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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 9863

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (15:38): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill 2012 prevents the Commonwealth from handing its responsibilities for approving proposed actions that significantly impact matters protected under our national environmental laws to a State or Territory. It also prevents this Government, or any future Government, from handing its responsibilities for regulating nuclear activities to state or territory governments.

Our national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, was passed in 1999 by the Howard government. Written into these laws was the ability for the federal government to accredit states to make environmental approvals on their behalf, effectively removing the federal government from the process. At the time Julia Gillard MP railed against those provisions, saying;

…In this legislation they have enabled the states and the Commonwealth to now go through a process where, through a bilateral agreement, in future the Commonwealth could say to Victoria — and states with track records of environmental vandalism like Victoria — 'Here, you have the responsibility for the Ramsar wetlands. Here, you have the responsibility for the environmental impacts of a toxic dump,' and just let it happen.

Yet after meeting with business and industry earlier this year, the Gillard government has now decided to rush through the handover of powers to the states, through COAG. If the handover goes ahead, it will mean the federal environment minister will no longer have a role in approving projects that significantly impact our nationally listed threatened species, our world heritage areas, internationally listed wetlands and other nationally important wilderness places and species.

These changes reverse decades of positive environmental reforms in Australia - reforms that have seen the Commonwealth step in to protect the Great Barrier Reef from oil rigs, the snowy mountains from grazing, and the Franklin River from being dammed. Ultimately this reform process resulted in the clear, targeted responsibilities of the federal government as set out in the EPBC Act. This reflects the community's expectation that responsibility for our most vulnerable species, our world heritage areas, our internationally listed wetlands must all remain with our national environment minister.

On almost all indicators Australia's natural environment is in decline. There are ten mines planned for Tasmania's incredible Tarkine forests. James Price Point in WA, home to dinosaur footprints, is to become a massive liquefied gas hub. Our iconic Great Barrier Reef is facing serious threats from industrialisation and risks being listed by UNESCO as "world heritage in danger". Even our beloved koala and Tasmanian devil are facing extinction, and logging has reduced Victoria's state emblem, Leadbeater's possum, to only a thousand left in the wild. The Government needs to be strengthening our national laws, strengthening its role in protecting the places and species Australians value, and yet they are doing exactly the opposite by washing their hands of responsibilities and leaving it up to the states to act in the national interest.

The Australian community expects our national government to uphold its responsibilities to protect our most precious places and species, not to hand over responsibility for their future to the states.

It was Bob Hawke's government which advanced the Commonwealth's role in protecting our environment through a successful bid to stop the Franklin Dam in the High Court, which cemented the environment on the national agenda as an asset too precious to all Australians to be left to the states, a legacy that is now being dramatically wound back. Even Robert Hill, John Howard's environment minister, has said this handover to the states is 'a mistake'.

Contrary to the government's claims, the proposed standards that will underpin these approvals bilateral agreements will be unable to deliver the environmental protection Australians expect for our most important environmental icons. Discretion is inherently involved in decisions made under the EPBC Act (which require the often difficult balancing of economic, social and environmental matters). This means it matters who makes the ultimate decision - all the more so because it is difficult to codify how the exercise of that discretion must be made when accrediting state laws to replace the operation of the EPBC Act. A cursory look at the record of state governments demonstrates that the states can't be trusted to look after the national environment. There is no standard in the world that will fundamentally change the approach of state governments to prioritise short-term economic gains over environmental protection or social outcomes. Likewise, there can be no confidence that the states will comply with the standards -if they can't find a way to get around them they will simply breach the standards, as Premier Newman did in accepting an environmental impact statement for the Alpha mine in which breached the assessment bilateral standards for environmental impact statements. And how will the Commonwealth know that the standards are being adhered to when it has given up its role in this space? The draft standards give no confidence that there will be adequate monitoring and auditing to ensure technical compliance by state and territory governments with the standards, let alone monitoring and auditing of the genuine on-ground environmental outcomes of these proposed arrangements.

Approvals bilateral agreements are the key weapon in the current populist agenda of cutting so-called "green tape". This debate critically overlooks two important aspects of the EPBC Act. Firstly the EPBC Act already has a high bar that precludes federal intervention in all but the most environmentally damaging projects. The Act's "significance" threshold has meant that since its commencement in 2000, only 1,022 projects, from across the whole of Australia, have ever required formal Commonwealth approval. This significance threshold ensures consistent, targeted federal intervention and regulatory certainty.

Secondly, the current debate fail to recognise that if the business community and government were actually concerned about streamlining regulation (rather than just seeking to undermine our current environmental protections), they would increase use of an EPBC mechanism already available in all states and territories - assessment bilateral agreements. Assessment bilateral agreements are now in place between the federal government and each state/ territory. These agreements align the assessment requirements of state and federal environmental assessments, but, critically, retain the final decision making responsibility for nationally important aspects of major projects with the federal government. In the government's own words these arrangements "minimise duplication between Commonwealth and State or Territory assessments". Any steps to hand off approval powers would just be environmental corner-cutting, rather than a reduction in duplication.

It is unbalanced and poor process that the Business Council of Australia has been able to dictate the environmental policy agenda of the Government to allow the hand-off of federal approvals to the states. The community has had no opportunity to have its say on the handover of powers. Whilst they would get the chance to review draft approval bilateral agreements, this is a far cry from being consulted on whether the approvals bilaterals should be drafted in the first place. An inquiry into this bill would be the first opportunity the community has been given to have its say on whether this course of action is appropriate. The Greens are happy to provide that vehicle but it is an embarrassment that the Government has conducted such a lop-sided consultation to date, with the Business Council of Australia given its own full day prior to each key COAG meeting and the community ignored.

For all the reasons outlined above, the Australian Greens want to see the removal from the EPBC Act of ability of this Government (and any future Government) to hand its responsibility for approving projects that involve significantly damaging our nationally protected matters - our world heritage areas, our national heritage areas, our internationally listed wetlands, our threatened species and ecological community, and migratory species - to state and territory governments.

We are in a biodiversity crisis. This is not the time for the federal government to step back from its responsibilities. It is in the interest of the long term protection of our most valuable wild places and species, and the ongoing federal management of nuclear actions, that I am presenting this Bill.

I commend the bill to the Senate.

Senator WATERS: I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.