them to do so, as though we are somehow the rubbish tip of Australia. Protection for our pristine and free-flowing wild rivers is gone—abolished. That was about two weeks ago. The list does go on.

Campbell Newman is an absolute disaster for Queensland and, in particular, a disaster for Queensland's environment. We have heard how he has taken money in, I believe, a corrupt manner prior to the election and then granted a particular favour for that Belgian mining company. We know his views on the Great Barrier Reef and just last week he backflipped on a clear commitment to the World Heritage Committee. I should have referred to 'Premier Campbell Newman', if that is the point of order.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: there are provisions in our standing orders that speak to members of one parliament making assertions against the members of another parliament. I would ask that the clerk give advice in relation to what is a very, very serious allegation against the Premier of the state of Queensland.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It sure is.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not hear the allegations that Senator Waters might have made, but if Senator Waters did make inappropriate allegations then I encourage her to withdraw them.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: I heard Senator Waters distinctly make reference to 'guilty of corruption'. I think on that basis I would also invite Senator Waters to withdraw her comments.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In relation to the direct assertion that Premier Campbell Newman is corrupt, I withdraw that direct assertion, but I do note that the inference remains. When you take money and then retrospectively validate an expired mining lease, it is open to conclude that that is, in fact, what has happened. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is even a greater crime on behalf of the senator to say that Campbell Newman, I assume personally, took money. That is an outrageous slur. Not only is it an outrageous slur but it is entirely incorrect and it does not improve the reputation of the Senate for senators to be making those sorts of unwarranted and unsubstantiated allegations.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not know whether Premier Campbell Newman would be similarly offended by that statement. I believe that he did receive about $90,000 of in-kind support from Sibelco, a Belgian mining company. Perhaps Senator Macdonald might like to take that up in his party room. I might continue if I may—

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In her efforts to qualify her statements, they are becoming more damaging. This is outrageous.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The point of order is?

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I make the point that these allegations need to be withdrawn in the spirit of the standing orders, which indicate that we ought not make these allegations against members of another parliament.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I note that Senator Waters has withdrawn the allegation.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, on either Senator O'Sullivan's point of order or on a new one: in withdrawing them, Senator Waters actually alleges that Mr Newman—I assume personally—received $90,000 from a Belgian mining company. That is grossly offensive, grossly against standing orders and, by the way, completely untrue and unfactual.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I have already responded to exactly the same point of order that Senator Macdonald raised last time by clarifying that I did not assert that he had received the money personally but that he had received in-kind support to the extent of $90,000. I think that is perfectly clear.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Waters, please continue with your contribution.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

With great pleasure. As I was saying, the record of the Newman government—

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I am concerned about this exchange—

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And the point of order is?

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I would appreciate if the matter could be reviewed. Perhaps Senator Waters could reflect on precisely what it is that she said. Could the matter be considered and potentially reviewed by you and by the President, because I am concerned that some of these matters remain on the record and have not been properly and fully withdrawn.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will report back to the President. If he has anything further to add, he will add it. Senator Waters.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying, the terrible record of the Newman government on environmental issues and, frankly, many other civil liberties issues—the list could go on—with regard to the Newman government's agenda in the last two years leads us to the inescapable conclusion that these are the last people that you would put in charge of internationally significant environmental icons that are not only beautiful, bring many tourists to our shores and make our hearts sing but also bring in an awful lot of economic support for our economy in Queensland. Every year reef tourism brings in $6 billion. This is why for the last two years we have been opposing the plan to put the state governments in charge of what is a national responsibility. They have demonstrated time and time again that they are not up to the job of protecting the environment, and why should they be responsible for carrying out international obligations? That is the national government's role. So we will be opposing this bill in absolutely every part. We have been holding discussions for the better part of those two years—and, obviously, in particular earnest in recent weeks with the crossbenchers about the need for them to vote to retain the federal government's ability to protect these beautiful and significant environmental icons.

There has been quite a lot of talk about whether we should just keep the water trigger. Of course the water trigger is very close to our hearts, being part of the engineering that resulted in that getting onto our law books, but it is not just water that is important. World Heritage is important. The Great Barrier Reef is important. Internationally significant wetlands are important. Nationally threatened species are important. We have these federal environmental laws because these things matter and they are too precious to lose to the wanton neglect and greed of state premiers. When it comes to the vote, I hope the crossbenchers bear that in mind and that we are able to keep all of our federal environment powers and not just the water trigger.

It is no surprise that we see this sort of nonsense from the Abbott government. From their short time in government I have a list of about 18 changes—and even that is already out of date—where they have wound back national environment protections. This one-stop shop has been the grossest one in my view, but getting rid of our science and climate change ministers is maybe not such a great idea when we are facing a climate crisis. Of course, there was defunding the EDO on top of those Queensland cuts, so the poor Queensland EDOs now have no public funding at all for the first time in more than 25 years.

They abolished our carbon price, to the great shame of future generations. They abolished the Climate Commission, tried to get rid of the CEFC and ARENA and approved the world's largest coal port in the Great Barrier Reef. That is on this government's hands as well. They cut the Reef Rescue funding and set up some dodgy offsets fund instead of actually supporting the current scheme that was working. They abolished the water commission, tried to delist the Tassie forest World Heritage listing, considered that we have too much forest locked up in national parks and said, 'The foresters are really the true conservationists.' If it were not so alarming, it would be incredibly amusing.

They are trying to get rid of our world-leading marine national parks and ticking off on all of these Galilee megamines that will single-handedly contribute enormously to worsening climate change—and for what? To make a few people a bit richer. That is not a good deal in my view. They are continuing to deny landholders the right to say no to risky coal seam gas and other unconventional gas on their land. Seriously: why should these people bear the risk and why should we trash our aquifers and groundwater—the most precious resource we have in the driest inhabited continent on the planet—for the sake of a few multinationals' bottom line? Again, not a good deal for Australia.

They are continuing attempts to repeal the mining tax, abolish the biodiversity fund, put a go-slow on the Cape York World Heritage nomination against the wishes of many of the traditional owners and cut Landcare funding. This government is set on destroying the environment, and this bill today is the latest instalment. I think it is one of the worst because it winds back 30 years of protection for the national environment wherein we say the states are not there to do the job of the national government. They should not have to care about international obligations; it is the national government's job to do that. We say that, actually, icons like the Great Barrier Reef and internationally significant wetlands, species and water are too important to simply wash your hands of them because you cannot be bothered having those responsibilities anymore.

I hope today we will see a vote that sees this bill consigned to the dustbin of history permanently.

12:14 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am genuinely delighted to participate in this debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, which will bring sense and protection to Australia's environmental assets and the way we deal with them. I have just had the misfortune of having to listen to 20 minutes of what were effectively lies and unsubstantiated accusations against very responsible, honest and effective people in our country. Unlike the Greens political party—

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I ask you to call Senator Macdonald to order. You do not get to accuse other parliamentarians of lying in here, which is what Senator Macdonald quite clearly just did. I ask you to ask him to withdraw that statement please.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald, if you did make those accusations, I encourage you to withdraw them.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What I said, Mr Acting Deputy President, was I had to listen to 20 minutes of lies. If that offends Senator Ludlam's sensitivities, I will say, 'It was 20 minutes of mistruths and false accusations of receiving money.' I know that Senator Milne and Senator Brown, the previous leader of the Greens, received some $1.5 million in cash from someone who wanted to trash the environment in Tasmania. But it is okay when it happens to—

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Macdonald is right out of his depth on this one. I urge him to stick to the facts.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That was hardly a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, as you quite rightly ruled. Isn't it funny that Senator Milne sat there and said nothing when erroneous, mischievous and deliberately false accusations were made against the honourable Premier of Queensland but when a correct accusation is made about the largest ever single donation given to any political party—and I assume, in the way the Greens use the terminology, to Senator Milne—she raises a point of order? It demonstrates, like everything Senator Waters, the previous speaker, just said, the abject hypocrisy of the Greens political movement.

The Greens will be moving motions later today about youth unemployment—we must have more jobs for young people. We certainly must, but how do you do it? You do it by developing our country in a sustainable and careful way. That is what the coalition has always stood for. You will never hear this from the Greens, but every single positive environmental measure that has ever come through this parliament has been done by the Liberal and National parties. This goes right back to the time of the first Minister for the Environment, who was a Liberal. Saving Fraser Island was done by a Liberal government. Establishing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and protecting that very significant resource were done by a Liberal government. I can go on and on. All of the significant environmental advances in our country have been as a result of the work of Liberal and National governments. But would you believe that from listening to the previous speaker?

We again had false accusations about Abbot Point and trashing the Great Barrier Reef. They were absolutely false. Dr Russell Reichelt, a respected scientist, actually said at the beginning of his evidence to a committee inquiry called by Senator Waters that the Great Barrier Reef is currently in great shape and tourists are coming to it and are loving the experience. Forget about what some Greens dominated world body says; ask the tourists who go there and ask the Australian scientists just how great the Barrier Reef is. It has to be looked after, but it is resilient and it will continue to prosper under the careful management of both the Commonwealth and the Queensland governments.

I mentioned youth unemployment. The Greens political party want to stop all development. They succeeded with forestry and are hell-bent on stopping the coal industry. They will not stop until they stop all industry in Australia. But you will notice that the Greens, like all other Australians, very much enjoy the great standard of living we have here, a standard of living that allows all Australians to go on holidays and have nice houses, nice cars and TV sets. The Greens very much welcome and enjoy the wonderful standard of life we have in Australia, but when you want to do things that create the wealth that builds Australia's standard of living the Greens are totally opposed to them. So the hypocrisy is absolutely palpable.

As I said earlier, I am delighted to see this bill. It has been a long time coming, although I might add that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which sometimes, when it suits, the Greens say is the best piece of environmental legislation you have ever seen, was of course introduced by a Liberal minister—by then Senator the Hon. Robert Hill. I say somewhat proudly that I was his parliamentary secretary for the environment at the time. Again, in spite of what the previous speaker said, the coalition government has shown yet again that it is to the forefront of every significant piece of environmental legislation in this chamber. That world-breaking, significant legislation actually provided one-stop shops because I think all Australians understand that, whilst we have to be careful, we do not want to chase away would-be investment by doing the same thing twice, and that is what has happened in recent times.

I mentioned the Abbot Point project. Would you believe that that went through a very rigorous assessment by the then Queensland government? It was a Labor government, but did we hear the Greens complaining about it then? No, that did not worry the Greens because it was a Labor government.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order on mistruths in the chamber, which Senator Macdonald seems to hold dear. We have consistently opposed new fossil fuel developments no matter who has been ticking off on them.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Waters. That is a debating point.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If Senator Macdonald does not realise that, he has not been paying attention.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me, Senator Waters. There is no point of order.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One day, I hope, the Greens might understand standing orders and what a point of order is. I repeat: the Queensland Labor government, which was in power because of the Greens political party—the Greens keep giving second preferences to the Labor Party, putting them in power—approved the Abbot Point project and the Greens mumbled a basic support with a couple of objections but did nothing about them. But if it is a Liberal-National Party government who does it, you get the sort of trash that you heard earlier in this debate.

Abbot Point is a great example of where a most rigorous process was embarked upon by the then Queensland Labor government. It was approved subject to many conditions and then, lo and behold, when the proponents, the Queensland authority, started to do the work, they then found out that they had to go through exactly the same process yet again with the Commonwealth government. That is just one example. I have been involved over many years in trying to help some constituents of mine—actually they are not from my state—who wanted to invest in aquaculture in my state. They went through the most rigorous process of environmental approval with the then Labor state government. They spent literally millions of dollars—I saw their EIS; it was a pile of paper three-quarters of a metre high. But they eventually got the approval from the Queensland government. They did that because the Queensland government, together with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, established a set of guidelines for discharges from the prawn farm into the Great Barrier Reef. That was an expensive process. It was endorsed by the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency and GBRMPA and it cost $4 million or $5 million. When everything was approved and ready to go, we found that this organisation had to turn around and go through the same process again with the Commonwealth government, who then imposed a different set of rules.

This process would employ something like 200 young people in rural North Queensland, where I live. Are the Greens interested in jobs for those 200 young people? No, they are among those who want to stop any aquaculture development in Australia. Recently, there was a proposal—this is fairly well known—to have a major new aquaculture venture in Australia so we would not have to import foreign aquaculture seafood product and so we would not put undue pressure on the wild stocks in Australia. But, when the Greens and their mates got going and raised all of these hurdles, what happened to that foreign investor? They said, 'It is all too hard in Australia; we will go overseas.' So someone overseas gets the jobs for their young people and then they import that product into Australia. The hypocrisy of the Greens political party is abjectly palpable.

If we are going to have a prosperous Australia and if we are going to give meaningful jobs to our young people, we have to have the type of development that is proposed by the aquaculture farm or by North Queensland Bulk Ports. I only mention those two because they spring to mind immediately. Senator Waters had a list. I could go through a list as long as this chamber. With bureaucracy, red tape and lies they have stopped development in Australia for no environmental gain. Senator Waters has talked about the carbon tax. We all know about that farce. Not only did it send Australian jobs overseas but it did not do a thing for the world environment—1.4 per cent of carbon emissions come from Australia. The Greens wanted the world's biggest carbon tax to reduce that by 5 per cent. That would not have made one iota of difference to the world's environment or the world's climate, yet the Greens were determined to have that carbon tax and ensured that Ms Gillard broke her promise to introduce such a measure. The hypocrisy—nothing achieved for the environment but everything achieved to the detriment of Australia and Australian jobs.

This bill has all the protections. Contrary to what Senator Waters has said, it does not do away with Commonwealth environmental requirements. What it does do is get one authority, one body, to assess both the state and Commonwealth requirements. So, if the Commonwealth does have requirements, they will still be in place. They are not being abolished by this, in spite of what Senator Waters has said and what other Green senators who might speak on this might say—might try to mislead you about. This one-stop shop will simplify the processes and will improve the environmental protection. But it will mean that those proposing these developments can do so at a reasonable cost and not spend the same money twice over, not go through the same hoops again. The prawn farms I talked about, which would have been the saviour of youth unemployment in my part of rural North Queensland, has been delayed yet again. It has been going, to the best of my knowledge, for more than 10 years now. These could have been jobs for our young people. It could have been product that Australia was not only producing for Australians but exporting overseas. But because of this red tape—not the environmental conditions so much as the delays and the cost of doing these things—we are losing investment and losing jobs for young people.

I want to emphasise that the Commonwealth will retain an important role under the one-stop shop proposals. The Commonwealth will remain accountable for its obligations under the EPBC Act, including international treaties. It will retain an approval role for actions in Commonwealth waters, on Commonwealth land or undertaken by Commonwealth agencies. It will have an ongoing role in ensuring the commitments under the bilateral agreements between the states and the Commonwealth are met. If a Labor state—it would only be a Labor state—wants to do the wrong thing by the agreement between the states and Commonwealth, then the Commonwealth has the power to call those agreements in.

This shows that by eliminating the dual state-and federal-approval process businesses will not have to address the same hurdles a number of times, but the same high environmental standards will be—and must be—retained. This provides for a simpler, faster assessment-and-approval process for business. If it is not going to meet the approval of the different agencies, the state and the Commonwealth, then it will not get approved; it does not matter who the assessment agency is. This is the point the Greens political party would have you believe.

It is typical, again—I want to emphasise this—of the hypocrisy of the Greens political party. They work on the basis that you can tell any lie you like as long as you achieve your ends, at the end of the day. The ends of the Greens, at the end of the day, are to shut down any development, any process, in Australia that builds employment and our standard of living—notwithstanding that they continue to be very willing participants in the wonderful standard of living we have in Australia.

I have been in the Senate quite some time. The thing people have approached me about most often since I have been in the Senate has been this ludicrous provision of dual agencies dealing with the same process, whether it be in education, health or—most importantly, in the context of this debate—the environment. I emphasise to those who might be listening to this debate, there will be no lessening of the Commonwealth standards of the environment. It is the Liberal and National parties in this chamber that have always been at the forefront of protecting Australia's environment. We will continue to do so, because we understand that our environment and natural assets are very important to Australia, and we certainly do not want them trashed.

We will continue to maintain the sorts of standards introduced by Liberal and National party governments and eventually supported by all other political parties. Because the Greens have a philosophical hatred of anyone who is not from the left of politics, they will continue to distribute misinformation about anyone who happens to have a different view from them, on any subject.

I congratulate Campbell Newman and his environment minister, Andrew Powell, on some of the initiatives they have undertaken since being in power. They are initiatives that did not do anything to protect the environment but actually helped the development of my state of Queensland, which was being crushed under a $95 billion debt left to them by the previous Labor government. Campbell Newman is an honourable man, a most honest and rigorous man. The suggestion that he took money from anyone is just so outrageous as to be unbelievable—unlike the Greens political party and its leaders, who take lots of money from Mr Wood and others to pursue their process.

Campbell Newman has done a wonderful job in Queensland. After almost 20 years of Labor rule, something had to be done to get our state out of the doldrums. I am delighted that Mr Newman has done that. I am delighted that he has done it in a very careful and balanced way, particularly when it comes to the environment. He and Mr Powell have been proactive in ensuring the protection of our natural assets. I am delighted that my state has come on board with the Commonwealth in this one-stop-shop process, which will continue careful management of our natural assets but will do so in a more competitive way that builds upon Australia's standard of living.

I certainly support this bill, which has been a long time coming. It is a bill that was very much a part of our last election commitments, which were overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian public. It is the sort of initiative that must happen. I certainly hope that senators will support the bill when it comes to a vote.

12:35 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in this debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. Earlier in the year I participated in the Senate's Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill. In Labor's dissenting report, I noted three major concerns with the bill.

Firstly, submissions were overwhelmingly of the opinion that the bill would lead to a more complicated process—an eight-stop shop where each jurisdiction has a different approvals process. Secondly, the clear majority of evidence to the committee was that the bill does not contain adequate safeguards to ensure the maintenance of current environmental standards. I remain particularly concerned at this evidence, given the track record of the Abbott coalition government over the past year on the environment. Thirdly, the arguments in the chairs report, in support of the bill, were mostly mere assurances from the environment department about the adequacy of the proposed processes. This was due to the overwhelming number of submissions that provided strong evidence, highlighting flaws in the bill and the government's policy.

Further, public comment in support of the bill, in the chair's report, was largely focused on the perceived reduction in cost for industry. However, the department could not outline what had changed since the 2012 decision, by the previous Labor government, to stop the process to progress approved bilateral agreements, apart from an election commitment by the Abbott coalition government. Despite the flawed chair's report into the bill, it was clear from the inquiry that the bill should not pass. It fails to reduce regulation and it fails to maintain and strengthen environmental protection.

In 2011, the then Labor government released its response to the independent review of the EPBC Act, commonly referred to as the Hawke review. In its response, the Labor government committed to achieving better environmental outcomes while improving the efficiency of the management of matters of national environmental significance and providing more certainty for business. This included a shift from individual approvals to strategic processes and the development of more efficient assessment and approval processes. Following this response, COAG agreed in April 2012 to prioritise approval bilateral agreements under the EPBC Act. Discussions about approval bilateral agreements were held with the states and territories, and a draft framework of standards for the accreditation of environmental approvals was released in November 2012.

At its meeting of 7 December 2012, COAG considered issues related to reform of environmental regulation. While discussions with all jurisdictions were constructive, the Labor government concluded that the significant challenges that emerged meant that providing both certainty and consistency for business and maintaining high environmental standards could not be achieved through an approval bilaterals process and did not progress this agenda. Instead, a focus was put on meeting common information requirements, eliminating duplication and avoiding delayed approval processes.

The current government often refers to the approval bilaterals process, begun under the previous Labor government, as part of an argument for Labor's hypocrisy. This is clearly a misleading argument, as Labor explored the option of pursuing approval bilaterals with the states and found that they would not lead to better environmental or business outcomes. This remains the position of federal Labor. Federal Labor shadow minister Mark Butler summarised Labor's opposition to these changes in his second reading speech on the bill:

But at the end of the day we take as a matter of principle the view that matters of national environmental significance—which is the scope of matters covered by this legislation—must remain the province of a national government. That is not a party political perspective. Whether it is a national coalition or national Labor government and whether it is state Labor or state Liberal governments, our view is the same: the Commonwealth should have responsibility for matters of national environmental significance, for a whole range of reasons that I have tried to outline.

I now turn to specific concerns with the bill and the arguments in the chair's report that I raised in the inquiry's dissenting report. Nearly all of the submissions received opposed the one-stop-shop reforms for some, or all, of the following reasons: that it will add complexity to approval processes; that it will not result in any efficiency gains; that, currently, no state or territory has sufficient resources or the appropriate environmental processes in place to adequately assess actions that may impact on national environmental standards; that it would result in a diminution of current environmental standards pertaining to matters of national environmental significance; and that it would create potential conflicts of interest.

The chair's report dealt with complexity, for the inquiry uses an extract from the department's submission that highlights that the lack of consistency between the Commonwealth and states and territories can lead to differences in processes in outcomes and time frames, to argue in support of the changes. However, the bill will clearly not result in one uniform environmental approvals process for all states and territories. There will continue to be a lack of consistency between the Commonwealth and states and territories in assessing matters of national environmental significance because the bill allows states and territories to keep their own processes as long as they meet national standards rather than seek to harmonise approvals processes for matters of national environmental significance.

The bill will entrench the differences between states and territories. Companies that operate across jurisdictions will be required to have understanding of each individual jurisdiction's processes for matters of national environmental significance rather than just maintaining an understanding of the Commonwealth's processes. The chair's report highlights that many submissions believe there would not be efficiency gains and cost reductions from the bill. The chair's report specifies that the largest regulatory costs for proponents are typically in the assessment phase, which is already completed in conjunction with states and territories, only typically requires an extra form to be completed and is normally completed within a few weeks.

The chair's report notes that a cost-benefit analysis, conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, from the Minerals Council submission concluded that there would be over $1 billion in net benefits to business and government over a 10-year period if bilateral agreements, along with administrative reforms, were implemented. Examination of the cost-benefit analysis uncovers that the net benefits from just the bilateral agreements is around one-third of the total claimed in the Minerals Council submission. The cost-benefit analysis undertaken by Deloitte Access Economics focused solely on net benefits to government, industry and the economy from bilateral agreements and administrative reforms and assumed that environmental outcomes would remain constant.

Finally, the chair's report notes evidence from the Department of the Environment that it conducts different analysis to that done by states and territories. However, in this evidence, it appears that the department generalises away the importance of its own specialised analysis regarding matters of national environmental significance. It is true that, under the current model, proponents are dealing with two regulators as part of the same project approval process. However, these two regulators are analysing the application on very different scales. As the department outlines, the Commonwealth department must have regard to matters of national environmental significance, while the states and territories have regard to whole-of-environment impacts within the jurisdictions' borders.

The chair's report also uses evidence from the department of potential savings for a project proponent but does not consider any increased costs to the Commonwealth and/or to the states and territories. As states and territories have no experience in approvals relating to the nine matters of national environmental significance, they will need specialists capable of regulating proposals to the national standard. Further, as the Commonwealth will retain call-in powers on all delegated approval, it will need to retain staff to complete an approval in the case of a call-in. As the purpose of those reforms is to make the approvals process more efficient, while keeping environmental outcomes constant, I am concerned that the Commonwealth will either have to keep a large number of staff with excess capacity to deal with call-in or see a large delay in project approvals. Further, I am concerned about the capacity of smaller states to approve projects relating to matters of national environmental significance at a national standard. A state regulator may only practice regulation with regard to specific matters of national environmental significance on a small number of occasions. This raises the potential for mistakes, and costs to proponents from appeals and damage to the environment.

The chair's report mentions the evidence from Environmental Justice Australia, that the bill will create further uncertainty in the approvals process. Further, Glen Klatovsky, of The Places You Love Alliance, provided evidence to the hearing that he felt that the Business Council of Australia appears to be less certain about the concept than they were in 2012, because of the potential exposure to litigation from poor processes of states and territories.

It is interesting to read the Business Council of Australia's submission to this inquiry. They really emphasise the need for Commonwealth officers to be in each of the states and territories to actually make sure that this can work. This is at a time of massive job shedding, at both federal and state levels. The Business Council of Australia's submission noted a need for close administrative cooperation between the Commonwealth and states to ensure consistency in decisions. As Mr Klatovsky summarised in his evidence, the Business Council of Australia proposed that an expansion of the Commonwealth Public Service to oversee state agencies was 'critical' to support the transition and 'remove duplication while maintaining environmental outcomes'. The Business Council did not propose a time frame for the cessation of the extra Commonwealth staffing or if some Commonwealth staff would assist more than one jurisdiction.

I was surprised by this submission, given the vast recommendations to slash the Commonwealth Public Service in the Business Council of Australia's commission of audit. I would have liked to question the Business Council of Australia on this proposal but the council refused the committee's invitation to appear at the hearing. This was despite the hearing being held in Melbourne, the location of the head offices of the Business Council of Australia.

The chair's report summarises arguments proposed in many of the submissions that bilateral approvals agreements will see a 'potential diminution' in national environmental standards. A number of submissions argued that there was therefore a need to keep national protection measures on matters of national environmental significance.

I note that the department's evidence was focussed around a range of oversight measures, including the process for the approval of the bilateral agreement, five-year reviews, unscheduled audits, a senior officers committee and a call-in power for the Commonwealth. It will be interesting to see if government senators are able to explain how the Department of the Environment will have the capacity to perform these extra functions, given the staff reduction I highlighted earlier.

I am also concerned that Minister Hunt, being responsible for approving a bilateral approvals agreement and for oversight of state government processes, has broken key election commitments on funding for the Emissions Reduction Fund, Landcare and the One Million Solar Roofs program. Minister Hunt has also approved spoil from dredging to be dumped within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area, and is setting up to destroy the renewable energy target.

I believe this short track record shows that Minister Hunt is incapable of standing up to his cabinet colleagues even to maintain national environmental standards, as is prescribed in the policy. The view is shared by the World Heritage Committee, who in June this year delivered a harsh verdict on the government's failure to protect the Great Barrier Reef. At its annual meeting the committee voted to keep alive their threat to list the Great Barrier Reef as being in danger. The committee also labelled the handover of federal environmental approval powers to the Queensland government as 'premature'.

The chair's report summaries concerns of a number of submissions that the states and territories do not have the capacity and are not ready to implement bilateral approval agreements and processes. The only arguments the chair's report provides against these propositions are that the draft approval bilateral agreement with New South Wales allows for the embedding of officers from the Department of Environment and that the Commonwealth relies on state government processes in the assessment phase.

As raised earlier in the dissenting report, the notion of embedding Department of Environment officers in state governments was raised in the Business Council of Australia's submission, in what has been inferred to mean that the BCA has little confidence in the capacity and readiness of states and territories. In regard to the duplication of effort, I note that there have been long-standing assessment bilateral agreements with states and territories and that this method of assessment has significant value for all parties.

The chair's report notes that a number of submissions highlighted that there are potential conflicts of interest in a state or territory government's role as a proponent of a project. The chair's report fails to include the evidence from Dr Chris McGrath that the draft approvals bilateral agreements were, before the election, not going to allow states to make decisions over projects where they were the proponent. Dr McGrath said of the Abbott government:

… the government and the current environment minister said before the election that they would be not allowing states to make decisions over projects where they were the proponent as well as a couple of other things …

Dr McGrath also stated his concerns in evidence to the hearing:

Under the Queensland approval bilateral, you are giving the decision to the state Coordinator-General, who is a public servant whose core purpose is to develop the state. It is not about protecting the environment at all.

In relation to schedule 3, part 1—amendments relating to water resources—the schedule will not remove the water trigger from matters of national environmental significance, but will allow for the minister to accredit state and territory processes to approve matters previously prohibited for approval by a state or territory government. There were a large number of arguments against the delegation of powers around the water trigger because of the cross-jurisdictional boundaries of water and the insufficient capacity or conflict of interest of state and territory governments.

The water trigger was put in place because of state and territory governments' inability to adequately deal with threats to water resources, particularly cross-jurisdictional water resources such as the Great Artesian Basin and Murray Darling Basin. Because of the very nature of the issue, the specific requirements of the water trigger are to not duplicate. The acknowledgement the water resource is of national significance and that a national approach to decision making is needed.

In relation to schedule 3 part 2—amendments relating to bilaterally accredited authorisation processes—there were a large number of people who made submissions who opposed the accreditation of state government policies and processes, primarily because these changes are not subject to public or parliamentary oversight. Ms Walmsley from the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices summarised the concerns of many submissions in evidence to the hearing:

In a lot of jurisdictions, a significant amount of detail is in a policy or a guideline. If they are accredited, the Commonwealth may be able to say, 'At the point of accreditation, yes, those standards were in the guidelines.' But, without parliamentary oversight or scrutiny, guidelines can be changed at a state level, and they regularly are. Even if a standard may exist in a guideline at the time an accreditation is officially done, those guidelines may change.

Mr Bradley Tucker from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists provided the committee with substantial evidence regarding the draft policies under the New South Wales and Queensland bilaterals, saying:

They are delegating approvals under bilaterals that have draft policies which give state bureaucrats discretion without having to justify their discretion. That, to me, in no way would satisfy the protection of a matter of national environmental significance!

Dr Chris McGrath described the lack of parliamentary oversight as 'a minefield' in evidence to the hearing and expanded on this point. In response, the chair's report includes an answer from the department that there must be a 'legislative hook' for a policy or process. However, the chair's report does not provide evidence that there would be legal enforcement of standards in approved state and territory policies and guidelines. Labor senators consider it inappropriate to give this level of flexibility to state and territory governments.

Schedule 5 relates to miscellaneous amendments. The miscellaneous amendments will increase the range of entities allowed to approve actions to potentially include local government or a state or territory environmental court or tribunal. Quite rightly, a number of submissions were opposed on the grounds of capacity to act in the national interest, potential conflicts of interest, and negative impacts on maintenance of strong environmental standards. The department sought to highlight that the amendment will change the focus from the identity and legal status of the decision maker to the decision maker's ability to adhere to high environmental standards. However, Mr Graham Short from the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies said to the hearing that AMEC was not supportive of this concept:

There are already some issues that have arisen by various planning processes and planning schemes and town planning schemes by local authorities that do not have an understanding of the mining industry … I am pretty sure that our membership would not support the concept of local councils or local authorities being involved in the decision-making process.

There was also strong opposition in a large number of submissions to the devolution of decision making to local government or a state or territory environmental court or tribunal.

It is clear that this bill should not pass. It fails to reduce regulation, and it fails to maintain and strengthen environmental protection. Minister Hunt needs to take his role as environment minister seriously. Prime Minister Abbott has dismally failed the Australian environment in the past year. The Prime Minister and the environment minister need to find the middle ground. They need to find a balance between development and environmental protection. At present, they are failing this nation and failing future generations.

12:55 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill, which has been put forward by the Abbott government. It is the biggest systemic assault on the environment since the time that the Commonwealth took any responsibility for environmental decisions at the time of the Franklin dam. Why do I say that? Because up until now we have fought any number of environmental battles around Australia in the states, and it has been the Commonwealth that has given us the opportunity to expose what can only be described as corruption at the state level which has enabled any number of developers to get what they want at the cost of the environment. In the mid-1990s the Howard government came up with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. There were many of us at the time who opposed that legislation because it was so weak, and what is so fundamentally wrong with the EPBC Act is that it gives the minister way too much discretion. It has allowed, over the years, many ministers to turn their back on serious information which would have jeopardised projects. Most recently, under the former Labor government we had the minister, Tony Burke, not taking account of the expert advice he was given on threatened species when it came to the Tarkine. That matter was able to go to court.

Now we have a situation where the Abbott government has said that it is not interested in second-guessing the states or local government in assessing any claims by developers when state governments or local governments give them the blind eye and instead the Commonwealth will just pick them off. It is utterly and absolutely disgraceful and it dismantles our national system of environmental regulation and planning approval. What we will have in its place is a framework for the systemic destruction of our environment, readying the ground for degradation of our land, water and precious native species by vested interests, and the undermining of our World Heritage areas into the bargain.

If this bill passed the Senate it would see Australia's environmental standards drop as those state governments which nurture developments get the right to tick them off in an uncritical way. As I have said, our current system has been in place for quite some time and it is imperfect, but at least it has ensured that many of our very special national places and icons survive to this day. It is because of Commonwealth laws that we have the Great Barrier Reef protected and not scarred by oil rigs; state governments have been stopped from compromising water security with coal-seam gas development; and we have prevented the extinction of some of our precious wildlife—although, I add, Australia has an appalling reputation when it comes to extinctions and we are currently facing more extinctions not only because of climate change but also because of habitat loss and disease and invasive species. What an indictment it is on this country that our koala is threatened by a failure to look after its habitat, by disease and of course by climate consequences.

When I got into politics in 1989 it was because the Tasmanian government of Robin Gray was so determined to promote North Broken Hill's pulp mill project—a native forest based project using elemental chlorine in the bleaching. They were going to dump all that polluting water with organochlorines into Bass Strait but the Tasmanian government loved it—it was so in the pocket of North Broken Hill at the time that North Broken Hill recalled the Tasmanian parliament on its own letterhead for doubt removal legislation, to remove any doubt as to who was running the state and who would determine the environmental laws. It was so bad the graffiti around Tasmania was 'Vote 1 North Broken Hill and cut out the middleman.' Around Australia at the moment there would be plenty of people saying, 'Vote 1 Whitehaven and cut out the middleman,' or 'Vote 1 Santos and cut out the middleman,' or 'Vote 1 Adani and cut out the middleman.' You could go right round the country and do it: 'Vote 1 Woodside and cut out the middleman', when it comes to James Price Point. It is happening already, but at least we have some recourse to the Commonwealth legislation. Under this legislation there will be no recourse. We will just be handing over environmental powers to the states and giving the tick to corruption.

I reiterate: it is a tick for corruption. Look at ICAC in New South Wales. Week in, week out, it is exposing ministers taking donations to tick off projects—to tick off coalmines and coal-seam gas, to tick off property development, to tick off whatever they like. Week in, week out, there were brown paper bags. Why do we think that would not happen, if we have a situation where the people ticking off on the environmental considerations are the very same people who are receiving the brown paper bags with no Commonwealth oversight? It is a disaster for this country.

I want to talk about Tasmania. As I mentioned a little while ago, there was a situation with the government of Robin Gray. It has remained the same since with the Gunns pulp mill; the Gunns pulp mill was first dreamt up by John Gay and Paul Lennon in a restaurant, on the back of an envelope. They chose to get together and promote that pulp mill. When it was clear that the planning and consideration process in Tasmania might find that the project was wanting the premier of the day, Paul Lennon, withdrew the project from the proper planning process because John Gay and Gunns wanted it taken out of the assessment. The only recourse we had was to come to the Commonwealth and say, 'Look, what on earth is going on in Tasmania?' We were not particularly impressed by the response from either Peter Garrett or Malcolm Turnbull, who were the relevant ministers at the time under successive governments, but at least we had the opportunity of taking it to the Commonwealth. There is no doubt whatsoever that, if this bill goes through, the Tarkine will be opened up to mining and logging willy-nilly. We have a situation where the Tarkine is Australia's largest remaining tract of cool temperate rainforest and is now becoming a mining precinct. It will put our Tasmanian devil, for example—already critically endangered—under greater pressure.

We have a situation where the National Heritage Council said the Tarkine needed to be protected; but the federal minister of the day came out at that time, with Paul Howes from the union movement, and stood there and said: 'We have chosen to ignore the Commonwealth environmental law. We have chosen to go against what we are expected to do because we want those mines to open in the Tarkine.' That was appalling, but at least there was some transparency about it. The Tasmanian government will offer no transparency. They will just tick off on any mine in the Tarkine at any time.

So much for the arguments about jobs and economic benefit. We had former Minister Tony Burke and Paul Howes again standing there in Braddon ahead of the last election, telling Tasmanians that this would be a bonanza. This would be jobs for, and returns to, Tasmania. What have we had since? Shree Minerals dug a great big hole in the ground that is not viable. What are we left with? We are left with nothing but a great big hole in the ground and no money to rehabilitate the place. The Premier of Tasmania at the time, Lara Giddings, gave the companies a royalties holiday. They were laughing as they were sitting there and we are left a great big hole in the Tarkine.

Now we have exactly the same thing with Venture Minerals at Riley Creek—exactly the same thing. Yet the people who stand there and let this environmental vandalism occur just wander off to the next thing and pretend it has not happened. Under the Liberal government in Tasmania, you will see the Tarkine ticked off for any mining anywhere, and any logging anywhere and anyhow. It will be a complete disaster. I have zero confidence when large business—any business, in fact—can exert such influence over the Tasmanian government or any local government in Tasmania. You will see not only environmental destruction but also stupidity—giving them royalties holidays, so they do not even pay anything—and the community will be left with the mess. The only good thing I can say in relation to the long saga of Gunns and the former Tasmanian Premier, Paul Lennon, and the appalling processes that went on with that, is that John Gay was found guilty of insider trading in relation to the Gunns pulp mill. He was only fined $50,000, which was an affront to everyone around Australia who is trying to get serious on white-collar crime. I am very pleased to say that ASIC is now pursuing John Gay for the $3 million he made insider trading on the Gunns pulp mill proposal.

It is not just pulp mills—it is fish farms as well. They are being approved around Tasmania again, again with a cursory glance. There was an advisory panel which originally considered new farm licences or expansion applications, taking into account community and environmental concerns, but as soon as this panel recommended against the expansion of a fish farm, the minister of the day in Tasmania changed the act to give himself the power to approve such applications. Who is going to tell me that it will be any different under this particular act? Coming to Queensland I have had my colleague Senator Waters outlining what is going on in Queensland. It is just disgraceful—the Great Barrier Reef has been ticked off by the Newman government as a highway for coal. They ticked off Abbot Point and dredging to dump into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They have even approved the Adani Carmichael coalmine in the Galilee Basin against the advice of the independent expert scientific committee on CSG and coal. The committee was worried about the impacts on the Great Artesian Basin—but was Campbell Newman, the Premier of Queensland, worried? Not at all. He was just ticking off on that. What is more, the Campbell Newman government was offering multinationals discount royalties for opening up the Galilee Basin. Any state government offering discount royalties is not going to be doing anything to seriously assess the environmental impacts. And, of course, it is going to get us into serious difficulty under the World Heritage convention because UNESCO is going to see straight through this.

As a state party, Australia has an obligation to uphold its responsibility under the World Heritage convention. I can tell you, all this dumping into the reef and all the ports up and down the reef are certainly not consistent with our international obligations. The former Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science said that the decision to allow dumping:

… has to be a political decision. It is not supported by science at all. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard of that decision.

Also, with the Newman government, the vegetation management framework is to be changed so that it will allow for clearing of 700,000 hectares of forest and woodland. We have this outrageous scenario in Queensland already such that Tony Fitzgerald, the corruption fighter, said: 'Queensland risks going back to the dark ages now that access can be purchased, patronage is dispensed with, mates and supporters are anointed and retired politicians exploit their connections to obtain success fees for deals between businesses and government.' Does anyone seriously think that in Queensland the environment would be taken into account or taken seriously?

Let me move to New South Wales and the Whitehaven Coal mine. What a disgrace it is, where we have ICAC coming out and showing clear corruption. We cannot trust state governments with transparency and the public interest. With Whitehaven, again, this offset policy that is already there is being exploited—and what has the Commonwealth done about it? Not very much. What will the state do about it? Zero. Whitehaven came out and put in a false claim that it has an offset for the white-box gum grassy woodland when there is only 0.1 per cent in its original range there. We have a scenario where it was proven that Whitehaven misled the Commonwealth. Why didn't the Commonwealth take legal action against Whitehaven? It was because, after we went to a lot of trouble at the Commonwealth level, Whitehaven has had to nominate some other blocks and that was considered to be an appropriate response, instead of going after them for white-collar crime, which we should have done. Nevertheless, at least it got exposed at the Commonwealth level.

In New South Wales, it would have been buried because, as we know, ICAC heard allegations that Nathan Tinkler, the owner of the Maules Creek mine during most of its assessment phase, attempted to buy influence with politicians using prohibited donations to subvert the planning process in relation to a number of developments. I am really appalled. I congratulate everyone who is standing up for the Leard forest and standing up for the environment against corruption in New South Wales and against the state government's shonky environmental assessment processes.

Again on World Heritage in Tasmania, there was the Tasmanian government, supported by the Abbott government in this case, removing 74,000 hectares of our high-conservation value forest from a World Heritage area. Of course, Australia was held to account by the World Heritage Committee and, at this point, those forests are now safe. But, if you hand over all environmental decision-making powers to Tasmania, I can tell you that the Hodgman government would be stupid enough to submit yet another application to take those forests out of the World Heritage area and humiliate Australia again.

You cannot trust state governments to look after areas of national environmental significance. They never have done, from the Franklin River to the Barrier Reef to any of our major World Heritage areas. You simply cannot trust the states, and you would trust local government even less when it comes to those major development proposals. This is a recipe for more corruption, more brown paper bags, certain adverse environmental impact and destruction of forests, of reefs and of the environment, any which way you look at it. That is why we are standing here so strongly opposing it.

Let us look at threatened species. The handover of environmental powers looks likely to exacerbate extinction, particularly with the Leadbeater's possum in Victoria. It has been reduced to fewer than 1,000 animals, but the Victorian government insists on continuing to cut down the trees that the animals rely on. Do you think that handing over the environmental powers to Victoria is going to protect the Leadbeater's possum? Of course it will not. In fact, an audit of threatened species and planning laws across all Australian jurisdictions by the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices found that no state or territory biodiversity or planning laws currently meet the suite of federal environmental standards necessary to effectively and efficiently protect diversity. Particularly in relation to fast-tracking, the audit found that state and territory provisions for speeding up approvals effectively override threatened species laws in all jurisdictions.

The implementation of the legislation would certainly drive many more plants, animals and birds—for example, the swift parrot—to extinction. We will see an assault on places of World Heritage significance, places of outstanding universal value to humankind. We are not going to stand here and let that happen. In this country, we do not just need to maintain environmental laws with the Commonwealth; we actually need much stronger laws. In my view, we need a new act which recognises the assault that the environment is under, which strengthens existing laws and which has a trigger for climate change as well. Not only do we need to protect so many of our precious places and species around the country but also we need to recognise that we must build connectivity. We need to build corridors so that, as climate change advances, we have some hope of building resilience in populations—plant, animal and so on—that are under pressure. We need a serious engagement with the environment. After all, if you do not protect the environment, you have nothing left. It is what sustains us with life on Earth. It is under pressure as never before, with massive population explosion, massive habitat reduction and massive pollution. We are seeing our natural world under assault as never before and now is the time to protect it, not sell it out in this country by handing over to state governments the ability to destroy it and to take money in brown paper bags at the same time.

1:15 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with pleasure that I rise to support the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, and support the minister, the Hon. Greg Hunt, with his second reading speech in the other place.

There are three criteria that all of us would recognise as being essential for any project before it would come to fruition. The first is broad community support, the second is environmental sustainability and the third is economic sustainability. Any project that does not get the tick-off on each of those three is not going to survive; it is bound to fail. And, as previous speakers have said quite rightly, community support is essential. But the point that I would make as a proud Australian and as a proud Western Australian is: which is the community that is most likely to be interested in and affected by any decisions that are taken with regard to the environment? Of course, it is the local community. It is the community of people who enjoy the asset, who enjoy that environment and who would be likely to be adversely impacted by it.

We have heard in the discussion today the various mechanisms that are in place in this country for members of the community to be able to represent their concerns right through the various agencies, like ICAC in New South Wales agencies right through to the courts. And we have seen it over time in this place. But the concern that I have is just this basic assumption that a group of bureaucrats here in Canberra for some reason or other are going to be able to determine decisions on those areas of Australia about which they know little, if anything and, indeed, about those which should rightly be allocated to the local communities who will be affected by them. This is my main reason for supporting the bilateral agreement implementation bill that is before us.

Mr Acting Deputy President Edwards, you well know, as a proud member of our party, that it was a senator from your state, the Hon. Robert Hill, then Minister for the Environment in 1999, who actually introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill. It was regarded at that time, and probably still is, as being the foremost legislation in the world in this area. But it was always predicted and always contemplated that provisions to allow for the creation of a one-stop shop be placed into the EPBC Act since the time it was introduced.

I think that is interesting for people who are listening to this debate today; there is nothing new, there is nothing unusual and there is nothing different about the introduction of the one-stop shop. What it says is that each of the states and territories in our federation, who have responsibility for land and related management—those, indeed, who send us to this place as the states' house—should have that responsibility. And that is what Minister Hunt is doing by introducing this legislation. I would suggest that those who are opposed to this particular amendment in the EPBC Act either have no faith or confidence in their own state instrumentalities or the local communities who actually represent them.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yep! Got it!

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And I have Senator Siewert saying, 'Yes, I've got it'. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, to Senator Siewert: I have an enormous amount of confidence in my fellow Western Australians and I am going to point out in the time I have available during this contribution those areas in which we can demonstrate that Western Australia are best placed to actually make the decisions we make in protecting the environment of our state. I will come back to that of course.

So what does happen in this particular instance? Rather than have this duplication that we see all too often—and I will show examples of it over time, where there is simply frustration, wasted time, wasted funds, wasted resources and wasted money—we will have a circumstance now in which under the normal course of events these environmental decisions and approval decisions will be taken at the state level. But, contrary to what the previous speaker, Senator Milne, in her gloom-and-doom predictions, had to say, we know that under the legislation the Commonwealth will maintain its role. It will remain accountable for its obligations under the EPBC Act. It will retain—I say again it will retain—an approval role for actions in Commonwealth waters, on Commonwealth land or by Commonwealth agencies. It will have an ongoing role to ensure that the commitments under these bilateral agreements are met.

Indeed, as Minister Hunt has said, if anything it will enhance environmental responsibility on behalf of those to whom responsibility will be given, because before they can satisfy the minister of their capability to actually join into these bilateral arrangements they will have to convince him that they have legislative arrangements in place to be able to give effect to the commitments that they will actually undertake.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

No they won't!

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Isn't it amazing, Mr Acting Deputy President: when anyone other than the Greens has something to say in this place we are always debrided and chided. And yet we will stand here and sit here and listen with courtesy to those who have a different opinion to us.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll remember that!

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly, so—thank you very much. Those who have an different opinion to us, and I hope Senator Cameron is taking careful note, as indeed I am sure he is.

What will this do? It will give some business certainty. We will not have these lengthy and duplicitous arrangements that we have seen in the past. It will allow the better sharing of environmental information and data between business, governments—be they local, state, territory or federal, across boundaries—and, of course, the wider community. What it does do is eliminate that need for this multiple jumping of hurdles simply because of a difference between jurisdictions with very little, if any—in fact no—environmental advantages to be retained.

We will see increased use of strategic approaches under the EPBC Act, such as the environmental assessments, to improve the environment. I make the comment again that it will certainly be better, easier, simpler and faster for business to be able to put forward their proposals, to have them evaluated and to have them approved or rejected with or without amendments. I make the comment again as a person coming from a business background that any project that does not have community support, environmental sustainability and economic sustainability is not going to survive in any case. Those are three very powerful parameters. We are going to see a situation in which we are only going to need one application, one assessment process and one approval decision in normal circumstances. This is going to be enormously to the benefit of not only business but community confidence.

We will at all times, as the minister has assured us, make sure that the environment is protected. We will see more transparency around decisions being taken. We will see better access to information. We will make sure that there are—and these are points that the minister himself has made—audits, five-yearly reviews, reporting mechanisms and an escalated dispute resolution process in place to resolve any issues. There is the fact that, as I say again, the federal environment minister will retain the ability to call in the assessment and/or approval process if he or she has concerns about engagement with the community or environmental sustainability. The minister will retain under the EPBC Act the capacity to suspend or cancel an agreement. Naturally, the minister will continue to take responsibility for the bilateral agreements in place and have the necessary influence should he or she be concerned about the compliance by the states with that process. All of those points need to be made.

I now want to go to the question of the water trigger. As a Western Australian senator, this is not an area about which I have specialist knowledge, simply because it has not been the subject of such intense scrutiny in Western Australia as it has been on the east coast. But it is my understanding that currently the act does not allow for the accreditation of a state or territory process for the purpose of approvals relating to the developments about which we are speaking. This amendment will actually give the states the particular powers to do that. The state approval processes will have to meet the higher environmental standards to be accredited. It is quite interesting. As the minister has said, he will ensure that the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development will be made available to those relevant states to help them determine the success or otherwise of those projects.

I want to turn now to some examples of anomalies that we have seen in environmental approvals not just specifically between Commonwealth and states but in general. In 2013 we had occasion to meet with the then shadow minister and the now minister for minerals and resources, Ian Macfarlane, in the town of Kalgoorlie. We met with mining exploration companies as a result of the doubt at that time and that still lingers today, as a matter of fact, because of the fact that the mining tax has not been repealed. I think eight or 12 of the big mining exploration companies were in town with their drilling rigs because mining exploration had effectively come to a halt. We were asking them if they could explain to us some of the areas where red tape might have been interfering with their operations.

One of them mentioned a drilling exploration exercise some 200 kilometres north-east of Kalgoorlie. Senator Siewert would also know the area north-east of Kalgoorlie. It is remote country. This particular company wanted to move their operations some half a kilometre from where they were doing exploratory drilling to a new location. They seemed to be having an enormous amount of difficulty getting approval. So eventually somebody got in a motor car and drove from Kalgoorlie to Perth, went to the office of the relevant department and asked, 'What is going on?' This was after some six weeks of the staff sitting around idle. They said, 'You have not given us the last of the environmental information we require.' The bloke asked, 'What is the information you require?' They said, 'Your crews are staying in caravans. Presumably they are washing up in their caravans. You have given us no undertaking as to what is happening to the waste water coming out of the sinks of the caravans 200 kilometres north-east of Kalgoorlie.' We asked, 'What has that exercise cost you?' The fellow turned to us and said, 'I don't think you want to know.' Whilst this is not directly related to this particular amendment in front of us, these are the sorts of things we have to stop. We have to cut out this type of red tape.

I want to refer to the Busselton hospital project in the south-west of Western Australia. I am happy to say that it is now underway. It has started construction. The Barnett government has an excellent program to build hospitals around both metropolitan and rural Western Australia. I do not know that the ringtail possum is particularly under threat in Western Australia. It seems to me that everybody I speak to has seen immeasurable numbers of them. Certainly in my own circumstances I have particularly seen them in the ceiling of my home in North Yunderup. Nevertheless, that project was held up for many, many months because nobody seemed to be able to come to an understanding as to how they were going to deal with the possum numbers in Busselton. I do not know the details, but I do know that the project was held up for some period of time.

Another project is in Bunbury, the largest regional city south of Perth. It is a ring-road that will bring access to the port of Bunbury. It is being held up at this very moment because of environmental concerns over the shifting of the Preston River. The Preston River is already a man-made channel because that river was diverted many years ago. It is currently in limbo awaiting environmental approvals at both state and federal level. Another that comes to mind is Mangles Bay at Point Peron near Rockingham—just at the Causeway, for those of you who know the naval base HMAS Stirling. That project originated in 1989, at which time they started public and environmental reviews. In 2014, with a series of sensible demands and requirements by the state environment minister, Albert Jacob, it was eventually approved subject to it coming to Canberra, to Minister Hunt. The issues with the proposal related to the destruction of seagrass beds, and the requirements placed on the project were for the revegetation or re-establishment of areas two or three times larger than those that were to be destroyed and, of course, substantial sums of money associated with the rehabilitation of the Cockburn Sound. But you have to ask: if we have been engaged in this exercise for almost 25 years, why is it necessary to have federal government approval, Minister Hunt's approval, for something that has been the subject of so much investigation and which clearly meets the three goals that I have spoken about?

When it comes to our state, which I can speak of with more authority than others, I go to the move made by Premier Barnett in 2009 when he declared the Camden Sound whale sanctuary, some 400 kilometres north of Broome. Premier Barnett did not wait around for federal government intervention. Off his own bat, he made the decision that that whale sanctuary at Camden Sound, one of the largest in the world, would be protected for the humpback whales.

I go to the then Minister for Fisheries, Hon. Norman Moore MLC, now retired after a stellar career in the Western Australian parliament. It was Norman Moore, as fisheries minister, who dealt with issues associated with the declining rock lobster fishery. He was able to reverse that decline and turn it around by bringing in sensible policies, practices and procedures. He allowed an extension of fishing to 365 days a year but placed a quota on the fishermen—so now they can decide when they will fish. Will they fish to maximise the Christmas market? Will they fish to maximise the Chinese New Year market? In the meantime, the fishery re-established its internationally acclaimed reputation.

I go to the highly sustainable Exmouth Gulf prawn fishery. There is no need for federal intervention—decisions are made by the state. Within the Shark Bay Marine Park is the Shark Bay fishery, which is managed within the marine park to ensure the taking of prawns, scallops and crabs is sustainable. That is an important point. Every time you talk to the Western Australian Fishing Industry Council, they want to tell you about sustainability. The abalone industry is highly managed and about to expand a high-value marine product. I remind Senator Johnston that in the Peel-Harvey you cannot take crabs from today until 31 October or you will be the subject of either a $3,000 fine or a year in jail—or, indeed, both. So I urge you to keep your nets out of the water.

The point I want to make is that in all of these cases it is the local community, it is the state and local government, it is the people who are most affected by the environment in which they recreate, live and flourish, who should be driving this agenda. I had the opportunity for some seven years, on an island off the coast of Fremantle, Rottnest Island, to be part of, to guide, to lead and to implement many of these environmental policies. They had nothing to do with the federal government. They were driven by the community that used the island and loved the island. I could speak for some time about both the marine and the terrestrial environmental initiatives that we undertook on that island as a result of those three criteria: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and, of course, community support. I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support this legislation which sets up administrative arrangements that were envisaged at the time of the 1999 act.

1:35 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, which, as Senator Waters and Senator Mills have articulated very clearly, we do not support. I will give some examples showing why it is so important that we do not hand off all of these powers. I would also like to address some of the points that Senator Back brought up, because I was involved in a number of the debates over the particular projects that Senator Back cites as examples of why powers should be handed off. I will address those first.

With Mangles Bay and its seagrass beds, the company and the people that have repeatedly impacted on seagrass beds in that area of Cockburn Sound had not been able to demonstrate that they could, in fact, restore those particular types of seagrass beds—that they could grow them and sustain them. They made claims at the time that they would be restoring two or three times more seagrass than they destroyed; however, they could not prove that it could be grown. They also consistently failed to take into account cumulative impacts. It is the same repeatedly across Australia—companies are saying, 'We can manage the impacts, there will only be a small impact,' but fail to take into account that we are not dealing with pristine environments anymore. We have, as a country, significantly damaged large areas of Australia. So you cannot consider a project in isolation.

I would like to give three examples of why this particular piece of legislation will be a disaster for situations in Western Australia. Each of the examples I use here have the common factor of the state government being the proponents. First I would like to go to the great white sharks and the culling of sharks in Western Australia. It is the state government that are the proponents. What you are saying is the state government should now be doing their own assessment of their own project. Guess what. I give you 99.9 per cent certainty that they are going to say, 'This is a fantastic idea.' They are failing to tell us information about the sharks.

The government on no scientific basis are ignoring 300 marine scientists and ecologists—who know a little bit about what they are talking about—saying this is a bad idea. They are failing to tell the community and the EPA that in fact there had been some surveys done of what the community thinks. This goes to the point that Senator Back made about how, if projects are not acceptable to the community, that is one of the indicators that it is not very good and would be unlikely to get up. The community in Western Australia overwhelmingly does not support the shark cull, which fortunately now is being subject to federal assessment.

The recent research paper, which was, we are told, commissioned by the state government, was not previously released to the WA community, and the findings showed that the majority of respondents surveyed do not support the killing of sharks off the coast in an effort to reduce the risk of shark incidents. It also provided insight into what Western Australians thought about the risks posed by sharks and how they should be dealt with. Fairfax Media obtained a copy of the research, which was compiled by Marketforce and based its findings on the responses of 768 Western Australians. Fewer than 20 per cent of respondents said they agreed with culling sharks that came near the coast of Western Australia. More than 50 per cent of respondents said that, although more needed to be done about sharks, culling was not the answer. The survey also showed that most respondents did not believe there was anything that could be done to increase the safety of water users from sharks. The top response to the question,' What else do you think should be done about sharks off the Western Australian coast?' was 'nothing'. Most respondents believed individuals were responsible for ensuring their own safety about sharks, with the state government the second-most-voted-for option when it came to responsibility for safety. The survey identified increased aerial surveillance as an initiative that made more people inclined to use beaches in the metro area, while in regional areas the corresponding initiative was warnings of the tagged sharks from WA's shark-monitoring network.

This is clearly an issue that the state government should not be let anywhere near approval of, because they are the proponents. This is crazy thinking. It is absolutely crazy that they could ignore the science. It was a knee-jerk reaction built to get a little bit of lift in the polls, but it did not, because most Western Australians do not support it. Why would you think it is appropriate to hand over that decision to the state government on its own project?

Then there is the James Price Point proposal. The state government was the proponent for compulsorily acquiring the land, was pushing the joint ventures to go there and then carried out its own assessment, which was rejected by the court, which said they would have to do it again. Why would you expect that they are going to carry out an unbiased assessment when they are the proponents? Again, it is crazy thinking. It is why you cannot hand off these approval processes.

Another example is the Carnaby's cockatoo. Anybody in Western Australia and particularly Perth knows about Carnaby's cockatoo. You get this most wonderful sense every time you hear them and see them flying near you. BirdLife Australia has been conducting the Great Cocky Count in Western Australia for a significant period of time. I am sure people Australia-wide know the wonderful work they do. They have just released another report in Western Australia on Carnaby's cockatoo. We know they have been declining, but over the last five years the cocky count in Western Australia has documented an annual decline of 15 per cent in Carnaby numbers. This is now sparking very strong fears that the species could be extinct on the Swan Coastal Plain within the next 20 years.

The species has lost considerable habitat; 1,000 hectares of Swan Coastal Plain native vegetation is being cleared every year, and this is critical habitat for the birds. What has been happening is we get this wonderful offsets theory. They allow clearing in the metro area and say it will be offset somewhere else because we will protect a bit of bush elsewhere. That, of course, is not in the metro area, where the cockies are.

The birds, not being able to access the native vegetation, have actually been making the pine plantations just north of Perth their home, and they have done that very effectively. However, the pine plantations are having a negative impact on the groundwater table on which Perth depends and a lot of our ecosystems depends—particularly the species using the Yanchep caves. It is a very complex ecological equation. The new habitat that they have moved into—the pine plantations—are now being cleared out of the Gnangara pine plantation. That is now impacting on the numbers of cockatoos. This is where it gets complicated. As I just said, the pine plantations are having an impact on the water table and on particular species in the Yanchep caves, but the point here is the vegetation is being cleared and not replaced. It is not being staged.

This is a species that is actually listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, so it is a trigger for Commonwealth involvement. We think there needs to be an assessment there. Again, here it is the state government that are the proponents of the clearing and very often the people who give permission to clear some of the Banksia woodland, which is particularly important. I note here too that there has been the ongoing issue in Western Australia of clearing the Underwood Avenue bushland, which the University of Western Australia owns. That is critical habitat for Carnaby’s cockatoos. BirdLife Australia's Head of Conservation, Samantha Vine, said:

The Gnangara Plantation is the single most important feeding habitat for the species [on the Swan Coastal Plain]—it sustains thousands of Carnaby’s for several months each year. However, its trees are being harvested and not replaced, taking away a major source of food and important roosting sites.

And she went on to say that there needs to be action taken.

This is another example of where the state government is the proponent. It also has the solution at hand. It could and should be making sure that there is habitat available and plan in advance replacing that pine plantation as it is cleared because it has known for a long time that that is critical habitat for Carnaby's cockatoo. I certainly do not want the situation where metropolitan Perth no longer hears the cries of and sees the magnificent Carnaby's cockatoos.

This is yet another example of where we need the federal government to have environmental powers. The Western Australian state government has demonstrated again and again that we need the federal government to have environmental powers. This is because in some instances it is incapable of making the decision. Sharks is a classic example. I am deeply worried about the future of the Carnaby's cockatoo since to date the state government has shown no ability to plan to make sure this habitat is replaced.

If the company had not pulled out—making the decision somewhat different—the state government would have approved the James Price Point proposal. That is why we need the federal government to have powers and use the powers available under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It is not good enough to rely just on the state, because they will not do the right thing. They put development ahead of protecting the environment. It was quite obvious in Western Australia that that is exactly what they were doing with James Price Point.

In Western Australia when James Price Point was being assessed they could not find five members of the Environmental Protection Authority to make the decision. Because four of them were conflicted it was left to one person. That is the mob that this federal government wants to hand over the approval powers to. That is not good decision making. That is not protecting the environment. That will not protect the sharks of Western Australia, Carnaby's cockatoos and all the other unique and special environments we have in Western Australia. We do not support handing over these approval powers.

I worked in the environment movement for a very long time before I came to this place. Consistently I would hear, 'The Environmental Protection Act in Western Australia is holding up all these developments.' When the EPA did an assessment of 'holding up all these developments', they found that most of the time it was when they had gone back to the industry and said that they needed clarification of a particular point or had done their bit of the process and were waiting for the proponent to get back to them. It was the proponents themselves who were the blockage.

Some people who want to weaken our Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and want to weaken the state acts as well use the argument of too much red tape and blockages as a way of undermining environmental protection. There is no doubt in my mind that if they had their druthers they would not want any environmental protection legislation at all. They use red and green tape as an excuse when what they really want to do is get rid of environmental laws. Well we are not going to support that. We need a stronger environmental protection act—not a weaker act. We should not hand this power over to the states, who are the proponents of many of the proposals that are getting assessed. We will not be supporting this legislation.

1:49 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to add my remarks on the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014 to those of my Western Australian colleague, Senator Rachel Siewert. The Australian Greens have a proud record—one that stretches now across two decades—of standing up for protection of the environment whether it be on big picture issues, like marine conservation, climate change, nuclear and protection of country from uranium mining, or much more backyard, localised issues with groups stepping up to protect a beloved area of urban bushland. In adding to the remarks of Senator Siewert I want to start with the big picture and then bring it home to parts of my home town that are very precious to me and to many others.

Why would you even have national environmental law? I want to acknowledge the extraordinary work that my colleague Senator Waters undertook as an environmental lawyer and campaigner with the EDO and the expertise she has brought into this place. There would not be too many people in this building who know more about the history and purpose of national environmental law than Senator Waters.

I want to look at the 30-year arc when we finally had an agreement unfolding out of the historic events on the Franklin River. I am going back many years now, but there were some issues for which the Commonwealth of Australia needed to take responsibility. The head of power that this law was brought into being on was around our international obligations to uphold treaties on issues like climate change, to protect World Heritage areas and to protect Ramsar sites for migratory birds. That I think was a profound step change in thinking in this country—that there are some issues that the national parliament, even though it might be 3,000 or 4,000 kilometres from whatever is being considered, should take a strong role on. That is why, for example, if you have a multinational corporation proposing to blast uranium out of Kakadu National Park and sell it to the Russian government—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

'Hear, hear,' says Senator Bernardi. Maybe that decision should not be left to the Northern Territory mines department. There are bigger issues at play. We are living through what has been termed the Holocene extinction, the sixth major extinction in the history of life on this planet. Going back through the geological record, which is indistinct obviously the further back you go, depending on how you read the numbers—

Senator Bernardi interjecting

Madam Acting Deputy President, could you please ask Senator Bernardi to just shut the hell up for a little bit while I speak. That would be greatly appreciated.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Order! Senator Bernardi's comments were not that interruptive given the standard of some of the debate in this place. Senator Ludlam please continue with your remarks.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: Senator Ludlam's comments were entirely unparliamentary. I would ask you to request that he withdraw them.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Ludlam, I ask you in the interest of the chamber to withdraw the comments that have caused offence to Senator Bernardi.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

You petal! I am deeply upset that I have caused offence to Senator Bernardi.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just simply withdraw, Senator Ludlam.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw those comments because time is short.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Please continue with your remarks.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

In this context of a mass extension event that is unfolding around the world, in the way that scientists identify such things, EO Wilson in 2002 calculated that:

If the current rate of human disruption of the biosphere continues, one-half of Earth's higher lifeforms will be extinct by 2100.

This is a very live area in earth system science and biology. Nonetheless, this is the context in which the Australian Greens frame this debate in this place. It is not an issue that we in Australia are alone in needing to grapple with and confront, but these are issues that are global in scope and have been unfolding for decades.

In my own home town of Western Australia, we live within what is called the 'Southwest Botanical Province' and it is one of only 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot, globally and internationally, an area needs to be acknowledged as a significant reservoir of biodiversity. It needs to have at least 1,500 endemic species—species of plant life and animal life that do not exist anywhere else—and needs to have lost at least 70 per cent of its primary vegetation. The Perth metropolitan area is one of those places. Impacts from bulldozing and clearing for the suburban expansion of one of the lowest density and most car dependent cities in the world, from agriculture and from water draw-down; climate change; changing coastal dynamics resulting from construction on the coastline; damage from eutrophication in the Swan River from various chemicals that have been poured in on top of the catchment—all of these things, land clearing in particular, have led to an extraordinary extinction cascade on the Swan Coastal Plain. Perth being the only city in the world based in a natural landscape and dominated by banksia woodlands, we call it a place that is too precious to lose. It is a place that is very precious to Western Australia and to those who live there.

As Senator Siewert quite rightly pointed out, why would you hand back these decision-making powers on individual clearing proposals when the state is the proponent and they are proposing it? You are asking these people to regulate themselves. They are out there demanding that this happen, that this land clearing occur and that these developments to go ahead. To then expect the EPA to come out with some backbone and say 'no' is extremely optimistic. That is why environmental campaigners in Perth know EPA as an acronym that stands for 'every project approved'. That is not strictly correct. When you go back and look at the record of the EPA, every now and again they do knock one back—and then it is promptly overridden by the state government. That has happened a couple of times, including on Barrow Island, where Gorgon proposes and is now undertaking the process of smothering hectares and hectares of that landscape with concrete for the Gorgon gas development.

I will give two quick examples, both very close to home, of where the state government is a proponent of a project that Mr Abbott thinks they will be perfectly qualified to assess themselves. One is Point Peron—a legallyquestionable and deeply unpopular land grabby Cedar Woods and LandCorp that proposes to flatten nearly 70 hectares of urban bushland. There will be dredging impacts and there will be seagrass impacts in Cockburn Sound. The decision is before the Commonwealth minister as we speak because federally listed species are potentially impacted, including nearly 30 migratory birds and a very rare form of freshwater lake with a community of thrombolites—very ancient communities in that freshwater lake. It is one of the oldest living species on the planet. These are legitimate issues of national environmental concern. That is why the act was drafted to allow the Commonwealth to take an interest in such matters. It is extraordinary to see the coalition lining up today to hand those powers back to the very same authorities who are proposing the project in the first place.

The second example is in another part of town that is very close to my heart—the Roe Highway Extension. Again it is a state government proposal. They have come up with it. The land is vested in Main Roads Western Australia until we can get it off the planning scheme. As at the last estimates hearings, they were proposing to blow nearly $900 million. It would be the most expensive segment of freeway that has ever been built in Western Australia—for no purpose, because the Fremantle Eastern Bypass no longer exists. So it is a freeway to nowhere and the state is the proponent.

I look forward to putting this legislation to a vote and to maybe serving another one back up to the Abbott government—it is a bad idea that should not be passed into law—to, in the hope that we prevail, acknowledge all of those in Western Australia who stand up for our precious environment, whether it be those communities at Point Peron in the Beeliar Wetlands who are stepping up to protect it, those in the south-west who are protecting the magnificent tall forests of that area, those who stood at Camp Walmadan at James Price Point, or those who are fighting to protect Western Australia from its first commercial uranium mine, the nuclear trigger. No matter what you might think of the handback of powers, there was a black-and-white commitment made before the election by the Abbott opposition that the nuclear trigger would stay in Commonwealth hands. That has now been washed out into the rest of this legislation as well.

This is fundamentally untrustworthy and misguided decision making. Whether it is communities in the midwest or the Kimberley standing up against fracking or neighbourhood groups who simply want to protect their area of urban bushland from the bulldozers, the Greens are in here to represent you today and to stand with those in the Labor Party and on the crossbench who do not want to see this reckless, so-called handback of powers to the state governments who have shown themselves, year after year, to be unable to protect the environment that we depend upon.