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Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Page: 7016

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (16:41): I cannot begin to say what an absolute pleasure it is to be here in Canberra today to hear the speech from the member for Flinders. It would have been earth shattering had I missed it because—

Mr Hunt interjecting

Mr BURKE: Don't interject from out of your seat—that is highly disorderly. I have particularly enjoyed the concept that one of the issues that apparently is pertinent to the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards Amendment (Scheme Enhancements) Bill 2012 is the Alpha coal project, in the mind of the member for Flinders. He has raised some issues in the course of the debate which I do think are worth me responding to directly. In the first instance, that is the first time I have heard the opposition say that they were opposed to the decisions I took on Alpha coal. They may well have made those comments to the media before, but I have not heard them in the parliament before.

Mr Hunt interjecting

Mr BURKE: If it is the case—while the member interjects from out of his seat—that they reject it, they should be very careful what they wish for, because what the member for Flinders is suggesting I should have done was make a decision on incomplete information which would then have been turfed out in court. The member for Flinders is suggesting that the responsible thing to do would have been the opposite of what the proponents wanted me to do. The proponents, the company themselves, actually asked me to complete the process. The Queensland government asked me and agreed that the process should be completed at a Commonwealth level.

The worst outcome for business and the worst outcome for the environment would be to make a decision when the assessment work had not been completed. The risk that is taken to the environment is obvious. It is not a game of pin the tail on the donkey, where you blindfold yourself from the information and just say, 'Look, let's whack the conditions there.' You are dealing with serious issues for the environment and you need to know the factual basis on which those decisions are being made.

Had the Queensland Coordinator-General completed the process, then a decision would have been made by me within the 30-day period. Even Queensland acknowledged that they were not completing the process. What has happened since then—I put this out publicly in a media release which came out early this week or it may have been Friday last week—is there are four specific issues we need further information on. Some of that was information already held by Alpha that simply had not been included within the Coordinator-General's report. Alpha are now getting that information. It will probably be beyond the original 30-day business time line, but we have stopped the clock to make sure that we are within the rules on that. I am not expecting that it is going to be a date that would have any problems for the time line of investment decisions for the company. Obviously, I cannot prejudge what the answer will be, but the issues which need to be raised and are being finalised are simply issues where an assessment is required under national environmental law. To date, to do less than that was not the position of the coalition. My understanding of the position of the coalition has always been that they did not want a lowering of the quality of assessments or of environmental standards but they did want a streamlining of the process. The process would have been streamlined had the Queensland Coordinator-General finished the job. Now, in a good agreement which was signed last Friday by me, the Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection and the Deputy Premier of Queensland, we have some amendments to the bilateral agreement to make sure as best we can that this sort of problem never arises again.

I have no interest in delays or duplication, but I also have absolutely no interest in lowering environmental standards or making decisions that later on get thrown out in court. If it is the position of the opposition that I should have made the Alpha coal decision on information that was deficient and did not meet the standards of national environmental law, that is a significant shift from their public position and I would simply urge them to correct it at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr Hunt: No, we expect you to do your job.

Mr BURKE: I will acknowledge the interjection because it is a classic. The interjection is: 'We expect you to do your job.' The problem is that they were just telling me a minute ago they did not want me to do my job and they wanted me to simply accept that when Queensland stops short I should jump ahead, make a decision and not fulfil my responsibilities under national environmental law. I am not prepared to do that.

The company is working constructively with us. The relationship with the Queensland government will, I think, be on a better footing because of the amendments we made to the bilateral agreement last week. There may well be times in the future when Queensland decides, perhaps for good reason, that the expertise to provide an assessment is actually better done at a Commonwealth level. That happened, for example, on some of the coal seam gas decisions because we had the availability and expertise of Geoscience Australia. From time to time, even under a bilateral agreement, a state government says, 'Look, we actually think this is something that you would be better placed to do.' So there will be occasions when there is still duplication, but it will occur in a cooperative way and with plenty of notice, rather than us only finding out at the end of the process that the job is in fact not yet finished.

Having dealt with the issues that are in front of us in this debate—but which are a bit of a stretch when it comes to the bill—I say that the bill itself deals with issues that have had bipartisan support for significant periods of time. I am pleased that there has been a constructive debate and pleased and proud to be here to thank everybody for their contributions. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation for the bill announced.