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Tuesday, 31 August 2021
Page: 5549


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (15:38): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I table an explanatory memorandum and seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I rise today in favour of the Federal Environment Watchdog Bill 2021, the Australian Greens' Bill which will establish a Commonwealth Environment Protection Authority.

Australia is a global leader in wildlife extinction. Our natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable. Our environment laws are failing to protect our wildlife and the Morrison Government not only has no intention of strengthening those laws, right now they want to weaken them.

It is shameful that Australia experiences some of the worst land clearing rates in the world and has been identified as a global deforestation hotspot by WWF International. And yet, the Morrison Government wants to make it even easier for mining companies and big developers to get approval for projects that will destroy the environment and harm our native animals.

Before the catastrophic climate fires over the 2019/20 summer, which saw 3 billion native animals killed or displaced, Australia already held the dishonour of worst mammalian extinction rate in the world, our wildlife was in crisis and needed urgent protection. But rather than do something to improve this dire situation for our wildlife and the environment, the Morrison Government ignored the recommendations of the once-in-ten-year statutory review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act1999 (EPBC Act), which reported later in 2020.

The reviewer, Professor Graeme Samuel AC was scathing in his findings and firm in his recommendations that the EPBC Act needed an overhaul to reverse the unsustainable trajectory our environment is on. He outlined a reform process that included strong environmental standards and an independent cop on the beat to enforce them.

This bill would deliver the latter. Professor Samuel stated in his interim report that:

'The current collaborative approach to monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance is too weak. Serious enforcement actions are rarely used, indicating a limited regard for the benefits of using the full force of the law where it is warranted. When they are issued, penalties are not commensurate with the harm of damaging a public good of national interest. They do not provide an adequate deterrent.

A strong, independent cop on the beat is required. An independent compliance and enforcement regulator, that is not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth Minister, should be established. The regulator should be responsible for monitoring compliance, enforcement and assurance. It should be properly resourced and have available to it a full toolkit of powers.'

The establishment of an independent Commonwealth Environment Protection Authority that operates at arm's-length from Government to conduct transparent environmental assessments and inquiries as well as undertake monitoring, compliance and enforcement actions, has the backing of environmental stakeholders like the Places You Love Alliance and many of the 30,000 submitters to the Samuel Review.

Professor Samuel's recommendation followed a scathing assessment by the Auditor-General which found the environment department was failing to properly administer the EPBC Act including an absence of effective monitoring, reporting and evaluation arrangements for controlled actions. The Auditor-General's assessment of the government's management of the environment and our wildlife was scathing. The report shows the Environment Minister and the department have failed to protect the environment and are, simply put, incompetent.

Heads should have rolled over this ineptitude and failure of duty. If this was the Health Minister who had overseen the botched implementation and enforcement of health and safety regulations, they and the head of their department would get the sack. The environment should be no different. The report shows, it's not just incompetency, it's a lack of care and duty that has allowed the trashing of the environment.

The Morrison Government is intent on putting the interests of miners and developers ahead of clean water, critical habitat and the survival of our native animals. The government cannot guarantee that not one more hectare of critical koala habitat will be lost under their plan. They cannot guarantee that not one more sacred Aboriginal site will be blown up.

Enough is enough. There must be accountability, and it must be at the top. Not only do our environmental laws need an overhaul but clearly so does those who are in charge of administering them.

While countries around the world are pledging zero extinction targets and to protect 30 per cent land and 30 per cent sea to achieve it, the Australian Government is watching extinction after extinction occur on its watch. We need a zero extinction target, we need to protect at least 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our sea and we need strong environmental protections and an independent watchdog to hold governments, miners and developers to account if we are going to achieve those targets.

If we our natural places are not protected, the result will be more dead koalas, more pollution, more logging and more wanton destruction of environment and heritage.

If environment protection agencies are good enough for our states, why do we still not have a federal agency when it is the Commonwealth that is responsible for assessing matters of national environmental significance. It defies logic that 20 years after the establishment of the EPBC Act there would be no independent enforcement of those laws.

Without independence from the Minister and the political party they belong to, which is beholden to their political donors in the mining, development and logging industries our laws will never be upheld in the way they should.

To fail to enforce the laws is a death sentence for Australia's koalas and wildlife. The rest of the world is working out how to save the planet. Australia needs to join them with urgent action and this bill would be an enormous step. As Professor Samuel said, 'To shy away from the fundamental reforms recommended by this Review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places and the extinction of our most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems'. There's no time to waste, the parliament should do what the government will not and implement this bill and the very sensible and important recommendation of the Samuel Review.

Debate adjourned.