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Tuesday, 29 June 1999
Page: 7770


Mrs STONE (8:00 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1999 is perhaps the most significant legislation dealing with environmental issues that has ever been presented to the Commonwealth parliament.

The bill represents the only comprehensive attempt in the history of our federation to define the environmental responsibilities of the Commonwealth. It proposes the most fundamental reform of Commonwealth environmental law since the first environment statutes were enacted by this parliament in the early 1970s.

Reform is necessary because the existing suite of Commonwealth law does not ensure high environmental standards in the areas of Commonwealth responsibility. Just as importantly, the existing legislation does not provide the community with certainty as to the Commonwealth's role, nor does it provide an efficient and timely assessment and approval process.

Over the last three years, the federal coalition government has worked cooperatively with the state governments to identify the reforms needed to produce a more effective and efficient national approach to environmental management. The result was an agreement, given in-principle endorsement by the Council of Australian Governments in 1997, which defines the Commonwealth's role by reference to certain matters of national environmental significance. The COAG agreement also seeks to ensure the seamless integration of Commonwealth and state laws through a transparent mechanism for Commonwealth accreditation of state processes.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1999 implements the COAG agreement. In doing so, it provides the framework for a more effective national approach to environmental management, ensuring resources are focused on delivering better environmental outcomes at all levels of government. The Commonwealth's role in this national approach will, for the first time, be clearly and logically defined.

The bill will replace five existing Commonwealth acts—the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992, the Na tional Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, the Whale Protection Act 1980 and the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983.

The bill will establish a new legislative framework to overcome the deficiencies of the existing regime and to allow Australia to meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century with renewed confidence. The bill will promote, not impede, ecologically sustainable development and will conserve biodiversity. The bill will ensure the Commonwealth is equipped to deal with current and emerging environmental issues in accordance with contemporary approaches to environmental management.

National environmental significance

A major deficiency in the existing regime is that Commonwealth involvement in environmental matters is determined by ad hoc and indirect triggers, such as foreign investment approval and Commonwealth funding decisions.

Reliance on such triggers has undoubtedly limited the effectiveness of the Commonwealth's contribution to environmental protection. It has also created significant and unnecessary delay, uncertainty and duplication for industry.

More fundamentally, the use of indirect triggers means the Commonwealth becomes involved in the assessment of projects which raise environmental issues of only local or state significance. This should not occur. Conversely, under the existing law, the Commonwealth is sometimes locked out of contributing to an issue of genuine national significance because of the absence of an indirect trigger.

In accordance with the COAG agreement, the bill therefore abandons the reliance on ad hoc and indirect triggers in favour of appropriate environmental criteria.

The bill introduces a new and more efficient assessment and approval process that applies to actions which are likely to have a significant impact on the Commonwealth marine area; world heritage properties; Ramsar wetlands of international importance; nationally threatened species and ecological communities; and internationally protected migratory species.

The bill also applies to environmentally significant nuclear actions, actions on Commonwealth land and actions by the Commonwealth and Commonwealth agencies.

An activity which does not have a significant impact on one of the matters of national significance will no longer trigger Commonwealth involvement in the assessment and approval process, even if it requires a Commonwealth decision or approval such as foreign investment approval.

In accordance with the COAG agreement, the bill provides a framework for recognising any additional matters of national environmental significance after consultation with the states and the proper consideration of state views.

Accreditation

Another deficiency in the existing regime is that it does not enable early, transparent and effective accreditation of state processes and systems.

For projects of national environmental significance that trigger Commonwealth involvement, the bill substantially increases the capacity for the Commonwealth to `accredit' state processes.

The Commonwealth will seek to rely on state processes which meet appropriate criteria by entering into bilateral agreements with states which detail accreditation arrangements. In summary, the Commonwealth will be able to `delegate' to the states the responsibility for conducting assessments under the bill where state processes meet best practice criteria.

The capacity for accreditation of state processes in the bill is significantly greater than under existing legislation. For the first time, legislation will allow the Commonwealth to provide up-front accreditation of state processes, broader accreditation of state processes and systems—avoiding the need to provide accreditation on a case by case basis for all projects—and accreditation of state decisions, but only in accordance with agreed management plans which meet best practice criteria. The bill provides a framework for identifying appropriate criteria for use in the accreditation process.

An efficient environmental assessment and approval process

The bill implements a modern environmental assessment and approval process that will transform the Commonwealth process from its archaic 1970s structure.

Reliance on direct environmental triggers will substantially increase the certainty and efficiency of the assessment and approval process. Accordingly, the new process delivers significant benefits for proponents without compromising on environmental standards. The proponent may trigger the process, avoiding the current delays associated with designation under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974. By relying on specific environmental criteria as the trigger—and not the existing indirect triggers—the proponent and the community know up-front whether the Commonwealth is involved. There is not the existing capacity for late intervention, and tight statutory time frames are now included at all stages in the process to ensure timely decision making.

The decision whether to grant approval is made after considering social and economic factors as well as the matters of national environmental significance.

Other features of the new process include express recognition of the precautionary principle and other principles of ecologically sustainable development, the adoption of a strategic assessment process to promote cumulative and regional assessments and the establishment of a framework for state accreditation of Commonwealth assessments—for example, for projects affecting more than one jurisdiction.

Biodiversity conservation

The loss of biodiversity represents the greatest environmental challenge currently facing Australia. The Howard government has demonstrated its commitment to addressing this challenge by establishing the largest environmental program in Australia's history—the Natural Heritage Trust. The bill now provides a substantially improved legal framework for the conservation and sustain able use of Australia's biodiversity to complement the Natural Heritage Trust. Some of the features of the bill which will improve Australia's capacity to protect its biodiversity include:

. providing for voluntary conservation agreements with landholders for the conservation of biodiversity;

. enhancing protection for threatened species through improvements to the listing process, providing for the recognition of vulnerable ecological communities and conservation dependent species and the application of specialised criteria to assess the conservation status of marine biota;

. providing that regulations may be made for the control of access to biological resources in Commonwealth areas;

. providing for the improved management of Commonwealth reserves, including through application of the Australian IUCN reserve management principles;

. improving protection for world heritage properties;

. for the first time, providing legislative protection for Ramsar wetlands of international importance and migratory species;

. recognising and promoting improved management for biosphere reserves; and

. promoting bioregional planning.

The bill also provides for the formal establishment of the Australian Whale Sanctuary. The establishment of this sanctuary complements Australia's efforts at the international level to secure, through the establishment of a truly global sanctuary, a permanent international ban on commercial whaling.

The reforms presented in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1999 are the product of a long period of negotiation with the states and consultation with key stakeholders, including industry, conservation groups and indigenous peoples. This consultation process included an extensive inquiry on the bill by the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee.

The bill has been improved, to the advantage of all key stakeholders, as a result of government amendments adopted in the Senate. These amendments will:

. Increase transparency and public involvement. For example, there is: increased public notification; more opportunity for public comment in the environmental assessment and approval process; and requirements for public consultation on making bilateral agreements and bioregional plans. Proponents will be consulted on conditions to be attached to environmental approvals.

. Provide increased recognition of the important role of indigenous peoples in conserving biodiversity and managing jointly managed Commonwealth reserves. The statutory office of the Director of National Parks has been retained at the request of traditional owners.

. Ensure that the range of matters of national environmental significance which trigger Commonwealth assessment and approval is reviewed every five years.

. Impose additional strict safeguards relating to the delegation of Commonwealth environmental approvals to the states.

. Put in place additional specific time limits on relevant steps in the environmental assessment process.

. Require all Commonwealth bodies to report annually on how their activities accord with the principles of ecologically sustainable development.

Ultimately, of course, we need more than just the best possible environmental law regime to protect Australia's environment and promote ecologically sustainable development. Accordingly, not all of the matters of national environmental significance recognised in the COAG agreement are being addressed in this bill. The Howard government is dealing with issues such as land degradation and the retention of remnant bushland through the Natural Heritage Trust. In 1997 the Prime Minister announced a $180 million policy to reduce the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, and recently committed a further sum of $100 million per year to support greenhouse abatement programs.

The COAG agreement also identifies heritage places of national significance as a matter of national environmental significance. However, in this instance the `Consultation Paper on the Reform of Commonwealth Environmental Legislation' indicated that development of a national heritage places strategy by the Commonwealth and the states should be concluded before legislation to give effect to a new national framework for heritage protection is progressed. The outcomes of the national strategy will, as necessary, be translated into future legislative reforms. At the Commonwealth level, these reforms can be accommodated within the framework of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1999 .

In conclusion, the bill enables the Commonwealth to join with the states in providing a truly national scheme of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation, recognising our responsibility to not only this but also future generations. It does so by respecting and building upon the strengths of our Federation and the primary responsibility of the states for delivering on-ground natural resource management. It does so also in a way that is `user friendly' with predictable, transparent and timely assessment processes. By accepting Commonwealth leadership, respecting the role of the states and providing best process for users, the bill provides a framework within which to build public confidence and support for its vitally important objectives. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Kelvin Thomson) adjourned.