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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10242


Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:17): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy. Last week Sir David Attenborough and 32 other world renowned UNEP Global 500 laureates begged the Australian government to retain its power to protect Australia's national environment and not to delegate it all to the states. They said the government should 'avoid, at all costs', the devolution of the government's environment powers. This comes on the heels of Tim Flannery's Quarterly Essay, which predicts a second wave of species extinctions throughout Australia. How is the government's handover of federal environmental powers to Campbell 'we're in the coal business' Newman and Barry 'shooters in national parks' O'Farrell going to prevent this extinction crisis?

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:19): Thank you, and I wish you a Merry Christmas, Mr President.

Senator Abetz interjecting

Senator Birmingham interjecting

Senator CONROY: I am sure Senator Birmingham is champing at the bit. My apologies for acknowledging the interjection. The government is working closely with the states and territories to implement the COAG agreements to meet the deadlines of developing standards by December 2012 and agreeing on new bilateral arrangements for the accreditation of assessment and approval processes by March 2013. These reforms are about eliminating duplication and making processes more efficient for business. They are not about reducing standards or winding back environmental protection. High environmental standards will be maintained and businesses will benefit from reduced regulatory burden.

The EPBC Act has made a significant contribution to environmental regulation in Australia. These COAG reforms are consistent with the government's commitments made in response to the independent review of the EPBC Act that Minister Burke announced on 24 August 2011.

Senator Abetz interjecting

Senator CONROY: Yes, from the minister involved, given that I am representing him. You are very observant, Senator Abetz, as always. The Australian government is involved with the national agenda for reform of environmental regulation. The minister announced the government's response, and the environmental department and Minister Burke have pursued these reforms actively, consulting with many groups, including the Business Advisory Forum prior to COAG. The COAG process is continuing, and if there is any further information that is available to assist the senator I will seek it from Minister Burke.

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:21): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, you said that the federal government will require the states to meet standards of environmental protection, but no standard in the world will change the fundamental approach of state governments to put short-term economic gain ahead of environmental protection. So, when will you stop selling out Australia's environment to the highest bidder?

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:21): I fundamentally reject the premise of the question. The standards will ensure that high environmental outcomes are maintained. On 2 November 2012, the minister released a draft framework of standards for accreditation. The draft standards, along with the accompanying statement of environmental and assurance outcomes, were released so that people could be clear on what the draft standards were and the approach the government would take to the negotiation of the bilateral agreements with states and territories, and to ensure there were no omissions.

The draft standards are the foundational rules for the negotiations. They are about keeping the bar high, and making sure Australia's environmental protection standards are maintained.

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (14:22): I have a further supplementary question. Martin Ferguson was on Inside Business a couple of weeks ago, spruiking the Australian government's desire to roll out an even fluffier red carpet for the mining industry. He said that the main way the government was achieving this was through this handover of environmental powers to the states. How much is Martin Ferguson, as the mouthpiece for the mining industry—

The PRESIDENT: You need to refer to a person in the other place by their correct title.

Senator WATERS: How much has Minister Martin Ferguson, as the mouthpiece for the mining industry, driven this agenda to destroy environmental protection?

Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:23): I had the good luck on that particular Sunday morning to be watching the television and I saw Minister Ferguson. I do not recall him mentioning fluffy regulations and handing things over. So I do not think the basis of your question has any merit at all. It almost resembles an opposition question, in that it seeks to denigrate rather than actually ask a question. I do not think there is anything for me to follow up on with Minister Burke, but if there are any follow-up questions I would happily seek further information.