These three bills, the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024, the Nature Positive (Environment Information Australia) Bill and the Nature Positive (Environment Law Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2024 implement the government’s second stage of key environmental reforms, called the nature-positive reforms, that they promised in the 2022 election. The nature-positive reforms are the government’s commitment to change Australia’s environmental laws to better protect, restore and manage our unique environment.

My constituents value our natural environment, and they deeply care about the need to protect it. A recent community survey undertaken by my office asked the question: what do you love most about living in your local area? Time and time again, across hundreds of responses, my constituents would say that they love nature, the scenic environment and the natural beauty of where they live. Constituents also loved the opportunity to tell me about their surrounding bushland, the mountains, the rivers, the places they love and enjoy exploring. But they also talked about how being close to nature means they can contribute to regenerating and conserving Indi’s natural treasures—from the Grass Tree orchards in the Warby Ranges to the native orchids in the Chiltern-Mount Pilot National Park. It’s no surprise that Indi is home to over 40 Landcare groups, with volunteers who are dedicated to spending their time nurturing our environment by eradicating weeds and pests and restoring the native flora and fauna.

When I was elected as the member for Indi, I was given a very clear mandate by the community to protect the natural environment that we all hold so dear. This became even more evident in the 2022 election, after the 2021 State of the environment report, authored by Professor Graeme Samuel, was released. This report painted a dire picture of Australia’s environment. Professor Samuel did not mince words:

Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat.

Professor Samuel found the current environmental decision-making framework was ‘an abysmal failure’. He made a number of recommendations and told the government loud and clear that reform is urgently need to establish robust environment standards that can’t be hijacked. After it was released, hundreds of constituents contacted me about the findings of the Samuel review. Like me, they were deeply concerned about the places they lived in and cared for. They were faced with the fear that our iconic places and unique environment might not be there for future generations to experience. Indeed, my constituents are witnessing this environmental degradation firsthand, from the record-breaking losses of koalas, greater gliders, regent honeyeaters and more after the Black Summer bushfires to the alarming impacts of reduced Murray Darling River flows on the Murray cod and other species and to the ever-decreasing snowfall in our alpine areas. A former constituent of mine was in my office this morning talking about the very, very deep threat of the lack of snowfall and the real threats to our alpine areas in Indi.

As I consider and scrutinise the three bills before us today, the priorities of the people of Indi are clear to me and central to what I have to say. We value our unique and special environment and desperately want to turn this alarming environmental situation around. The first bill sets up Environment Protection Australia, Australia’s first national environmental protection agency, also called the EPA. An EPA is a long-overdue body that will be responsible for enforcement of and compliance with our national environmental laws. This includes stop-work orders to anyone breaking the law and tough new penalties for those that do. This role is currently undertaken from within the department of the environment. In his report, Professor Samuel called for the creation of a separate office with—and I emphasise this—independent oversight of environmental compliance. ‘We must have,’ he said, ‘a tough cop on the beat if we are to have any chance of turning around the state of our environment.’ An EPA is exactly what we need.

The second bill sets up Environment Information Australia—the EIA. The EIA will provide easy access to the latest environmental data so we know the whereabouts of threatened species and native vegetation. By providing this information to business, environmental approvals can be smoother, because costly scientific studies won’t need to be repeated. EIA will have responsibility for setting a baseline for and recording achievement against the goal of Nature Positive. Under the bill, EIA will be required to more frequently report on the state of the environment every two years. Previously, this was only every five years. EIA will also report on progress towards environmental goals such as protecting 30 per cent of Australia’s land and sea by 2030.

Finally, the third bill, which I will refer to as the transitional provisions bill, amends nine pieces of environmental legislation to give certain responsibilities to the new EPA. This includes conferring licensing, compliance and enforcement responsibilities to the CEO of the EPA in relation to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and other laws, including those about ozone protection, recycling, waste exports and air quality. There are positive aspects to these bills. It’s good to see this government finally starting on implementing recommendations of the Samuel review, especially by creating an EPA and requiring more frequent State of the environment reports by the EIA. It’s crucial that the EIA and EPA have adequate resources to undertake their work, and I understand this has been provided for in the budget.

But these bills must be improved if they are to truly fulfil their intention and the intention of the Samuel review. As they currently stand, they are simply not good enough to make a real difference to our environment. My biggest concerns lie with the proposed EPA. One of the main issues if not the No. 1 issue that motivated me to run for parliament was integrity in government decision-making. As many in this place know, I spent years working towards the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The work of integrity is never done. We must ensure integrity in every decision and action in government, including when that relates to the environment. For the EPA to be truly effective in protecting our environment, it must be transparent and independent of government. Right now, the EPA bill, as drafted, falls short of these requirements. We need to eliminate any risk that the EPA could make decisions that advantage certain groups or could be victim to political influence, rather than having a clear, solid evidence base that’s best for the environment and upon which every decision is made.

Under the bill, the minister can delegate decision-making powers to the CEO of the EPA, but the minister is at pains to state that she will still hold powers to make important environmental decisions, like whether large-scale renewable energy or fossil fuel projects should be approved. Let me be clear: I understand that in some cases the democratically elected representative should make these decisions; under our Westminster system, the importance of ministerial decisions is clear, valid and critical. But, unfortunately, the public has no line of sight on when and why the minister gets to make those decisions instead of the EPA CEO. This is a problem, but it’s one that can be fixed. Therefore, I urge the government to support the amendments that improve transparency for these decision-making processes by the CEO and the minister. We need to make laws that lock in transparency, and we can’t leave that to chance.

I’m also concerned that the EPA will not be truly independent of government. Under the bill, there are no clear eligibility requirements and appointment processes for the CEO. There is no skills based governance board that would appoint the CEO and that the CEO reports to. Once again, this government is introducing a bill to create a statutory body that does nothing to prevent the culture of jobs for mates. So I call on the government to support the member for Mackellar’s amendments that address these issues. The government’s simple assertion that the EPA is independent from the executive does not make it so. It must set this out in black-and-white: how the EPA will be independent. Write it into the law; this is vital to ensure public trust and confidence in environmental decision-making.

And trust is critical—absolutely critical. There’s no mention of the role of the EPA to promote public trust in environmental decision-making by ensuring meaningful consultation. This is particularly important; both the Samuel review and the government’s own Nature Positive Plan found that a significant factor contributing to the community’s lack of trust in the EPBC Act is lack of transparency around environmental decision-making. In the promotion for their Nature Positive Plan, the government said that it’s good for the environment and good for business. What about communities? If one thing is clear to me from listening to my constituents, it’s that the community and the environment are inseparable. It’s people who live in and care for our natural wonders, after all. Social and cultural concerns are as legitimate as business concerns. Right now, constituents frequently contact my office, concerned about large-scale renewable energy projects proposed for their communities. They have legitimate concerns about the impact on their local environment, which includes bushland and farmland. But they feel like decisions are happening behind closed doors and that there are minimal avenues to pursue in having their voices heard. We need to transition to a low-emissions economy—we absolutely do. To do that, though, we need to deal communities into the decision-making. The current bill must ensure that the EPA itself—not only the project proponents—is ultimately responsible for ensuring communities have access to information about proposed developments and an adequate opportunity to express their views. Having an EPA that doesn’t acknowledge the role of communities is a real shortfall, and I urge the government to support the member for North Sydney’s amendments which would ensure public participation and community rights are reflected in the new EPA.

I could go on. There are many gaps in this bill about: publishing EPA information about decisions; transparency and CEO decisions that go against the advisory board provided for in the bill to advise the CEO; the appointment of the advisory board itself; and about how the statement of expectations from the minister to the CEO would work. Until these concerns are addressed, and until I can see the government responding constructively to proposed amendments, I’m reserving just where my support for the bills is at this time. I want to see the government engaging with these good-faith amendments, which will bring benefit and make this law better, stronger and more transparent, and which will increase community trust.

I’ve outlined the myriad concerns I have with the bills before us, but I want to address a much bigger worry I have with this government’s approach to environmental law reform—in particular, their delays with comprehensive reforms to the most important piece of environmental law: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the EPBC Act. Professor Graeme Samuel found:

The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation.

On the back of this damning finding, the government made an election promise to reform Australia’s broken environmental laws, and, in December 2022, the Minister for the Environment and Water promised to introduce draft laws by the end of 2023. This deadline then passed, and in April 2024 the government deferred comprehensive reforms to the EPBC Act indefinitely. The EPBC Act needs urgent attention to include things like the impact of climate change on our environment. It needs strong national environmental standards that can be created by the minister but can’t be reduced in subsequent standards. And it must focus on environmental outcomes to prevent extinctions and improve species recovery.

The fact is the bills before us are rendered meaningless until this comprehensive legislation is introduced into parliament. How can we expect an EPA to halt extinctions when the laws it is enforcing are fundamentally broken? This government can’t simply separate them into neat packages; it doesn’t work like that. These reforms are urgent. They can’t be delayed. According to the Parliamentary Library, between 2000 and 2017 more than seven million hectares of potential habitat was cleared, and a shocking 93 per cent of this was cleared without being referred for assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. With such a broken system it should be no surprise that Australia has one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. This must change if we have any hope of protecting the environment.

I acknowledge reforming the EPBC Act to turn this situation around is huge and challenging, and involves drafting thousands of pages of complex legislation, but the government simply must not put this task in the too-hard basket. Real work to protect our beautiful and unique natural environment is what my Indi constituents sent me here to do. As one constituent who recently wrote to me said, ‘It is the only environment we have.’ Nature-positive laws are within reach, but they are only achievable if this government shows the will and leadership required of it.

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