By Matt Keogh MP

03 September 2020

Watch Matt's Speech here

 I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 and the amendment moved to it.

The Morrison government is failing Australian jobs and the Australian environment. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the economic recession it has caused was thrust upon us, the Morrison government was stifling the opportunity for major resources and infrastructure projects around Australia to proceed. This has become such a profound issue that even in Western Australia the Minister for Transport and Planning there called out the federal government for being the key hold-up to major projects across Perth.

Principally, the issue is this: the Morrison government has cut funding to the department of the environment so much that this department, the department that is responsible for federal environmental assessments of projects under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, is fundamentally failing to do its job. Under this Liberal government, approval delays have already blown out by 510 per cent—from 16 days to nearly four months, on average. Essentially, this is all caused by sustained cuts to the environment department. These are cuts of nearly 40 per cent since 2013.

In 2018-19, 95 per cent of decisions on major projects were made late, and 79 per cent of decisions were affected by error or were noncompliant. Since the end of last year, the WA government has been calling on the Commonwealth to enter into a bilateral agreement for environmental approvals, which would help to avoid delays being caused at the federal level. Of course, in looking at such bilateral agreements they should be about best-practice environmental protection and not open to finding the lowest common denominator. Recently, the Fraser Institute's Annual Survey of Mining Companies identified Western Australia as the No. 1 place in the world for mining and mineral exploration. WA is ideally placed to work with the Commonwealth and to lead the nation to deliver this once-in-a-generation reform.

Instead of aiding and abetting Clive Palmer's mad plan to break WA's protective borders, the Prime Minister should be working to secure better laws for jobs, investment and environmental protection. In October last year the Morrison government commissioned a review into environmental laws, appointing Professor Graeme Samuel to head that review. Upon the completion of that inquiry, Professor Samuel said that our country needs better environmental laws, underpinned by national environmental standards, together with an enforcement body, as well as supporting bilateral agreements with the states, such as has been requested by the state of Western Australia.

It's vital that we simplify and reduce unnecessary regulatory obligations on industry whilst maintaining strong environmental protection standards to further aid the state's economic recovery and, indeed, our nation's economic recovery during this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. However, it seems that the Liberal government are ignoring the recommendations of their own inquiry. The Samuel report found that, despite being subject to multiple reviews, audits and parliamentary inquiries since the commencement of the act, the administration of referrals, assessments and approvals of controlled actions under the EPBC Act are not effective.

I could go on. The report is quite damning of the government. But what came out of it were eight recommendations, all of which were agreed by the department, who stated that they were committed to the continuous improvement of processes and procedures. Despite the recommendations of the Samuel review, this government is trying to put through legislation now that does not include any environmental standards. This isn't just leaving our environment unprotected; it's holding up job-creating projects.

If there was ever a time that Australia needed to be in a position to get moving, that we needed to have shovel-ready projects, that we needed to make sure that regulatory requirements were met speedily but properly so that job-creating projects could proceed as soon as possible, it is now, when we're in the midst of the first recession in three decades. The national accounts have confirmed Australia is in the deepest recession for almost a century, with the economy experiencing the sharpest contraction ever on record. A record one million workers are already unemployed and an additional 400,000 are set to become jobless by Christmas. Yet the Morrison government still has no proper plan for jobs. It appears the only plan they have is for no jobs.

The Prime Minister and Treasurer want to wind back JobKeeper, cut wages, cut super and freeze the pension. This recession will be deeper and unemployment queues will longer because the Morrison government is leaving too many people behind. Workers, businesses and communities are crying out for a plan from the Morrison government to promote growth, protect and create jobs, support business and set Australia up for a proper recovery. The Morrison government has excellent conditions for reform at its disposal right now, and we on this side of the House have said that we will engage constructively. After all, Professor Samuel is a well-respected review chair who has been working diligently with leaders from agriculture, the resources sector and business, as well as traditional owners, conservationists and academics.

The legislation before us today is a gross insult to the federal environment department, the work of Professor Samuel and the state governments across the country who are working so hard to get our nation moving after this COVID pandemic. In fact, this piece of legislation goes against what the report from Professor Samuel actually says. Our environment needs protection, business needs certainty and Australians need jobs. These changes fail on each count.

The Morrison government is putting jobs and investment at risk through this legislation. The model that Professor Samuel proposed in his interim report is contingent on the creation of strong interim national environmental standards, and when the government publicly released Professor Samuel's interim report back in July it said the proposed legislative changes would be accompanied by the standards. The Morrison government should not pursue amendments until the interim standards are finalised and made available to the people of Australia. Without national environmental standards recognised in law, each state jurisdiction could end up negotiating different standards into each bilateral agreement, which would increase job and investment delays and become a regulatory nightmare. It is precisely the opposite of what we should be striving for: nationally consistent environmental protections to provide certainty for project proponents and the environment.

Labor have made it clear all along that we are open to considering the environmental law reforms that Professor Samuel has proposed. After all, it's Labor that has undertaken every major achievement in environmental protection in our nation's history. Labor's legacy is that we protected Antarctica, the Daintree, Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and the Franklin. We created Landcare and we created what was at the time the largest network of marine parks in the world. Only Labor has the will and capacity to properly protect Australia's environment.

Labor is also the party of jobs and job creation. Yet the Liberal government's record in this space is the opposite. It is utterly hopeless. Trying to push through incomplete legislation doesn't build support for reform. It's playing silly political games that will not only hurt jobs across the nation but reduce investment certainty.

This is the most significant opportunity for environmental reform that we've had in the last 20 years. The government must get this right. Environmental protection and supporting major projects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, good environmental laws should secure both. Indeed, it isn't good environmental law unless it does.

Rather than taking the axe to laws designed to protect our environment and, importantly, laws that preserve Australia as a world-leading tourism destination, the federal government should improve its project assessment funding and performance. It should be working towards the full suite of laws that are required. A piecemeal approach will not cut it. So what do we want to see? The Morrison government should introduce strong environmental standards and establish a genuinely independent cop on the beat for Australia's environment. It should fix the explosion of the unnecessary 500 per cent increase in investment delays caused by its funding cuts to the environment department.

Australia has a job crisis and an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing Australia on both counts. We need to make sure that both job opportunities and the environment will be improved by this legislation, not compromised. If there was ever a time that we needed to get laws like this right, it is now, when we need to bring forward major job-creating projects to support our economy.

That's why Labor will not agree to the bill in the House—because a well-respected professor, who I'm sure was paid a healthy sum to undertake a detailed review, is not being listened to by the government that commissioned him to do that work. Professor Samuel made some good recommendations, and, as a result of that review, they should be followed. It's only appropriate that they are considered properly for all that they are worth.

That's why Labor will look to refer this bill for a Senate committee inquiry. It needs to be looked at properly. We recognise this legislation has been delayed following the release of the review. We recognise that state governments, including the Western Australian government, are hanging out for progress on these changes. But we will not agree to legislation that will put jobs and the environment on the line. We need to get this right. Far too many Australians, and the environment, are relying on us now.

(Quorum formed)