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

On the weekend I started reading Paul Kelly's book, the one he put out a couple of weeks ago, Triumph and Demise: The broken promise of a Labor generation. It is a bit of a yarn about the Labor Party. It is a sad book because it tells the story of the death of the modern Labor Party in some ways. It is continuing to be sad here tonight with the Labor Party seemingly opposing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, given it is something that they actually supported for many years and given that it is something that is meant to be pro-business and pro-development.

But, once again, they are turning their backs on that aspect of their tradition and history, on the Hawke-Keating legacy if you like, and facing their future, which seems to be one of being wedded to the Greens. We do not have so much of an Australian Labor Party anymore; we have a Green Labor Party—a GLP has come into existence.

To start with, I just want to quote a little bit from Paul Kelly's book. In the book he tells the story of the COAG Business Advisory Forum. Chapter 30 starts by saying:

The breach of trust between Julia Gillard and Australian business was sealed on 6 December 2012 when at the COAG business advisory forum Gillard pulled the plug on plans to rationalise the dual Commonwealth-state environmental approval project system. The forum chaired by the PM was a high-powered group that comprised the Premier, senior business figures and the peak business bodies. In the prelude to the meeting the Greens had waged a public campaign to kill the reform, and at the penultimate moment Gillard reversed the government's position.

The story is starting to come out here that it was actually the Greens who killed this reform and I think Senator Waters is taking credit for that—

Senator Singh: You didn't listen to my second reading speech then, did you?

Senator CANAVAN: No, I am sorry, I missed that, Senator Singh. It goes on to say that the President of the Business Council, Tony Shepherd, said:

We felt that we had made a lot of progress. Extensive work had been done at a public service level. The idea was to remove unnecessary Commonwealth-state duplication and have a single approval agency. We saw this as a tremendous breakthrough, saving time, energy and risk…

And then Tony Shepherd went on to say:

…at the last minute we were told, 'The PM does not believe this is a good idea and we will not proceed.' We were extremely upset. We felt we had been misled by the government and I saw this as a breach of trust. We were dealing with a government that was not trustworthy.

It is unfortunate that the Labor Party is turning its back on that tradition. We know how costly these duplications of process are. This is not something new. This is not something that was thought up during the election campaign last year or by this government since it came to power. This idea that we need to streamline environmental approval processes in this country is something that has been debated now for many years, long before the COAG Business Advisory Forum in 2012.

Indeed, it was actually the Labor Party that led the charge on these changes. I went back and had a look at what happened. I remembered from my previous career at the Productivity Commission, before I came to this place, that this was one of the key reforms of the Rudd government. They had a name for those reforms: Towards a Seamless National Economy—very grand, very Kevin Rudd. This was one of the reforms—

Senator Singh: You need to read my speech! I talked about streamlining!

Senator CANAVAN: This was one of the reforms, Senator Singh, that you supported—not anymore, but you used to support it. It goes back to 2008 when Lindsay Tanner delivered a speech at the Sydney Institute. He said:

Streamlined environmental assessment processes will stop the time wasting process of two groups of environmental assessors looking at the same information and holding up approval processes.

That was in early 2008 and later that year we had the 2020 summit. Do you remember the 2020 summit? One of the ideas from that summit was to remove the duplication in environmental approval processes. The 2020 document says:

Rapid development, fast-tracking, time-sensitive—Australia's processes for developing project approvals in getting regulatory approval to be dramatically accelerated.

Now the Labor Party have walked away from that.

Craig Emerson, in 2011, told Madonna King, an ABC Brisbane radio presenter:

A better way is for the federal government to recognise the integrity of state environmental approval processes and avoid this duplication. It is one of the main complaints of business in this country, and that's what we're trying to do, streamline the process—not to weaken environmental standards, but not to have them duplicated.

And now they are walking away from that. As I said earlier, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard walked away from that in late 2012, but that was not the end of the story. There was one more convolution to happen in that four-month Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government—they eventually brought Kevin Rudd back. Kevin Rudd came back and he gave a speech at the National Press Club. It was a very well-marketed speech. Perhaps you had something to do with it, Acting Deputy President Dastyari. Kevin Rudd had seven points—this was as late as July last year, only just a year ago—and the fourth point was:

We need a new approach to the regulatory impost of business from all levels of government. This particularly applies to multiple and conflicting environmental assessment requirements for state and federal governments. Surely it lies within our wit and wisdom to begin by integrating the assessment procedures and reports, at present separately mandated by the Commonwealth and the states.

That was just a year ago. Like many things in the former government, there was lots of talk, but they never actually got around to making any laws, to putting it in place and putting it into effect.

We see today that they are still taking their riding instructions from the Greens, that they are still in bed with this party. Today is the fourth anniversary of their marriage. We all remember the signing ceremony. We all remember the day, because it was the same day as today; it was on the day we had our wattles on our lapels—sorry, I do not have mine on tonight; I missed that. Maybe on this side of the House they will be a little bit tarnished, because it was four years ago that that wedding ceremony took place. We all remember it. We all remember the registry being signed by Bob Brown and Julia Gillard, and they had their little wattles on their lapels just like at a wedding ceremony. They signed the registry book. They went and had a party. They even had a hangover; it was called minority government. We lived with that for three years in this country. We are, unfortunately, still living with that because the Labor Party have not woken up to themselves yet and got on the side of jobs, economics and development—instead of just being anti all of those things, as they are being here tonight.

There was good reason that support for streamlining these environmental approval processes was bipartisan and something that both levels of government supported. There was a good reason for it—it was because it made a lot of sense. There were a lot of people making complaints about these issues, and I had some direct experience looking at them. I remember being up at Lake Argyle, at the Ord, a few years ago. The Ord is a remarkable place. I have been there twice in my life and I was astounded both times. I still remember flying into the place. The Ord, or Lake Argyle, is Australia's biggest dam. It is a dam of massive scale—something like 40 times the size of Sydney Harbour.

And, of course, those on my right will usually say that dams are environmental catastrophes, that any dam is going to wreck the environment. This is a dam that is nowhere near an environmental catastrophe; indeed, it is now an internationally recognised environmental asset. The Ord, or Lake Argyle, the lake formed by the Ord scheme, is now a Ramsar listed wetland—one of the few Ramsar listed wetlands in our country, and it is formed by a dam. It is an artificial, man-made lake; but, because it is a Ramsar listed wetland, every time we want to do something with the Ord we need to get federal government approval because Ramsar listed wetlands are one of the matters of national environmental significance under this act.

As you might know, the Western Australian government are putting forward a proposal to develop the Ord, to go to stage 2 of the Ord at the moment. I was talking to the project manager about this process, and they had to get EPBC approval. He had some Commonwealth government bureaucrats come and visit him one day to discuss this approval. I remember him telling me that the bureaucrats asked him how often the river ran. He replied, 'It always runs,' and they did not believe him. They did not believe him, because it used to be a seasonal system, but with the dam it maintained continuous flows. It took him eight weeks to convince the Canberra bureaucrats that actually it does flow all the time because it is a dam and dams hold water up. When you hold water up, you sort of have water all the time—or at least you do in the Ord because it is very, very big.

There was another saga. Word came back from Canberra that they were worried about some migratory finches in this part of the world. They sent up a questionnaire asking this person how the finches were going to migrate over this road. He was going to build a road there as part of the project. He told them they were going to fly over it. The bureaucrat told him, 'I don't think you're taking me seriously,' and apparently he told him, 'I'm taking you deadly seriously.' Eventually he was able to get approval; but, because of how it works under the EPBC Act, he had to pay for an offset. The offset that they agreed on at the time was $1.5 million for shark research in the Indian Ocean. The Ord is on the Indian Ocean side of the country, but it is about 200 kilometres from the Indian Ocean. It is a long way. This project had nothing to do with sharks in the Indian Ocean, but that was decided as the environmental offset because he had to pay a penance. He had to pay a penance because he was obviously annoying some green god. He had to pay some money—some greenmail, if you like He wanted to fight that; he thought it was ridiculous to have to do that. He thought he should go through a regulatory process that was normal and sane; but, no, it was not normal or sane, and the Western Australian government told him: 'Look, don't worry about it. Just pay the money. It's only $1½ million.' Only $1½ million! But that is what happened.

There is another project I have some familiarity with, and it is the Nathan Dam in Queensland. That has gone through multiple sagas through the EPBC Act. It was originally proposed in the Queensland parliament back in the 1920s. It was held up. It was approved by David Kemp about 12 years ago now but taken to court by the Wilderness Society or some green group. There was a landmark ruling that said the minister had not considered the indirect impacts of the dam. Those impacts included the fact that the water was going to be used for cotton production. Cotton production at the time used endosulfan, and endosulfan could possibly end up in the reef. That was all fair and reasonable, but the cotton industry does not use endosulfan anymore. It uses GM crops and does not use that, but the Nathan Dam still has not been built.

It has not been built, because a few years ago the Queensland government was trying to get approval—this was a Labor government at the time—for mining projects in the region. The federal department again had to be involved because we have these duplicative regulatory approval processes. The federal government said to them they found 850 boggomoss snails. The federal government said to the state government: 'You can't go ahead with the approval, because we've found these snails. You have to now go and do a few years of seeing if the snails can be relocated and still survive.' This was a snail-pace development, and it was held up by snails!

About 18 months later the Queensland Labor government found 18,000 of these boggomoss snails in the reef. They were living there and thriving. So they were allowed to restart the process but had lost 18 months in the interim. That project still has not been built. I was happy to see on the weekend that the coalition government has shortlisted the Nathan Dam as one of 30 dams that have some promise, so maybe it will get built. Certainly if we pass this legislation it has a lot more chance to get built; and, if it has a lot more chance to get built, that will mean there will be a major project in Central Queensland. That will mean there will be thousands of jobs in Central Queensland. That will mean we will have water for a burgeoning coalmining industry in Central Queensland. That means we will have water for irrigation in Central Queensland and probably a future water supply for Toowoomba as well because water could go from there to it.

Those anecdotes are not the only reason we need to pass this bill. It is also true that the body I used to work for, the Productivity Commission—they did this work long after I was gone though—in 2013 did a major report on development assessment processes. That was a report commissioned by the former Labor government. They had some pretty clear findings from this report. They said a one-year delay to a major offshore LNG project cost in the order of $500 million to $2 billion. That is a lot of money. They found on page 197, I am reliably informed, that processes take too long or are highly uncertain. A Business Council of Australia told us it took 10 years to get some basic service centres approved in Western Australia. Another said it took five years to have a relatively straightforward mine deepening application approved. Not knowing how long the approval process will take is a deterrent to business investment. The Minerals Council of Australia stated that the average period for approval related activities for a thermal coal project was just over three years, compared to 1.8 years in the rest of the world. These findings led the Productivity Commission to recommend that government should aim to establish a one-project, one-assessment, one-decision framework by restarting negotiations on bilateral approval agreements between the Australian government and states and territories. Such agreements must assure the environmental standards are not compromised and the rights of appeal are no less than those in the EPBC Act.

Since then, of course, the government has put in place a water trigger, and some changes are being made to that water trigger. What we are doing is ensuring that the water trigger in this bill is treated exactly the same way as every other matter of national environmental significance in this bill. I accept that the water trigger is a very important part of this bill, that the protection of our aquifers in particular and all of our water resources is very important and that we should go through a process to make sure they are protected, but I do not believe that those aquifers and water resources are any more or less important than the Great Barrier Reef, are any more or less important than migratory species and are any more or less important than our natural springs and our Ramsar wetlands. So if those matters are treated in a certain way and they are all potentially subject to bilateral agreements with state governments, I see no reason why the water trigger should not be as well. As other speakers have said in this chamber, even after the changes in this bill the Commonwealth will retain the right to step in and cancel a bilateral agreement at any time and will retain the right to not approve a project before the state government provides that approval.

I want to finish though by talking about my state of Queensland and in particular the north of Queensland. This bill is very important for the Nationals because most of the projects we are talking about are in regional areas. They are mining projects, irrigation projects and tourism projects. The Greens opposed a tourism project near Rockhampton, where I am going to live in a few months time. I could not believe they would oppose the Great Keppel Island project, but they opposed that too. That needed EPBC approval.

All these projects are in regional areas. That is where our wealth is created. The one project in particular that has really frustrated me over the last few years is the proposal to build a bauxite mine south of Weipa—the South of Embley bauxite project. It was a $1.5 billion project in an economically disadvantaged part of our nation. There are not a lot of jobs and growth in that part of our country, unfortunately. Many Indigenous people live there and there is great need for employment.

Rio Tinto proposed a few years ago to spend $1.5 billion developing this bauxite mine. On 13 September 2010, according to the Environment website, this project that was referred to the department was first released for public comment. It was approved initially, and then the clock was stopped and it was reopened again by Tony Burke I think in early 2011. Finally, after years of consideration, the Labor government approved this project on 14 May 2013, last year. There were 975 days between 14 May 2013 and 13 September 2010. It took the previous Labor government 975 days to say yes to a $1.5 billion project at Cape York. It was a disgrace because during that time the world moved on, prices had changed and Rio had changed—they had changed CEOs—and were not of such a mind to go ahead with it. There is still a chance it might go ahead. It has more chance of going ahead if we pass this bill.

We need to pass this bill because in this country we need to focus on how we are going to create jobs. In this country we need to focus on how we are going to get development projects approved so that we can do that, particularly in the areas I represent. I have been in this job only two months, but the thing that most people in Central Queensland talk to me about is jobs because in the last couple of years alone 10,000 jobs have been lost in our coalmining industry. I am not blaming anyone for that. Prices have fallen and it is a tough time in a cyclical industry. But by passing this bill we can help that industry create more jobs and make sure people have the opportunity and the dignity of having employment where they want to live and in the industry they want to work in.

The official hansard of this speech is available here.

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