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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2922

Senator RYAN (Victoria) (11:50): I rise to speak on this particular bill, but, as happens on many occasions, I start by wondering why there seems to be an assumption by some that all wisdom resides in this place, this parliament or this city. Yet again, there is a bill before us that seeks to override what communities decide through other elections to state parliament. There is a bill here that assumes that somehow decisions made in this place are holier, wiser or delivered with greater insight than decisions made by elected representatives at the state level.

The truth is, as my colleague Senator Smith outlined earlier, this bill does not have anything to do with the environment. This bill has nothing to do with an established environmental need. It has everything to do with an established political need. The government's own behaviour on this demonstrates that. This is a bill that seeks to deliver the member for New England a bumper sticker, a political win. It does not deliver or ensure that there will be any greater environmental protection, because no-one has convinced me or established that decisions made by Commonwealth bureaucrats and politicians are somehow wiser, better or more well informed. There is no proof, nor has there ever been an example, of where the 226 members of this place can ensure that the outcome will always be better.

We need to go back to what the real driving force of this bill is. It was about a political dilemma that this Labor government faced. In fact, this bill symbolises what has been so wrong about the government that was drawn from this 43rd Parliament. Promises and commitments made one day, or statements, policies and frameworks announced one week are all overturned days, weeks or even hours later because a political need somehow overrides any word given or any consideration or consultation undertaken regarding important issues like this. We saw it most pointedly of all with the carbon tax. 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead' are words that will be taught to Australian political science students, I would imagine, for decades, along with the press conference with the then leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, and the announcement of there suddenly being a carbon tax explicitly provided for by virtue of the Prime Minister's political need to stay in the Lodge and the need for Labor to retain the reins of power. In this particular case, we have seen statements, policies and announcements of the government overturned weeks after they were made in order to please the political interests of the member for New England.

The EPBC Act is actually a very important act, and I say it should not be dealt with in such a cavalier fashion because there are national environmental interests. There are some international obligations which the Australian community expects. But, in this particular instance, the concern the coalition has is that we are adding a new industry-specific sector to be EPBC Act and that it is being done without due consideration. I am yet to be convinced that somehow duplicating the assessments undertaken by state governments will necessarily result in better ones.

One of my colleagues, Senator Ruston, earlier referred to the Olympic Dam project. The Olympic Dam project is an important example of what can happen when the costs and compliance regime around major resource projects are taken too far. I am not a South Australian, but that was an important project and remains so for South Australians. If that project had been commenced a couple of years earlier when prices were higher, when the economy was stronger, or even a couple of years before that, and if the regime had not strung out the approval process so long, then that project would have commenced. Once resource projects commence, then they have a habit of continuing because of the sunken costs that are inherent in such projects. The loss to Australia and the loss to South Australia from Olympic Dam being deferred is one of substantial economic activity that might otherwise have been undertaken if it were commenced earlier. We need to take into account that regulatory costs are delaying these decisions to the point where the costs become so great it is not worth it—it does not often happen, but occasionally does—or are delaying a decision so long that circumstances change, meaning that people will not undertake those particular projects.

I put to you that the South Australian and Australian economies would be stronger today if Olympic Dam had been going ahead. That is one of the reasons. The costs of regulation and compliance are reasons the coalition has a promise of a one-stop-shop for environmental approvals, where the states can be the authorising agents for standards set by the Commonwealth. There is no point making people go through multiple layers of compliance and regulation if we are all trying to achieve similar outcomes. It merely adds to costs and it merely slows down projects.

Senator Smith highlighted earlier one of the risks of this, which was to add an industry-specific nature to the EPBC Act. I think that Senator Smith has highlighted a particularly important point, because it is a real risk to add an industry-specific aspect to the EPBC Act. But I do not think it is something we should flippantly ignore, either. The reason is that there are some in this parliament who would like to use the EPBC Act to restrict economic development. I will use an example of the behaviour of the Greens with respect to the Future Fund. Over time, we have witnessed The Greens questioning the Future Fund. It started off with antipersonnel weapons, which they would like banned from Future Fund investment. Then they moved down to tobacco, saying that we should ban the Future Fund from investing in tobacco. And over a year ago I wrote an article predicting the Greens would head the same way on coal, because this establishes the precedent where they can use regulation and public funds to achieve the objective they cannot achieve through the ballot box. They want to use the bullying power of the state, of bureaucrats, of regulations and of state owned funds to achieve particular objectives for which they cannot generate democratic political support. So, what have we seen over the last few weeks? We have seen the Greens come out and say the Future Fund should not be actually investing in coal, because of the threat it poses.

That is only the first step. I say to the people of Australia and to those who care about the EPBC Act that this will open a door for the Greens and people who have that mindset to actually start inserting further industry-specific aspects into the EPBC. It will open the door to them. In fact they are probably excited by the prospect. If people actually consider the EPBC Act to be important, as I think most Australians do, they will not want it to become the political plaything of extremists seeking to implement a particular economic and social model that they cannot generate support for through the ballot box. They are trying to do it through the back door through regulations or through getting the Future Fund in and out of certain industries. That is what the Greens are about.

This bill poses a risk in simply watering down the commitment that most people would have to the EPBC Act, but also in increasing compliance costs. There has been no established need for this particular change. It is inconsistent with the coalition's policy to actually reduce the burdens and the costs of complying with environmental regulation. Some, mistakenly, or somehow maliciously, may try to equate that with reducing environmental standards. But only someone who did not care about the environment would actually say that reducing the cost of compliance was a bad thing, because reducing the cost of compliance will actually generate greater public support.

The coalition has committed to working with the states to streamline our environmental approval process. We are committed to that. We do not think this particular bill fits with that policy, but we will not oppose it, even though we do point out that we think it has more to do with a political objective than an environmental one.