Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, Nature Positive(Environment Information Australia) Bill 2024,Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024

I certainly support the amendment proposed by the member for Fairfax. In spite of what’s been said previously, the majority of the impact of what’s proposed here, in the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024 and related bills, will be felt once again by regional Australians. Those of us who live in the regions and are involved in both agriculture and resources and mining will certainly be the target of and affected by what Labor is putting on the table.

Once again Labor is setting up another independent entity, Environment Protection Australia, that will totally remove the minister from the decision-making process and from taking responsibility for government decisions. Effectively, what this means in practice is that Labor is determined to remove the decision-making responsibility from elected members of parliament who become ministers and to hand that responsibility to unelected Canberra based bureaucrats. When you look at recent events, that hasn’t really gone well for the government. I note that the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs is at the table. We’ve have seen the terrible situation where the independent AAT essentially have made a range of decisions that certainly haven’t assisted in keeping Australians safe. We need ministers who can and do take responsibility and do make those decisions.

Again, Australian taxpayers will have to pay exorbitant amounts for incompetent boards and departments and ministers’ salaries when we’ve got an independent board that’s going to make the decisions. This means either the minister is not competent or is actually unwilling or unable to do the work that their portfolio requires. Because of that weakness and lack of accountability, Labor ministers are always going to need that ‘get out of jail free’ card that allows them to blame some obscure independent body and not take responsibility for the government’s decisions, particularly if they are flawed or when they are the wrong decisions.

Unfortunately this shows that ministers don’t have the courage of their convictions and are not willing to or capable of taking responsibility for the Labor government’s decisions. It is always going to be someone else’s problem when things get tough or go wrong. It will never be those ministers’ responsibility. The minister can simply throw their hands in the air and say: ‘It wasn’t me who made that decision. It was the independent board of the EPA.’ It reminds me of the old Comedy Company’s tagline: ‘I didn’t do it. It was dolly!’

This is the next bureaucracy that Labor is establishing through this legislation, and technically, once it’s there, neither the minister nor the department will have any role in the decisions made by the EPA. That’s because the decisions will be made by Environment Protection Australia bureaucrats backed up by a second bureaucracy named Environment Information Australia, which will focus, apparently, on loosely described data collection. More layers of bureaucracy and endless red and green tape for business and industry are being legislated specifically to enforce Labor’s nature-positive act, and the majority of the impact of that will be felt in rural and regional Australia. The new bureaucracy will sit above the existing seven state and territory EPAs. There will be layer upon layer of bureaucracy for business, industry, ag and local governments to deal with again—by a majority, those of us who live in rural and regional Australia. The two new entities will undoubtedly be hand-picked and supported and surrounded by even more public servants, perhaps adding to the 36,000 extra public servants Labor has employed over the last two years.

The EPA will have powers that extend to undertaking all or most of the environmental assessments of projects under the EPBC Act. It will have extensive new audit and inspection powers and it will deal with referrals by third parties such as the Environmental Defenders Office, as well as any and every other activist. The new EPA will have the power to force project proponents to immediately cease work on their developments at any time and the capacity to impose unprecedented fines of up to $780 million.

Added to this, the EPA’s CEO will have complete impunity and immunity from removal from office by the minister or the government. So there is a real lack of accountability in this bill for decisions made by the CEO. Whether or not the CEO makes patently wrong or terrible decisions, the minister and the Labor government will have no powers to remove that person. The only causes for dismissal are dishonesty, financial mismanagement, misbehaviour or failure to carry out duties—not whether they can do their job or whether they can do it well. That is a wonderful licence for unlimited scope and opportunity to do exactly what the CEO wants, good, bad or downright ugly. There will be queues for this job. Who wouldn’t want an enormous salary at taxpayers’ expense to do exactly what you want and not have to consult, answer or be accountable to the minister or the government of the day? There will be a queue of activists lining up. The roles and responsibilities remind me very much of the disastrous WA Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

But, from my reading of the bill, there are no details on the roles and responsibilities of the EPA inspectors on the sites they’ll visit. There are certainly no details on the rights of project proponents, businesses, industries, farmers, local governments or the myriad others who will be impacted by their presence and decisions. I’ll be looking very closely at the powers of onsite inspectors when they eventually become available. Perhaps that’s why those provisions are not included in the legislation. The government doesn’t want the parliament, business, industry, farmers and people affected to know what powers and controls the inspectors or EPA representatives will have until they’re actually in place.

They could well replicate the powers conferred by the WA Labor government in the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, as I said. Labor’s Nature Positive bills also contain Aboriginal heritage provisions. In WA, that act was of the type where inspectors had more powers than police. Will the EPA inspectors have more powers than police in the same way the Cultural Heritage Act inspectors did? Will they have the right to enter properties without the owners’ permission? Will they have the right to forcibly stop, commandeer and use the owners’ vehicles without their permission? That’s what that act contained. Will they have the right to demand passwords and access to any and all information on computers, laptops and other technologies without the permission of the owners? What will the onsite rights, fines and prison terms be for individuals, business owners, project managers, farmers and others when the EPA inspectors arrive on their properties? Will the inspectors have the right to examine every container, cupboard or piece of storage equipment, whether the site is a project site or the businessowner’s home, as for us farmers? These are just some of the practical questions, but they were matters covered by the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act in WA. That was what the inspectors could do.

Clearly, Labor intends for this to have a significant impact on industry, business and agriculture, looking at the powers conferred by this legislation. But it intends to blame the independent EPA for those decisions. I know from listening to and meeting with the businesses and industries recently that they are very, very concerned about this legislation and the roles and responsibilities of the EPA. They are doing, in the majority of instances, very good work in this space. But they do know how antimining, antibusiness, antifarming and antidevelopment the Labor government is. Environment Information Australia will have to produce a series of new environmental reports through a new monitoring, evaluation and reporting framework with a new baseline, as well as establish environmental economic accounts. What a massive additional cost this will add to all businesses, industries, projects and small and family businesses! On top of the government’s scope 3 emissions reporting, it’s an absolute avalanche of paperwork.

Loosely translated, what this means for those of us living and working in regional and rural areas is that Labor’s renewables-only agenda is being thinly disguised as Nature Positive to ensure that Labor’s renewables-only projects will take precedence over our communities, our local environments, our wellbeing, our opportunities and future developments that will support, improve and grow our communities. Those are the ones that we support in our communities. Critically, this EPA removes entirely our capacity to make decisions in the best interests of our communities and hands these decisions to Canberra based Labor mates and bureaucrats. It takes away rural and regional Australians’ ability to offer changing opportunities for our young people and to meet and deliver the economic and social needs of industries and our local communities. I believe we will see the EPA waving through Labor’s renewables-only agenda in spite of our communities. They will ignore and roll over our communities.

In my electorate, one early test for the new EPA will be whether the proposed 7,600 square-kilometre offshore wind factory will be approved in spite of the environmental damage. If the EPA is actually doing its job right, there is no way that this project could be deemed nature positive simply because it’s a renewables project. And what’s being proposed is 20 gigawatts of energy from this particular wind factory. This will be a massive proposal. There could be as many as a thousand or more turbines, each around 100 metres high, in the pristine Geographe Bay in the south-west of WA.

There is no doubt that the 7,600 square kilometres of offshore wind turbines will have a significant environmental impact. These turbines can’t be installed without extensive impact to the benthic habitat of the bay, which is internationally recognised and listed as a biodiversity hotspot. The federal government’s own south-west marine bioregional plan highlighted the key ecological and biodiversity features of Geographe Bay and the surrounding ocean, which also includes migratory pathways of multiple species of whales. That report said:

Geographe Bay is a … sheltered embayment with extensive beds of tropical and temperate seagrass that account for about 80 per cent of benthic primary production in the area. The seagrass beds are noted for their high species biodiversity and endemism.

The seagrass beds support critical fish habitat, including dhufish spawning. The report goes on:

Similar to the lagoons to the north, Geographe Bay provides important nursery habitat for many shelf species—

and—

is also an important migratory habitat for humpback whales.

I understand that around 35,000 humpback whales annually migrate through this zone. International researchers found that subsea power cables introduce electromagnetic fields into the marine environment. In Geographe Bay, this will have an impact on many species of fish, western rock lobster juveniles, WA salmon and other marine animals. Rays and sharks are noted to be particularly sensitive to EMFs, as they use electromagnetic receptive sensory systems for orientation, navigation and locating prey.

We also know about the impacts of offshore wind farms in Australia on birds. There is a report by DCCEEW that notes, ‘In offshore regions in southern Australia the highest-risk species are albatrosses.’ Fourteen species of albatross are listed as threatened in WA, so the process of construction, operations and decommissioning will all impact on the marine environment in Geographe Bay. I’m looking forward to seeing exactly what the government’s EPA will actually do in this instance, and whether it will discharge its responsibilities to not prioritise the government’s renewables-only agenda over our rural and regional communities and over our regional and rural local environments