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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2818


Mr HUNT (Flinders) (16:44): In addressing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013, let me begin with an acknowledgement of community concern. The coalition recognises community concerns regarding the impact of coal-seam gas and coalmining on water resources. We understand and believe that water is not just a precious resource; it is the indispensable resource, the lifeblood of Australian community, economic and social life. In fact, it was the coalition which introduced the National Water Reform packages in 2007, building on the work we had done over previous years—precisely because we recognise the fundamental role of water as a paramount national resource.

Against that background, as community concerns regarding coal-seam gas emerged—many of them untested, many of them unproven, but legitimate and requiring both acknowledgement and a legitimate approach to test and to find the facts—we supported the implementation of the expert scientific panel. That panel was intended to further research the impact of coal-seam gas development on water, precisely because there is a need to consider genuine community questions and concerns.

Against that background, we have been custodians of safe and sensible practice and management of water in rural Australia, recognising both the long-term needs of the environment but also the practical needs of irrigation communities—and we have stood by those communities in the face of some hostile attacks from the government of the day. In many respects, they finally came to our balancing position on water through the last version of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

Having said that, the step forward is that we support the expert scientific panel, we support the role of having a map of the potential impacts and an understanding of the potential impacts, of coal-seam gas on water resources. We also support the fact that we need lower-emission energy sources, we need new sources of development and the gas developments in Queensland have provided a massive boost in terms of jobs, resources for families and the potential for income for the people of Australia, which can be distributed in terms of hospitals, schools, pharmaceutical benefits and the basic goods which are necessary to help those who are least well-off. So this issue is about balance and it is about common sense.

Against that background, only a few months ago we had many government ministers and others talk about the fact that they were against a water trigger for the federal environment act. We had the minister for the environment, when there were similar elements moved to a bill by Senator Heffernan in the Senate, opine that such actions, which were not identical but were comparable to this bill, could potentially have been unconstitutional. So they have ignored previous warnings from the coalition and are now taking steps in defiance of their own previous position.

What is proposed here is that the government is seeking to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, or the EPBC, and to add a ninth matter of national environmental significance. Currently there are eight. The federal minister has responsibility in relation to assessments of national significance regarding World Heritage sites, National Heritage sites, wetlands of international importance—more widely known as Ramsar sites—nationally threatened species, migratory species, Commonwealth marine areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and nuclear actions. It is a list that has seen a growth in Commonwealth activity, and our general position has been absolutely clear—that we can maintain standards, we can protect the environment, but we must not engage in a situation where we are now running the clock for multiple years and preventing actions which would otherwise be desirable from occurring or occurring within a timely fashion.

That is why we have proposed a one-stop shop for common assessments through the Commonwealth and the states together. It is a process we think is important and significant. It is a step that has the potential to reduce bureaucracy but maintain standards. The one-stop shop is what we believe is the right way forward for protecting our environment—there are, of course, areas of reservation for the Commonwealth—but, most significantly, we can do things more simply, we can do things more expeditiously and we can do things in a way which arguably will produce a better environmental outcome. Against that background, this change is one to which the government seems to have come to overnight, in defiance of its previous position.

The facts of the bill are these: the amendments will create a new subdivision of the EPBC Act which, if they are passed, will 'put in place environmental impact assessment processes for actions involving coal-seam gas or large coalmining developments that are likely to have a significant impact on water resources.' So it is effectively creating a water trigger for the federal act—and, where there is a failure to refer or to accept federal decisions, there are potentially $1 million-plus fines. So what we see here is a process which has a good intent but which, in many respects, is deeply duplicative of current state processes. In addition, the legislation adds a layer of bureaucratic tape. It increases approval times, and many have warned that it makes Australia a less desirable place in which to invest. So we have to respond to community concerns.

What I have said to the gas explorers and gas producers with whom I have met is that a significant degree of community concern would be addressed if there were a voluntary arrangement where the large companies said that they would not proceed onto individual land without consent and adopted a standard of voluntary consent. A significant degree of the issue, in my judgement, from talking with landholders and communities, is about the belief that they will lose control over their own land. That control over their own land is very important.

The extra element is about a genuine and legitimate concern to ensure that our water quality is maintained. Against that background, looking at this particular mechanism, I will make these points and, in particular, quote the concerns of many of the stakeholders. The energy industry has expressed deep concern that this process has now been politicised, and they have many great reservations. The Minerals Council of Australia said in its release that the legislation:

shows that the Federal Government is more focused on increasing the bureaucratic constraints on the coal sector rather than creating the right regulatory environment to expand the industry; creating more jobs and national income.

In particular, the Minerals Council warns—and I think that they have suffered enough through the carbon tax and the mining tax that they understand what this federal government can do in a damaging way:

The proposed changes will do nothing to enhance Australia's reputation as an investment destination. Project approval times in Australia are already well in excess of the international average and the plan put forward today will simply add to those delays for no environmental gain.

The New South Wales Minerals Council has said the following:

It is extremely disappointing that in an election year the Federal Government and Tony Windsor are seeking to create the impression that the State based assessment process isn't good enough. This is completely wrong. Water is already a fundamental aspect of the assessment process for mining projects in New South Wales.

The National Farmers' Federation has said that it has deep concerns about the potential for this bill to be extended to agriculture in the future. In particular they say:

Water is a critical factor for our farmers, and our strong concern is that this bill could actually have perverse negative outcomes for our agricultural sector. What may, on first glance, look like a win for farmers in the short-term could actually have long-term unintended consequences for our current, and future, farmers.

The Business Council of Australia has warned that the legislation will duplicate state and territory processes whilst adding costs and increasing uncertainty in the sector. The BCA chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, has noted that:

It flies in the face of what makes sense for jobs and the economy, while offering no tangible benefit to the environment.

The Australian Industry Group, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, the Clean Energy Council and the Energy Supply Association of Australia issued a joint statement which concludes that: non-evidence-based policy is which are restricting the development of new energy sources may have significant negative consequences for the broader Australian community. It says:

Knee jerk policies continue to undermine the development of energy projects within this country. This comes at a real cost - and this cost is borne by the Australian community, in jobs, in economic growth and ultimately higher energy bills.

The Australian Coal Association has also said that the burden on Australian industry will be great. In particular, they refer to regressive policy-making and have said expressly:

At a time when we should be sharpening Australia’s competitive edge by improving the efficiency of our regulatory system, the Government has offered a knee-jerk reaction to campaigning by environment groups which adds another layer of green tape without delivering any environmental benefit.

Then, at the level of the states, we have seen very clear, express statements. The Queensland government has said categorically in relation to their own program:

The DNRM is fully committed to sustainable use of Queensland's natural resources. The Queensland Government demands an already high level of compliance obligations which they always evaluate and improve upon. The Federal Labor Government through these missions is making it difficult for the Queensland Government to boost the state's economy and keep strong. The Federal Government are overriding the state's sovereign rights for their own political agenda.

Other states, such as Victoria and New South Wales, have been equally critical.

So, what we see is that, on one hand, the federal government has made noises about cutting green tape. In April 2012, Prime Minister Gillard said:

what we want to work towards here is a streamlined system, so that projects don’t go through two layers of assessment for no real gain. And so the classic examples that are brought by business is where people have gone through sequential assessments, so it’s double the time, things that have been required for the first assessment are required in a slightly modified form for the second assessment, so they don’t even get the benefits of just uplifting the work and re-presenting it, it’s got to be redone.

On 2 November 2012, the minister for the environment at federal level, Mr Burke, said:

This is about lifting the States up to the level of environmental protection provided by the Commonwealth, not letting Commonwealth standards drop. We can keep stringent environmental standards while simplifying an overly complex process - and we are.

But actually they are not simplifying the process. They have made it a more complex process. We supported the federal government and the states when an expert panel on coal-seam gas was introduced in 2012. We did this out of a legitimate concern for community voices and a deep and legitimate concern for protecting water resources and having adequate information. There are questions which have not been answered yet, and they need to be addressed. However, it is absolutely clear that we have seen many projects delayed by the way this government has dealt with assessments, for no good reason.

I want to give an additional example, which was provided to us on the record by BHP. BHP has made it absolutely clear that they express support for robust environmental regulations. They express support for the environment but they believe that we have to minimise the duplication, the cost and the complexity of regulation. In particular, in relation to the direct concern for current projects in place now, which will be subject to this act—projects that have already had approvals will be subject to these new changes for new gateways—BHP has said:

These will be subject to increased regulatory assessment additional to assessment activities already in place. This includes referral of all water related impacts of new projects to the independent expert scientific committee for advice. This duplicates existing state assessment processes and further complicates and extends the assessment of major projects.

So, one of Australia's greatest companies—arguably our greatest—has deep concerns about the impact of the amendments. We have seen the Minerals Council, the various states, the Australian Industry Group and the Clean Energy Council all express their concerns. Against that background we recognise the reality that this legislation will pass. The government has stitched up the numbers.

We also recognise that there are community concerns. The government will bring this legislation in. We will not stand in their way as they do that. But they will wear all of the consequences. Our approach in government is to offer a genuinely simpler way forward—a one-stop-shop approach so that water issues and other issues can be considered together in a single assessment process, to recognise that we can have not just the same standards but better standards if we have more rapid, simpler assessments, because at the moment a 12,000 page document is unlikely to be effectively read by anyone in government. A simpler approach allows a real way forward.

So where does this conclude? It concludes with the recognition that the government has defied what it said about water. The government has defied what it said about duplication. The government has built in an extra layer. They have guaranteed numbers and this bill will pass, so we will not stand in their way. Our approach will be a simpler one. Their approach is a more complex one. We need to recognise the concerns of the community, but this government has made it harder to ensure that safe projects proceed and it has made it harder for them to proceed in a way that allows work to be done, jobs to be created and advantages to be given to the broader community. In the end it is on the government's own head. They have made a rod for their back. There is nothing we can do to stop them, but they will bear the consequences of their actions.