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Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Page: 3629


Mr HUNT (FlindersMinister for the Environment) (09:01): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I am announcing a major step forward in the government's commitment to reduce red tape. Duplication in environmental regulation between the Australian government and states and territories adds an unnecessary burden to business, increasing the administrative and compliance costs and delaying projects. We are lifting that burden where it achieves the same environmental outcome, providing faster approvals and a simpler process which will deliver productivity benefits for the country.

Approval bilateral agreements have always been a feature of the EPBC Act since it was first passed in 1999. This government are now implementing the efficiencies envisaged when the EPBC Act was first drafted. We are now delivering on the original intent, construction and structure of the EPBC Act.

The government has been working closely with states and territories to negotiate the approval bilateral agreements that will implement this policy. When the policy is fully implemented, state and territory governments will, for the first time, be able to make a single approval decision that accounts for both state matters and matters of national environmental significance. This will dramatically simplify environmental approvals and remove unnecessary bureaucracy, while maintaining the high standards set out in the EPBC Act.

Today, I announce I am releasing draft approval bilateral agreements with New South Wales and Queensland for statutory public consultation. I would like to thank the Queensland and New South Wales governments, who recognise that ensuring swifter decisions will have a positive impact on investment and jobs, and that maintaining high environmental standards is a priority.

The government agrees that decision making should be the responsibility of the most appropriate level of government. State and territory governments have responsibility for land and water management in Australia. They have processes in place for evaluating the environmental impacts of development proposals consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development, and this is also consistent with the constitutional principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to those who are affected by those decisions.

Where state and territory processes meet the high standards set out in national environmental law, I can accredit them under the EPBC Act. There is more than one way to deliver efficient processes that protect the environment. It is only sensible that bilateral agreements be tailored to reflect state processes, while still providing for the outcomes sought by this government and expected by the wider community.

The Australian government remains responsible for ensuring that the objects of the EPBC Act are met and environmental standards are fully and completely maintained. We have developed an assurance framework that will give us, and the Australian public, complete confidence. The framework is built on accreditation standards under the EPBC Act. It is given effect by approval bilateral agreements and accreditation of state processes. The reform will also improve our ability to track and report on matters of national environmental significance and the environment by making more information publicly available. The reform is good for the economy and even better for the environment.

Consistent with our commitment to improve the economic climate for business while protecting the environment, we will continue to work with states and territories to bring all processes up to the national standard, and deliver increased strategic approaches that continue to streamline regulation.

Better standards, faster processes, streamlined regulation—this complements our wider environmental regulatory reform policy agenda such as our audit of environmental regulation, and the work of the House Standing Committee on the Environment.

The one-stop shop policy is breaking new ground in improving the way that Australia ensures the protection of our environment and a more productive economy.

Amendments

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014 (the bill) amends the EPBC Act to facilitate the efficient and enduring implementation of the Australian government's one-stop shop reform for environmental approvals.

This bill makes amendments to clarify the existing provisions of the EPBC Act to help ensure the durable operation of the one-stop shop and provide certainty for business. None of the amendments change or reduce the standards that state and territory processes must meet in order to be accredited under bilateral agreements, and indeed in appropriate cases, states are actually lifting their standards either through procedural steps or legislative steps to be in accord with the highest of Commonwealth standards.

Water Trigger amendment

This bill includes an amendment that will allow me to include the 'water trigger' in the things state and territory approval decisions can cover under bilateral agreements. We are keeping the water trigger but we are simplifying its assessment.

Currently, the EPBC Act does not allow for the accreditation of a state or territory process for the purpose of approvals relating to large coalmining and coal seam gas developments that are likely to have a significant impact on a water resource. This means that at the moment coal seam gas and large coalmining developments must go through two separate approval processes and often need to comply with two sets of conditions. My experience to date has been that this has been an overwhelming case of duplication without adding to the environmental benefits or outcomes. This bill will remove this restriction on single processing. Importantly, it will not remove the water trigger itself. The same environmental standards remain. It will create a consistent approach to all matters of national environmental significance: where state approval processes meet the high environmental standards, they can be accredited.

Including the water trigger in approval bilateral agreements is important for establishing a one-stop shop for environmental approvals. With these amendments, based on past projects, it is anticipated that almost all large coalmine and coal seam gas projects would benefit from streamlined approvals under the one-stop shop whilst maintaining the highest Commonwealth standards.

Providing a single approval process for the water trigger will reduce the dead-weight regulatory burden on business while ensuring that high environmental standards are fully, completely and absolutely maintained. Robust environmental assessments of these actions will continue to be required. It is fundamental. But they will be delivered through a single assessment and approval process by the states. This will provide more certainty for investors with a simpler, streamlined regulatory system which is good for Australia's international investment reputation.

Under the current regulatory framework, there have been delays between the granting of state and territory and Australian government approvals. Delays are typically between 30 and 40 days, but can be longer. I have to inform the House that when I came into office I found 50 water-trigger decisions in the bottom drawer, which had simply been put aside after the law was changed by the previous government and not progressed, not processed, not assessed and not concluded. We dealt with those within the first week of coming to office. I applied the water trigger to 47 out of those 50 processes—in many cases, over the disagreement of the proponents. But I had no hesitation in upholding and applying the Commonwealth standards. What I did reject was the practice of changing the law, requiring a process and then simply filing it in the bottom drawer. These delays, which we have seen, can result in a significant gap between the state and the Australian government approval decisions with real, genuine and profound economic consequences. They affect the long-term viability of a process, a program or a project by reducing the net present value.

If this project were covered under the one-stop shop, this type of delay would be avoided. Streamlined regulation is good for the economy, with lower costs and fewer delays for industry.

To ensure that the states and territories have the best available scientific information when making approval decisions for these projects, I am also proposing what I consider to be an extremely important amendment to allow all states and territories to request advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. This will ensure that comprehensive environmental assessments can continue to include robust and independent science. The Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development has been a genuine improvement and addition to the assessment process. It is something we believe in. It is something which we have supported and which we will continue.

The community can then have confidence that the impacts on water resources from large coalmining and coal seam gas developments will continue to be subject to rigorous assessment and approval processes.

I also want to deal with technical amendments to facilitate the implementation of bilateral agreements.

This bill also makes a number of technical amendments to provide certainty about the operation of bilateral agreements under the EPBC Act. These amendments will ensure that bilateral approval agreements are robust and durable and that they provide long-term certainty for business and the community.

The bill will provide certainty for proponents about the practical operation of the bilateral agreements. It will remove the need for proponents to make unnecessary referrals to the Commonwealth.

The act currently provides for agreements to be suspended or cancelled in extreme circumstances. In the unlikely event that this occurred, the amendments will ensure that the Commonwealth can follow the most efficient process to progress projects already being assessed, without duplicating state or territory processes. In short, there is an assurance mechanism where if the Commonwealth minister of the day is not satisfied that due and proper process and consideration has been followed that there is an effective right to step in to deal with impropriety or failure to adhere to appropriate standards.

These amendments also recognise that states and territories have set up their processes in ways that best reflect the circumstances in their state or territory. These technical amendments will ensure the focus of accreditation is on the process meeting the highest environmental standards, rather than on technicalities. The amendments also clarify that, in addition to the terms of the bilateral agreement, I can take into account all matters, such as state or territory policies and plans, that I consider relevant when deciding whether to accredit a state or territory process.

In addition, a new provision to provide ongoing certainty to the community about the operation of the agreement will allow bilateral agreements to remain in force when state and territory governments make small changes to legislation and processes, where the substance of the arrangement or process continues to meet the highest Commonwealth environmental standards. The amendments will also allow bilateral agreements to refer to and incorporate documents, such as policies and guidelines, which change over time. This is particularly important to ensure that environmental decisions reflect the latest science and best practice.

Conclusion

This bill demonstrates the government's commitment to implementing genuine reform to deliver more effective and efficient regulatory processes while maintaining the highest Commonwealth environmental standards. It gives effect to the joint commitment of the Commonwealth and each of the states and territories for greater cooperation in environmental approval that will deliver productivity improvements and other substantial benefits for all Australians. The reform is good for the economy and good for the environment. It is precisely the sort of step and agreement which was contemplated when the EPBC Act was formed in 1999, and what it does is redress a regulatory creep, a legislative creep, which was never intended, which was never part of the initial conception of the act and which has seen duplication and the loss of time replace the original intent of efficiency.

In providing for a streamlined and outcomes focused approach to environmental approval, these refinements to the EPBC Act will reduce regulatory burden and remove the red tape that currently restricts our ability to realise the long-term ecologically sustainable economic, business and infrastructure development opportunities from which we will all benefit, but it does so against a guarantee that the highest national environmental standards will be maintained and enforced and implemented.

I commend this bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.