Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014

Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory):  It is a great pleasure to be speaking to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014 today—one which I wholeheartedly support. The coalition, as has been noted by other speakers, has a proud record of environmental protection in this country. But what we have never done is taken an extreme view that constantly says all development is bad and all development that may have an environmental impact is, therefore, prohibited, as some in our community would seek to do. We have always sought to strike the right balance between the need to develop our nation and to develop new jobs and new industries with the need to always bear in mind the impact on our environment, the need to mitigate any impacts on our environment from development and the need to constantly keep this in mind.


In this spirit, in the lead-up to the last election, the coalition consulted widely with businesses, industry representatives and not-for-profit organisations about the regulatory burden they face. Time and time again, we learnt that unnecessary red tape is a burden on businesses looking to get ahead. In government, we have delivered on our commitment by holding the first repeal day on 26 March, when more than 50,000 pages of legislation and regulations were repealed to save over $700 million across the economy. We are committed to further deliver on our pre-election commitment to make Australia open for business by creating a one-stop shop for environmental approvals.

The one-stop shop will slash red tape and increase jobs and investment while maintaining or improving environmental standards. To ensure Australia's ongoing security and prosperity, it is important we do everything we can to allow businesses do their work and grow the economy. For too long, there has been duplication of federal, state and local process, adding complexity and cost to environmental approvals across the country. This government will create a one-stop shop that will streamline and simplify the environmental assessment and approvals process. The high environmental standards under national environmental law will be maintained. There is no change to those standards. However, the government will deliver benefits for business and the community by cutting this red and green tape.

This bill amends the environmental protection to facilitate the efficient and enduring implementation of the Australia government's one-stop shop reform for environmental approvals. Provisions to allow for a one-stop shop have existed in the EPBC Act since it was introduced. The government is delivering on the original intent of the act. When fully implemented, the one-stop shop will simplify the approvals process with a single entry point at the state level for approvals. The government is in the process of consulting and developing bilateral agreements with the states and territories to implement this policy. These negotiations are at different stages for each state and territory, so it is vital that we get the mechanisms in place so that these agreements can be implemented as soon as possible and the cost burden on business is removed.

The government will achieve the one-stop shop through a three-stage process: signing a memorandum of understanding with each of the willing states on the key principles and confirming cooperation on achieving a single process; agreement on bilateral assessments and updating those which have already been in place; and agreement on bilateral approvals within 12 months. By eliminating duplication, we can enable Australian business to do their work, while maintaining a high standard of environmental protection. 

In its submission regarding the bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and the ACT, the Property Council of Australia welcomed the one-stop shop and noted:

The experience of the industry with the EPBC Act has been characterised by a lack of clear definitions, rules and tests which has resulted little consistency or certainty in its administration. 

The property industry is among the hardest hit by the ongoing failure to streamline assessment processes. With over 200 residential and over 100 commercial property developments being referred to the Commonwealth in the past 12 months, construction costs and delays could be substantially reduced through the implementation of assessment and approval bilateral agreements. It is worth noting that the property industry is one of those industries that are most significantly affected. We have seen it in my territory of the ACT, and we see it all over the country.

We see this view of the world most notably propagated by the Greens. It is, effectively, anti any development. The Greens will always say that they are not anti development but that they are anti that development; they just happen to be anti the particular development that is on the table right now. They say that they are just anti this particular mine. They say that they are not anti mining; they are just anti that mine.

I thought it was interesting that Warren Mundine challenged the Greens recently by asking, 'Where is one area where you would support a new mine in this country? Where would you support one new mine in this country?' They would not point to it because, in the end, they fundamentally oppose mining and development. That extreme view of the world is not one that this government supports. That view of the world leads to increasing costs, increasing complexity and reduced economic development.

It is often said, of the local experience in Canberra, that if we were trying to build Canberra—the bush capital —now, with all of the constraints that some would seek to place on development, the vast bulk of the city would never be built. With any development there is always an environmental impact. The role of government is to make sure that that impact is mitigated and managed. You simply cannot have any development without having an environmental impact.

We have seen, locally, examples of calls for the EPBC Act to be used and that cross-over between state and territory law—the duplication at a Commonwealth level. We saw in the main development front of Canberra in Gungahlin. The Greens representative— now the only Greens representative in the Assembly —Minister Shane Rattenbury had a view on a suburb called Throsby, one of the  largest  new  suburbs  in the growing part of Gungahlin, which was proposed to be developed. His view, basically, was that there should be no development at all because there were environmental issues. He said:

Throsby is the perfect case in point of the kind of area for which we should perhaps just put aside all notion of development ... the Greens' view is that Throsby may well be a complete no-go zone.

We need to fight that kind of attitude when we see that kind of example of 'No development here!' When you look at the way Canberra was developed you see that it always took account of environmental issues. Large green zones in the middle of suburbs protected native flora and fauna—and that protected amenity, but it allowed development in those areas. That is the fundamental balance that we always seek to get, but which some in the community do not accept.

Some people do not accept that you can find a balance. They do not accept that you can have a housing development, a mine or other developments and then remediate, in some cases, or—when it comes to residential development—arrive at a situation that takes account of the local environment, adds to amenity but still supports the desire for new, affordable housing. And that is what this government wants to do.

This government wants to maintain high environmental standards but not take this no- development approach which says, 'No development here,' or 'We don't like that development because we don't like any development,' which is the view of the Greens and some in the community.

Likewise, the Minerals Council of Australia, in their submission regarding the proposed bilateral agreement between the Commonwealth and New South Wales, said that they support the government's 'commitment to implementing a single accredited project assessment and approvals process'. They also noted:

Continuing the momentum will be important to the successful roll out of these important reforms.

The Queensland Resources Council said that they are:

QRC is highly supportive of the assessment bilateral and soon to be approval bilateral arrangements between the State and Commonwealth Governments. They allow for greater alignment of duplicative regulatory processes as well as providing a more facilitative process for resource projects that are large, usually complex and multi-faceted.

QRC strongly believes government needs to implement a one stop shop approvals process as soon as possible.

Furthermore, they noted:

Certainty of process is highly critical for resource projects including timeframes for each step in the process. This enables greater planning and delivery of vital information to the project assessor.

The Business Council of Australia, in their submission regarding the Queensland agreement said:

If implemented effectively, the Australian Government’s policy to streamline environmental assessments and approvals whilst maintaining environmental outcomes will foster investment and put downward pressure on business and consumer costs.

We also had Tourism and Transport Forum Australia note:

A single approval process under the EPBC Act will benefit the economy by providing investors greater certainty and confidence to inject money into new tourism products and experiences.

Those were five endorsements from different industry groups across the economic spectrum. This government wants to help their businesses thrive as part of a strong economy. That is why we are committed to cutting this red and green tape. They have each noted that this one-stop shop is an important economic measure for their ongoing success. They have also noted how vital it is that there is certainty and clarity about the process. That is what this bill achieves: certainty and clarity.

Areas of savings for business will include lower costs, as business will need only one application, assessment process and approval decision; and faster approvals, as business will no  longer  engage  with the Australian government or wait for approval to follow a state or territory approval. This will typically save 30 to 40 business days. The legislation will provide more certainty for investors with a simpler, streamlined regulatory system which is good for Australia's international investment reputation.

The Commonwealth will maintain an important role in the approval process. The Commonwealth will still be accountable for its obligations under the EPBC Act, including international treaties. The Commonwealth will retain an approval role for actions in Commonwealth waters, on Commonwealth land, or by Commonwealth agencies. And the Commonwealth will have an ongoing role in ensuring the commitments under the bilateral agreement are met.

Environmental standards are not being weakened by this policy; in fact, they are being strengthened. States and territories must demonstrate their environmental assessment and approval processes meet the high standards set out in the EPBC Act. States and territories are working closely with the Commonwealth to demonstrate that their processes meet these high standards. In some cases, this may mean changes to account for matters of national environmental significance.

The one-stop-shop will also promote sharing of environmental information and data between business, governments and the community. Transparent and accessible information will improve our collective ability to understand and suitably manage our environment. The one-stop shop will also promote the increased use of strategic approaches to improve the environment such as strategic environmental assessments under the EPBC Act. Strategic assessments consider the cumulative impacts of environmental pressures and plan for better environmental outcomes.

By eliminating the dual state/federal approval process businesses will not have to jump over the same hurdle multiple times, but the same high environmental standards will be maintained. Some of the technical amendments to this bill will also provide certainty for proponents about the practical operation of the bilateral agreements. It will remove the need for proponents to make unnecessary referrals to the Commonwealth. These amendments also recognise that states and territories have set up their processes in ways that best reflect the circumstances in their state or territory. These technical amendments will ensure the focus of accreditation is on the process meeting the highest environmental standards, rather than on technicalities. The amendments also clarify that,  in  addition  to the terms of the bilateral agreement,  the  minister can take into account all matters, such as state or territory policies and plans, that might be considered relevant when deciding whether to accredit a state or territory process. In addition, a new provision to provide ongoing certainty to the community about the operation of the agreement will allow bilateral agreements to remain in force when state and territory governments make small changes to legislation and processes, where the substance of the arrangement or process continues to meet the highest Commonwealth environmental standards. The amendments will also allow bilateral agreements to refer to and incorporate documents, such as policies and guidelines, which change over time. This is particularly important to ensure that environmental decisions reflect the latest science and best practice.

The Commonwealth will work collaboratively with states and territories to ensure that high environmental standards are maintained. A  comprehensive assurance framework will be implemented, including: transparency around decisions and access to information, which will allow the broader community to be part of the monitoring process for the one-stop shop, state and territory audits, transitional and five- yearly reviews of bilateral agreements, and reporting mechanisms to enable the Australian government to fulfil its reporting obligations under the EPBC Act and internationally; an escalated dispute resolution process to resolve any issues; the federal environment minister will retain the ability to call in the assessment and/or approval of a project; and, in extreme circumstances, the minister has power under the EPBC Act to suspend or cancel an agreement. States and territories will be accountable to the community and business, as well as the Commonwealth. This is good policy. It is good for the environment and it is good for business.

We all know the economic landscape of Australia is changing—this government is committed to cutting red and green tape so that businesses can be enterprising, can invest and can create the jobs we need. This government is committed to finding a genuine balance between the needs of our economy—the need for development, the need for jobs and the need for affordable housing—and the genuine needs to protect the environment, the genuine desire of our community to maintain high environmental standards.  That is the path we are taking. It is not one that says that all development is bad; it is not one that seeks to unreasonably frustrate development; it is not one that seeks to unduly delay development with all of the costs that go with that. Those costs are passed on—when it takes too long to construct new housing, we see the cost of new housing go up. We see the great challenges for families to get into home ownership as we have seen affordability get out of control in many parts of our nation. Costs are passed on in the way of fewer jobs. We have recently seen mining developments and other developments unreasonably frustrated, and that affects jobs in the construction industry and jobs right through the economy. It is not good enough to take the approach to the environment we have seen from some I have quoted, which is effectively to oppose any development because it will have an environmental impact. All development has an environmental impact. What we need to do as a government, what the government has a responsibility to the community to do, is find ways of facilitating reasonable development, of ensuring that it can proceed on a reasonably timely basis, whilst ensuring that it does not do undue environmental damage, that it does not have an undue environmental impact. That is what this legislation is about. It is an important piece of legislation and an important reform, and I commend it to the Senate.