Environmental Protection Bill

House of Representatives 23/06/2021

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (11:49): Mr Deputy Speaker, you and some of our colleagues may have seen the movie Back to the Future. Do you remember that great American movie franchise in the eighties, the Back to the Future trilogy, with Marty McFly and Biff Tannen? It was a great set of movies—all those different versions of the future and the past. Well, this bill is a case of back to the future. It’s a bit of a theme this week. We’ve had the return of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. What version are we going to get this time?

The Deputy Prime Minister—what version are we going to get this time? It’s: ‘What version of Biff Tannen are we going to get?’ It’s like when we watched the movies. It’s all going to be a bit different, isn’t it—slightly different but still somewhat horrifying as you’re watching it unfold?

This bill, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021, is another example of the government’s theme of going back to the future, pushing everything way back into the past, if they can, to change the future. It’s kind of a minimalist approach, isn’t it, Mr Deputy Speaker? This government is pushing responsibility away from the Commonwealth and towards the states and territories. Are we going back to pre-Federation days, with power to the colonies? Is that the theme of this government? Actually, it’s fast becoming the signature of this government. Whether it’s the vaccine rollout or quarantine, it’s about the federal government saying: ‘It’s not our responsibility. Let’s give this to the states and territories.’ We’ve got to wonder why the government keeps abrogating responsibility in so many areas. This bill is another example of this theme, if you like, of abrogation.

There are few areas more important than environmental protection. Ostensibly, much of the bill that has been presented for debate in this place has been driven by the second 10-yearly review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The review was undertaken by Professor Graeme Samuel, and we thank him for that work. In reality, however, this government doesn’t want to make the necessary changes that were proposed by the Samuel review. It’s worth repeating that, in the report, Professor Samuel found that the 1999 act:

… does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Clearly, he found that the legislation, which is more than 20 years old, is no longer fit for purpose and we should look at enhancing environmental protections based on the new evidence and expertise that has developed over the decades. The Samuel review, in its report, put forward a suite of 38 recommendations to improve the legislation. Unfortunately, we’re not debating those recommendations, are we, Mr Deputy Speaker? The government—extraordinarily, cynically—has produced its own interim national environmental standards. Whether that’s back to the future or back to the past, I’m not quite sure; I’m getting confused myself. But what I’m not confused about, Mr Deputy Speaker, is that the standards fall well short of any of the recommendations put forward by Professor Samuel.

I have established that this government wants to go back to interim standards that are actually as bad as when Tony Abbott was Prime Minister in this place. That’s certainly going back to the future. These are the half-baked standards that we’re actually debating today—something that was there seven or eight years ago. Fundamentally, the current proposals make no change to the existing flawed regulations. They are really just a reheated serving of former Prime Minister Abbott’s failed 2014 one-stop-shop bill. It’s interesting that the government will bend over backwards to hide—well, maybe not to hide but to take expert medical advice, as they should—when there are unpopular decisions to be made during a pandemic but suddenly know better when they receive expert environmental protection advice during what is probably the most critical time in our struggle to combat climate change and protect the environment. They know better and they write down their own standards—standards that were there 10 years ago.

I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there are probably a few members here who do not actually believe that climate change is happening or that we’re going to see its catastrophic effects in our natural world, and they don’t make protecting the environment as high a priority as they should. It’s important to note, though, that in the Samuel review it was really made quite clear that decisions be made on the best available information. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? That sounds like a sound evidence base for your policy development. Yet, the government don’t like to source the best available information, because a lot of the time the actual information that’s provided to them by the experts, by the scientists, actually is in raging disagreement with what the government want to do and where they’re headed and what path they’re taking. So, to get around this, the government just water down some of these recommendations so that they only source adequate information—I think that’s the word they used: adequate information—ahead of making a decision. What does that even mean? Rather than the best available, they want adequate information. This is a government that’s pressing on with its great noble and ambitious desire for adequacy! That’s what this government is about: adequacy—’Let’s not be the best. Let’s just be adequate.’ I think that’s a nice way of saying mediocre, though I think it’s even a bit of a stretch to call the government mediocre. But that’s what they want to do.

Instead of showing national leadership, instead of taking responsibility and putting a firm hand on the wheel, which is necessary to guide and drive the protection of our environment, as a Labor government would do, this coalition government is instead pushing away all its responsibility, mitigating its risk, washing its hands of this and getting others to do the work and take the responsibility that it should be taking. This bill makes it clear that the Morrison government has no interest in the Commonwealth having the power to make such important decisions of national environmental significance. He wants the states to make those tough decisions to enact legislation they see fit to protect the environment, without any national guidelines or at least not with guidelines that are sourced or developed on the best available information. We might call them adequate guidelines. That would be the best way to describe what they’re trying to do. We don’t think that’s good enough. As the parliament of Australia, for all of Australia, we must have responsibility and we must have a say on how we protect the environment.

This government, this coalition government, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government—I can’t start naming the Deputy Prime Ministers; I’ll run out of time—has vacated the field on any form, any semblance of environmental leadership. Under this government, our natural environment actually goes backwards. Tony Abbott, when he was Prime Minister, tried to strip areas of world heritage protection. Malcolm Turnbull, for all of his pontificating as Prime Minister and his demonstrative, or performative, element of showing how progressive he was, took the largest step backwards in conservation by any government anywhere in the world by stripping back Australia’s marine parks. He also awarded nearly half a billion dollars to a small private foundation instead of directly investing in restoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef. That was his decision; that was this government’s decision. And Scott Morrison, as Prime Minister, has virtually turned add blind eye to what’s happening in the Murray-Darling Basin. Of course, we’ve all seen the pictures of him throwing around lumps of coal in the parliament as a stunt.

This government has presided over an explosion of 510 per cent in job and investment delays through environmental decision blowouts. A staggering 95 per cent of environmental approval decisions were delivered late and outside statutory time frames in 2018 and 2019, and environmental decisions contained errors or were noncompliant in 79 per cent of approvals. Surely even this government sees that asking legislators to blindly extend regulations we’ve been told are failing is not something that we should be considering.

Now, on our side of the House we do have a plan to protect Australia’s unique and precious environment and ecosystems. At the last election, we committed to establishing an environmental protection agency, an EPA. This agency would be charged with protecting oceans, rivers, bush, coastlines and native species, and it would bring, frankly, Australia in line with many western democracies, including the United States. It was actually Richard Nixon, a Republican president, who established the United States of America’s EPA 50 years ago. Where are we?

Labor took to the last federal election a plan to strengthen our environmental laws so that they factor in climate and water impacts. It has been Labor governments that have protected our environment over the generations. We know the history there. It was a Labor government that created the environmental protection laws and Labor governments that acted to protect Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. As an opposition, Labor has called on the Morrison government to introduce strong national environmental standards, to establish a genuinely independent cop on the beat for Australia’s environment and to fix the explosion of unnecessary job and investment delays caused by the government’s massive funding cuts in this space.

This is a flawed bill and the government know it. They’ve wilfully and consciously watered down most of Professor Samuel’s recommendations. They’re seeking to give ministers more power to make whatever decisions they want, regardless of environmental impact and based only on ‘adequate’ advice—not the best available advice, just the adequate advice. Let’s all just be adequate, not strive for the best. They’ve ensured that the new Environment Assurance Commissioner will be toothless, with no practical powers. Despite these very obvious shortcomings, these underhanded tactics to water down Australia’s environmental regulations, they’ve asked us to trust them—trust that they can do the job to protect Australia’s environment. That’s what they’re asking for, and they’re asking this despite their woeful track record on the environment.

I don’t trust the government to protect Australia’s environment. I don’t trust them on environmental protection. I think the Australian people don’t trust them on these matters. I don’t trust the government to welcome oversight and advice that they should be taking—the best possible advice from environmental experts and scientists. They just won’t do it. They’re much happier to degrade it down to adequate advice which suits them. I don’t trust the minister to make decisions to put the people, the wildlife, the animals and the land ahead of corporate interests. I just flat out don’t trust this government, and that’s why we are opposing this bill.