MOTIONS - Environment, Employment

By Matt Keogh MP

31 August 2020

Watch Matt's speech here

The Morrison government is failing Australia and Australians. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the economic recession it 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 the WA Minister for Transport called out the government for being the key hold-up for major projects across Perth.

Principally, the issue is this: the Morrison government has cut funding to the department of environment so much that this department, which is responsible for federal environmental assessments for projects under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, is fundamentally failing to do its job. This isn't just leaving our environment unprotected, which it is, but is 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 shovel-ready projects ready; 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. Yet the Morrison government's record in this space is the opposite. As the motion before us outlines, under the Morrison government, approval delays have blown out by 510 per cent—from 16 days to nearly four months on average—essentially 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 key decisions on major projects were made late and 79 per cent of decisions were affected by error or were non-compliant. 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. 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 avoid the delays being caused at the federal level. Of course, such bilateral agreements should be about best practice environmental protection and not finding any lowest common denominator.

In October last year, the Morrison government commissioned a review into environmental laws, appointing Graeme Samuel to head that review. Upon the completion of that inquiry, Mr Samuel said our country needs better environment laws underpinned by national environment standards, together with an enforcement body, as well as supporting bilateral agreements with the states, such as what has been requested by Western Australia. However, it seems this Liberal Party are ignoring the recommendations of their own inquiry. The Liberal government has now introduced an environment bill which is merely a rehash of Tony Abbott's failed 2014 approach.

The Liberal government claims that these proposed amendments will tidy up the existing EPBC Act bilateral provisions. However, its legislation goes somewhat further than that. In addition, despite the recommendation of the Samuel review, the government is trying to put through legislation now that does not include any national environmental standards. Trying to push through incomplete legislation doesn't build support for reform; it is playing silly political games that will not only hurt WA jobs but also reduce investment certainty. This is the most significant opportunity for environmental reform in the last 20 years. The government must get it right. But, so far, all we're seeing is Abbott 2.0.

Environmental protection and supporting major projects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, good environmental laws should secure both. 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 just won't cut it.

Australia has a job crisis and an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing on both counts. This government now needs to take responsibility for its abject failure on environment and jobs and to stop tying up projects and strangling the environment with Liberal Party blue tape, which is delaying jobs and investment, putting a handbrake on our economy, failing to protect iconic Australian species and allowing the state of our natural environment to rapidly decline. We need to make sure both job opportunities and the environment will be bettered by this legislation, not compromised. If there was ever a time that we needed to get these laws right, it is now, when we need to bring forward projects to support our economy.