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Thursday, 5 December 1974
Page: 3178

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Media) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT-Is leave granted? There being no objection leave is granted. (The speech read as follows)-

This Bill seeks to improve consideration of environmental factors in the Government's decision making through use of the environmental impact statement technique and public inquiries. The Government's proposals reflect its belief that, in the past, insufficient attention has been given to environmental considerations when directions were being taken. The proposals we have developed should change this regrettable situation. This Bill also reflects the Australian Labor Party's belief in open government and public participation in decision making. The Bill will effect many facets of the Australian Government's activities; its operation will extend to every government department and authority. It is the most important piece of environmental legislation ever to be considered by the Parliament.

The environmental impact statement procedure introduced through this Bill represents a development and improvement of policies adopted by the previous Government in 1972. That Government had required impact statements to be prepared on environmentally important proposals being considered by Cabinet. In considering requests by State Governments for financial assistance for major development projects, the previous Government merely required assurance that associated environmental factors had been suitably investigated and taken into account. Under this legislation, the Australian Government will extend the impact statement requirement to cover any proposal in which it is involved and which is likely to have a significant effect on the environment, irrespective of whether or not it is a matter to be decided by Cabinet. In addition the requirement will be extended to cover proposals to which Australian Government funds are specifically directed and which are being developed by State or local government. Thirdly, the requirement will be extended to encompass proposals which involve the constitutional power of the Australian Government. For example, it will be used to ensure that the environmental effects of mining and woodchip proposals are thoroughly evaluated before any decision is taken on export licences.

Some may seize on these extensions and claim they represent an unnecessary intrusion into matters that are State responsibilities. This, of course, is not the case. These extensions merely use Australian Government constitutional powers which, because of the indifference of earlier government to environmental issues, were never applied. I might say, in fact, that I see very considerable scope for co-operation between the Australian and State Governments. In this respect, I am encouraged that all States except Western Australia are requiring, or developing procedures requiring, impact statements on matters that are their responsibility. Within the Australian Environment Council there has been basic agreement on what statements should cover. This will mean that where 2 governments are involved in examining a proposal, only one statement will be needed.

The Australian Government will have to rely to a large extent on State Government advice in assessing the environmental consequences of proposals in which it is involved and which are being developed in the States. But it is not obliged to accept that advice or to leave investigations only to the State authorities concerned. The extent to which it will rely on State environment authorities will depend on the confidence it has in those authorities, on its judgment of their independence and on the significance of the proposals from the national viewpoint. In developing the impact statement procedure we have noted difficulties that have accompanied its use in the United States. These have largely stemmed from mandatory requirements for statements and from procedures which result in too frequent a resort to the courts. We hope to avoid these difficulties, firstly, by making the impact statement requirement discretionary so that we can concentrate on the most significant proposals and, secondly, by incorporating the requirement into the normal process of governmental decision making.

Although we will be limiting the requirement in terms of the environmental importance of a proposal, we will not be Limiting its scope in terms of the type of proposal that could be the subject of a statement. Proposals to change a tax or subsidy, to change a tariff, to plan and develop a particular construction, to become a party to an international agreement, to build a new city, to purchase equipment or to commence or extend a forestry or agricultural operation, for example, could all be the subject of an impact statement. A considerable part of the Bill deals with public enquiries into matters of environmental concern. It is a very real reflection of our commitment to open government. Under the previous Government, impact statements were to be made public immediately after a Cabinet decision was announced and before the related legislation or appropriation was passed by the Parliament. These arrangements provided the public with the minimum opportunity to influence a decision on environmental grounds.

Under this legislation, except where specifically exempted by the Minister, public comment will be sought before a statement is finalised and before any decision is taken on the proposal concerned. Exemption from comment will occur only in isolated cases such as where publication of the impact statement could lead to land speculation or endanger national security. The public will be given a real opportunity to influence decisions. The detailed requirements for impact statements and hearings will be set out in procedures to be established under clause 6 of the Bill. These procedures will be tabled in the Parliament as soon as possible after this Bill has received royal assent. They will provide that responsibility for the preparation of the impact statement lies with the organisation putting forward the proposal concerned. The statement will be required to set out the need for the proposal, the objective of the proposal, the alternative means of reaching that objective and the environmental effects of these different alternatives.

Once a draft impact statement is complete it will then be subject to public scrutiny which will be achieved through advertising the availability of the document and seeking written comment upon it. In addition, where the environmental consequences of a proposal are considered to be particularly significant, or where there is considerable public controversy over these consequences, a public inquiry will be held. Following public scrutiny the impact statement will be finalised and submitted, together with the report from any public inquiry, to the Department of the Environment and Conservation for assessment. The assessment of the environmental consequences will be conveyed to Cabinet at the same time as the proposal itself is put to Cabinet for consideration. Thus we will ensure Cabinet considers the economic, technological and environmental consequences of proposals at the same time, before any decision is taken. The procedure will not give to environmental considerations a veto-power in decision-making. Environmental considerations will become an integral part of the information upon which a decision is taken. This is the first Bill of this type to be introduced into a Parliament in Australia. It represents a very significant step forward in contributing to the adequate protection of our environment and should be of real benefit to all Australians, irrespective of their occupation, their political outlook or their place of living.

Debate (on motion by Senator Carrick) adjourned.

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