Zali Steggall MP speaks on the nature-positive bills

27 June 2024



 In 2022, the full bench of the Federal Court overturned the Sharma v Minister for the Environment case, and, in doing so, found that, under the EPBC Act, the minister has no duty to consider climate change impacts in the decisions the minister makes. The court said, 'Such a matter is for the parliament.'

Here we are, with the opportunity to improve our environmental laws, and, with respect, the minister is not doing that. It is so important that the nature-positive reforms must, as a matter of urgency, recognise the impact of global warming on the environment. The minister says that further tranches of reform are coming and will address shortcomings of the legislation then, but, with respect, as decisions continue to be made we, at the very minimum, need to implement interim measures to take into account and implement better protections. A case in point is that, only two days ago, the minister recently approved Gina Rinehart's Atlas gas project out to the year 2080, which puts at risk koala habitats and will exacerbate the climate crisis. It will, in turn, further destroy the environment that the minister is tasked to protect.

The minister is adamant that the impact of emissions from gas approval projects that go through her office will be dealt with or are dealt with by the safeguard mechanism, but, at the same time, the government is on notice that those very mechanisms are flawed, as facilities are not properly measuring and monitoring methane emissions from gas extractions, and they are not properly reporting it. Therefore, they are not properly offsetting the full impact of their emissions through the safeguard mechanism. Every new project approved by this minister and the next ministers will do significantly more damage to the environment via the emissions of those projects than the government will acknowledge and account for. Without including provisions for this law to take into account the impact of climate change and the impact of emissions on the environment, this minister and future ministers for the environment will continue to ignore the biggest threat to nature—global warming.

In question time, we've seen the government ask itself a number of dorothy dixers regarding its environmental credentials, trying to greenwash over its repeated approvals of more coal and gas. There is a disconnect. Over the last two centuries, Australia has suffered the largest-recorded degeneration of biodiversity across the globe and, of course, the climate crisis sits alongside this biodiversity crisis. Sadly, it is the Labor government and the coalition who have now again refused to support the introduction into legislation of a duty of care to future generations as proposed by Senator Pocock and those very students who were overturned in the earlier case. I note we have students in the gallery here watching this process of decision-making. They should be aware the major parties—Labor and the coalition—are refusing to implement into legislation a duty of care for their generation and future generations. That is important, especially while we were in the midst of an extinction crisis.

The numbers are simply appalling. Approximately three billion mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and frogs were killed or displaced in the Black Summer fires. There have been seven mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, including one occurring right now—not that you would know from the amount of attention it has had from the government or the media—and totalling five in the last seven years. It simply cannot recover when it happens consecutively that way. There have also been multiple major fish kills in the Murray Darling Basin and the deaths of large numbers of flying foxes and cockatoos in very hot weather. These animals are important forest pollinators and seed dispersers. You are kidding yourself if you think this happens aside from agriculture, aside from the economies of communities. All of this is interlinked.

Australia's environment protection laws are failing. It is not only a huge issue for Australia but it also represents a failing when it comes to our national and international commitments. We have committed along with other governments around the world to a 30-by-30 target to protect at least 30 percent of Australia's land and oceans by 2030. Last year the government announced zero extinction targets for the country's plants and animals, and we have signed the Glasgow's leaders' declaration on forest and land use pledge. To achieve this, we need wholesale reform, including strong national standards, an independent cop on the beat when it comes to the environment with meaningful power and a way to take into account climate change impacts on the environment to ensure we will continue to have an environment that we can protect.

Like for many Australians, it was positive to hear this government promise at the last election that they would bring in nature positive reforms. But where are they? Over two years in, we have tinkered around the edges but we have not moved the dial when it comes to protecting the environment. We introduced a water trigger late last year into the EPBC Act under pressure from the crossbench, but the minister is refusing to use it in projects like the Beetaloo basin gas.

So, unfortunately, these bills before us again today do little to strengthen standards and actually ensure better protection. The genesis of these reforms lie in the Samuels review of the EPBC act. That report was finished in 2020 and the Morrison government just sat on it. It then tried to introduce and ram through this place very poor legislation. I was here, I saw it, I voted against it and I was gagged. The Albanese government pledged to reform our national environmental laws prior to the last election, and the environment minister stated in December 2022 that legislation would be released as an exposure draft prior to being introduced to the parliament before the end of 2023. But here we are in June 2024 and still with no legislation in sight. So we really are staring down the fact that we are going to the next election with a broken promise and we will have not strengthened environmental laws.

On the one hand the government talks about the biodiversity crisis but on the other hand we are here two years later with not enough action. So whilst the bills before us do represent a step in the direction, they need improving. It has been disappointing that the minister—and I thank her and her team for their engagement—has simply not been prepared to consider amendments that have the backing of environmental groups to better this legislation. Small changes include that the State of the environment report will be handed down every two years rather than the current five-yearly pattern. That is good. The establishment of Environment Protection Australia is a true first alongside the establishment of Environment Information Australia. I support these changes, but, without better powers and clear objectives, it will make little difference.

This EPA will ultimately be applying the currently flawed EPBC Act standards. While the agencies will be tasked with measuring our progress towards becoming Nature Positive, I note that this is not even defined in this bill. The efforts of my crossbench colleague, the member for Goldstein, to define what Nature Positive means have not been accepted. This concept is adopted readily internationally and boils down to this: halting biodiversity decline by 2030 against a 2020 baseline and achieving recovery by 2050. I'm a bit ironic about the 2020 baseline because I think we've got a decline in biodiversity that has been occurring since quite some time before 2020.

Unfortunately, the government is proposing to embed a less-than-satisfactory version of Nature Positive without a clear definition, target dates or real baselines to work from. Increased access to relevant and timely data means governments, companies and NGOs can better understand and report on how well our environment is being managed. That information is critical. It prevents inappropriate projects that should not even be proposed in the first place. These bills also mandate the production of a comprehensive and ongoing national environmental economic accounts by-law, meaning we can track environmental health and assets at different scales, from the habitat of a single threatened species to the entire continent. The transition bill amends the EPBC Act to increase criminal and civil penalties and add new compliance and enforcement powers. Penalties for law-breakers will be increased to up to $780 million in some instances.

This is good, but it's too soon to say whether the new agency will be a tough cop on the beat without the wider overhaul of the environmental laws. Unfortunately, what we have is, 'Trust me; it's coming.' But the reality is that it should already be here. There is an appalling track record for monitoring biodiversity in Australia. The Australian National Audit Office in 2022 found that, in the management of threatened species, there was little evidence the desired outcomes of our environmental laws were being achieved due to the department's lack of monitoring, reporting and support for the implementation of conservation advice, recovery plans and threat abatement plans. It's clear we have decisions being made, and I want to highlight this. Despite multiple provisions in the transitional bill transferring power from the minister to the CEO of the EPA through the EPBC Act, the government has fallen short of providing the EPA with the power to assess, give approvals and vary, revoke or suspend approvals. This is something I would like to see. We urgently need the EPA to be given these powers.

Beetaloo and the failure of the minister to use the water trigger to call that project in is a case in point. Beetaloo is a climate bomb. It's a fossil fuel project with risks to water resources from both contamination and overextraction. But it has not been referred to the minister under the EPBC Act using that water trigger. We have called, written and requested for that to happen, and it isn't happening. That is why a delegated role to the EPA to do this would take the politics out of it so that what needs to be done can happen.

These bills can be improved. With others on the crossbench, we've sought to engage constructively with the minister on amendments to the bills before us. That engagement has been disappointing, because there's a complete refusal to hear from groups to improve this legislation based on key areas that key public interest groups have identified as shortcomings. I will be moving these amendments at consideration in detail and speaking to them in detail. Without some amendments, I simply will not be able to support this legislation. We have a high-stakes road map. How do we implement it? Where to from here?

We know time is ticking. The government must bring forward tranche 3 reforms. Along with many other colleagues, I have written to the minister on a number of occasions asking to implement the full range of Nature Positive reforms and the overhaul of the EPBC Act that is needed. We're yet to see that. I share the frustration of nearly all environmental and climate groups regarding the delay to these much needed reforms. As stated in the Samuel review, its operation has a major flaw in the environmental law. It has little benefit to the environment. Despite lengthy consultation, we are still not seeing the changes—at the very least, an exposure draft or some indication of where the minister is going in improving the EPBC Act and tightening environmental protection.

We know businesses need certainty to know what projects they can go forward with, what the impacts are going to be and what measures they need to take into account. We know renewables projects, critical for Australia's decarbonisation, are facing unacceptable delays in assessments and approvals. Reforms—introduction of a priority list, for example—must not only make it easier for proponents to know where it is appropriate to locate a development to avoid impacts to the environment but also ensure limited resourcing in the EPA is directed towards priority projects. That is something I will speak to further, hopefully when we have this tranche 3 legislation.

We must empower the EPA with good strong independent powers to make sure independent experts are assessing, approving and enforcing conditions on projects. Too often we see noncompliance with approval conditions come to light, and then we see a watering-down of those conditions to keep the project on foot rather than halting the project and upholding the environment and protecting it. We don't see a crackdown on the project proponents. We should have it so conditions cannot be watered down, particularly in the event of noncompliance.

When conditions are related to offsets, we must ensure that those offsets are like for like, that offsets must be secured before the actions commence and that offsets survive in perpetuity. I must disagree with the minister that the safeguard mechanism sufficiently addresses impacts of emissions and climate on the environment. The government is on notice that methane is not adequately being measured—so every gas project approval under the EPBC Act is not being properly offset when it comes to the impact on the environment.

From my point of view, whilst I welcome the implementation of an EPA, I am very aware these bills will return from the Senate amended. I urge the government to consider sensible amendments to strengthen protections.