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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2934

Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (12:37): This is a bad piece of legislation from a bad government. If this bill is passed it will weaken our economic growth prospects while doing nothing for the environment. It will weaken our energy security, moving forward, while doing nothing for the environment. It will impose more red and green tape on an important industry for Australia, because that is what one of the key Independents and the Greens want this Labor government to do. This is not about science. This is not about good environmental policy. This is all about politics. Labor is weak, it is dysfunctional and it is deeply divided. And Labor is clearly unable to stand up for the national interest. That is why we get presented with a political fix like this, even though it is bad for Australia. It is all about hanging onto government for one more day, one more week and one more month, no matter what the consequences for the country.

The amendments in this bill will create a new subdivision of the EPBC Act that, if passed, will in effect add a ninth area of national environmental significance. It will put in place environmental impact assessment processes for actions involving coal-seam gas or large coal mining development that is likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. It will create civil penalty and offence provisions for taking an action involving coal-seam gas or large coal mining development that is likely to have an impact on a water resources, without an approval or exemption from obtaining approval. Of course, in doing so, this bill ensures that the Commonwealth will duplicate state activities. The legislation adds another layer of bureaucratic red tape, it will increase approval times and it will make Australia a less desirable place in which to invest, even though the things it is trying to do are already happening. We, the smart guys here in Canberra, know better than the government in New South Wales; we know better than the government in Queensland—that is what this arrogant, out-of-touch, increasingly desperate Gillard government, under pressure and egged on by key Independents and the Greens, is doing.

The truth is that the coal industry and the coal seam gas industry are very important industries for Australia. Coal is our largest export, providing affordable and reliable access to energy and helping to develop economies around the world. Coal seam gas has huge potential to help us ensure reliable and affordable access to an important energy supply domestically as well as develop another export industry. These industries are important for economic prosperity, jobs and our living standards. They do not deserve the outrageous treatment they are getting from this dysfunctional, divided and incompetent government.

Senator Back just pointed out that, yet again, this is a massive regulatory change which did not go through a regulatory impact assessment process. Supposedly, under this government we were given the assurance that there would be a proper cost-benefit analysis. Whenever there was to be regulatory change, through the independent Office of Best Practice Regulation there was going to be rigorous assessment to ensure that regulatory changes would make things better, not just more complex and more expensive, and that the additional costs were going to be proportionate to the benefit that was being sought. But of course every single time that it is likely that the government will fail to get a regulatory change through that process, they write themselves an exemption. If you write yourself an exemption for a regulatory impact assessment every single time you are likely to fail it, you may as well throw the whole process overboard: it is not worth it.

The whole reason you have a regulatory impact assessment, the whole reason you have a process like a best practice regulation process, is so that you can put up a red flag whenever a regulatory change is going to be so expensive, so costly, with so much added red tape and without delivering proportionate benefits—put up a stop sign and say, 'This particular proposal has failed our rigorous regulatory impact assessment processes and therefore it should not proceed.' But of course every time there is a risk that a proposal would fail and the obvious conclusion in the national interest would be and should be that a proposal should not proceed, the government just writes itself an exemption. Why go through all of the carry-on and why spend all of the money on running through regulatory impact assessment processes for those proposals you know in advance are going to be okay? You need that sort of process as part of the checks and balances for proposals that are likely to be borderline or are going to make things more expensive without making them better.

This government has form. Over nearly six years, this government has introduced more than 21,000 new pieces of red tape. No wonder the cost of doing business is going up and up and up under this government. No wonder our international competitiveness is going down and down and down. No wonder that our economy is not growing as strongly as it could have and should have in the absence of all of this additional red and green tape that is being put forward by this government.

When the economy does not grow as fast as it could have, what is one of the consequences? As well as meaning that our economic prosperity and our living standards grow less fast, one of the consequences is that the government collects less revenue from the taxes it has on the books. This is why the government always has to come up with new or increased taxes—to chase its tail, which, in turn, has an impact on our economic growth. It means that our economy grows less fast, which means we raise less revenue from the taxes that are on our books, which means the government has got to come up with new taxes again or borrow more and ramp up the debt and deficits. This sort of bill is at the core of Labor's economic and fiscal mismanagement.

This bill will, yet again, increase approval times, which are already among the highest in the world. In New Zealand, you can get all of the approvals for a resource project within less than a year. In Australia, you would be lucky if you got through the process in five or six years. Of course, that is not enough. We have got to add more and more burdens. We have got to put more and more lead in our saddlebag because things are going so well—there are no economic challenges coming our way at all! We just take everything for granted. No matter how much more lead we put in our saddlebag—that is what this government thinks—it will not make any difference. The Greens, at least, are consistent. They want to shut the mining industry down. They are very clear about this. But people across Australia could have and should have expected better from the Labor Party.

We are all in favour of the appropriate protection of our water and water tables, but, of course, that is already covered by relevant state legislation and state processes. We are all in favour of appropriate environmental safeguards. We are all in favour of making sure our resources sector and our rural communities can coexist in harmony, delivering net benefits to the communities in which they operate. We are all in favour of evidence based decision making—decision making based on the science. But this bill does not do that. This bill is all about the politics of a weak government trying desperately to hang on to government for one more day, one more week, one more month.

Any legislative approach in this area should be carefully calibrated and be focused on getting the balance right. We need to protect the environment without unnecessarily and recklessly hurting our economy. This bill will do nothing to help protect our environment, yet it will hurt our economy. This legislation is all about pre-election politics from a desperate government led by an increasingly desperate Prime Minister. This is about a government with its back against the wall giving in to unreasonable demands from the key Independents they need to stay in government.

The truth is that we need to continue to go down the path of developing the resources sector, including and especially the coal seam gas sector, in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. We need to make sure that any additional regulation is actually making things better, not just more complex and more expensive for everyone. The truth is that there is already massive regulation in this area. There is already massive red tape and green tape from both the federal and state levels. There is absolutely no case to expand that further by listing a ninth matter of national environmental significance in the EPBC Act, triggering federal bureaucratic involvement to come on top of what is already happening at the state level.

In fact, we should simplify things. We should cut red tape and green tape. We should focus on bringing down the cost of doing business in Australia. We should focus on getting Australia back onto the global competitive edge. We have to make sure that we are in a position where we can take full advantage of the opportunities that will present themselves to us in the fastest growing part of the world, the Asia-Pacific. We need to make sure that we put ourselves in a position where we are as resilient as possible to deal with the challenges which are coming our way from ongoing circumstances in Europe and the United States. But of course, this government just does not seem to care. With this government it is all just blatantly about their political survival instead of focusing on good public policy in the national interest. The coalition has been very clear: should we be successful on 14 September—or whatever the date is going to be, on any revised timetable for the election—

Senator Xenophon interjecting

Senator CORMANN: Yes, Senator Xenophon: who knows? I do not think even the Labor Party knows what is going on with the government at the moment. But whenever the election is going to be—whether it is on 14 September or earlier or later—whatever the government decides, the coalition will be totally committed to policies that will actually strengthen our economy, that will strengthen our economic prosperity moving forward, that will focus on bringing down the cost of doing business in Australia and focus on making us more competitive internationally, that will actually make it easier to get businesses off the ground instead of putting more and more lead into their saddlebag.

One of the things we will do is make a serious effort to cut red and green tape instead of continuously adding to it as this government has done. One of the policies we have put forward in the environmental approvals area is our proposal for a one-stop shop for environmental approvals as part of our efforts to cut green tape. We will offer to establish a one-stop-shop process for both environmental applications and approvals whereby states would be able to opt in to the scheme. Where appropriate, matters will be referred back to the government. But, as a matter of principle, the states would actually be administering environmental approvals under both state and federal legislation. Existing environmental standards will be retained and rolled into a single process. By cutting green tape we would achieve better environmental outcomes as well as better economic outcomes—a more efficient and a more productive economy that would allow for better living standards greater resources for practical action to protect the environment. It is true that the increasing complexity and multilayered approvals system has led and continues to lead to inconsistencies in decisions and extra costs for no environmental gains. Deadlines should be set for decisions to be made, with the potential for penalties on government where there is unnecessary delay. This is going to be a very important reform should the coalition be successful at the next election.

But I will finish where I started: this is a very bad piece of legislation from a very bad government. I am very pleased that the Leader of the Government has arrived to listen to this. Perhaps he can throw some of these issues that we are debating here today back into the internal debates that are happening inside the Labor Party at the moment about the future direction of the government. This is very much a government that has lost its way. This is a government that his putting more and more lead into the saddlebag of our economy, that is making it harder and harder for people across Australia to be successful for no positive upside. This piece of legislation is going to weaken our economic growth prospects recklessly and irresponsibly without doing anything for the environment. Why would any government that cares about the national interest do that? And why would any government recklessly and irresponsibly make it harder for us to pursue an additional resource in terms of the coalseam gas opportunities—which will help ensure a reliable and affordable energy supply for us over the long-term future, which will help keep energy costs down, which will help ensure that in an environmentally efficient way we will be able to keep the lights on?

Of course we are all in favour of making sure that there are appropriate environmental safeguards. Of course we are all in favour of making sure that there are rigorous processes to ensure that all the risks are managed the way they ought to be. And I have confidence in the New South Wales state government and in the Queensland state government to manage those processes competently and properly. We do not need to second-guess the governments in New South Wales and Queensland in relation to these issues out of Canberra. These are good governments and they know what they are doing.

Let me just go to some of the stakeholder observations in relation to this, incidentally. This is what the Chief Executive Officer of the New South Wales Minerals Council, Mr Stephen Galilee, has said in relation to what he has describes as backward legislation: 'It is extremely disappointing that, in an election year, the federal government and Tony Windsor are seeking to create the impression that the state based assessment process is not good enough. This is completely wrong. Water is already a fundamental aspect of the assessment process for mining projects in New South Wales.' The National Farmers Federation has expressed deep concern about the potential for this bill to be extended to agriculture in the future: 'Water is a critical factor for our farmers, and our strong concern is that this bill could actually have perverse negative outcomes for our agricultural sector. What may on first glance look like a win for farmers in the short term could actually have long term unintended consequences for our current and future farmers.' And so it goes on.

This is a terrible piece of legislation. It is legislation that is not focused on our national interest. In fact, it is purely about the politics of a minority government desperately trying to hang on, irrespective of how bad this legislation is for Australia. And that is not the way things should be. Australians deserve much better than this. Australians deserve a government that works day in day out furthering the national interest. Australians deserve a government that does the right thing for the right reasons, that does not just get pushed around because it is threatened or bullied by one of the Independents, whom they need to keep them in government. We have never had this sort of culture here in the Senate. Here in the Senate, Independents negotiate better outcomes in legislation, but it does not go the existential nature of the government. What has been happening in the House of Representatives has been very bad for Australia. Any of these Independents are, figuratively speaking, able to put a gun to the government's head. That is when they can achieve these sorts of very bad outcomes. It really should not be going ahead. (Time expired)