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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 1991


Ms HALL (ShortlandOpposition Whip) (18:23): I rise to speak on the Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. I say very strongly that this is bad legislation, tabled by a government that is not prepared to take proper steps to protect Australia's environment. The federal government plays an important role in overseeing protection of our environment. This legislation allows the federal government to abrogate its responsibility for the environment to the Australian people, and give the states a much freer hand without properly scrutinising them.

As a whole, this bill will be giving with one hand and taking with the other. In effect, it removes the legislative requirement for ministers to consider threatened and endangered species when approving projects, while increasing penalties for the illegal hunting of turtles and dugongs. On the one hand, they are saying 'We're not going to look at what you're doing' and, on the other hand, they are saying 'We're going to increase the penalties.' It is very difficult to increase penalties in these circumstances, particularly when you look at the history relating to the enforcement of these penalties for the illegal hunting of turtles and dugongs.

Over a number of years, I have been actively involved in looking at issues surrounding the environment. I was a councillor in local government and for a little while was a state member of parliament. I know the problems that are associated with development approvals. Sometimes a project is only properly considered when the federal government looks at the impact a particular action will have on a threatened species. In this case, the minister is moving away from that. Under these changes, a minister can approve a development that causes direct harm to turtles and dugongs, without even considering the impact, while at the same time increasing penalties for others who have harmed these animals. They can, on the one hand, increase the penalties but, on the other hand, take away a minister's responsibility. That is not good enough. As a parliament, we owe it to the Australian people to take these issues a lot more seriously than this legislation does.

It is not just about the federal minister. When plans delegated to approve powers to Queensland and New South Wales come to fruition, Barry O'Farrell in New South Wales and Premier Newman in Queensland will have the power to be relieved of the duty to consider conservation advice before approving projects. Under the legislation, the O'Farrell government—I know a little about its activities and have seen some of the projects that have been approved—will have greater power. This causes me a lot of concern.

There have been a number of projects within my electorate that I have serious concerns about. If the proposed legislation this parliament will be considering comes into effect, in some cases, state governments will be considering or granting approval for their own projects. That should cause concern for every member of this House, because there are times when self-interest can outweigh the benefit to the community as a whole. We on this side of the House are opposed to the weakening of these powers, because we do not believe that you can trust state governments. I certainly would not trust Barry O'Farrell, who has allowed shooters in national parks, or Campbell Newman, who I would not trust to look after the Great Barrier Reef.

They are really important assets of our country, and we are prepared to water down the effect of the sanctions, the protections, that are in place. The current penalties for the hunting of dugong, if they reflect anything, are not being used—and here we are increasing them.

We on this side of the House strongly support greater protection for turtles and dugongs, but we do not support the weakening of power. This bill will drastically weaken the EPBC Act in its protection of threatened and endangered species. That comes back to what I was saying when I started my contribution to this debate. There are developments in my electorate that have only been reconsidered or changed because the federal government forced the developers and the approval authorities to look at the threatened and endangered species. This bill removes any capacity to legally challenge an approval on the basis that the advice was not properly considered. It does this retrospectively. Not only are we taking away that power, not only are we saying that it does not matter if everything is not properly considered and that it does not matter if the minister has not taken into account all the issues, but we are doing this retrospectively. I am never comfortable with retrospective legislation and I am particularly uncomfortable with this legislation.

Often in this place we forget how important the environment is. If we do not look after the environment practically every aspect of our lives will be impacted upon. We need to look after the environment; the farmers need to look after the environment because it is about preserving their livelihood; and the tourism industry needs to look after the environment because it is about preserving their livelihood. We are talking about the dugongs and the turtles which are both tourist attractions. If we do not have the proper mechanisms in place and if we do not have the proper legislation in place to ensure the protection of these vital species, our environment and the endangered species, then we are putting a lot at risk.

I cannot support any bill that is going to weaken environmental laws. I think that further down the track those on the other side of the House will look back and say, 'I had the opportunity when I was in federal parliament to ensure that our environment was properly protected. I had the opportunity to see that our endangered species were protected and that the act that covers them was properly enforced. Instead of that, I took the easy way out. I took the way out that allowed me to say: 'Let's abrogate our responsibility. Let's hand it over to the states. By the way, when we hand it over to the states, if they do not take everything into consideration as well, then I suppose that is okay. We'll let them get away with it.' It is all about weakening environmental protection. That is something that we cannot support on this side of the House.

Depending on the type and the location of a project—for example, a new housing estate, or a new mine, or a port expansion—when we look at advice in relation to threatened species, then it could have a really big impact. When the government is preparing to hand over environmental assessments and approvals to state governments like Queensland and New South Wales, it is an even greater worry. The changes in this bill not only mean that the federal minister does not consider expert advice; they also allow state ministers to not consider expert advice. I know there have been some problems in the past, but this is using a sledgehammer to secure a tack.

There has been a lot of commentary on this and it has not been favourable. When the government first touted that it was going to introduce this bill, it was opposed by a number of environmental groups, by people in the community and by people who are experts in the area. It was also highlighted that the proposed changes to the law would be retrospective so that any approval by the minister up until now would be insulated against any type of legal action. The amendments will apply retrospectively to ensure that past decisions are not at risk of being invalid. Cases have been heard time and time again which make the minister and the government of the day a little more accountable. What is the point of even having an environment minister if he is not prepared to listen to advice about the environment? It is very important that advice is sought, that advice is received and that the minister consider that advice. Failure to do so shows that the minister is not serious about his portfolio. It also shows that, rather than look at ways to properly consider issues, the minister is more worried about actions in the Supreme Court or actions that come out of the fact that he has not looked at the issue properly. I think alarm bells are ringing throughout the country, following the introduction of this legislation. I implore the government to think about this a second time.

The bill before us is not good legislation. It is not going to deliver accountable, transparent government to the Australian people. Rather, it is going to deliver a system that will allow the cover-up of bad decisions, it will allow ministers to be very lazy in their approach to the assessment process, it will not ensure the future of endangered species and it will not ensure that the Commonwealth really fulfils its role. There is a lot of talk about green tape and cutting green tape. If cutting green tape means that we do not have proper environmental protection in place, then I think it is bad legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, I urge you and other members of this House to take a second look at this legislation and to look at ways that proper environmental protection can be put in place. Environmental protection is essential if we are to enjoy a sustainable future. This legislation opens the door for poor decision making and allows both the federal and the state ministers to abrogate their responsibilities completely. It will remove transparency from the process and it will remove accountability. It is legislation that is allowing governments to be lackadaisical. It is poor legislation and it should be rejected by this House.