Environmental Protection Laws - 25/08/2020

25 August 2020



I rise to talk about the Samuel review into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and the opportunity that we have to improve these laws and really protect our natural environment in a more meaningful way. The EPBC Act was introduced in 1999 by the Howard government. It provides a framework for environmental impacts to be considered before a planned development can go ahead. Unfortunately, the act has been shown not to be fit for purpose. It has had an incredibly limited impact throughout its existence and it is about time we changed it. In the past 20 years it has become so abundantly clear that the EPBC Act does not work. It neither protects the environment nor helps conserve biodiversity. Why is it that the biggest environmental challenge facing our nation and indeed our planet, climate change, is not even considered in the act? Why is it that the vast majority of decisions made to protect the environment under this act were made by Labor governments? And why is it that, of the eight proposals that have been rejected by Liberal governments under the mechanisms of this act, two of those were wind farms?

The EPBC Act allows far too much ministerial discretion to make decisions that carry long-lasting, potentially devastating environmental consequences. There is no clearer example of this than the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia by former environment minister Melissa Price. This mine was approved a day before the last election was called—one day! What's more, this happened despite the minister knowing that the project could very well lead to the extinction of several species. In her reasons for granting the project, the minister actually acknowledged the fact that the decision she was making could lead to the extinction of multiple species and went ahead with it anyway.

In its 20-year history, only 23 projects have been rejected under the EPBC Act. Of those, most occurred when Labor was in government. This amounts to just 0.6 per cent of controlled actions being refused approval under the EPBC Act. This is absolutely damning. The EPBC Act is legislation that talks big but is undeniably toothless when it comes to protecting our environment. Australia desperately needs environmental laws that prevent these atrocious decisions from being made.

Last Wednesday with my colleague Andrew Leigh, the member for Fenner, I met with a passionate group of people from Labor's environmental action network, or LEAN. It was fantastic to hear from LEAN on their thoughts regarding the recommendations of Professor Samuel in his interim report. I want to thank all the members of LEAN for their hard work in advocating for stronger environmental protection. I also want to thank the many passionate Canberrans who have been in touch with me about this issue. I hear you, Labor hears you, and we will fight against the weakening of the laws in this place.

In this vein, the Samuel review provides a great opportunity for this parliament to act to better protect our unique natural environment. We could do so much more to protect our environment with action in this place. We could create an independent environmental protection agency, not swayed by political agendas, that would enforce our environmental laws. I note that this proposal is supported by Professor Samuel, who said that a 'strong, independent cop on the beat' is required. I fully support this move and I call on the government to make this happen in their response to this review.

We must also act to make protecting the environment a mandatory legal requirement. We cannot keep allowing decisions like the ones made by Melissa Price last year to continue. Such a legal obligation will not only protect the environment but provide certainty for business, allowing them to know the criteria against which their proposals will be assessed. I note that this measure is supported by the Business Council of Australia, and the government should take note of that.

The parliament should also legislate that all proposed projects must disclose the full emissions profile of their development. I find it utterly unconscionable that our environmental laws don't consider the damage high-emissions developments do to our climate. I was extremely proud of the policy that Labor took to the last election, in which we sought to have the impact of climate change factored into national environmental law for the first time so that it would be a consideration when projects are assessed as to whether they should go ahead. It seems so outdated in this day and age that we are not considering the impact of climate change when we are looking at protecting our environment. It just seems so obvious. In light of the devastating bushfires last summer, which killed over three billion animals, we need to be doing more.

These are just a few of the things we could do right now. But, instead of this, the environment minister has worryingly suggested that this review will be used by the Morrison government to weaken these already ineffective laws. That's not what Australians need, and it's not what Australians expect. The Liberals have also suggested deferring to the states when it comes to environmental protection. This is a potentially disastrous proposition. We cannot trust the states to do the right thing in this space. For example, under the Berejiklian government, land clearing in New South Wales has skyrocketed. In 2018, 61,000 hectares of woody vegetation was destroyed in New South Wales. That's a huge increase from the 34,200 that was cleared in 2013-14. Right now, Australia clears more land than almost anywhere in the world. Why on earth would the federal government give more power to state governments when that is the record?

Future generations of Australians should be able to enjoy our natural environment. In fact, we have a UN mandated duty to ensure that intergenerational equity is guaranteed. One of the most amazing things I have ever done is go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef up at Port Douglas. Honestly, it is heartbreaking to me to think that my children are unlikely to see it in the state that I saw it and that it has already been so degraded. I want my children to be able to take in the marvellous views of the Great Ocean Road, to explore the magnificent Tasmanian wilderness and to see koalas in the wild. These are not things we should take for granted. We need to protect these things. We're letting these natural treasures be destroyed and we should be protecting them very carefully.

I say to the people of Australia, especially the many who are concerned with the direction that we are going in, 'Don't trust the Liberals with our environment.' It's too important, and they have proven time and time again that they will abuse that trust. We need to ensure that Labor governments around the country are elected, including this October here in the ACT. Australia's natural heritage is so special, and we need to be doing more to protect it—not less. Labor will always fight for this, and I urge the government to do the same.

Labor has an extremely proud record of protecting our environment, and I am so proud to be a part of the party that has achieved these things. Labor is the political party that has delivered every significant environmental reform in Australia. No other party has consistently protected Australia's natural assets. Now, as we sit on the opposition benches, our challenge is to push the Morrison government to act on climate change. We don't have another term of government to wait.

In the early seventies, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Australia's first environment minister, Moss Cass, and the country's first urban planning minister, Tom Uren. Under Whitlam, the nation's first environmental impact inquiry established that sand mining on Queensland's Fraser Island was untenable. Embedding environmental outcomes while building the nation and its prosperity was central to Whitlam's modernisation of the Labor mission.

In 1983 Bob Hawke saved the Franklin River from being dammed. Labor protected the Daintree, Kakadu and 170,000 hectares of forest protected as the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Labor reformed the native forest industry and protected the most important old-growth forests across the country. Bob Hawke and Labor led the international push in 1989 for the rejection of mining in Antarctica, ensuring that Antarctica, to this day, remains a continent of peace and of science.

The previous federal Labor government built the largest network of marine national parks in the world and set Australia on a path to a low-carbon future. Our leader, Anthony Albanese, has reiterated that our commitment to climate change is unshakeable, as is our commitment to the Paris Agreement, which ultimately achieves net zero emissions by 2050.

Again I say to all the Canberrans who write to me constantly about these issues, who value the environment here in Canberra with our beautiful natural areas throughout our city but also the need to protect our whole world by addressing climate change, that Labor is committed to this, and that we, as a Labor government, will deliver the action we need to protect our environment. Thank you.