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Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Page: 9408


Senator THORP (Tasmania) (16:18): I rise today to clarify the Gillard government's plans to cooperate with all state and territory governments to develop sound environmental policy. We must ensure that Australia's wild places and vulnerable species continue to be respected and protected against the enduring challenges they face from future development proposals by Australian businesses and, in particular, the mining industry.

The Gillard government treats any amendment to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act very seriously. The government will always face scrutiny if it does not, particularly from those who I believe possess the strongest ecological conscience and passion to protect our environment—the Tasmanian people and the Tasmanian representatives in this place. As a proud Tasmanian, I know how fortunate I am to be surrounded by breathtaking coastlines and forests. I also know how important it is to protect the most intact and undisturbed natural areas of our land. I therefore accept and appreciate the broader concern for the protection of national wild places and vulnerable species expressed by Senator Waters on behalf of the Australian Greens.

The reality is that we must find a balance between the continuing fight for greater environmental protection and the need to allow development to take place in order to move our nation forward. In order to prosper, Australia must maintain a stimulated economy which has the capacity to benefit all Australians, whether they are able to participate in and benefit from our economy or not. This is why protecting our environment, while ensuring that our economy continues to develop, is a clear and valued priority of this government.

On 24 August 2011, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities released the government's response to the independent review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as part of a broad package of reforms of Australia's national environment law. Announcing the reform package, the minister said that these reforms would deliver better environmental protection focusing on whole regions and ecosystems and faster environmental assessments, provide a consistent national approach to environmental impact assessments that removes duplication and cuts red tape, and provide better up-front guidance on legislation requirements, with more long-term certainty and transparency.

In order to stimulate our economy, we must listen to the needs of Australian business—that is true. We must act to reduce barriers for business, such as removing duplicate regulation that does not need to be there. On 13 April, the Council of Australian Governments released a plan to implement forward-planning changes to federal and state environmental laws. Environmental issues have a tendency to attract emotional and irrational responses, and therefore I must clarify for those concerned the reality of the impact these changes will have.

The Gillard government's plan at the upcoming COAG meeting in December is to develop policy which balances these two national priorities while clarifying and enhancing the accountability of decision makers determining the outcome of development proposals.

Be assured that the government has no desire to weaken or water down existing environment protections. Since it delivered its response to the Hawke review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act last year, the government has been working hard to deliver simpler environmental protection policies. The Australian federal government boasts very high environmental standards—standards of which, as a nation, we should be very proud. We know that the responsibilities shared between state and federal governments have become increasingly fluid, as policy issues that arise today were not able to be foreseen in the early 1900s, when our Federation was established.

When our federal system begins to struggle with inefficiencies due to excessive green tape, because of practices that duplicate the approval process, we must reassess existing policy and make amendments. The Hawke review identified the need for greater cooperation between the Australian, state and territory governments in delivering a better environmental law system. The review recommended using existing provisions of the EPBC Act and developing standards to enable bilateral agreements on approvals with the states and territories. The government has been working cooperatively with all states and territories to provide a basis for developing bilateral agreements that deliver a streamlined assessment and approval process based on high environmental standards.

The Gillard government's plan to reduce green tape around approval requirements by both state and federal governments will not come at a detriment to the environment. Environmental protection is not being thrown out the window in favour of development. In fact, it is quite the opposite. All development proposals will continue to be subjected to environmental protection guidelines and policy. Each proposal will be rigorously assessed for its foreseeable and likely impacts on protected and vulnerable species as well as important wild places in Australia. The government will retain overall responsibility for protecting matters of national environmental significance and will be able to focus on setting the national environmental policy agenda, including influencing state outcomes, landscape scale and strategic approaches to environmental conservation and investment in Australia.

A strong assurance framework is being and will continue to be built into the bilateral agreements under discussion with states and territories. This framework will ensure that states must demonstrate how their environmental decision making is complying with national environmental standards. If states do not or will not, then the decisions will remain with the Commonwealth environment minister.

The purpose of these amendments is to remove regulatory duplication in order to encourage investment and increase productivity. We know that today we are living in a fast-paced world. It is therefore vital that our regulatory system be equally fast and reactive to the desires of Australian businesses. If government has the capacity to legislate to promote greater certainty for business in a time of uncertainty for our economy, then we should. If government can legislate to encourage an increase in development proposals and activities, then we should. And if government can encourage and secure investment in Australia and create more Australian jobs for the Australian people, then we should.

It was the Gillard government who asked the COAG Business Advisory Forum what it considered to be 'nuisance regulations', and it is the Gillard government who listened. Nuisance regulations are those that are duplicated at both a state and a federal level or those which are considered to have no real purpose. Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd considers the goal to remove the duplicate approval process by state and federal governments to be a big step forward—a step forward that has the capacity to have a very real impact on supporting businesses that operate in Australia and assist productivity and competitiveness at a time when we are experiencing a high Australian dollar.

The purpose of the Gillard government's plan is not to streamline environmental protection so that business and development proposals are met with the least resistance; the government's plan is to formalise an arrangement that already exists today. The Gillard government's plan will ensure that development proposals which are in keeping with environmental guidelines are able to proceed without being strangled by excessive green tape and passed back and forth between state and federal governments while investors and companies wait in uncertainty. The Gillard government has been working and will continue to work to deliver a simpler environmental protection plan—a system with clear standards, a system which allows for faster decision making and a system which ensures that our nation has both a healthy, protected environment and a strong economy.

On 2 November the Australian government released the draft framework of standards for accreditation under the EPBC Act. These draft standards underpin the government's approach to the reform process. They recognise the need for sound assurance mechanisms to ensure that the bilateral agreements continue to operate as intended and remain responsive. The draft standards have been released to provide people with the opportunity to see the approach the government is taking as we continue to negotiate with states and territories.

I must strongly affirm to the Senate that the government's plan at the upcoming COAG meeting in December is not about developing policy that will roll back our environmental protections. This December, COAG will receive an update on progress with discussion on bilateral agreements. Not one clause of existing environmental protection law is to be altered. The government's plan is simply concerned with removing unnecessarily duplicative and time-consuming processes.