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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 336

Senator COULTER (10.49 a.m.) —Last night when we left this matter, we were dealing with the preamble. We were dealing with the preamble because of the unusual structure of this bill, which anticipates in the preamble a number of clauses further on. And because we have suggested amendments, which have been circulated, we had to give some indication in the preamble of what those amendments would be and the preamble itself had to be amended.

  We have already reached the stage where the minister who was in the chamber last night, Senator Bolkus, has indicated that the government will not accept the amendments.

Therefore, I have indicated that we will be dealing with the preamble, including the amendments to which it refers. I had already dealt with the first of the three items dealt with in the amendment to the preamble, namely, that the preamble should remove reference to taking into account regional environmental differences in Australia.

  I was picking up some of the points which had been made by the opposition in which it was positing that Australia, under its state governments, was looking after the environment extremely well. I was making the point that that flew completely in the face of all the evidence. Land degradation continues apace in Australia despite the efforts which have been made to reverse it. Salinisation continues. We have the worst loss of species of any of the developed countries in the world. We have feral animals charging right across the landscape, creating enormous havoc and not, of course, being confined by state boundaries. We have water quality deteriorating.

  Several years ago we had 1,000 kilometres of the Darling River seriously contaminated with blue-green algae to the extent that it could not be used for water supplies either for humans or cattle. Recently, there was in Sydney a conference on the air quality in that city that indicated that many of the very alarming contaminants, such as benzine and other cyclic and polycyclic hydrocarbons, in the air in Sydney were at totally unacceptable levels.

  Yesterday, Senator Knowles claimed that somehow or other the states were doing a good job. That was simply a nonsense. Moreover, the second leg of Senator Knowles's argument was that the need for regional differences was to give ordinary citizens a chance to have an input at the local level—at the state government level. Again, this flies in the face of the survey to which I drew attention in my speech at the second reading stage: the ANOP survey in 1991, in which people were asked whether they supported national—and I stress `national'—environmental standards being set by the Commonwealth. Over two-thirds of the public of Australia, 68 per cent, including people from all states, argued that yes, the Commonwealth had that responsibility.

  These are the reasons, quite contrary to the spurious and rhetorical statements made by the opposition, why we should have national standards set by the Commonwealth government—but with the opportunity for input. Yesterday, Senator Sherry asked whether Senator Knowles had even read the legislation. There are sections here which clearly allow for public input when the national EPC seeks to promulgate a new standard. Those provisions are framed in such a way that they provide for the states, local government, conservation and other interested groups, and individuals, to have an input. But I stress that it is not appropriate to give the states the right of veto. I want to return to this point in a moment.

  That leads on to the second of those changes which we are recommending, that is, the provision for non-government environmental organisations to have observer status—and I stress `observer'—on the National Environment Protection Council. That is extending the concern which the opposition has expressed in relation to the public having an input to this process. This would be an additional facility by which the non-government organisations could have an overview of the deliberations.

  The bill says that the council, in dealing with environmental impact statements and in dealing with submissions from the public in relation to these promulgated standards, must take these things into consideration. It is appropriate that non-government organisations have observer status to see that that is properly administered. That observer status would guarantee that those things were properly considered, that those submissions were taken into account, and that the processes of the EIS were properly considered. That is a further mechanism which would meet some of the objections which Senator Knowles and other members of the opposition mentioned yesterday.

  We are recommending that if a state or territory withdraws from the agreement—and this will also apply if a standard was agreed to and a state then failed to implement that standard, and effectively was withdrawing from the implementation of the standard—the Commonwealth could withhold 25 per cent of the general purpose grants to finance the Commonwealth action which would be necessary to ameliorate any adverse environmental consequences of that withdrawal.

  For instance, if the state of Queensland were to withdraw from a standard in relation to air quality and that was clearly damaging the health of the people of Brisbane, say, in relation to motor vehicle emissions, and the standard was imposed by the Commonwealth and there were costs associated with it, then the Commonwealth would have the right under this suggested legislation to withdraw 25 per cent of the general purpose grants—not 25 per cent of general purpose grants in a general sense, but specifically to finance the Commonwealth action which would be necessary to ameliorate the adverse environmental consequences of the withdrawal of that state.

  It seems to us that the Commonwealth, in framing this legislation, has bent over backwards to give the states this right of veto—and I use that word quite deliberately—to the extent that we have on the table this government amendment which says that, if complementary legislation does not go through the states in the next 12 months, this whole legislation falls down and we are back to square one, we are back to where we were several years ago when this process began, and, indeed, we are even farther back than that because the National Environmental Protection Council is something that we should have had 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

  The federal government has gone out on a very shaky limb on this one. Given the fact that that is the case and that the legislation may fail, the Democrats are in the difficult position of asking ourselves whether we should accept this crumb or whether we should indeed go after the whole loaf.

  Our position is quite unequivocally that the Commonwealth has the responsibility to set these standards. It should get on and do it. It should certainly consult with the states. It should certainly allow individuals and groups broadly across the community to have an input into those standards through some EIS-type process or some other process, but should not give to the states this right of veto.

  Because this legislation is so weak, because it is another nail in the coffin of proper national standards and because it is again giving some authenticity, some legitimacy, to this stupid process of an intergovernmental agreement—which, of course, was a cop-out by the former Prime Minister to allow him to wash his hands of all responsibility when things fell over—we are in a very difficult position in deciding whether to accept this crumb, which may in fact prove not even to be edible, or whether to go for the whole loaf.

  In view of the fact that the government has now indicated that it is not prepared to accept any of these amendments, I am indicating that the Democrats will be voting against this legislation at the third reading stage. I move:

1.Preamble, page 2, at the end, add the following paragraph:

"That Agreement is reflected in, and implemented by, the provisions of this Act, subject to three modifications which are designed to make the objects of the Act more readily obtainable first by removing references to the taking into account of regional environmental differences in Australia, secondly by providing for non-government environmental organisations to have observer status on the National Environment Protection Council Committee, and thirdly by providing for any State or Territory which withdraws from the Agreement to repay to the Commonwealth up to 25 per cent of general purpose states grants, to finance Commonwealth action necessary to ameliorate any adverse environmental consequences of that withdrawal."

If the amendment to the preamble fails, quite clearly I will not bother to put the other amendments because they are consequential to the amendment to the preamble and therefore would be irrelevant.