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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7300

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (14:46): My question is to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis. I refer to the Attorney-General's proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and criticism from the National Farmers Federation president, Mr Brent Finlay, who says:

Limiting the test of legal standing to landholders who are subject to immediate impacts is … not sufficient as the effects of some major projects can be felt beyond the immediate vicinity of neighbouring farms, which implies that broader standing is warranted.

Does the minister agree?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:47): No, I do not. I know Mr Finlay—I know Mr Brent Finlay quite well and I have a very high regard for him—but on this occasion I do not agree. Might I remind you, Senator Singh, that all the government proposes to do by reform of section 487 of the EPBC Act is to restore the traditional common law position. As you, Senator Singh, know the traditional common law position, which applies across the entire gamut of Commonwealth law, is that a person with a direct or an indirect interest has standing to approach the courts and there is a body of legal principles that have been developed by the courts over many, many years that define very clearly what constitutes a direct or indirect interest.

Uniquely, section 487 of the EPBC Act says you do not have to have an interest; you do not have to have a direct or an indirect interest in a particular decision in order to challenge a ministerial decision in court. All you have to do is be somebody who, within the previous two years anywhere in Australia, has participated in some form of environmental or conservation related activity. You have asked me this question, or a like question, before and I quoted to you from the vigilante litigants' charter in which those who are determined to try and crash important development projects in Australia have announced their intention to use the court in a vexatious way—not in order to achieve a legitimate litigation outcome, but in order to achieve a political outcome. That particular abuse of the system is what the government has decided to stop.

Senator SINGH ( Tasmania ) ( 14:49 ): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the Attorney-General agree with the Law Council of Australia, which says that the EPBC Act:

… had operated effectively, had not opened the floodgates to litigation, and should be maintained.

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:49): Senator Singh, you should visit Central Queensland.

Senator Canavan: Hear, hear!

Senator BRANDIS: Finely represented by Senator Matt Canavan, a citizen of the great city of Rockhampton. You should visit Central Queensland before you ask questions like that, and you should see the despair in the faces of people in that part of Australia, because the Adani project at the Galilee Basin—

Senator Singh: Changing the whole law for one project!

Senator BRANDIS: Do not make light of it, Senator Singh! A project that was to Central Queensland what the Olympic Dam was going to be to South Australia has been brought, at least temporarily, to a holt by vigilante litigants with no interest in Central Queensland, no interest in the economy or the prosperity of Central Queensland and no interest in jobs in Central Queensland because of an abuse of process facilitated by a bad section.

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (14:50): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I think I know the answer to this by now from your previous answers, but I would like to get it on the record. Do you, Attorney-General, stand by your commitment to amend these provisions of the EPBC Act to prevent Australians engaging in, as you quote, vigilante litigation to stop important economic projects.

The PRESIDENT: We have been sailing very close to the wind with this question about anticipating matters on the Notice Paper. That was a little bit too close there, Senator Singh, but if the Attorney can couch his answer in such a way that we do not impinge on that standing order—

Senator Wong: The question was about the Attorney's commitment.

The PRESIDENT: It was, but it did go into some specifics about the act.

Senator Wong interjecting

Senator Ian Macdonald: You're not arguing with the President are you?

The PRESIDENT: Order on my right! The Attorney-General is aware of the standing orders and I think the Attorney-General might be able to answer that question with that in mind.

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:51): It is the government's intention to proceed with the reform of the EPBC Act along the lines I have indicated.