House of Representatives Speech- Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013

The Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 pulls in two different directions. On the one hand it is taking away part of the legal requirement that applies to environmental approvals processes involving the Commonwealth minister, and on the other it is putting in place what are said to be greater protections for some particular species. I have to say that it is consistent with what we have seen from a range of coalition state governments that have been elected in Australia in recent years. We are seeing here, in this first piece of environmental legislation from the new coalition government at the federal level, a taking away of protections of the environment.

The Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 pulls in two different directions. On the one hand it is taking away part of the legal requirement that applies to environmental approvals processes involving the Commonwealth minister, and on the other it is putting in place what are said to be greater protections for some particular species. I have to say that it is consistent with what we have seen from a range of coalition state governments that have been elected in Australia in recent years. We are seeing here, in this first piece of environmental legislation from the new coalition government at the federal level, a taking away of protections of the environment.

The Minister for the Environment can seek to dress up what is occurring in this bill however he likes—and sought to do so, in fact, in his second reading speech—but what is actually occurring is the taking away of legal protection that is presently there for the environment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. That legal protection requires the Commonwealth minister, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, to take into account conservation advice. The minister would have it that that conservation advice is still going to be taken into account but then says that what this act does is makes sure that no decision taken by the minister that fails to take into account that conservation advice will be invalid. In the next breath he would have this parliament and the people of Australia believe that that is not a lessening of environmental control.

Anybody at all, whether or not they have any legal expertise, can immediately see that if you take away the right to go to a court and have a decision by a Commonwealth minister declared invalid then the force of a legal requirement on a Commonwealth minister to take into account conservation advice is a great deal less than if the capacity exists to go to a court or tribunal and point correctly to the fact that a minister has not taken conservation advice into account properly and for that decision to be declared invalid.

I am not sure what the minister thinks is going to be the force of this particular part of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act if this bill passes the House and passes the Senate, but it is pretty clear to us that it will greatly lessen the force of the environmental approvals process as it presently stands. Make no mistake: this bill lessens the force of Commonwealth environmental law. It weakens Commonwealth environmental law. And, as I said at the outset, it is consistent, regrettably, with what we have come to see so often from the conservative parties when they get to power either at the state or the Commonwealth level. At the state level, in my home state of Victoria we saw as almost the first act of the newly elected Baillieu government the reintroduction of cattle to the alpine regions of Victoria against all the known science and all the known research, fulfilling a promise that had been made to their supporters in the Mountain Cattlemen's Association of Victoria. And they persisted for some months with the pretence that there was some actual scientific basis for this proposed returning of cattle to the high country. It needed the then minister for the environment, Tony Burke, to step in before that short-lived attempt to put back the clock, in an environmental sense, was stopped in Victoria.

It is important to keep the context of the cattle in the high country in mind. There have been no cattle in the high country on the New South Wales side of the Victoria-New South Wales border since the mid-1960s. But, regrettably, cattle continued to persist in the alpine regions of Victoria right into the early 2000s, when the then Labor government was able to bring that particular activity to an end. It is of course an activity that has no environmental basis. It has been very clearly established for many years that there is tremendous environmental harm, in fact, flowing from grazing cattle in the high country. Tony Burke said at the time, somewhat memorably, that to put cattle into the Alpine National Park was to make a national park into a farm—which of course it is not. But it is emblematic of the attitudes the conservative parties take to environmental protection. They would far prefer to pander to commercial interests, to ignore the science and to ignore environmental advice than to properly protect the environment.

Regrettably, we are seeing again in Victoria in recent weeks talk by the Napthine government about putting cattle into the high country—again, on the pretence of some kind of trial, when, as I said, all the known science has been completely clear now for many years. I fear, given the other kinds of measures that this environment minister and this new federal government have been discussing in terms of preparation to hand back environmental assessment and approval powers to states, that this small piece of legislation is just the precursor to what will be a wholesale attack on environmental regulation and environmental protection in this country. You would have to say that nothing about any of the actions of this new government in relation to environmental matters—in its still less than 100 days of government since the election—gives the people of Australia the slightest confidence that this government is to be trusted on environmental matters. Certainly they are not a government that can in any way be trusted to keep their promises. They are not a government that can in any way be trusted to be the government they said they were going to be before the election. And they are certainly not a government that can be trusted to govern with anything like orderliness or deliberation. Rather, we see, staggering from day to day, decisions made on the run. And of course that is the antithesis of the kind of regulation and governmental activity that you need in the environmental area, where, as has often been said, developers—people wanting to take commercial advantage and people wanting to exploit natural resources—need to win only once, because then the development is underway and the project is up and running.

People seeking to protect the environment—and governments, when they seek to protect the environment—need to win every time in order to ensure that the environment is protected. Sometimes that will mean some considered deliberation. It will mean taking your time, looking at the science, taking into account conservation advice, which is the basis of this bill, and taking the time to make sure that the conservation advice has been considered properly. Sometimes it will mean taking the time to ensure that the environmental effects have been properly considered before rushing to make a decision. What this bill does is take away the consequence that would flow if the conservation advice were not properly taken account of.

Somewhat extraordinarily, in the second reading speech the minister actually referred to a recent Federal Court decision—Tarkine National Coalition Incorporated v Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, which was earlier this year. The Federal Court found that an approval in relation to the Tarkine Forest was invalid because the then minister had not had proper regard to relevant approved conservation advice. The response of this government, far from being to ensure that, in future, proper regard is given to all conservation advice, and far from being to beef up the processes that apply to the obtaining and consideration of conservation advice, has been to rip up the rule book, to take away the legal consequence that has attached up until now—and that should continue to attach—to failing to take into account conservation advice in this way.

It is, as I said earlier, a weakening of environmental laws, just when this government is proposing to hand over to the states a large part of environmental assessment and approval powers. I have given only the single example of cattle in the high country in relation to the conduct of this present state Liberal government, but one could cite a whole range of other examples. The Newman government, since coming to office not all that long ago, has in almost all its decisions sought to put development ahead of the environment. The Newman government certainly cannot be trusted to protect our national heritage, in particular—and the member for Moreton, who spoke before me and who is a Queenslander, spoke eloquently about this—the threat posed to the Great Barrier Reef by the actions of the Newman government. Australia is a signatory to a whole range of environmental treaties. They include the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, the International Tropical Timber Agreement, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. All of these conventions, and Australia's adherence to them, are potentially called into question by the legislative change to the approvals processes which is proposed by this bill. It is regrettable that, as almost its first piece of environmental legislation—because one can hardly count the so-called repeal of the carbon tax set of legislation as environmental legislation—this government has sought to bring forward a decision which takes away the force of the existing provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

I hasten to say that in this bill the government is also bringing forward provisions that protect turtles and dugongs. For many years it has been very well known that marine turtles and dugongs are impacted by a range of enduring threats, including habitat loss, poor water quality, being part of so-called bycatch, poaching, marine debris and boat strike. In government, as a matter of resourcing, as a matter of departmental organisation and as a matter of particular programs, Labor made addressing these issues effectively a very high priority. All of the work that was put in train by the Labor government continues in close association with state and territory governments, with traditional owners in the north of Australia and with other groups with an interest such as commercial fishers.

This law is one which we support because it is a continuation, with some additional protections, of a range of programs that we put in place while in government. In particular, it is worth noting that the former Labor government invested some $7 million in Indigenous self-management, because that is the very best way to ensure that the sustainable and appropriate management of dugongs and turtles continues. Critically, the approach that we took in government included leadership and advice on the take of marine turtles and dugongs, developing community based sea country management plans and the support of traditional owner involvement in the sustainable use of marine resources and in compliance training.

We have also supported Indigenous ranger teams to remove ghost nets. These are lost or abandoned nets which impact on turtle and dugong populations. As with all of our environmental work while in government, our approach was based on our respect for the customs and traditions of Indigenous Australians and their right, as traditional owners under the Native Title Act, to hunt native species for personal, domestic, non-commercial or communal needs. So we do support a balanced approach.