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Thursday, 25 February 2021
Page: 1957


Ms LEY (FarrerMinister for the Environment) (09:32): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is 20 years old and needs modernising to ensure Australia can meet current and future environment and heritage protection challenges.

The final report of the Independent Review of the EPBC Act was released on 28 January. The final report is far-reaching, with key reform elements including increasing efficiency by streamlining environmental approvals, to be underpinned by strong, legally enforceable national environmental standards and supported by strong assurance.

This will provide confidence that environmental assessment and approval systems are delivering outcomes for the environment, for business and for the community.

I again thank Professor Samuel for his dedicated work in undertaking a comprehensive and thorough process over a period of 12 months.

The Morrison government is committed to maintaining strong environment protection and ensuring the EPBC Act is serving its intent to both protect the environment and grow our economy. This is essential to support our COVID-19 recovery.

We have an opportunity to deliver key reforms that support clear and consistent protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects.

All states and territories have joined the Australian government in recognising the need for change recommended by the independent review and elsewhere.

Together leaders have agreed that the immediate priority for reform is to implement single-touch environmental approvals, underpinned by national environmental standards that reflect the current requirements of the EPBC Act.

In August last year, I introduced the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill into the parliament.

The purpose of that bill is to ensure that bilateral agreements and the accreditation of state authorisation processes, which give effect to single touch approvals, are legally robust and durable.

This is an essential step in implementing the commitment made by national cabinet.

The bill I introduce today, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, further demonstrates that the Morrison government is stepping up to, not away from, its environmental responsibilities.

It has always been the intention of the government that bilateral agreements with the states and territories will be underpinned by strong, Commonwealth-led, national environmental standards. The bill delivers on this commitment by establishing a framework to make legally enforceable, national environmental standards.

Standards will provide greater clarity for proponents and the community, as thousands of pages of rules will be distilled into clear and concise requirements.

This will increase efficiency for proponents and support improved community understanding of the EPBC Act.

The government's amendments to the EPBC Act will require the interim standards to be reviewed within two years.

This review point is an opportunity to ensure that we are getting the balance right between developments that are necessary for our economic recovery and protecting the environment.

I have made a commitment to stakeholders that this is a starting point, and I am determined to use the interim standards and the goodwill of all stakeholders around the table to drive change. This process will continue immediately following the passage of the legislation.

National environmental standards are a fundamental change to Australia's national environmental law. In the first instance, the government is prioritising the development of interim national environmental standards for matters of national environmental significance, reflecting the existing requirements of the EPBC Act. This will make the Commonwealth's existing rules clear.

These interim standards will ensure that Commonwealth requirements and obligations are upheld—regardless of who makes project approval decisions.

This is the first step. Bilateral agreements underpinned by the interim standards will harmonise environmental approval requirements across all jurisdictions.

What is expected of me as the Commonwealth environment minister when making approval decisions under the EPBC Act will also be expected of state and territory decision-makers under bilateral agreements.

This framework will pave the way for future change. Over time, as more information becomes available, the standards will be reviewed and refined to have greater specificity and will more clearly and consistently set out the limits that define acceptable impacts on environment and heritage matters and the outcomes that need to be supported by decision-makers.

Bilateral agreements with the states and territories will be underpinned by national environmental standards. States and territories that want to be accredited under the EPBC Act to make approval decisions will need to demonstrate that their systems can support the national environmental standards.

States and territories will have flexibility to find the best possible way to deliver these outcomes.

The bill will also allow the minister to determine which decisions under the EPBC Act the national environmental standards will apply to. This mechanism will allow the standards to apply to a range of different decisions under the act over time.

Once a decision has been determined to be subject to the national environmental standards, the person making the decision must be satisfied that it is not inconsistent with the standards.

The amendments allow the national environmental standards to be applied at a systems level, by setting out a range of factors that can be taken into account in determining whether a decision is not inconsistent with the standards.

These factors include, for example, policies, plans or programs of the Commonwealth, a state or a territory, or the funding of activities related to the environment or the promotion, protection or conservation of heritage, by the Commonwealth, a state or a territory.

There may be circumstances where it is in the public interest to make a decision that is inconsistent with the national environmental standards.

The amendments provide the minister, and only the minister, with the ability to do this. States and territories will not be able to make decisions that are inconsistent with the standards.

To ensure these decisions are transparent, the amendments will require the minister to publish a statement setting out the reasons why the minister was satisfied that the decision was in the public interest. The statement must be published on the department's website as soon as practicable after the decision is made.

Environment Assurance Commissioner

To provide oversight and confidence that single touch approvals systems are working as intended, are upholding the requirements of the EPBC Act and are achieving the national environmental standards, the bill also establishes a new, independent, statutory position—the Environment Assurance Commissioner.

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will be appointed by the Governor-General, will be independent and will not be subject to directions by the minister.

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will monitor and audit the operation of bilateral agreements, as well as the Commonwealth environmental assessment and approval processes under the EPBC Act.

As the audits are directed to the effectiveness of environmental assessment and approval systems, an audit could, for example, examine the effectiveness of accredited state or territory systems for making and enforcing approval decisions in achieving the national environmental standards.

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will not have a role in monitoring or auditing individual decisions. It is not a second decision-making body, and it is not a replacement for, or a precursor to, legal review processes for decisions.

The Environment Assurance Commissioner will be housed in the department and will be supported by dedicated resources. In addition to the preparation of annual work plans, the commissioner will have the capacity to proactively conduct unplanned audits where necessary.

The operation of the Environment Assurance Commissioner will be transparent. The commissioner's annual work plans and audit reports will be published on the internet, and the commissioner's annual reports will be tabled in the parliament.

By putting in place clear rules to support strong environmental outcomes and establishing assurance mechanisms to provide confidence in the overall environmental regulatory system, we are ensuring that the highest national environmental standards are met, regardless of who approves a project.

While the review concluded that the EPBC Act needed fundamental reform, it also recommended that this be pursued in staged tranches, taking time to deliver well-considered adjustments.

I have committed to working through the full details of the recommendations of the review. We will do this in consultation with business, industry, environment groups, farmers, Indigenous Australians, and states and territories to deliver lasting reforms to national environmental law.

With the streamlining bill and this bill, the government has commenced the first phase of reform, introducing amendments to establish the central pillars recommended by the review. These include the delivery of robust single-touch approval agreements that are underpinned by national environmental standards and subject to strong and independent assurance.

The Australian government is committed to delivering the reforms needed to improve the act, in a methodical, well-planned way.

Further phases of reform will build on these efforts and our ongoing discussion with stakeholders.

This process is too important to stall because not everyone can agree on where to start.

The fact is, we need to start.

We need a staged process, and we need reform.

I have presented the government's reform agenda in good faith and as environment minister I am confident that by starting this process we can deliver strong protection for Australia's unique natural environment. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.