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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1680


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (10:11): I will start by doing something a little unusual in this place, and that is to agree with some of the sentiments of Senator Cameron.

Senator Cameron: Oh, no!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It will do your reputation no good, I realise, Senator Cameron. But Senator Cameron rightly said that he believes every senator in this place cares about environmental protection. I believe Senator Cameron is right in that regard. Of course there are differences of opinion that exist right around the chamber, not only between parties but, I have no doubt, within parties as well, as to the extent of the types of protections that are required, as to the priorities of what needs to be protected, and as to the approaches of how the environment should be protected. But there is a consensus and a broad understanding and support that transcends across governments, that sees support across the board for environmental protection.

Indeed, as Senator Cameron rightly highlighted, the substantive act that we are debating today, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, was a reform of the Howard government, implemented and delivered by my former employer and a great senator in this place for a long period of time, former Senator Robert Hill. It is one of the great legacies of the Howard government that we implemented this reform and provided for effective national standards around environmental management.

The bill before us today, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers)Bill 2012, seeks to remove some of the original provisions from that 1999 act. Let me be very clear: the coalition's position as we come to this debate today is consistent, as it was when that act was passed in 1999. The bill that the Greens propose today seeks to remove provisions for which there is absolutely no evidence that those provisions have been abused; no evidence that those provisions have been misused. In fact, those provisions have barely been used. They have been used on just one occasion in the history of this act.

Senator Waters interjecting

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Waters says, 'Exactly!' Well, exactly, Senator Waters, you are seeking to strip something from the act that, to date, no government has managed to find an effective way to make work. That does not mean that a government in future could not find an effective way to make these provisions work. Senator Waters wants to take out a flexible approach, a capacity to try to get some efficiency in the operation of the EPBC act, even though there is no evidence to say that there have been problems under such an approach, because she believes there might be problems under such an approach in future. The Greens, of course, in this sense, are equally being consistent in wanting to see the greatest level of bureaucracy, the greatest level of regulation, the greatest level of red tape and the greatest duplication across local, state and federal governments of assessment processes—all of which, of course, add to the costs in the economy and the costs of doing business and are to the detriment of the growth of business, economic activity and jobs in Australia.

The coalition's position as we come to this is very consistent. We support the provisions of the act that we were proud to pass when in government in 1999. We support key recommendations within the Hawke review, a substantive body of work that looked at and analysed the entire operation of the EPBC Act and tried to recommend improvements to it, which I will come back to shortly. We support our policy, announced during the term of this parliament, to implement a one-stop-shop approach that attempts to streamline environmental approvals processes without in any way undermining the standards of environmental assessments.

There is an important point to make here: that the types of reforms we are advocating and the types of reforms the government briefly stood for are reforms to try to get greater efficiency in our approvals processes but maintain the same level of standards.

Senator Waters: It won't work.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Waters says it will not work. Well, there we go—I am pleased to know that the Greens have got a great big crystal ball over in that corner of the chamber! I am pleased to know that the Greens know what the future holds entirely! I guess we do hear that from many in the Greens all of the time—that they know what is going to happen in the future and have supreme confidence that their outlook on the world is of course the only outlook on the world.

The genesis of this bill lies in a government policy that barely lasted for 12 months. It lies in the fact that this Labor government, for a brief period of time, attempted to have the same policy position as the coalition—a policy position of saying that we should attempt to follow the recommendations of the Hawke review, streamline some of the processes if possible, and get greater complementarity between what the Commonwealth and the states are doing in terms of environmental assessments, and, in doing so, maintain all of the standards. And, for a brief window there, the government agreed with us. However, the government changed its mind late last year after Senator Waters had introduced this bill and has since backed down yet again—another case of a government in disarray and a government that backflips on its promises and statements.

But I think it is important to look at the recommendation of the Hawke report that led to this process of changing the EPBC Act, or led to this process of the coalition and the government saying, 'We should have greater streamlining.' Recommendation 4 of the Hawke report—and it is a long one but I think it is important to put it all on the record—states:

The Review recommends that the Commonwealth work with the States and Territories as appropriate to improve the efficiency of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regime under the Act, including through:

(1) greater use of strategic assessments;

(2) accreditation of State and Territory processes where they meet appropriate standards;

(3) accreditation of environmental management systems for Commonwealth agencies where the systems meet appropriate standards;

(4) publication of criteria for systems and processes that would be appropriate for accreditation;

(5) creation of a Commonwealth monitoring, performance audit and oversight power to ensure that any process accredited achieves the outcomes it claimed to accomplish;

(6) streamlining and simplification of assessment methods, including combining assessment by preliminary documentation and assessment on referral information and removal of assessment by Public Environment Report;

(7) establishing joint State or Territory and Commonwealth assessment panels;

(8) use of joint assessment panels or public inquiry for projects where the proponent is either the State or Territory or Australian Government; and

(9) greater use of public inquiries and joint assessment panels for major projects.

In the main, these are wise recommendations. In the main, these recommendations of the Hawke report would provide a step forward by seeing greater cooperation in a formalised sense between the Commonwealth and the states around assessment and approval regimes in a transparent way where processes are accredited, where they must meet appropriate standards, where those standards must be made public, and where there is an understanding and a review and continued assessment to ensure that systems and processes used by the states are appropriately upheld as a result of such accreditation approaches.

So the Hawke review outlined a comprehensive way in which the powers in the original EPBC Act as it still stands today could be used to engage the states in a bilateral assessment and approvals process in a way that would protect and uphold existing standards. As I said earlier, the Hawke review was a very, very comprehensive review.

The government, to its initial credit, indicated its support for those recommendations. The government, initially, in its response stated that the government was:

… committed to enhancing the scope and use of these mechanisms to reduce duplication of systems and provide more certainty for business without reducing protection for matters of national environmental significance.

Minister Burke went on in his response on 24 August 2011 to say that the environmental reforms included:

A more streamlined assessment process to cut red tape for business and improve timeframes for decision making, including an option for decisions on proposals within 35 business days, if all required information is provided.

He also committed to new national standards for accrediting environmental impact assessments and approvals to better align Commonwealth and state systems.

The government made very clear in its response to the Hawke review that it accepted, supported and embraced the review's recommendations to have greater utilisation of the bilaterals processes within the existing EPBC Act—the exact same clauses that the Greens, through this bill, seek to strip out. The Prime Minister took this approach to COAG and sought to begin the process of working with the states to actually try to get in place these reforms that would see a more complementary approach between the Commonwealth and the states to environmental approvals. What the Prime Minister said at the COAG joint press conference on 12 April 2012 was:

Look, what we want to work towards here is a streamlined system, so that projects don't go through two layers of assessment for no real gain.

And so the classic examples that are brought by business is where people have gone through sequential assessments, so it's double the time, things that have been required for the first assessment are required in slightly modified form for the second assessment, so they don't even get the benefits of just uplifting the work and re-presenting it, it's got to be redone.

So clearly that is an inefficient system.

In a press release she said:

At the inaugural meeting of the Business Advisory Forum yesterday, business leaders raised delays in environmental approvals and assessments as a major cost. These delays, due to duplicative processes across federal and state systems, can take businesses months or even years to resolve.

Today COAG acted on that concern and the Gillard Government and states and territories agreed to fast track arrangements to use state assessment and approval processes by March 2013.

Well, here we are in March 2013, and of course what happened is that at the end of last year the Prime Minister ran away from those comments. Even though the Prime Minister said, 'The removal of these regulations will protect the environment whilst ending the costly delays that result from double handling and duplication,' Senator Cameron claims in relation to issues around duplication and increased business cost that the evidence has not been provided to justify those claims. Senator Cameron comes in here and says—as he did through the committee process and in the committee report—that there is 'just not the evidence' to back up the claims that there are increased costs, that there is duplication and that there is any impediment to business through the operation of the EPBC Act and state environmental approvals processes at present.

Well, Senator Cameron must think that the Prime Minister had the wool pulled over her eyes when she made those statements. Senator Cameron must think that the Hawke review had the wool pulled over its eyes when it supported reform. Senator Cameron must think that Minister Burke, when he supported the recommendations of the Hawke review, had the wool pulled over his eyes. That can be the only explanation for Senator Cameron's views and the views of the Greens in this matter: that they think everybody on the government side was conned into supporting reform and was conned into believing there were higher costs.

The reality is that there was clear evidence. That evidence was supported by the Hawke review. That evidence of higher costs and duplication was supported by Minister Burke when he accepted the recommendations of the Hawke review. And the higher costs, duplication and impact on business were acknowledged by the Prime Minister at the COAG meeting in April last year. But something changed between April last year and December last year, when COAG was expected to sign off on changes that would try to achieve streamlining and greater efficiency. Something changed that caused the Prime Minister to once again backflip on promises made to the electorate, to business and to the Business Advisory Forum of COAG. Something changed that saw the Prime Minister simply walk away from these reforms.

I would love to know what it is that changed. Was it simply pressure from the Greens? Was it fear that the Greens, through this bill and other parts of their campaign, would launch some type of public campaign against the government? Was it fear that preferences might not be forthcoming for the government later on? We now know that since then the Labor-Greens marriage has technically broken down—

Senator Williams: A divorce!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: that there is a technical divorce apparently occurring—thank you, Senator Williams. But what we see here is that even as the marriage was on the rocks, even as it was heading towards the end of its days, the government was capitulating to the demands of the Greens, despite the government's solemn public promises to the electorate and in particular to the business community to try to get greater efficiencies in place.

So what is the evidence? Amongst the evidence cited is the Deloitte Access Economics report of April 2011, a report provided—albeit late, but nonetheless provided—to the Senate inquiry into this bill. That report found:

There would be benefits to project proponents, Australian, state and territory governments and the economy from reducing delays in the assessment process …

The Deloitte report also found that the estimated benefit from reduced delays was $135.1 million in 2012-13, increasing to $288.4 million in 2020-21. In net present value terms, this represents a total gain to society of $1.19 billion. I repeat: a $1.19 billion potential total gain to society.

There is very clearly potential to improve the efficiency in the operation of the EPBC Act. It is very clear that that can be improved by making assessment processes better, but also by making approvals processes better, and that government should have in its armoury the flexibility to achieve and pursue both of those outcomes. As the Business Council of Australia said in its submission to the Senate inquiry:

The community must be assured that under the approvals system, Australia's unique environment and heritage values will be maintained or enhanced. This can and should be achieved without compromising the competitiveness of project proponents.

Australia's planning and environmental laws, at all levels of government, must facilitate the efficient approval of major capital projects upon which Australia's economic wellbeing is increasingly dependent.

The Australian economy is more reliant on the successful delivery of major capital projects than ever before. Business Council of Australia research indicates that by 2013, expenditure on capital investment is likely to grow to 30 per cent of GDP. A large part of all Australian economic activity will therefore be dependent on the success of major capital projects. Given Australia's increased reliance on major capital projects, it is imperative that all governments configure their environmental approvals processes to ensure decisions are predictable and timely.

It is all we are looking for here: efficient, predictable, timely approvals processes. Instead, we now get from both the government and the Greens a whole lot of furphies run up. We get a tax on the states over their so-called austerity measures—which actually, of course, are just measures to try to balance their budgets, something the Labor Party does not know terribly much about—and it is claimed that this means the states could not possibly be adequate to deal with any increased responsibility or shared responsibility through the use of approvals bilaterals. Well, that is why you put standards in place. That is why the Hawke review recommended that you put standards in place: to make sure that the states have to adhere to those standards, or the bilaterals simply do not take effect. We hear the furphies suggested: what about the states sitting in judgement on their own projects? Nobody is suggesting that they do that. We hear the suggestion made: will the states have too much to gain from economic activity—as if the Commonwealth does not have anything to gain from economic activity! When projects are approved, the Commonwealth benefits from the company tax take and it benefits from the increased income tax take. The Commonwealth has very direct benefit from project approval and economic activity. So all manner of furphies are flown here. In the end, the coalition believes this bill is unnecessary. These provisions that have been in the act since 1999 should be maintained and, indeed, we are committed to using them sensibly, cautiously, but proactively, to try to get the best environmental and economic outcomes for Australia should we be elected later this year.