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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 254


Senator IAN MACDONALD (5.24 p.m.) —The National Environment Protection Council Bill establishes the National Environment Protection Council pursuant to the intergovernmental agreement on the environment signed in 1992 by the Commonwealth government, all state and territory governments and the President of the Local Government Association and establishes the council's functions and powers. The purposes and individual clauses of the bill are adequately explained in the second reading speech of the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Senator Faulkner) and the explanatory memorandum, which has been tabled. I will not delay the Senate by repeating those individual clauses. I indicate to the Senate that the coalition will not be opposing the bill, although we have one amendment which I will move at the committee stage.

  The federal coalition has always been a strong supporter of decentralisation and localised control. Therefore, we have some concerns that the National Environment Protection Council might lead to more centralised control in Canberra of the environment and particular issues in various states. We were at one stage concerned that it might force the state governments to forfeit their powers to disallow regulations and that it may reduce the international competitiveness and the efficiency of its administration by adding yet another layer of bureaucracy. We wanted to ensure that nothing in this bill added to the duplication and, in some cases, even the triplication of the services provided in relation to the environment.

  When dealing with environmental issues on the scale of those listed in clause 14 of this bill—such as air quality, and marine, estuarine and fresh water quality—the coalition believes that there must be a concerted national approach. Those environmental issues are matters that affect Australia as a whole. They do not stop at the state boundaries. In many cases the states would not have the financial capacity to deal with those issues. For example, the problems with the salination of the Murray-Darling River are something that no individual state would have the financial capacity to deal with.

  It is important that this bill provide that the states have the majority of say in any decisions made by the council. The council is to consist of a minister from each state and territory, and the federal minister. Under clause 28 of the bill, each decision of the council must be supported by at least two-thirds of the members. In that way the states will control the decisions because they will obviously have the greater number of members and there will need to be a two-thirds majority when decisions are made.

  The cost of establishing the National Environment Protection Council will be shared—50 per cent will be provided by the Commonwealth and 50 per cent by the states between them. The Commonwealth's cost of establishing the council, including the secretariat, will be an estimated $896,000 for the financial year 1994-95.

  The introduction of a national environment strategy was a state initiative which arose from the Special Premiers Conference in Brisbane in 1990. The federal Labor government has been dragging its feet on this issue, I regret to say, for the four years since that decision was made. It has managed to toss the sensitive environment portfolio around like a hot potato to three ministers this year alone, which is a typical example of the little genuine regard the Labor Party has for the environment. It is very interested in the votes that it can gather in second preferences from the green and environment movement, but it really has very little genuine interest or concern in environmental matters.

  Amongst the ministerial reshuffling this year, the intergovernmental agreement on the environment was signed by the Commonwealth, the states, the territories and local governments. Through what some may say was the incompetence of the previous environmental minister, who, senators would recall, had a real expertise only in the area of whiteboard accounting, it has taken over two years to take the next step—that is, the adoption of this bill—to provide the legislative basis for the establishment of the National Environment Protection Council in accordance with the intergovernmental agreement on the environment.

  This bill, as it stands, does not spell out that, as with many issues, environmental issues have a regional variation right around Australia. We on the coalition side believe that uniform national standards are impractical and that local solutions are required in relation to the environment because of the regional diversity of environment matters. For this reason, the coalition has proposed an amendment to clause 3 on page 2. We will be asking the Senate to adopt a clause that adds to clause 3 another subparagraph which states:

. . . when making national environment protection measures the Council seeks as far as practicable to achieve effective harmonisation rather than rigid uniformity in such national measures.

We have worded the amendment along the lines of some words that the then minister used when she was talking about this proposal. We certainly hope that, having used the words the then minister used when speaking about it, the government will adopt that amendment as one it is in favour of. Mrs Kelly, who was then the environment minister, promised this. If that amendment is adopted, it will stop any hint of centralisation of rules in Canberra. The council must have the right to make individual decisions on environmental issues affecting local communities.

  Another aspect the government should consider, and which would provide a more equitable status between the states and the federal government, is appointing the chairman of the council on a rotational basis. We did, at one stage, consider moving an amendment to include in the bill that the chairmanship of the council should be with the Commonwealth one year, then with a different state in consecutive years.

  We have not gone ahead and moved that motion because we understand that there was a bit of bargaining and negotiating at the Premiers Conference where the rules were put together. We do not really want to upset a negotiation that has been achieved between the state governments and the federal government. We think the federal government would be well advised to consider rotating the chairmanship of that committee. The bill has been referred to by some state governments as `a happy cooperative model' but we suggest that it would be even happier and more cooperative if the rotational chairmanship proposal were adopted.

  The mere fact that it has taken four years from the time this concept was initiated for it to get to this stage is another example of the current government's appalling record on the environment. It is forever stalling, commissioning report after report; rarely having the courage to make any sensible decisions in relation to the environment.

  The current minister, who unfortunately is still overseas on the Commonwealth Games jaunt—I say `unfortunately' because it would have been good if he had been here for the debate on this bill—has been stalling on the latest environmental issue that has arisen up my way, the Port Hinchinbrook or Oyster Point development. The state Labor government had given that development the green light and had subjected it to a number of environmental conditions. But the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Senator Faulkner) came onto the scene rather late in the piece and said that no further Queensland government decisions on the proposal would be taken up at that time.

  He commissioned yet another report into the issue, when the Queensland state Labor government had already subjected it to a number of reports. The draft version of that report was due out on 30 June 1994, with a final report due by 31 July, more than 20 days ago. It has been stalled until this week and it now seems we may have to wait even longer for Senator Faulkner to bring down the further report into Port Hinchinbrook. While that is not particularly relevant to this bill, it is another example of how the Labor Party is very slow when it comes to getting to the real problems confronting the nation in environmental matters.

  If the environment minister, as is proposed, is going to chair this committee in the same way he administers his commissioned reports, that is a strong argument in itself for having the chairman of the committee rotate. With the one amendment that I have previously outlined, we will support the bill to put in place a body which will have the flexibility to consider the most effective means of achieving the required national environmental outcomes, recognising particularly regional environmental differences in Australia.