Standing Committee on the Environment

As I was saying, I rise to support the recommendations made in this report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment. Like the previous speakers, I want to acknowledge the work of the chair and thank the secretariat, who, as we all know in this place, do an extraordinary amount of work. I also want to thank the witnesses who came along and gave evidence. The holy grail of environmental management is to make good decisions about environmental approvals efficiently and effectively. We want to protect the environment and stimulate development in the economy to create jobs and support communities, particularly those in rural, regional and remote areas. It might be considered by some that to be able to achieve both in a timely manner is impossible. But that is the ideal that we should always be aiming for, and streamlining the environmental legislation is part of that process. In hearings, the Department of the Environment stated: The Commonwealth has national standards to be considered prior to entering into an agreement. The standards are based on the requirements of Commonwealth law and facilitate the maintenance of strong environmental outcomes through the one stop shop … The reform will maintain high environmental standards while delivering an improved means to achieve better outcomes for business. The environmental approval system being rolled out by the Commonwealth in the form of the one-stop shop program also recognises that the states and territories are land managers as defined in our Commonwealth Constitution. It recognises that it is those states and territories that have the actual knowledge, the skills and the on-the-ground experience—something that is often overlooked—to make good decisions for local ecosystems and local communities. In particular, they have the expertise that the Commonwealth Department of the Environment does not. It makes no sense to have the Commonwealth Department of the Environment trying to replicate that knowledge and expertise in replicating an environmental assessment process. The Commonwealth, as we know, simply does not have the capacity to do so—unless it invests billions in replicating state and territory environment departments. So an eminently sensible outcome is for the states and territories to do what they do best already, to conduct those on-the-ground environmental assessments as part of this. There remains an important role for the Commonwealth, that of oversight. But only where it is empowered by Commonwealth legislation to do so. As a committed federalist, I understand the importance of the division of powers in relation to the roles and responsibilities of the states. There are times and conditions, however, where circumstances demand a federal response. Under the system proposed by the Minister for the Environment in legislation, there is ample opportunity for the Commonwealth to engage with state environment departments throughout the assessment process. Nothing in the government proposal prevents this. The Commonwealth is not abandoning its responsibilities for environmental management. It is simply defining them and cooperating to deliver the outcomes. We heard consistently throughout the hearings about the costs, delays, frustration and inefficiency associated with the duplication of the requirements and processes of the current system. We also heard about projects in Australia that take 3.1 years for approval and about projects of a similar nature in other countries that take 1.8 years for approval. We heard about delays of seven months for environmental approvals in 2002 and of 18 to 36 months in 2012. We heard that the LNG industry has to comply with 150 statues and 50 government agencies —that has particular interest for those of us from Western Australia. Of particular importance was the evidence from the Department of the Environment, which commented: The reform will maintain the high environmental standards of the EPBC Act. The Australian Government is committed to improving environmental standards over time cooperatively with the states and territories. To ensure this outcome continuous improvement will be a key feature of agreements with State and Territory governments. That outlines what the Commonwealth is intending. I note that the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices said in their evidence: ANEDO supports efficient and effective environmental regulation. We do not support unnecessary or duplicative laws. … We do not believe in regulation for regulation’s sake but in using the appropriate regulatory tools to ensure ecologically-sustainable development and the protection of the Australian environment. On that basis, I commend the recommendations and the report to the parliament.