Speech - Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment

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16 June 2014

I rise today to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, which is before the House. 

This Bill amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to facilitate the delegation of environmental approval powers to state and local governments. The delegations allowed within this Bill include World Heritage listed sites, nuclear activities and approvals under the Water Trigger Amendment.

Divesting the Commonwealth government of its responsibility to protect environmental areas of national significance is not good policy. It is not good for the health and wellbeing of our planet and it is certainly not good for future generations. In practice, this Bill will allow state and local governments to determine the level of protection we afford to nationally significant environmental and heritage sites across Australia. It hands over the power to approve developments in some of Australia's most iconic and sensitive natural areas—including the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and Fraser Island—to the cash-strapped states and local governments. Handing Commonwealth power to the states would endanger some of our most sensitive natural areas and threaten biodiversity protection across Australia.

Only the Commonwealth has the mandate and capacity to consider the needs of the whole of Australia when approving projects that could affect the environment. A state government has no motivation to put the national interest before its own state interest when approving development within its own state. This Bill puts major environmental decisions in the hands of the current 'everything is for sale' state governments. We will have Campbell Newman, Premier of Queensland, waving in the ships to dredge and dump on the Great Barrier Reef. He will probably try and find a way to sell the reef while he is at it. Colin Barnett, Premier of Western Australia, a strong supporter of the controversial shark culls in WA, will now be in charge of the Ningaloo Reef. We will have Will Hodgman, Premier of Tasmania, axe and saw in hand, overseeing Tasmania's iconic World Heritage listed forests. These are premiers and state governments who have already proven that they do not have the capacity to make sound environmental conservation decisions. We most definitely should not be giving them more approval power to make decisions about our environment and sites of national significance.

These are state governments who are under significant budgetary pressure following the actions of this Abbott Liberal government. State governments have not held back from criticising this government for the cuts it has made to their own budgets—$80 Billion of cuts to health and education, and many other cuts, including to concessional programs for seniors. New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, for example, has warned that  New South Wales 'cannot absorb these cuts'.

With the federal government backing away from funding the states, governments across the country are looking for other ways to raise revenue and are selling our assets. In my electorate of Newcastle, the New South Wales Liberal government has recently sold our port, our greatest public asset, to the highest bidder as an immediate revenue-raising measure. And just last week the New South Wales Liberals opted to privatise New South Wales electricity networks.

 

The Abbott Liberal government is actually encouraging them to sell more assets by offering financial incentives to do so. State governments—who have a selling, planning and development onus, rather than a conservation focus—should not be making development decisions that could affect areas of national environmental significance. This responsibility should remain with the Commonwealth.

This Bill goes to something beyond the current pro-development, 'for sale' state governments that view the environment as nothing more than a resource to be exploited. It provides the ability for these same state governments to accredit local government to undertake critical assessment and approval processes. Allowing the states to approve anything, anywhere, without limitation is worrying enough, without further diluting accountability by putting local government in charge of Australia's major natural assets. Do not get me wrong, the Cairns Regional Council should have input into any proposal to develop within their council boundaries; however, they have neither the resources nor the capability—nor should they—to be making major environmental decisions about the Great Barrier Reef. Similarly, the Shire of Exmouth council should have a say in what happens in and around Ningaloo Reef within their boundaries; but, again, they should not be the determining body. Shires and councils play an important role as stewards and custodians of our natural environmental treasures and areas of environmental significance; however, to suggest that they are the appropriate body for the management of major developmental approvals is misguided. It is the federal government's responsibility to oversee and protect areas of national significance. Major developments impacting on areas of national significance should go through a robust process at a federal level that is consistent, not through the inconsistency of town halls across the nation.

Another of Labor's concerns with the divestment of approval power is the lack of quality and consistency in processes between the different states and territories. It has been identified in the past as an issue. Without national oversight, the consistency and quality of processes would likely deteriorate further. Labor does support the streamlining of environmental assessment processes for major projects, but final approval on matters of national environmental significance absolutely should remain with the national government. As part of an investment into streamlining processes, in 2012, when in government, Labor did in fact start the process of negotiating with states and territories to establish agreements to reduce regulatory double up. However, throughout these negotiations and investigations, it became clear that some states could not be trusted with Australia's unique environment. It was clear that a national oversight—with national processes and approvals over the entire country, not just within state boundaries—would ensure the best environmental results.

This Bill itself specifically mentions the current inconsistencies across states and territories, but does not actually do anything to address these inconsistencies. It acknowledges different systems and standards in each state, but ignores any issues that this might present. Rather than create simplicity and certainty for applicants through the cutting of so-called green tape, this Bill will actually create additional levels of bureaucracy, more complexity and increased uncertainty for industries, which will ultimately undermine investor confidence. The stated intention of this policy is to reduce regulatory burden, where in fact the policy does the opposite: requiring business to now deal with up to eight separate state or territory jurisdictions, each with their own set of conditions. The conditions to be met for a development application in New South Wales may vary greatly to the conditions in Queensland or Victoria. Applications that involve cross-state boundaries may further confuse the process, and that is before you even start to deal with the intricacies of the 560 individual shire and council processes if this Bill were to progress.

Australian environmental groups have banded together against this Bill in record numbers. They believe that the threat to our nation's environmental heritage is so great that they have formed what is perhaps the biggest environmental alliance in our country's history. The Places You Love alliance is a group of organisations who are leading protectors and conservationists in Australia and, in some cases, the world. Representing more than 1.5 million Australians through their membership, the 41 groups within the alliance include: the World Wildlife Fund, the Humane Society International, the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace, the National Parks Australia Council, and the Climate and Health Alliance, as well as some smaller but no less dedicated groups like: the ACT Conservation Society, the Australasian Bat Society, BirdLife Australia, Environs Kimberley, Environment Tasmania and the Wilderness Society. Every state and territory is represented in the alliance and their view is clear: do not hand assessment and approval powers for matters of national environmental significance to state and territory governments. The alliance of environmental experts firmly believes that state and territory governments do not have the capacity to make approval decisions and would be severely conflicted in making any decisions due to their reliance on royalties and other income from large development projects.

Aside from headline sites like the Great Barrier Reef, there are a number of less known, but no less important, areas of environmental significance that would be affected if this Bill were to go forward. My electorate of Newcastle is home to a site of international environmental significance, the Ramsar-listed Hunter wetlands. The Hunter wetlands is one of 65 Ramsar sites in Australia that cover more than 8.3 million hectares. The fact that the Hunter site exists today is itself an inspiring story of conservation. Until the mid-1980s the site had been used as a rubbish dumping ground,railways and even sporting grounds, leaving only fragmented patches of remnant wetlands of what was the massive Hunter Wetlands Estuary system, known as the Hexham Swamp. Through the determination and persistence of the local community and a number of far-sighted organisations, the former dump has been transformed into a vibrant wetland ecosystem that is today bursting with life. The site has been protected under the Ramsar Convention on the Protection of Wise Use of Wetlands since 2002, and has received numerous national and international awards. A major highlight was in 2005 when they received the International Ramsar Convention Award for Education. Building on this award, Labor invested further in the Hunter Wetlands and in 2011 funded and opened a new $2.5 million education facility at the centre.

 

The Hunter Wetlands and the 64 other Ramsar sites need environmental protection at a federal level, not a state or local government council level. Their collective futures are important to the nation's future. This argument is shared by conservation groups.

Humane Society International are so concerned of the possible effects on Ramsar sites under this Bill that they have written to the secretariat of the Ramsar Convention at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland. Their major concern for the sites is that this Bill before the House weakens the capacity for Australia to fulfil its protection obligations under the Ramsar convention by moving the onus of conservation and wise use of wetlands from an agency focused on environmental conservation, that is, the Environment Minister, to state agencies who have a more localised planning and economy based approach to natural resource management, who also have less obligations on conservation through their state legislature. These Ramsar sites must continue to be protected at a federal level.

Labor opposes this Bill because we believe the national government is responsible for matters of national environmental significance. We continue to support streamlining environmental assessment processes for major projects, but final approval on matters of national environmental significance should remain with the national government. The Australian government has a responsibility for protecting Australia's precious environment and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in particular accounts for matters of national environmental significance.

The Abbott government has no interest in protecting Australia's environment for the future. We have seen this through the Prime Minister claiming, 'We have quite enough national parks' in relation to the Tasmanian forests and, when elected, one of the first things this government did was approve dredging in the Great Barrier Reef, a decision that I note is currently subject to much discussion at the UNESCO World Heritage committee that is meeting as we speak in Doha. I note that the World Heritage Committee has made particular note of the proposed dumping of dredged material from the proposed Abbott Point development, expressing their concern for the condition of the Great Barrier Reef. The UNESCO Committee also noted that the transfer of decision-making powers from the Federal level to the State level “appears premature.” It’s now very likely that the Great Barrier Reef will be added to the List of world Heritage in Danger at the Committee’s 39th session in 2015.

 Since coming to government the Prime Minister and the Minister for Environment have made bad decision upon bad decision about our environment, but this is the furthest they have gone in terms of putting our environment at risk of irreparable damage by leaving decisions of national environmental significance to the state premiers. 

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Authorised by Sharon Claydon MP, 427 Hunter Street Newcastle