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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1690

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (10:51): I rise to speak to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Retaining Federal Approval Powers) Bill and I want to thank Senator Waters for bringing forward this bill on this important issue because I think our environmental regulatory system is certainly one well worthy of discussion in this place. I also want to acknowledge the discussion and the deliberation that has already taken place amongst senators about this bill, both those who participated and are on the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, also the contributions thus far from Senator Cameron, Senator Birmingham, Senator Whish-Wilson and Senator Waters. Also, I would just like to acknowledge the input that has come forward from environmental groups. I have met with many of them such as Birdlife Australia, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales, the ACF, the WWF, Environment Tasmania, and there are others of course that have been involved such as Greenpeace and Wilderness Society.

By way of background, I would just like to talk about how this came about from the government's perspective. On 24 August 2011, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities released the government response to the independent review on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999—also known as the Hawke review—as part of a broad package of reforms for Australia's national environment law. This review was proactively commissioned by Labor in an effort to improve our environmental regulatory system. Indeed, the aims of the review were to promote the sustainability of Australia's economic development, to reduce and simplify the regulatory burden and ensure activities under the act represent the most efficient and effective ways of achieving desired environmental outcomes.

From that, you can see it was very much a broad ranging review looking at environmental law in this country. COAG then agreed on 13 April 2012 that the Australian government would work with state and territory governments to develop bilateral arrangements allowing the Commonwealth to accredit state and territory assessment and approval processes. In particular, it was considered by the government, and by many in the community, that a strong uniform national approach to environmental regulation would enhance proponents' capacity to comply with important environmental conditions and government's capacity to regulate that and facilitate development.

It was claimed that a single system would allow proponents—often dealing with complex projects by businesses that operate across boundaries—to understand the expectations of them more easily when it comes to environmental protection, and that it would help facilitate the aim of the EPBC, which is to provide a coherent national assessment process. However, it must be remembered that turning assessment and approval powers over to states and territories is not, and was not, supposed to be an end in itself. It is a proposal that some may say had merit if it helps strengthen Australia's capacity to provide for environmental protection and conservation. However, it has since become clear that the states and territories take a variety of approaches to environmental assessments, seemingly with some very different motivations, one may say; a different emphasis on different parts of the process and with a wide variety of different capacities to deliver on important environmental regulation.

It is also very concerning that coalition states in particular, do not seem able or willing to properly manage any sort of approval powers that they have at the moment. Indeed, we only have to look back at the Queensland government in particular who, late last year, showed itself to be very much reckless with environmental issues associated with substantial developments, and unwilling to go through a proper assessment process. When I am talking about the Queensland government, I speak in particular of the Alpha coalmine. One only has to think back to that not so long ago. This was a project that ultimately received approval from both levels of government, but the Premier of Queensland, Mr Newman, effectively described the environmental oversight as a stop in the way, asking federal Minister Tony Burke to, 'get out of the way'.

Minister Burke of course was simply doing his job under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Act, making sure that the development conformed to the best environmental standards, the standards that Queenslanders and all Australians I am sure would expect. Minister Burke said at that time:

If what the Premier of Queensland wants is for me to give approvals without conducting checks, then I will stand in his way.

And I am pleased that the Minister Burke said that. He said:

If he wants us to trash the Great Barrier Reef … we will stand in his way. If he wants to clear-fell every acre of koala habitat in South-East Queensland, we will stand in his way.

Amongst the range of environmental concerns excluded from the assessment were the management of wetlands and the impact of run-off and coal dust on the Great Barrier Reef, among other conditions. From that you can see very much the role that the federal government needed to play in the Alpha coalmine development proposal, and that federal government has always needed to play in a range of environmental assessment projects and proposals.

I want to acknowledge the role that the federal government has always played in environmental protection. In doing that, I have to say that I reject the Greens comments about being the only party which cares for the environment. That is the furthest from the truth. I think the example that I just gave from the minister for the environment, Tony Burke, in relation to the Alpha coalmine very much demonstrates that. We only have to go back a few decades in history, or even less, to look at the role that Labor has played in caring for and protecting our environment, a role that I am incredibly proud of. We can look at the Hawke federal Labor government, for example, that intervened in the case of the Franklin Dam in my home state of Tasmania, a campaign that was very close to my heart. They intervened on the basis of a campaign which was waged by many Tasmanian and national Labor members and friends. In fact, that was one of the reasons, I have to say, why I joined the Labor Party, because of Labor's stand on the Franklin Dam.

While I will acknowledge the role of campaigners like Bob Brown and Christine Milne, equally important to our environment were people like former Tasmanian Treasurer Michael Aird and supporters within the Whitlam and Hawke governments. One member of both of those governments particularly dear to my heart is the former minister Tom Uren. Tom Uren, as many of you would know, turned 90 not long ago, and in the Australia Day honours awards he was given one of the highest honours that Australia can bestow on an individual: the Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

Tom Uren was indeed an incredible champion for the preservation of heritage and areas of environmental significance. He was a champion for the environment long before the Greens party was even a thought. In 1970, Tom Uren spoke out on the environment. He spoke out on a range of environmental issues, including highlighting the devastating fact that the Shell oil refinery at Clyde was blowing 30 tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the air every day and leaking oil into the Duck River, a tributary of the Parramatta River that ran through his electorate. He spoke up again in my home state of Tasmania on the protection of the glacial jewel Lake Pedder and called for a halt to plans to drown Lake Pedder. He also supported the conservation of Sydney's natural and built environment. I have to say that Tom Uren has been a hero to me. He is someone of incredible strength and character and was incredibly deserving of that Order of Australia medal on Australia Day.

Of course, there have been others as well. A number of people in Labor have stood up and championed our environment. It was federal Labor that helped to embed environmental protection into the policy agenda for all Australians and to raise the consciousness of the environment of the Australian people. There are other examples I could share with the Senate. They include the Traveston Dam, the Daintree and Kakadu, a place that Minister Tony Burke only last month finished the job of protecting by moving Koongarra into Kakadu National Park, another iconic decision by a Labor government that has a deep and abiding belief in the protection of our most precious places. So federal Labor has helped to change that culture and to make environmental protection a basic requirement, and I have to say that is a legacy that I am proud of.

The bill before us today has gone through the Senate inquiry process, and the recommendations that have been provided by that committee say that we do actually need to look wider at the range of issues that are involved when we talk about federal environmental protection than those which the Greens have put forward. I think that is the basis of why we are in this voting position on this particular piece of legislation. If we want to talk about the specifics of this legislation, I think we need to look at where we are right now in relation to it. As I said before, we had the COAG process that began in April last year followed up by COAG again meeting in December last year and being advised that negotiations would not be progressed given the significant challenges that emerged in developing agreements. So, as far as any kind of approval of bilateral agreements between federal and state governments, COAG have now moved to a situation of not progressing this issue further. I have to say that, personally, I am pleased with that in the sense that we can now look broadly at the recommendations provided by this inquiry into the bill that Senator Waters has brought forward. We can look at the importance of the federal government in environmental protection in our nation. We can again draw on some of the history that I have traversed thus far. We can also then look at other ways. If we are talking about achieving efficiency, if we are talking about looking at the breadth of the Hawke review, let's look at other ways of achieving efficiency than this approval of bilateral agreements.

And there are other ways to achieve efficiency in environmental law that do not rely on handing federal approval powers to the states. For example, undertaking strategic assessments of developments in a region or urban setting often benefit businesses far more than delegating approval powers to states and will result in avoiding thousands of project assessments. I understand that since August 2011 the government has doubled the number of strategic assessments undertaken. I think we need to pursue what will work and what does not work in looking at efficiencies. What has been made clear—and why COAG had negotiated to the point where they were last December—is that what will not work is approval powers to the states. We have coalition states in this country that are unwilling and unable to get their own houses in order, let alone deal with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and its details of assessment as well. Queensland is a very poignant example of a state government that either does not care about the environment, has not got the capacity to understand how to deal with the environment or simply has not got the ability and the right people to get that work to happen.

So I am pleased with where COAG has found itself in that regard, but I think we can come together in the sense of looking at other ways we can improve things. I agree that it is a waste of time for both state and federal governments to be doing approvals on the same environmental factor. There should be some diminution of those issues that states look at and federal. But the overarching final say and need for final checks and balances should be done by the federal government. I have always believed that. I believe that what we have seen through this inquiry and its report, which is a good, detailed report into the particular bill that Senator Waters has brought forward, is a whole range of issues that come out of the role of the federal government in its approval process for various developments and the lack of resources and the limitations that state governments have in their approval processes as they currently stand, let alone loading the federal approval processes to them on top of that.

As I said before, I am very proud of the fact that Labor has a good, strong record of standing up for our environment. You only have to look at our introduction of carbon pricing last year, which again adds to ensuring that we care for our environment and for the people living in our environment in Australia for decades to come, doing so at a national level but through that carbon pricing at an international level in leading to an emissions trading scheme that we will trade with other nations on, all in the name of reducing man-made pollution that we continue to contribute into our environment, with the detrimental effect that it is having on our sea-level rises and the ongoing effects that will have in other parts of our environment and on the people that live in it.

The recommendations have made it very clear that any streamlining and strengthening of environmental regulation has to take into account our national and international obligations. We have to look, therefore, way beyond what is currently before us. We have to look at the whole breadth of the issue of environmental law and the whole breadth of the Hawke review when we are talking about any kind of efficiency gains that we may want to achieve through environmental assessment processes. But clearly the approval bilateral agreements process is not one that is currently, as I understand it, on the COAG agenda. We have seen that the states are simply not in a capacity to do that. That should give some comfort to those campaigners, those that appeared before this inquiry, those that have worked in the environment and continue to do so each day, knowing that we are in fact at a point now where states and the federal government will not be reaching any kind of bilateral agreement position.

I am proud of Labor's commitment to working on environmental issues. We need to ensure that we have the best environmental regulations, because you only get really one shot at getting it right when you are talking about the environment. We have learned from the past mistakes that have been made in some areas of our environment when we have unwillingly seen decisions made such as in relation to Lake Pedder, to use my own state example again, which unfortunately was drowned, and I know there are still some campaigners out there who would like to see it drained. We have seen also some really important gains made by federal Labor governments who have a long record of standing up for the environment. That is something that I am very proud to see as we go forward in this century.