Coalition shameless in face of environmental decline

Published on Wed 23 June 2021 1:07pm

The most important task when it comes to the EPBC Act is to fix it so that we get effective environmental and heritage protection. Why? Because quite clearly we don’t have that now. After eight years, three terms, of this government we have a failed environmental protection system which is leading to animal extinctions. It’s leading to coral bleaching. It’s leading to marine heatwaves. It’s leading to the destruction of ecosystems around this country.

Mr Wilson (1:07pm) – I’m very pleased to speak against the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standards and Assurance) Bill 2021 because it’s dangerous. It aims to sacrifice the interests of the Australian environment at a critical time for the political interests of this hopeless, reckless coalition government. Anyone who votes for it is condemning Australia’s biodiversity to further harm at a time of enormous risk. Anyone who argues for it has been sucked into this government’s cheap self-serving game. The most important task when it comes to the EPBC Act is to fix it so that we get effective environmental and heritage protection. Why? Because quite clearly we don’t have that now. After eight years, three terms, of this government we have a failed environmental protection system which is leading to animal extinctions. It’s leading to coral bleaching. It’s leading to marine heatwaves. It’s leading to the destruction of ecosystems around this country. The No. 1 imperative of this government, when it comes to the EPBC Act, should be ensuring that that environmental protection framework works. They’ve had four or five environment ministers in that time, one of them sitting here at the table, and yet they’ve failed to deliver an environmental protection framework that does the job. A year ago Juukan Gorge was destroyed because the protection framework is not good enough. Yesterday it was noted that UNESCO intends to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger. In March another 10 species were gazetted on the EPBC list as extinct. We know that the Australian sea lion—our only endemic sea lion species—was listed as being critically endangered earlier this year and we know that the koala is at risk of being extinct in Australia by 2050. Yet all this government wants to do is rush headlong towards the devolution of decision-making powers, pushing its own responsibility along with the present dysfunctional framework, with no additional resources for the states.

The truth is it only wants do that so it can perform some silly dance posturing as the best friend of the mining and resources sector.

It could so easily accept Graeme Samuel’s recommendations, which would begin to improve what are howlingly bad environmental outcomes, and it could so easily improve the position when it comes to assessment times and decision-making clarity, but it doesn’t want to do that. We are hearing from members in the chamber today exactly why it doesn’t want to do that—because it wants to pick a silly fight. That’s what it wants to do. It wants to try to cosy up to the resources industry and perhaps to some state governments rather than undertake its responsibility to the Australian environment. It would be sensible if it was to listen to its own government appointed reviewer and apply the changes he has recommended. We would consider that a responsible step to take. We would consider that a responsible approach to the Graeme Samuel review and to the desperately needed reform of the EPBC Act. But that isn’t what the government wants. The government wants to play a cheap political game. It wants more slogans and more stunts, and it wants to create a point of difference between itself and Labor, even at the cost of sacrificing Australia’s environment and Australia’s biodiversity. The one thing this bill will guarantee, if passed, is further environmental decline and further biodiversity loss, because that is what is happening right now under the EPBC Act, under this government. Nothing the government has proposed in this bill does a single thing to improve that position.

What I find really disappointing, to be honest—this is an important debate. We know that the last time they brought in an EPBC bill at the last moment they had to gag the debate, because I think they realised as it progressed what a disaster it was going to be; we’ve not seen that bill again. But with this bill, which is relatively momentous, there has been a tiny handful of people on the government side who have come in and been prepared to speak about it, and not one of them have shown that they have the faintest idea of what is in it. I’ve never seen a greater instance, in my time here, of people coming in and simply saying what must have been written on the piece of paper for them—that this bill is magically going to improve environmental conditions and the timeliness of decision-making and assessments. They say that as if it’s a mantra that’s been handed down to them from on high. They have no understanding whatsoever of the actual detail of the bill.

I’m also surprised that some industry representatives, in the aftermath of Juukan Gorge, don’t seem to have a basic grasp of what the government is trying on here and are not calling on the government to do its job. This is a government that presided over a 510 per cent blowout in assessment times. Ninety-five per cent of all decisions have been late. Seventy-nine per cent of all decisions have had compliance failures. That is the incompetence of the current government that has led to environmental damage and biodiversity loss but has also meant that assessments and decision-making are woefully slow and woefully inefficient. Why hasn’t the industry been saying to this government, ‘For God’s sake, do your job for once’—that would make a nice change—’and deliver an effective environmental protection framework which can be the basis for clearer and more timely project assessments’?

People in the community watching this debate should hold on to five key points to help them understand what is going on here. No. 1: our environment has already suffered enormous harm and is on a trajectory of further decline. We are the world leader in extinctions. Thirty-five per cent of all mammals that have gone extinct since 1500 are Australian. If you look at North America they’ve had one mammal extinction in the post-colonial period. We’ve had 30. We are a world leader, shamefully, when it comes to mammal extinctions. In March this year, the government listed as extinct in the EPBC Act the desert bettong, the Nullabor dwarf bettong, the Capricorn rabbit rat, the great hopping mouse, the Western barred bandicoot, the south-eastern striped bandicoot, the Nullabor barred bandicoot, the long-eared mouse, the blue-gray mouse—and that’s just in March! Those were extinctions listed in March. That is what is happening to our environment. The Great Barrier Reef has had three bleaching events in five years—the only bleaching events in history. We had a marine heatwave in 2011 that destroyed an enormous amount of seagrass in Western Australia. This government has presided over enormous environmental decline, and Graeme Samuel himself said to it that the trajectory is for further decline. And this bill does nothing to improve that.

Our environmental protection laws and supporting mechanisms are not working because (1) the environment has been smashed, and (2) the environmental protection laws and supporting mechanisms under this government are not working. The framework is stuffed. They’ve cut 40 per cent out of the environment department, and they’ve made ridiculous decision after ridiculous decision that puts our biodiversity at risk.

No. 3: it is quite possible, and any sensible person would argue it is necessary and urgent, for us to do something to improve our national environment protection framework. Graeme Samuel, who was appointed by this government to undertake a statutory review of the EPBC Act, provided a very clear blueprint for this government as to how it could be achieved: improve national standards; put in place a watchdog with teeth. It’s really simple. Improve national standards; put in place a watchdog with teeth. He even drafted the interim standards for it. He’s provided the interim standards for it. All this government has to do is put them in place. But this utterly hopeless, reckless, self-interested government, after eight years and three terms, has ignored its own government review. Straight out of the blocks, the Minister for the Environment, the fourth or fifth environment minister in this government, said: ‘We’re not having an independent watchdog. Don’t worry that 79 per cent of all the decisions have got compliance failures, we’re not doing that.’ That was her very first decision. That was after the interim report. The government hadn’t even got the final report, but it was ruling that out. It has not accepted the interim standards that Graeme Samuel proposed.

By the way, Graeme Samuel said that the current laws for Indigenous heritage protection, in addition to not working and being behind community expectations—he recommended that the national environmental standards for Indigenous engagement and participation in decision-making that he had formulated should be immediately adopted. This is in the aftermath of Juukan Gorge. He said it should be immediately adopted. Can the government bring itself to do that? No. It is not in this bill, it wasn’t in the previous bill. This bill has not picked up one recommendation of the Graeme Samuel review, not one iota. It hasn’t adopted the interim standards that he has recommended.

This bill isn’t putting in place an independent watchdog with teeth. This assurance commission that is contained in this bill will be housed in the department. The action plan of the assurance commissioner has to be approved by the minister. The assurance commissioner will have no power to look into, to inquire into and to assess individual decisions. It is a sop. When the minister last year said, ‘We’re not having that altogether,’ that was just a little bit of a bridge too far. Too many people—perhaps some people in the government, and certainly some sensible people out in industry—said: ‘Hey guys, there are only two recommendations from this government review. You have to at least make a show of accepting one of them.’ That’s what the assurance commissioner is. It’s just a weak, mealy-mouthed gesture towards that recommendation, without actually putting in place the changes that are needed.

The only driving imperative in this bill is silly, cheap, idiotic, super dangerous political stunts and games by a desperate government that wants to hang on. That’s the only thing that’s going on here. People in Western Australia know that. I think people in industry should have a closer look at that. I’ve spoken to people in industry in Western Australia from the time the government embarked on this process, and said: ‘Do yourself a favour. Talk straight to this government. Tell them that you would like to see the EPBC reformed properly. Tell them to improve the environmental protection framework, which we must have for the benefit of our environment, our biodiversity and to meet community expectations. Do that.’ Graeme Samuel has given you the blueprint. It’s not that hard. You just have to follow what he’s recommended to you, which is what you actually commissioned him to undertake. Implement that, and then, on a bipartisan basis, if you could ever bring yourself to do that, move towards a system where you might get some improvements in assessment times. But this government has no interest in that, and people in the sector should know that.

I got this letter hot off the press today, telling me I should get serious about this bill because the Graeme Samuel review highlighted there was an immediate opportunity to devolve decision-making without compromising environmental outcomes. Except, that’s exactly what this does; it compromises environmental outcomes. The environment in this country is being smashed. We are seeing more extinctions and more ecosystems under threat with each passing day, and it’s because we have a failed environmental protection framework, and we have a hopeless government that has done everything in its power to defund and weaken the environment department.

The government implemented a threatened species strategy. The first version was an abject failure. It set out to improve the position of some targeted species. If you take mammal species, for instance, there were 20 targeted mammal species that they hoped to see improved trajectories for. It included animals like the Gilbert’s potoroo, whose home range is down around Albany in Western Australia. The Gilbert’s potoroo is the most endangered mammal in Australia. There’s a few hundred of them left. Of those 20 targeted species, how many did they get an improved trajectory for? In their report, they said eight out of 20. When you looked a bit closer, of the eight, the improved trajectory of four—so half of the species for which there was improvement—was because they are declining less quickly. So that population is not increasing; it’s still decreasing—it’s still slipping towards extinction—but just a little bit more slowly than it was before. That’s the record of this government. They followed that failed strategy with a new threatened species strategy which was delivered late, with—guess what—no targets, no actions and no funding. That will all be supplied, we’re told, by the end of the year. We’ve got an environmental crisis and these people just twiddle their thumbs.

People in the community should know what this is about. This is 100 per cent a stupid game by a stupid government. It is simply an attempt to create political division to suit their own needs. It is an abdication of their responsibility, after eight years and three terms in this place, to protect the Australian environment and our biodiversity. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It has been hammered through habitat loss, through feral animals and now through climate change. It desperately needs a protection framework that will reverse what Graham Samuel has said is a trajectory of decline. But the government cannot bring themselves to do it. None of their ministers for the environment stand up for it and they get pushed around by the member for Tangney and other people, who spend all their time designing what they think of as clever ads for the pages of the West Australian rather than doing their jobs.

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