I rise to table a number of concerns I have with this Bill, and the manner in which this Government has responded to the Samuel Review into the EPBC Act.
I am proud to represent a region endowed with diverse and beautiful geography, with mountains, rivers and fertile land.
We are rich with national and state parks, wetlands, rivers, grasslands and abundant fields, fauna and flora: from the grass tree orchards in the Warby Ranges to the native orchids in the Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park.
The importance of the environment to my constituents is why, as an independent MP, I will scrutinise every attempt by this Government to water down its protection.
It’s no secret the EPBC Act is in desperate need of reform.
Professor Samuel’s recommendations are balanced following multi-year consultations with scientists, environmental experts, community leaders and business groups.
Over 600 constituents have written to me, urging me to ensure the Government stays faithful to the Samuels Review.
As one constituent put it:
“After the Black Summer bushfires, we should be protecting what we have left and restoring what’s lost.
Handing environmental protection powers to states and territories without proper safeguards in place will put our most iconic wildlife on the fast-track to extinction.
Of Australia’s 1,800 threatened species, 327 were severely impacted by the Black Summer bushfires, including the koala, greater glider and regent honeyeater.
It’s an ‘ecological disaster’. …
Professor Samuel told the Government loud and clear that reform must establish robust environmental standards that can’t be hijacked.
Professor Samuel told the Government it needs an independent Commissioner that has the powers to audit individual decisions.
Getting these laws right matters: a piecemeal approach will only expedite the extinction crisis.”
I’m afraid this bill fails these two important benchmarks.
First – the National Environmental Standards.
It’s unclear to me why the Government isn’t choosing to simply adopt the robust National Environmental Standards that Professor Samuel developed, and enshrine them in legislation like other hallmark protections in this country, like the National Employment Standards.
Instead, this bill is a series of round-abouts and loopholes.
Under this bill, the Minister is free to consult however they wish and develop an entirely new set of standards that depart entirely from the important work of Professor Samuel.
The standards could be as weak as kitten.
Those first set of standards will also not be disallowable.
That means Parliament won’t have any power to oppose those standards if it thinks they’re not up to scratch.
Let’s think about that for a moment: Australians who don’t live in the Minister’s electorate will have to wait four years before their MP will have any say in the new standards that the Minister decides to pick up and a pen and write.
That doesn’t sound robust to me. It sounds dangerous.
And if you think that’s bad, wait until you hear about the “public interest” exemption.
Under Division 3, the Minister has an unfettered power to override the standards if they think there are economic and social factors that outweigh environmental ones.
So, what have we got here:
A free pass to write whatever standards the Minister wants.
No parliamentary oversight for four years.
And a God-like power that let’s the Minister bulldoze environmental concerns with economic ones.
I simply cannot support Schedule One of this bill as it stands.
Schedule Two, which establishes a toothless Environmental Assurance Commissioner, isn’t much better either.
Professor Samuel’s was crystal clear in his Final Report: existing compliance and enforcement under the EPBC Act is weak and ineffectual.
Under the current model, a shocking 93 per cent of habitat for threatened species was destroyed without any referral, assessment, or approval under the Act.
What we need an independent cop on the beat that has the resources and powers to actually audit individual decisions and intervene when Ministers and Governments are abusing their power and getting away with it.
I applaud the Member for Clark for the bill he introduced last month which would’ve established an independent Commonwealth Environmental Protection Authority.
I’m also proud to second the Member for Clark’s second reading amendment on this bill that calls on the Government to replace Schedule 2 with something more respectable.
Under the Government’s proposal in this bill:
The Commissioner cannot audit individual decisions.
The Commissioner cannot require the Minister to publicly respond to serious concerns with an environmental approval.
The Commissioner cannot compel someone to provide them documents and other information so it can make an informed, independent decisions.
And the Commissioner cannot write its annual workplan without interference from the Minister.
Schedule Two is a far cry from a cop on the beat.
It’s a toothless tiger with a Minister permanently peering over its shoulder, ready to pull the trigger on their God-like “public interest” power when they don’t get their way.
That’s no way to treat our precious flora and fauna.
As one constituent put it:
Our unique places and wildlife in Indi are what makes it such an amazing place to live and visit. If we don’t seize this once in a 10-year opportunity to improve the Act the loss to Indi and Australia will be irreversible, and future generations just might not get the chance to see some of our most iconic wildlife in the wild.
I’m not prepared to support this bill as it stands.
And I implore the Government to step up and do what the 10-year review told it to do to protect Australia’s precious environment and reverse the current extinction crisis.
We only get one shot at this.
In 10 years’ time when the next review comes around, it may be too late for the flora and fauna that we love.