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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1676

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (09:51): I rise in opposition to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill 2012—and I do not rise in opposition to the bill on the basis of the arguments that have been put forward by Senator Waters. This plaintive plea that only the Greens are interested in the environment is so much rubbish—so much rubbish!

As a government I am proud of what we have done on environmental issues. You only have to look at the big picture issues that this government has addressed. We have finalised reform to the Murray-Darling Basin. We have created the biggest network of marine reserves in the world. Against huge opposition we stood up and said, 'We're going to make sure that marine reserves are in place and that we protect the wildlife.' We have set up a network of wildlife corridors across Australia. We have supported a network of indigenous ranges. We are cutting carbon pollution and driving investment in clean energy—solar, gas and wind. We are supporting Australian jobs in existing and renewable industries nationwide. At local level we are working to improve our urban waterways instead of treating them as a drain, as we have done in the past.

It grates when the Greens stand up and say they are the only people doing anything on the environment. They make speech after speech to say they are the only people interested in the environment, but that is not true. I do not think any politician comes here, either from the coalition, from Labor or as Independents, to think about how we can destroy the environment. No-one does that. It is an absolute nonsense to say that only the purity of the Greens has a way forward in terms of environmental matters.

The push on this bill, without dealing with a wider range of issues, proves my point on this. There is a range of issues that the evidence before the inquiry that I chaired has brought forward. The recommendation from the committee is for the minister to assess all of the issues, including the issues that the Greens have raised about ensuring that national environmental protections are conducted by a national government. But the Greens want to stand up and say that only they care about the environment—only they want to do something about the environment. The committee recommendation is that we look further at the issues that have been raised by the evidence to the committee on a wider range of issues than the Greens have raised in this narrowly based piece of legislation.

The Labor government is continuing to do work in environmental areas—in the Great Barrier Reef, in Antarctica and in the urban rivers area, as well as what we have done on global carbon pollution. So it worries me when the Greens come here and use the rhetoric of 'caving in to the Business Council', that here is a legacy that is at risk, and that the Labor government is in the pocket of big business. I invite the Greens to have a look at any of the newspaper reports over the last couple of years in the context of the business community to see whether we are in the pocket of big business. There is not a day that goes by without some big business leader trying to protect their vested interest against the protection that the Labor government is putting in for working people in this country, and we are maintaining a decent approach on taxation for big business. There is not a day that goes by when big business is not attacking this government. For the Greens to stand up and say that we are in the pocket of big business is a bit rich. What it really means—and I hate to agree with the coalition on this—is that they want environmental issues to be dealt with regardless of the social, economic or job impacts anywhere in the country. That is an unacceptable proposition.

There has to be some reality in terms of where we are, where we want to get to and how we deal with that part in the middle. How do we deal with jobs? How do we deal with the issue of communities depending on mining? How do we deal with communities that are building through coal-seam gas? How do we deal with communities that rely on the minerals sector for jobs? I am not here defending the Minerals Council. I am not here defending the resources sector. But you cannot just dismiss employment issues around the country on the basis that we should suddenly stop our mining industry and our minerals industry on the basis of this purity of environmental outcomes that the Greens keep arguing about. I do not buy that for a minute.

The Labor Party and the government is concerned about ensuring that we have proper and effective environmental protections in place, and it is not just Labor. It is interesting that, after going through this inquiry and having a look at the issues, it was a coalition government that brought in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. That became clear in some of the submissions that we had, where people were complaining about a change of position from the coalition in relation to their long-held position. In 1999 the former Howard government, through its representative the Hon. Dr Sharman Stone, MP, said that the EPBC legislation:

… enables the Commonwealth to join with the States in providing a truly national scheme of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation recognising our responsibility—

and remember, this is a coalition minister back in 1999—

to not only this, but also future generations.

It is not just the Greens who are concerned about environmental issues. Every senator in this place, in my view, is concerned about ensuring that the environment we leave to future generations is protected effectively, fairly and in a manner that does not destroy jobs, the economy or local communities. We have to manage those competing interests. That is what government is about, and that is what the Greens never seem to understand: there is a management task between the purity of environmental legislation and the need to ensure ongoing employment in this country.

It was not only Dr Sharman Stone; the minister for environment at the time, Robert Hill, noted that the new legislation 'provides for Commonwealth leadership on environmental matters and respects the primary role of the states in relation to on-ground natural resource management.' He went on to say:

T he Commonwealth is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Australia meets its international environmental responsibilities and in our view must also demonstrate leadership on environment matters by, for example, working with the States to set national standards. The EPBC Act recognises the need for Commonwealth leadership and the reality that on ground delivery should be carried out as far as possible by the States . It allows this carefully balanced partnership between Federal and State Governments to be expressed through bilateral agreements. Under these agreements responsibility for certain matters may be delegated to the States subject to various safeguards contained within the new legislation and other safeguards identified in regulations under the Act. Under this model the Commonwealth and the community can be confident that the matters of national environmental significance are being protected by processes we believe meet best practice.

That was not the Greens that were arguing these points, that was not Labor, that was a coalition minister and a coalition front bencher back in 1999. Let us forget about this argument that it is only the Greens that care about the environment, only the Greens. We heard that word 'only', 'only, 'only'. If it was only the Greens there would be no jobs left in this country in areas where we have to get a balance between the environment and employment and local communities earning a living. If it was up to the Greens we would be in a lot worse position in terms of the balance between jobs and the environment. I do not say that a Labor government should ever capitulate to the simple argument about jobs when it comes to the environment. Sometimes there will be a need to say that the environment must come first. That is our international obligation on matters of national importance, on matters of international significance. The act as it stands at the moment, without any changes, makes the government deal with the issues of protecting the environment, promoting conservation and biodiversity, protection and conservation of heritage, promoting ecologically sustainable development, promoting a cooperative approach to protection and management and assisting in the cooperation and implementation of Australia's international environmental responsibilities.

After listening to the evidence that came before the committee I am inclined to the view, similar to Senator Waters, that it is not a good idea to send any powers back to the states. There are a number of reasons for that and I will come to that. The recommendation of the committee in its majority report is that we need to address a range of issues, not just this narrow aspect. We are asking the minister to have a look at the evidence that came before the committee. I am sure when the Prime Minister and the minister look at the evidence that came before the committee then any idea of sending powers back to the states will be quickly quashed. That would be my view. It would be my argument within the Labor Party that we should not do this.

But I do not want to just look at one narrow aspect of the bill when the minister is already looking at significant changes to the bill through a process under the Hawke review. There is a process already underway. This tries to pre-empt that process and I do not want to pre-empt the process because I want the minister to look at changes to the bill in the context of all of the evidence that has come before the committee. That is what the government senators argued in the bill. We have not hidden away any of the evidence that came before the enquiry. The report is broad based, it is accurate, it takes up the issues as to why we should not refer the powers back. We actually do outline evidence that came mainly from employers, to say that we should refer the powers back to the states, but it gets pretty short shrift from the evidence that is before the committee. The committee was not prepared to accept that so-called evidence, because there was nothing that came before the committee that would say we should do this. In fact when I was questioning Dr Dripps, who is leading the department's evidence on this, I said to Dr Dripps—and I quote from the evidence:

CHAIR: So there has been no evidence from the Minerals Council or the BCA to say : 'Here are the efficiency problems with the EPBC'?

Dr Dripps: Not that I recall.

CHAIR: I find that amazing because of everything you read in the papers. I went to Corrs Westgarth and their environmental lawyers are saying the efficiencies that can be gained by this are unassailable, but you have not heard of that, have you?

Dr Dripps: We are certainly doing some work internally—as I think Mr Knudson said at the estimates earlier in the week—to improve our efficiency, but in terms of the problem definition, I am certainly often confronted with generalities and I look forward to receiving any advice on specifics.

So what the senior public servant is saying is they have only had generalities; they have had no specifics as to why we should send powers back to the states. I said:

CHAIR: That is interesting Dr Dripps. That is all we have had. We have not had one hard piece of evidence before this committee that says that a federal government should change the EPBC Act to allow for the states to make assessments and approvals on the basis of these inefficiencies. I have not seen any, and you are saying you have not been seen them either.

Dr Dripps: That is right.

There is no evidence for what the Business Council is arguing. There is no evidence for what the Minerals Council is arguing. The senior public servants say that there is no evidence. I went on:

CHAIR: I just think it is very important. Your evidence tells us that there is no evidence that putting the federal powers back to the states will improve efficiency.'

Dr Dripps: I think what I said is that we have the publicly available reports and we have the same anecdotal evidence that has been presented to you—

CHAIR: So no hard evidence.

Dr Dripps: from the various industry organisations about the efficiencies and inefficiencies that occur in the administration of the act.

CHAIR: That means that there is no hard evidence; there is anecdotal evidence. Is that correct?

Dr Dripps: That is a conclusion from reading the reports, if you like.

So there is no evidence. In fact, we had expert evidence that the majority of delays are in the state processes, not in the federal processes.

The committee's report gives a number of recommendations. The first recommendation is:

Given the need to address a range of issues raised with the committee and associated with the reform of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the committee recommends that the bill not be passed.

What we are saying there is simply that we should look at the wider issues that have been raised in the evidence, and that the minister should not dive in and get a change for one area of the act. The minister should look at all the evidence that has come before us and provide a comprehensive list of changes to the act to protect the environment. That is the minister's responsibility; that is the government's international obligation. We should only do it on the basis of the evidence that is before us. We have wide-ranging evidence and we should take in all the issues.

The second recommendation was that the minister analyse all the evidence and look at all the issues. We also say that the government should '…reconsider its position on the recommendation from the Hawke review for the appointment of a National Environment Commissioner and the creation of an independent National Environment Commission.' It is an important Hawke review recommendation and I think the government should do it. We are asking the government to assess that issue. We also say that the COAG processes—I have only a minute-and-a-half left—are not good enough, are not sufficient, are not the best way to deal with national environmental issues, unless there is fundamental change to how COAG operates in this area.

Having the Business Council and the business lobby coming to COAG without evidence and arguing for change is not a proper way for COAG to operate. There has to be proper analysis and it is good that the government has said, 'Whoa, we are not going to make these changes because there are significant issues to be dealt with.' Some of the significant issues are at the state level, where state governments have set about, as part of their austerity program, cutting jobs in environmental departments across the country. They are cutting jobs all over the place. They are trying to fix the environment by letting people go and shoot in national parks—that is the level of environmental understanding at the state level. Hundreds of jobs are disappearing.

The Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, argues in support of competitive federalism. Well, competitive federalism in terms of the environment is a race to the bottom. We are drawing all of these issues to the attention of the minister; that is why we are saying, 'Not this narrow piece of legislation before us. Minister, look at the broader issues that have been raised: how COAG operates, how we protect the environment, and how we meet our international obligations. That is the key issue.