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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 265

Senator CRANE (6.21 p.m.) —I rise to speak on the National Environment Protection Council Bill. I want to put on record a few concerns that I have with regard to this legislation and its potential impact. I believe that in dealing with people's environmental concerns this is a step backward, not a step forward. I say that for a number of reasons, the first being that it puts another level of bureaucracy in dealing with the various aspects of the necessary environmental controls and disciplines that are required. It is an expensive exercise, in my view. I also believe that it is toe in the door legislation. It is just the beginning of the intent of the government, although I do take note of the proposed amendment which means that in a short period the council could cease to exist.

  It is duplication in the sense that we already have ANZECC, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council, which is dealing with a number of environmental matters. Its target is to give consistency, not uniformity. I endorse the comments of my colleague Senator Knowles. She made reference to the fact that it is not practical to try to entertain uniformity for environmental disciplines across Australia. As we all know, or we should know, there are enormous differences in what is required in various areas.  I think this is the first step by the Commonwealth to remove from the states, and even from the administration of local governments and local people, their role in working out, with the right expertise, the way in which we should and need to travel with regard to conservation.

  I wish to talk about my state of Western Australia. We already have in place very significant controls and disciplines for the necessary environmental requirements when any project might be going forward. We already have in place a number of controls for managing the national estate, whether it be in the forest, on public lands or even on crown land, which set out what people can and cannot do. They are very stringent and strong controls. We have only to go through the processes, which I will not detail now, to know what rehabilitation processes a mining company has to commit itself to before it can development a mining site. I believe that this legislation will create more problems. I think we could probably see in some instances this type of approach—what I call the minimal approach—becoming the standard.

  I wanted to place on the record my concerns about certain aspects of this legislation. Hopefully, in time it will not come back to haunt us by, firstly, interfering with the proper processes of having proper environmental controls at a local level; and, secondly, interfering with the necessary requirements for having a balanced approach between development and the environment for sustainable development.

  It is worth noting that in Western Australia we already have an environmental protection authority which is very rigid in the application of what it does. It is also in the process of doing a number of things which rely on people's goodwill and volunteering to be involved. I will give one example of that. It is currently looking at wetlands on private land in Western Australia, and people are going into what is known as a category A to manage those wetlands in a certain way to preserve them.

  I have a little knowledge of this because I have some wetlands on my own property—a 100-acre lake. I have voluntarily agreed to put that lake under those particular controls. A lot of this work is going on. I believe that out of the government's approach we will see people becoming very concerned and hesitant to participate. It is one thing to deal with bureaucracy in one's own state; it is a totally different aspect to deal with it from Canberra. It will create an enormous amount of suspicion and concern and it will stop or interfere greatly with that cooperative approach which already exists.

  I have already mentioned the situation of ANZECC, and I want to know what this new council is going to do that is not already being done. I want to know what function the council can carry out for the coordination between the states in addressing particular problems, and dealing with New Zealand at the same time and developing a regional approach. My view is that there is nothing it can do that is not already being done. I also want to point out the role that the conservation and land management department has in Western Australia in dealing with certain environmental aspects, and also the division of resource management which is dealing with the landcare situation in Western Australia.

  I was fortunate last week—once again, I might add, but this time with the shadow minister for the environment, Ian McLachlan—to do a tour of Western Australia. It was very encouraging, particularly when we saw from the air some of the reclamation work that was being done in some of the catchment areas. I am the first to admit and acknowledge that there is a long way to go. However, we saw that problems have been identified and are being addressed—and successfully addressed. We also spent some time in the south-west looking at the development of plantation forests on both private and degraded public land.

  I recommend to anybody who happens to be lucky enough to come to Western Australia to take the time to look at some of the work, and they will see that these problems are being addressed. There is only one reason why they are being addressed in a successful manner, and that is that the work is being done by local people on the ground who live there. As soon as we start putting in place such things as what is here beyond the ANZECC position, increasing that bureaucracy, we are going to create another level of suspicion around this whole process.

  I have great reservations about this legislation. I do not believe that it will achieve what we are being told it will achieve. I also want to place on the public record some information I received from the Western Australian state minister, Kevin Minson. It seems that since 1990 there has been a change of position by the federal government, moving away from uniformity and towards consistency. While that, in itself, is a good thing, it does not mean there is still a necessity for this measure. We need to know what the government's long-term intention is. I will quote from the press statement put out yesterday by Mr Minson:

I am delighted that in a recent letter to me which he circulated, Senator Faulkner now says that it would not be sensible or practical to require identical environmental protection measures in all parts of the country.

Senator Faulkner must now also admit that there is no need to create his new El Supremo of pollution control, the proposed National Environment Protection Council (NEPC). It would be unnecessary, costly, inefficient and a whole new layer of government bureaucracy.

He wants harmonious measures instead of uniform ones. I agree with such an aim, achieved through existing federal processes such as the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council.

I have already mentioned the council. The press statement continues:

ANZECC, without NEPC, is already far advanced on a National Water Quality Management Strategy.

The original justification of NEPC given by the Commonwealth Government was that it was the only way to achieve uniform national standards and override State and Territory pollution control agencies.

Expertise and responsibility rest with the States. Senator Faulkner now also agrees that measures may vary across a State. It makes no practical sense to try to centralise control and make each State Environmental Protection Authority an agent of the EPA in Canberra or NEPC.

I think it is important that these concerns that have been expressed by a number of people on this side of the chamber are put on the record. It is also important that we get a commitment from the government in terms of this legislation that the bureaucratic process is not going to interfere with a lot of good work that is already being done across Australia—whether it has to do with protection of the environment, identifying some areas as pristine and to be left alone, or whether it has to do with sustainable development. My concern is that every time we put a costly level of bureaucracy into the process, we end up with a result that is not the right result and which impacts in the wrong way.

  Having raised those particular issues and concerns, I also note the amendment that Senator Ian Macdonald will move in due course. I particularly support this amendment because it will make this legislation much more sensible and it also emphasises the points that need to be made with regard to the amendments to be moved by the government. I suggest that those amendments have resulted from Senator Faulkner's somewhat changed position to that of the government's back in 1990 when the agreement was signed.