Single environmental approvals entry point at state level

There is no question at all that the lack of harmonisation and the duplication of federal, state and local environmental approvals processes adds complexity, cost, frustration and a lack of certainty right across the country. The intent of this legislation is to maintain the high environmental standards under national environmental law while delivering benefits for the community and business through a single approvals entry point at the state level.

The provisions for a one-stop shop have actually existed since the EPBC Act was introduced. The Commonwealth will remain accountable for its obligations, including international treaties, under the EPBC Act and has an ongoing role with commitments under bilateral agreements.

The Commonwealth will also retain an approval role for its actions in Commonwealth waters and Commonwealth land or by Commonwealth agencies.

I note that the states and territories have to demonstrate to the minister that their environmental assessment and approvals processes meet the high standards in the EPBC Act. When people think about the management of the Australian environment, they often underestimate the commitment of coalition governments. I have confidence in the state governments, particularly the Western Australia government.

It was the Charles Court led Liberal government of Western Australia that from 1974 to 1983 took major steps towards the conservation of the natural heritage of the state, more than doubling the amount of land set aside in national parks to 4.5 million hectares.

Sir Charles was also the first to call a halt to the indiscriminate clearing of agricultural land, which until his time had actually been a requirement of landholders acquiring freehold or leasehold title.

His Liberal government took the brave but necessary decision to enforce clearing bans in the Collie River catchment in my electorate because they had identified the growing and ominous threat of salinity. Salinity in the Collie catchment is still an area of grave concern. The Wellington Dam, a 156-gigalitre water asset held by the state government, remains stranded with a total dissolved salt level of over 1,000 parts per million. This is twice the potable drinking water standard, and some critical and possibly lateral thinking is required to achieve the best productive use of this water resource.

Sir Charles also identified the impending threat of Phytophthora dieback in WA’s native forests. His government took the tough decision of quarantining three-quarters of a million hectares of jarrah forest from logging to protect this valuable and iconic natural asset.

The history of environmental care and protection by the Liberal Party in Western Australia is a long and detailed one—which is why I have that level of confidence—and it is still going on. The current Liberal led government in Western Australia has invested in a range of conservation programs, significantly adding reservations created as part of the state’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy.

Another area of considerable focus has been in marine conservation. The WA state government created a new reserve in Camden Sound to protect the internationally renowned whale breeding area there and formalised the 124,000 hectare Ngari Capes Marine Park off the south west of Western Australia in the state marine zone within three nautical miles of the coast off the electorate of Forrest.

The proclamation of the Ngari Capes Marine Park in 2012 was a highlight of marine conservation in the region. Unlike the Commonwealth marine planning process that was occurring concurrently under federal Labor, the state process was inclusive and scientifically valid.

The State of Western Australia has a great record in environmental conservation. Practices have evolved over the years. Having federal oversight in the 1930s to 1970s would not have stopped the overclearing that occurred throughout the WA Wheatbelt leading to the salinity and acidity issues that exist today because, in fact, both state and federal governments supported it.

But, as our knowledge base grew and the consequences became known, both levels of government have supported action. I do note that where there was an active timber industry, especially in the South West and in the Forrest electorate, forests were valued and retained. Where they were not harvested and managed to retain a future resource, forests generally disappeared. Those who love the iconic jarrah and karri forests of the South West can in part thank the timber industry for their ongoing existence.

It is with this recognition of the history of the ecology in Western Australia that I support the bill before the House today. I also note that, at a federal level, it was a federal coalition who appointed the first minister for the environment and, of course, it was the Howard government who introduced the EPBC Act in 1999.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill recognises that the states and territories are actually the land managers defined in our Commonwealth Constitution. It also recognises that in those states and territories they have the knowledge, the skills and the on-ground experience to make good decisions for local ecosystems and local communities through this legislation, administering both state and federal acts in a one-stop shop process.

There remains an important role for the Commonwealth: that of oversight, but only where it is empowered by Commonwealth legislation to do so. There are times and conditions where circumstances will demand a federal response. Under the system proposed by the Minister for the Environment in this bill, there is ample opportunity for the Commonwealth to engage with state environment departments throughout the assessment process.

This is an opportunity for improved interaction and communication between state and federal bodies, with a greater potential for an efficient, effective process and better outcomes. Of course, in areas of Commonwealth legislation jurisdiction the federal government retains the power and the right to intercede in a more direct manner. This is completely appropriate as well. There may be times ahead where the Commonwealth government needs to call in the assessment and/or the approval of a project. Working in concordance but with the power to disagree in individual cases will be the fallback that is needed to make this system work based on scientific evidence.

The minister has the power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an agreement. This is part of the comprehensive assurance framework. The transparency around decisions and access to information ensure that the broader community can be part of the monitoring process for the one-stop shop. State and territory audits, transitional and five-yearly review of bilateral agreements and reporting mechanisms are further parts of this, as is an escalated dispute resolution process to resolve any issues.

This legislation is part of the answer to the issues of streamlined but safe approvals. I hope it will see an end to approvals taking five to seven years, as has happened in my electorate in the south-west of Western Australia to mineral sand miners. And that is just one example. But it is repeated again and again.

Having an outcome take so long, putting vestments, jobs and the economy of the region at risk, clearly demonstrates why this legislation is a step in the right direction. The need for a complementary and more unified process is highlighted by the approvals process as it exists in my Forrest electorate. The process in my electorate can generally be described in most applications by using two words: ‘possums’ and ‘cockatoos’.

These two vulnerable species—the western ringtail possum and Carnaby’s black cockatoo—are the focus for endangered species in my area. This is especially the case along the coastal plain leading to the edge of the scarp. These species are picked up by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act federally, which can significantly slow down the approvals process.

However, the experts on the western ringtail possum and Carnaby’s black cockatoo are in the state Department of Environment and Conservation. So it makes sense—it is common sense—that that department should lead both the research and the response to the ringtail possum and the Carnaby’s black cockatoo.

The one-stop shop will promote the sharing of environmental information and data between business, governments and, importantly, the community. I believe that the government and the minister are both to be commended on this initiative.

As I said, this is certainly a step in the right direction for harmonisation to reduce the levels of complexity, the cost, the frustration and the lack of certainty that exists across the country.