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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 1903

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (12:33): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. For the benefit of listeners, the Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to address the implications arising from the Federal Court's decision in Tarkine National Coalition Inc. v Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, otherwise known as the Tarkine case, which the previous speaker referred to. It also provides additional protection for turtles and dugongs by increasing the financial penalties for various offences and for civil penalty provisions, and it amends the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 by providing additional protection for protected species under that act.

Protecting our natural environment is important as economic development to this country because it is about creating jobs and prosperity, and both are of equal importance to the nation and to government. The two are in fact compatible if managed responsibly. To this government the environment appears to be expendable whenever it is pitted against economic development. In fact, not just for this government but also for conservative state governments across the country, we are now seeing a clear track record where the environment seems to come off second best whenever it in any way impedes money-making ventures and development.

Sadly, what is not very well understood by many is that damaging the environment has, indeed, substantial economic consequences. The preamble to the Australian government response to the report of the independent review of theEnvironment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, otherwise known as the Hawke review, said:

… ecosystems deliver essential services worth between US$21 trillion and US$72 trillion a year, which is comparable with the 2008 World Gross National Income of US$58 trillion.

So around the world we can see that the economic value of maintaining and sustaining our natural environment is on par with the gross national income that is generated through economic development right throughout the world. In fact, it is a fool's gain to profit at the expense of a degraded environment.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Australia has experienced the largest documented decline in biodiversity of any continent over the last 200 years. Australia's rate of species decline is amongst the world's highest and is the highest amongst OECD countries. This is a matter I spoke about in June of this year when addressing a private member's motion that I raised in this place, criticising the conservative state governments of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria for allowing land clearing, cattle grazing, logging, prospecting and tourist activities in conservation areas where those activities presented a serious risk to the environment.

The Abbott government now seeks to reverse the World Heritage Listing of some 100,000 acres of Tasmania's Tarkine. As the shadow minister for the environment on our side—the member for Port Adelaide—quite properly alluded to, it has probably never occurred previously within this parliament that we have seen a reversal of the international listing of a World Heritage area.

The government is now going to defer some $650 million of Murray-Darling Basin water buybacks and is creating uncertainty about the additional 450 gigalitres of water that was to be returned to the system under the previous Labor government. I note that this decision will particularly affect the state of South Australia. I also note that, since the 7 September election, the Liberal members from South Australia have hardly said a word about this issue. Yet prior to the election and in the months leading up to the September federal election they were happy to wear the 'I love Murray' T-shirts in order to promote themselves as being champions of the cause of restoring water to the River Murray so that South Australia could receive its fair share of that water and so that the Lower Lakes in South Australia would not be left in the degraded state that they were in at the height of the drought a few years ago. So you take a particular stand before the election because you know that is what the people in South Australia expect from you, but, after the election, when you have been re-elected, you walk away from the commitments that you made leading up to the election—you backtrack on them, you start to withdraw the money that is required to create the water returns and you withdraw the money that is required to restore the additional 450 gigalitres which South Australians fought very hard for because it was so important and made so much difference to the final amount of water that flows into South Australia.

In fact, this agreement was reached after almost 100 years of bickering between all the states. It took the best part of six years of the Labor government's being in office to finally sign off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I will give credit to the opposition—the plan was initiated under the national Water Act 2007, under the Howard government. It started then, and it took us six years to finally get an agreement. We finally did get an agreement, and then we saw the new government walking away from it. It is all about an environmental matter. It is all about ensuring that the environment is treated as importantly as every other aspect of this country.

I have concerns about this legislation because it seems to be going down the path of walking away from environmental responsibilities. Firstly, the minister is no longer required to take into consideration certain environmental advice when approving ports, mines and housing developments. That in itself is concerning, because if the minister is not required to take into consideration certain environmental advice then, effectively, he has no particular accountability to the environmental standards that we set. In other words, the environmental consideration can become irrelevant to the minister's decision. There is no accountability mechanism if the minister is not required to take into account certain environmental considerations. Secondly, I have concerns because the minister is likely to rely on environmental assessments carried out by the state governments, who, in my view, have already displayed very poor form in protecting our environment. Last week the Prime Minister, in answer to a question without notice in this place, said that since coming to office his government had, in the previous eight weeks, given environmental approval for projects worth $160 billion. I have no idea which projects the Prime Minister was referring to, but I hope that the environmental assessments required for the approval of those projects were thorough and that the minister did not ignore any of the environmental consequences of those approvals which might have been brought to his attention.

I certainly welcome decisions where we get on with projects that have the necessary approvals, but I hope that they are done in a way that is consistent with the environmental obligations of any government and that we have not simply fast-tracked on the basis that this legislation is going to get through and that the minister is no longer required to take into consideration certain environmental advice when granting those approvals. It would be of interest to know exactly who provided the assessments to the minister on those approvals worth $160 billion. Was it done through the Commonwealth, was it done through state governments or was it done through the proponents? Whose advice did he rely on?

I believe the minister knows that this legislation is a backward step in managing our environment. The way he has gone about bringing it into this House is interesting. He brought in legislation, which I suspect he very much expects to be criticised for by the environmental groups around Australia, and he has done so by simultaneously connecting it to a bit of environmental legislation that protects turtles and dugongs. He is trying to sweeten the legislation or dress it up in an environmentally positive way by adding the protection for dugongs and turtles. I totally support any legislative aspects that go to the protection of dugongs and turtles. There is no question about that at all. However, if the minister were serious about the protection of dugongs and turtles, he could equally have come into this place with separate legislation focusing on and dealing with those two matters only.

Secondly, if he was serious about protecting the dugongs and turtles he would provide more resources to those very authorities and community bodies that currently exist to enable them to enforce greater compliance with the laws, because the problem with the dugongs and turtles is not that we do not have laws in place but that they are not being in any way policed by anyone. So simply increasing the penalties, as he has done, without providing the additional resources to monitor the laws becomes meaningless. I note that, in drawing up the additional legislation, the minister at no time consulted with the traditional owners: with the land and sea councils or with the Indigenous groups of the area who know best how to protect dugongs and turtles.

Putting $2 million into the Australian Crime Commission, as the minister has done, to investigate the illegal killing of turtles and dugongs is not the answer. A better answer would be to put that kind of money into supporting the local groups. One of the lessons that we learned through the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications, of which I have been a member for the last six years, was that if you want to best manage local environmental assets you do so by empowering the local community groups that have the expertise, the knowledge and the commitment to manage the very things that you want looked after. They are the people who are on the ground, they know what works best and they are the people that care the most. Yet that is not what this government seems to be doing.

Our environment around Australia and around the world is increasingly under threat from climate change—a matter I have spoken about on other occasions—from mining, from farming, from residential and commercial growth, from fishing, from construction and even from tourism. Wherever human activity occurs, the environment is always under threat. That is not to say that we cannot work compatibly with it; we can. But we need standards, and we need to ensure that those standards are complied with and met. We are working with the state governments to try to streamline the processes that are required to ensure that those proper environmental standards are achieved. I welcome the fact that we are working with the states, and I welcome the opportunity to try to streamline the processes and make them more efficient. What I do not want to see is streamlining coming into effect at the expense of good policy and at the expense of the environment.

A couple of years ago the Labor government commissioned a review of the EPBC Act. It was referred to as the Hawke review. Of the 71 recommendations put up by the Hawke review, none included the legislation that we are debating today. The most thorough review of that legislation did not incorporate the changes to the legislation that the minister is now proposing. For those reasons, I support the amendments moved by the opposition.