Terri Butler MP
Labor is the party of protecting the Reef from drilling for oil, protecting the Daintree, Kakadu, and Antarctica, and preventing the Franklin River from being dammed. We want to see strong environmental protections and we want future Labor governments to be in a position to continue this proud legacy of retaining natural (and for that matter cultural) heritage for future generations. We are the only party that has ever had both the deep and abiding determination to protect the environment and the capacity to deliver on that determination.
In contrast, the Liberals and Nationals have to be dragged to environmental protection. And they have a tendency to create a false dichotomy between jobs and environmental protection, claiming that so-called “green tape” is a problem for jobs.
But right now Australia is in a jobs crisis, and we are in an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing on both counts.
Through deep environment department funding cuts, in the order of 40%, and woeful mismanagement, they have allowed massive decision-making delays. A recent Auditor-General’s report showed that approval delays blew out by 510%, and in a single financial year 95% of key decisions made under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 were made outside the statutory timeframes. There are plenty of good reasons why decisions might be made late, but cuts and mismanagement are not among them. And when cuts and mismanagement lead to good projects being delayed, that means delays in investment, and delays in jobs. All of this shows that it’s not so-called “green tape” that is a problem for jobs, it is Liberal cuts and mismanagement, which some of us have dubbed “blue tape”.
At the same time, the government is comprehensively failing to come to grips with the biodiversity crisis, the damage wreaked by the Summer’s bushfires, and other environmental challenges. In the recent Senate Estimates we discovered that of 171 outstanding threatened species recovery plans, 170 are overdue. The fact is that only around 40% of listed species have recovery plans, and the government doesn’t seem to have a clue whether the ones that do exist are being implemented. This is the same government that in January 2020 announced $50 million in “immediate” “emergency” funding for recovery for wildlife harmed by the bushfires, but only managed to spend $19.1 million of it within the same fiscal year. So much for emergency funding. The bushfires were devastating for Australia’s wildlife and their habitats, with millions of hectares burned, estimates that 3 billion animals were killed or displaced. Labor called for an immediate national Ecological Audit with boots on the ground to get the best possible picture of the extent of the loss and damage; instead, the government delivered desktop mapping exercises.
So it is against this very discouraging backdrop that the Morrison government is currently undertaking the current 10 yearly statutory review of the EPBC Act.
The government commissioned Graeme Samuel, a respected regulator to undertake the review. In June 2020 he provided an interim report to the government that they later made public. It made harrowing reading for anyone worried about the future of our natural environment, stating that “Australia’s natural environment and iconic places are in an overall state of decline and are under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is unsustainable.” The report also asserted “the interaction between Commonwealth and state and territory laws and regulations leads to duplication. Despite efforts to streamline, significant overlap remains.”
To deal with these issues the report recommended an immediate set of reforms to reduce points of clear duplication, inconsistencies, gaps and conflicts within the existing legislation, to create Interim National Environmental Standards, to improve arrangements for devolving decision-making, take immediate steps to improve trust and transparency including publishing all decision materials related to approval decisions, and to legislate a complete set of monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance tools across the Act.
The recommendation to allow for devolution is particularly controversial given concerns about state and territory government’s capacity, resourcing, and susceptibility to conflicts of interest, and also because it is the Commonwealth that has voluntarily-assumed international obligations to protect the natural environment. It was a recommendation that was part of a raft of reforms, not a stand-alone recommendation.
Labor has not engaged in a cherry-picking, rule-in, rule-out exercise. Instead, we have made it clear that we will properly consider any serious proposal the government wants to put forward that is consistent with the review.
Yet the government has completely flubbed this opportunity for bipartisan discussion. Instead of putting forward a proposal for discussion that is consistent with the Samuel review, they dusted off an Abbott-era bill and unceremoniously rammed it through the House of Representatives - gagging debate and even using their weight of numbers to prevent MPs from moving substantive amendments.
This is a bill that Mathias Cormann described as a “carbon copy” of Abbott’s bill. Labor is opposing this bill. Instead of pursuing it in the Senate the Morrison Government should consider the final report of the Samuel Review, which has not yet, at the time of writing, been made public. And they should certainly introduce strong national environmental standards to address their current failures, establish a genuinely independent ‘cop on the beat’ for Australia’s environment; and fix the damage their cuts and mismanagement have caused, like the unnecessary 510 per cent job and investment delays. I’ve spoken about this on my YouTube channel and in the parliament.
The Samuel Review is the most significant opportunity for environmental reform in the last 20 years – but Scott Morrison is bungling it.