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Monday, 9 December 2013
Page: 1994

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:38): I am glad for the opportunity to speak about the flaws contained in this bill, the Environment Amendment Legislation Bill 2013, which will undoubtedly weaken Australia's environmental protection framework. That framework has been painstakingly assembled, and it will be no surprise to anyone that it has largely been assembled by Labor governments. It is unfortunate that coalition governments at state and federal level, when it comes to the custodianship of Australia's environment, are inclined to err on the side of large commercial interests in relation to finding the right line between development and environmental protection, when it must be said that those commercial interests are quite capable of putting their own best foot forward and it is government's role, without question, to err on the side of environmental protection.

The environment is a part of the global commons that belong to all of us. Government is our representative and our voice in support of its appropriate care and conservation. As other members have noted, this bill essentially permits the minister to have less regard to the advice of conservation experts and it accords that advice much less weight or significance by removing the capacity for a decision made under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to be reviewable where a minister has not received or had regard to expert advice. On the face of it, such a change is hard to fathom. It is absolutely right that environmental assessments and decisions relating to development that has environmental impacts ought to be informed and guided by appropriate expert advice. Indeed, if there are shortcomings in the current system, in my view they lie more in the area around issues of independence in terms of professional environmental advice and assessments, especially with regard to those that are commissioned and paid for by development proponents.

The use of the Tarkine case as justification for this bill's weakening of basic environmental and administrative requirements is bewildering. In the Tarkine case the relevant advice was not provided to the minister. It was a departmental process failure, an administrative failure and not in any way a shortcoming of the current framework. Ultimately, the decision in Tarkine cured the administrative failure by requiring that the advice be provided so that it could be considered. This occurred and the decision was then properly taken. I think the average person in the street—the person who in English case law was once referred to as the 'man on the Clapham omnibus'—would see the folly of addressing the administrative shortcomings of a particular decision by altering national law to ensure that any future decision that suffers a similar administrative flaw can effectively be deemed valid.

The requirement that a decision maker have regard to certain facts, criteria, considerations or advice—as is the case under section 139 of the EPBC Act—is a very common feature of a properly structured decision-making process. If the failure to have appropriate regard to such advice has no consequences, what is the point of requiring the provision of such advice in the first place? If decisions that involve significant expertise can be made without regard to expert advice, what confidence can the public have in the quality of government decision making? If the regulatory framework is watered down to such a degree, how can anyone make a reasonable argument that the proper and necessary consideration is being given to environmental conservation and protection?

This bill extends to state governments the weakened scrutiny of potentially unacceptable impacts on the environmental and biodiversity values of an affected area. It will mean that, where a decision is delegated to a state government, the failure to take account of expert advice in making that decision will not affect its validity. Again, one has to ask: what is the point of requiring the provision of expert advice and requiring that it be paid due regard if in fact neither of those things are necessary ingredients of a valid decision?

In my home state of Western Australia we have seen the kind of decision that is made when develop-at-all-cost state governments preside over an insufficiently rigorous environmental assessment and protection process. In fact, we saw a state government decision taken in relation to the James Price Point gas hub proposal on advice from the Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority that was formulated despite four of the five EPA board members having recused themselves on the grounds of conflict of interest. The WA Supreme Court ultimately found the EPA and state government processes to have been fatally flawed. Prior to that decision, the EPA chairman, Paul Vogel, tried to allay concerns about the EPA process by reference to the provision of expert advice. He said, 'I actually have access to expert technical and scientific advice across the office of the EPA, the Department of Environment and Conservation and any other agency that I deem necessary to inform my decision.' The message here from the WA EPA chairman is that important decisions affecting the environment must be evidence based. Yet, with the changes that this bill contains, ministers—including state government ministers—will be able to make decisions without having received expert advice.

The coalition government is relying on a simplistic and reductive abhorrence of so-called red tape or green tape in tearing away the kinds of regulatory constraints that have been fashioned over some time and that exist for very good reason. These are the kinds of regulatory restraints that rightly meet the community's expectation that government policy, departments and ministers will rely on evidence, science and expert advice to protect and conserve the environment that we all share and that we all enjoy on trust for future generations. This bill uses a spurious excuse to make changes that abrogate government's responsibility to perform that protective role in relation to Australia's fragile and precious environment.

I would like to associate myself with the eloquent remarks by the member for Wills on this bill to the effect that we should be strengthening rather than weakening the protections in the EPBC Act. The member for Wills referred to many endangered species, including a number of parrots. I am especially pleased that he mentioned one of the most endangered species of all, the beautiful western ground parrot, which is one of the rarest parrots in the world and almost extinct. Unique to Western Australia, there are less than 110 of these parrots left and their numbers are declining fast. It is unspeakably sad to contemplate the extinction of a species, and I pay tribute to the Friends of the Western Ground Parrot for their efforts to raise awareness and funding for the preservation of the western ground parrot. I am also grateful for the contribution to the community debate on the need to strengthen the EPBC Act by the Places You Love campaign, including such organisations as the Australian Conservation Foundation, The Wilderness Society, WWF, state and territory conservation councils, national parks associations and EDOs, as well as many other groups. These organisations represent over 1.5 million Australians, people who love our wildlife, the natural environment and our national parks.

As parliamentarians we have a duty to look after our unique shared natural heritage. When the time comes to leave this place, this should be one of our most important legacies.