Parliament Updates

Opposed the watering down of our national environmental law

By voting against two Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bills and moving amendments to strengthen protections.

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the EPBC National Standards Bill amendments

23 June, 2021


I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021. May I start by thanking the many people, organisations and communities around Australia who submitted to the Samuel review and put on the record their concerns about our track record of protecting the environment, as well as the many who have engaged with me and my office in relation to this legislation and these amendments. I would remind my colleagues in this place that many, many people are watching what you are doing in this place.

This bill will make significant changes to the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. For 20 years this act has been Australia's primary national environmental law. It is key to protecting Australia's wildlife, its heritage and its fauna, and it must do so because Australia is blessed. We are unique. We are a continent with the most amazing diversity of unique plants and animals in the world. Rather than taking that for granted, we need to celebrate it, respect it, ensure that we conserve it and ensure that we protect it. From the quokkas on the sandy beaches of Western Australia to the kookaburra's laugh you can hear as you walk to work, Australian wildlife is unique and so, so precious. It is so easy to take for granted that we have it. It's only in moments of dire circumstance, like the bushfires of 2019, that you're reminded of how precarious it can be. The scientists in the field see it a lot, but for most people it was only those incredible images of our wildlife fleeing and burning that really reminded us what it means to be Australian, what is unique about our fauna and flora, our animals in Australia—and that people care. You only had to see the outpouring of support and donations to help protect and assist with the wildlife and the animal rescues to know how much Australians do care about that part of their environment.

Australian wildlife is under threat from man-made climate change, deforestation, predation by feral cats and invasive species. We have so many aspects that we need to take care of through this legislation to ensure that we protect it. That is our responsibility and duty to future generations. We are at a crucial point. Species are going extinct every year. Populations of animals are being decimated. This is supercharged by events like the bushfires. If we don't reverse course, if we don't, in this place, start to put some value on this and show respect, we stand to lose what makes Australia a global natural treasure. There is no doubt about it: if we don't change course and we don't implement some strong protections, that is the course we're taking. Our grandchildren will only know about unique plants and animals of Australia through pictures in a book or on a computer screen, or through those left over in museums and zoos. They will not exist in nature.

Many Australians care deeply about our environment and want us in this place to be doing our utmost to protect it. There have been so many emails from constituents. This issue has absolutely galvanised people. In every survey and at every touchpoint with the electorate, people—from children to adults to retirees; they're of all political persuasions, and all ages and demographics—always list the environment, the health of our environment and the uniqueness of our environment, as the No. 1 issue to be protected. It's the No. 1 issue for schools. I'm always astounded by the passion and the knowledge our children have about this, because they know what is so precious and what is at risk. Young people, I would say, are so much more environmentally conscious than anyone in this place, and certainly me and my peers when I was at the same age. We simply didn't have that education to remind us what was at risk, what we were at risk of losing if we blindly followed a path of not properly protecting it.

It is extraordinary that the government, after such a lengthy review and after such a detailed report from Graeme Samuel, would propose a suite of bills that are entirely insufficient. They ultimately do nothing to really protect the environment. We heard many times in this place that it was about cutting green tape, because that green tape is really getting in the way of developments and progress. They're completely overlooking the price that will be paid if that is the focus. There has to be the right balance. I was really hoping the minister would take a better approach to this, but, unfortunately, this bill is cementing the Morrison government's poor record on the environment. And the irony is that we are debating this bill a day after UNESCO warned Australia that the Great Barrier Reef may be classified as 'in danger'. The reef is one of the most unbelievable treasures of the world, a source of huge amounts of revenue to Australia because of the tourism and industry that surrounds it, and yet it is in danger because we are failing to properly protect it.

The Samuel review was extensive. Professor Graeme Samuel was appointed by the Minister for the Environment to do that independent review of our Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The review was really clear. It found that, in the current state, the environment is not sufficiently resilient to withstand the threats. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable. Samuel slammed the performance of the act. He said:

The EPBC Act is ineffective. It 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.

The review had 38 recommendations to improve the performance of the act. Some have been agreed to by the government. But key to those recommendations were the protections that needed to be implemented. Sadly, they are lacking; they are what is missing in this bill today. He recommended the streamlining of environmental approvals by accrediting the states and territories to make those decisions. I appreciate that this is trying to reduce green tape, or to accelerate that process of approval. But let's be clear: that can only occur—and it is the Commonwealth's responsibility—if we have assurances of clear standards that are going to be maintained. Unfortunately, policies change so much from state to state, and states have a vested interest in allowing developments to go ahead. They don't always give environmental concerns at least the same billing, or above, and make sure those protections occur.

Underpinning Graeme Samuel's recommendation were supposed to be national environmental standards and an environmental assurance commissioner, as well as an office of compliance and enforcement to ensure that the standards were complied with. These recommendations are key; they're not just 'might be nice to have'. They're key to anything in this proposal actually working. The report spoke a lot about regaining the trust of the Australian public and stakeholders in the act. Samuel felt that the community and industry do not currently trust the EPBC Act and that the regulatory system which underpins its implementation is lacking. Maintaining and enhancing trust must mean that transparency has to come from any reform.

Unfortunately, the Morrison government rammed the first tranche of reforms—the one-touch approvals—through in a single day of parliament, without allowing people to speak on them, without allowing debate and without allowing even the moving of amendments in the consideration in detail stage. It was a shameful episode for the Minister for the Environment to come into this place and push through the suspension of standing orders to go straight through the bill without even a consideration in detail process. Many in the community have written to me, absolutely despairing about those occurrences and the situation we have with the weakening of environmental laws by the government. It's really incredibly disappointing that the incredible images we saw in 2019 and 2020 with the bushfires have not moved the government to take this on board and actually ensure that we implement the protections necessary.

Now we're debating the next tranche of reforms. Graeme Samuel recommended several preconditions to accrediting states and territories with approvals. The precondition that was most important was the national environmental standards. These are the centrepiece of the reforms. According to the review report, they:

… describe the outcomes that contribute to effective environmental protection and management as well as the fundamental processes that are needed to support the effective implementation of the EPBC Act.

Further, the standards should be:

… relevant to all decision-makers operating or accredited under the EPBC Act.

They should ensure that the Commonwealth requirements and obligations for environmental approval and other decisions are upheld, regardless of which jurisdiction makes an approval decision. We're bound under a number of international treaties and yet we're devolving everything to the states, without a national environmental standard.

Schedule 1 of this bill introduces powers for the making of the standards. I welcome the power to make the standards, but it has to be improved to actually give us some certainty. Several clauses need complete reworking. Subclause 65H(1) provides that decisions must not be inconsistent with the standards. But then straight after that, in 65H(7), we have a public interest exemption that allows for the circumvention of this requirement. So you can get around the fact of needing to comply with standards under public interest. And there's no definition of 'public interest'. It's always in the detail that you can see the flaws. That leaves extraordinary room to just ignore the standards. Not only is the government handing over the decision to the states but it's also giving them the defence that they don't even need to comply with the standards if they can say it's in the public interest. Clause 65G provides for review of the standards, which is important. However, there's no real requirement that the review be conducted by an independent expert—just 'persons'. Again, where is the transparency that Graeme Samuel says is so important for this reform to work?

There also needs to be a public consultation phase in any review. Clause 65H(2) provides that, in assessing whether a decision is not inconsistent with the standards, various activities, including government programs and policies, can be taken into consideration. So the assessment criteria are unnecessarily broad and further weaken scrutiny. Under the current wording, anything could be considered relevant by the decision-makers, ultimately. The Law Council of Australia has pointed to the problems in 65H(1) and 65H(4), stating that there is uncertainty regarding the potential for certain processes and decisions to be excluded from the application of standards under this power. It absolutely needs to go back to the drawing board. Given the government's record on the reef and on so many aspects of our environmental protection and given the events only this week with the change of leadership of the Nationals, there is clearly no consensus on environmental protection within the coalition party room. Our national environmental standards cannot be left to secret negotiations behind closed doors. Minister Ley should be putting these forward as part of this reform so that we can have certainty about what the standards are going to be.

Recommendation 23 is for the establishment of a new independent statutory position of Environment Assurance Commissioner. That is important in providing independent monitoring and auditing and transparent public reporting on the operational and administrative performance of all parties. It really is important that these things be implemented. So many recommendations from the Samuel review have been overlooked and ignored by the government. How can we be assured that there will, ultimately, be the kind of environmental protections that are necessary? The government has cherry-picked recommendations and has failed to put forward the consensus and the full extent of the protections that Graeme Samuel requested and strongly recommended.

We need to have provisions in relation to the standards, and I will be moving amendments to that effect in the consideration in detail stage to ensure that we have those. We cannot afford for these reforms to go wrong. It is incredible to think that anyone in this place who is a member of the 46th Parliament would like to be named as part of the generation and the parliament that failed to protect Australia's wildlife, plants and uniqueness—animals like koalas that are likely to become endangered and unable to survive in the wild. That will be a huge, huge stain on everyone in this place if it's allowed to happen.