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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2920

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (11:39): I am sure my colleague Senator Ryan is eager to make a contribution in a very short time and I am very much looking forward to his contribution. I rise to make a contribution on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. As previous speakers have indicated, the coalition does not oppose this bill, but I do want to place on record a couple of concerns I have, particularly from a Western Australian perspective.

The bill seeks to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, commonly referred to as the EPBC Act, by adding a ninth matter of national environmental significance. At present, under the terms of the EPBC Act, the minister has responsibility to make assessments relating to World Heritage sites, national heritage sites, wetlands of international importance, nationally threatened species, migratory species, Commonwealth marine parks, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and nuclear actions. The amendments proposed by this bill would 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. You might think that is a noble goal, but that is not necessarily the case. My fear, and it is shared by my coalition colleagues, is that what we have with this legislation is yet another example of this government wanting to be seen to act on community concerns but not adequately thinking through whether this is, in fact, the best way to proceed. In other words, what we have here yet again is legislation that is being driven by politics and not policy.

Of course, there are legitimate community concerns about coal seam gas projects, and we all share a desire to ensure that our water quality is maintained. That is why the coalition is not opposing this bill. However, it is somewhat curious that we now find ourselves in this place discussing putting a water trigger in the EPBC Act, because it was not all that long ago—just a few months ago, in fact—when the Gillard government ridiculed the idea that a water trigger was needed in the EPBC Act. So, we have to ask ourselves: what has changed in so little space of time?

Call us cynics, but we in the coalition are suspect of any of the government's actions in this regard. The coalition suspects it might have something to do with the fact that the member for New England, Mr Windsor, marched into the Prime Minister's office and demanded this be done rather than put this idea through a rigorous process of proper policy assessment. He walked into the Prime Minister's office not doing what most Australians would request him to do and seeking her resignation; instead, he went into her office and requested a deal for himself. In the blink of an eye, the Gillard government completely reversed course and rushed legislation into this parliament to satisfy the demands of one MP whose support it relies on for its very survival. All at once, what was deemed unnecessary just weeks earlier was suddenly considered to be urgent. Think about it: none of the science or evidence changed in those few weeks. Community concern did not appear overnight. It was there when Labor pilloried this proposal, just as it is today. Does anyone think for a moment that the Prime Minister, the minister and the entire cabinet suddenly changed their whole thinking on the matter and were suddenly convinced by new and compelling evidence? Of course not. What happened was that the member for New England threatened this government's grip on office. All he had to do was make his demand and the Gillard government jumped: 'Yes, Tony. How high, Tony? Three bags full, Tony.' Simon Says has become Tony Says. It is no way to make public policy; it is no way to govern a country like ours.

When you take such a slipshod approach to your legislative agenda, it stands to reason that you will produce legislation that is less than ideal, which is what we have been presented with in this particular case. One of the many concerns with this legislation is that it creates many areas of duplication with existing state laws. I know this is a particular concern to the state government in Western Australia. Indeed, the Minister for Mines and Petroleum, the Hon. Bill Marmion, wrote to me just last week to express the government's concerns in Western Australia in relation to this specific bill. Western Australia is not commercially viable when it comes to coal seam gas, which is primarily what this bill is aimed at. Yet this bill will impose a layer of additional regulation. The WA state government finds this somewhat galling given the state has already established a strong regulatory framework for commercial gas extraction from deep shale and tight rock formations, especially where fracking is involved. Moreover, WA already has the strongest chemical disclosure requirements of any Australian jurisdiction, rigorous environmental and safety approval processes and international standards for the design and integrity of wells.

Yet the Gillard government takes no account of these things. We know this government is not big on states' rights. It looks to further centralise power at every turn and has a dismissive attitude to the very real concerns of Western Australians with regard to dwindling GST payments—but that is for another time. Yet the fact remains that under the terms of the Australian Constitution it is the states that are responsible for regulating land use, including the exploration of minerals and resources on that land. They are—and are well accepted to be—state resources. That is something with which the Rudd and Gillard governments have never been comfortable, which is why we have seen the imposition of a mining tax and the accompanying rhetoric about sharing wealth amongst the states and the like. Of course, it is not entirely inappropriate for the federal government to take some role in environmental protection; that is not in dispute. But I think there is legitimate concern about the manner in which the amendments to this legislation have been handled.

As a result of Labor's rush to comply with Mr Windsor's wishes, we are witnessing the imposition of a one-size-fits-all approach. As others have already noted, all the concerns being expressed about the problem that this legislation seeks to address seems to be coming from one particular state. Perhaps it is for that jurisdiction to examine whether its own laws are operating effectively and whether a state based solution is not more appropriate. The danger in doing this at the federal level is that these new requirements will impact on projects across the board. The impact will be felt as greatly in Western Australia, where there is minimal community concern about coalseam gas, as it will in those jurisdictions where community concerns are much greater.

This brings me to my other key concern: that we are now introducing elements to the EPBC that target a particular sector or industry. The intention of the EPBC is to consider matters of broad national environmental significance, irrespective of which industry is proposing a development. However, with this amendment, we are beginning the process of singling out coalseam gas and coalmining. I do worry about the significant precedent that this sets. If this is done now in relation to the coal sector, what is to stop a future government targeting other groups by applying additional EPBC triggers to their activities? I am thinking particularly of the agricultural sector. I know this is a matter of great concern to many farmers and farming groups across my home state in WA.

I would also add my voice to the concerns expressed by my colleague Senator Birmingham about the fact that this legislation is retrospective. We generally take the view that retrospective legislation makes for bad policy outcomes. This is especially so when we are dealing with the development of projects that create jobs for Australians but require significant private investment. What kind of signal are we sending when we change the rules for environmental approvals for those who have already started the costly and time-consuming process of applying and telling them that they have to start all over again? What will that do to investor confidence? What will that do to job creation in Australia? Should this legislation pass, it should apply only to applications that commence after this bill becomes law, not to applications already in progress.

As I indicated at the outset, the coalition does not oppose this legislation, but we do maintain significant concerns, and we think there is a better way forward than simply legislating as a knee-jerk reaction to political imperatives. That is why we are proposing a simplified one stop shop for environmental approvals and proposing to vastly reduce the levels of green tape that act as a barrier to investment and job creation. We believe we can have a simpler, more rapid process in place for environmental approvals. It is actually possible to do this just as rigorously and just as efficiently by cutting back on the duplication that exists in the current system while at the same time maintaining high levels of environmental protection. Should the coalition be fortunate enough to govern after 14 September we will work with states to put in place an approvals regime that does not needlessly delay projects and prevent the investment and job creation that our country so badly needs after the years and years of this government's mismanagement.

To end, I quote from the letter that the Minister for Mines and Petroleum in Western Australia sent to me only a week ago. He said: 'Given Western Australia's robust regulatory regime and its independent environmental protection authority, the state does not agree that this bill in any form, and the extra layer of regulatory duplication that would result, would be of benefit to West Australians.'