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Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Page: 97


Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (18:31): I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. This bill and the bill that was debated, I think, last year in this place, both seek to amend the EPBC Act and to implement the recommendations of the so-called Samuel review. The EPBC Act is now 21 years old. It was a creature of the Howard government and a welcome reinforcement of the Commonwealth's role in environmental policy in this country. It was a Labor government, I think, in 2008 that decided to put in place a statutory 10-year review of the act. The first one was done immediately under Dr Allan Hawke. Ten years on there was one done under Graeme Samuel, the former chair of the ACCC and a pretty highly regarded Australian.

There is no doubt, and I have heard many say it throughout the course of this debate, that our environmental challenges are very, very significant—there can be no doubt about that and I don't think anyone in this building is arguing otherwise—but so too are our economic challenges. We need to get the balance right. As the Samuel review noted, 'Our natural environment is in a state of decline and is coming under increasing threats from human and other behaviour.' But it is also true that investors are being held back by a complex and cumbersome regulatory regime. I say 'regimes', plural, very deliberately, because projects which trigger Commonwealth scrutiny face two very long processes. Firstly, at the state level. It can take years. Then, of course, at the Commonwealth level, where, again, the process can take years.

Given the impacts of COVID-19, as we, hopefully, work our way out of it—we're all fearing tonight that we might be going back into it—we are all acutely aware that it is now more important than ever to stimulate investment and nation building in this country.

Graeme Samuel made it clear that the EPBC Act, in its current form, is delivering neither for the environment nor for the economy and those who operate in our economy. He also concluded that it's not working or delivering for our traditional owners. That is something we must fix, and we must fix it collectively. We must find a greater level of bipartisanship on this issue if we're going to do this right and if we're going to do it in a timely way.

Twenty-one years ago, the Commonwealth decided to exercise its constitutional power to engage itself more heavily in the regulation of economic investment and its impact on our natural environment, and that was a very good thing. Since 2019, the centrepiece of national environmental law, replacing a number of Whitlam-era acts, has been the EPBC Act. I think it has served us pretty well, but it's certainly not serving us well enough in the 21st century. As required by law, we are reviewing it every 10 years. Everything we discuss tonight and in relation to the earlier bill—and there will be more bills—relates to the 38 recommendations that Graeme Samuel made.

Professor Samuel also warned that the act is not delivering for our traditional owners. This is something that has been missing somewhat, I think, in this debate. I haven't heard every contribution, but I think we need to have a broader discussion about it. I can see the solutions in this bill for regulatory burden, but I haven't yet been able to clearly identify what changes there are for our traditional owners. Is that further involvement of the traditional owners happening within the bilaterals? It certainly doesn't appear to be in the interim standards. How do we intend to ensure that our traditional owners are more engaged and have a greater say in the future of their lands?

The review offered thoughtful criticisms, I thought, of the complexity of the EPBC, its failure to protect our natural environment, the brake it's putting on jobs growth and, of course, its vulnerability to vexatious legislation, which is one of the things that will be dealt with in this review, if fully and properly implemented. Graeme Samuel also noted that the EPBC is trusted neither by business nor by the environmental groups. That in itself indicates to me that we have a problem that needs to be fixed. So particular attention has been given to that two-step system that I spoke about, and, of course, that's the focus of the debate we're having tonight: how we get to that one-touch system so that proponents go through only one regulatory system rather than two, but through a system in which the Commonwealth still dictates the terms.

The review found that Commonwealth environmental approvals for big resource projects take an average of three years, and that's after the years already invested through the state regulatory process. Indeed, the Minerals Council of Australia has estimated that a delay on greenfields projects can cost up to $47 million every month—not every year but every month. The Productivity Commission has also sounded the alarm, suggesting that the total cost of a one-year delay of a big project is between 17 and 18 per cent of its net present value. You don't have to be a mathematician to work out that, on a project worth $2 billion, that's a very significant amount of money. Graeme Samuel recommended that the current system's job-destroying duplication should be addressed by improving, strengthening and streamlining the capacity of the federal government to delegate Commonwealth approval functions to state governments under bilateral agreements, but only where state processes are of acceptable quality and projects will be assessed against new, stringent and enforceable national environmental standards. I think that's a very good point. I think people are rightly concerned that state regimes might not have the resources or the capacity to properly deal with some of these bigger projects. But that will be dealt with before the process. The Commonwealth will ensure that the state has the capacity, and, of course, the states, not unsurprisingly, will be asking the Commonwealth for some money to bolster their resources and their capacity. That should be the case and I have no doubt that will be the case.

A year on from the release of the interim report, it's time to get on with the reforms needed both to better protect our iconic natural assets and to deliver a much-needed boost for our economy. The impacts of COVID-19 demand a new urgency and should generate strong and timely multi-party parliamentary support for the legislation needed to introduce the interim national environmental standards that reflect the existing requirements of the act so that legal effect can be given to them, and strengthen and make more robust the bilateral framework that has existed since the creation of the EPBC Act.

I've heard some people say that the interim standards are somewhat less than the standards that existed under the Abbott government. That would set alarm bells off for me as well, I must say. But the fact is that there were no standards under the regime of the Abbott government. These are the interim standards ahead of the introduction of the final standards. These standards are new and are an important and necessary part of the process of delegating the Commonwealth powers to the states.

We must remember that this concept of interim standards went to the national cabinet and that the national cabinet agreed unanimously that interim standards which reflect the current law should be in place so that we can get on with the job and provide protections that are no less or more than the current protections that someone would expect under the settings of the current act. I think that with the unanimous support of the national cabinet we should give very serious consideration to that. We cannot wait for the appropriate amount of time that would be necessary to put in place the final standards before taking the regulatory burden from some of these projects.

I have listened to many of the contributions and very few people have really talked directly about the act that is before us in the parliament tonight and today. I suspect that, when this bill goes to the Senate, it will be dealt cognately with the earlier bill—the streamlining environmental approvals bill. I think that would be appropriate. The key points that we need to focus on here are what emerges out of these two bills, not all the other general range of propositions that come out of the Samuel review per se. These are the things that we need to be focusing on and, on that basis, I think it's time for the parties generally to make a commitment to getting on with the job while at the same time, of course, expecting no less than the highest of standards that we can boast about and be very proud of when talking to our international partners in international fora.