Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013

It was interesting to see Senator Lines being sworn in this morning. I wonder how long it will take before she realises things are not always what they seem in this place. When I arrived here a number of months ago, I believed far more than I do now that, as Senator Sinodinos says, good policy will always trump bad politics. But it appears once again that here we have another example of politics trumping policy. Having had an involvement in the hearings relating to this bill, I am really concerned that there is more a political agenda than any real objective. If there were any real objectives, you would have to ask why we are only applying this to coal seam gas and related coal mining. One would have thought that a water trigger under the EPBC Act should apply to anything.

Let us have a look at the other eight elements that are included under the EPBC Act as triggers at the moment. They include world heritage sites, which is a pretty broad thing; national heritage sites, which is equally broad; wetlands of international importance, which is broad; national threatened species and ecological communities, which is broad; migratory species, a very broad area of responsibility; Commonwealth marine parks, which is growing as the current legislation continues, with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park recognised as a massively important world heritage area; and nuclear actions. How can we add to that this tiny little specific area of a water trigger as it relates to coal seam gas or coal mining. It strikes me as a very strange thing. Those of us who are becoming more cynical as time goes by would suggest that it is for political purposes. I am not sure this bill is really going to achieve a great deal. The reality is that this is just another layer of regulatory burden.

Six months ago Minister Burke rejected an amendment to regulate coal seam gas mining, claiming that the Commonwealth had no constitutional powers to make such laws. But then in April last year, at a COAG meeting, the Prime Minister said 'what we want to work towards is a streamlined system so that projects do not go through two layers of assessment for no real gain'. The Prime Minister really does need to explain how on earth with an additional trigger in relation to water at a federal level—in addition to all the triggers that get put into place at a state level, plus all the other triggers that apply to this that are not necessarily water specific—this bill is not adding another layer of burden. She said: 'The classic examples that are brought by business are where people have gone through sequential assessments. So it is double time. Things that have been required for the first assessments are required in a slightly modified form for the second assessment. So they do not even get the benefit of just uplifting the work and re-presenting it; it has got to be redone.'

I am absolutely astounded that we have this bill in the House, supported by the government, which is completely contrary to the Prime Minister's words only 12 months ago. She said: 'Clearly it is an efficient system. Having said that, obviously Australians want environmental protection and I do not think there is anybody in this place that does not want to see our environment protected and kept in a sustainable state into the future.' But that is not to say that we have to go crazy about overly burdensome regulations and requirements if they do not really have any great benefit and they are being picked up by other processes along the way.

The big issue here is that what the government says and what the government does are two completely different things. There are so many examples I can think of where the government says one thing but what it does and the policies it puts in place are completely contradictory. I come from the country. I am from a farming background and I am very keen to help the farming sector through some very tough times at the moment. Over the last few months, we have heard constantly about the opportunities in the Asian century white paper. We have talked about the National Food Plan. We have also talked about the fact that this country wants to see Australia as the food bowl of the world. But if you look at the actions of this government in relation to supporting this project and this sort of rhetoric, they are going in completely the opposite direction.

We have seen so much money cut out of agricultural research and development, at both a state and a federal level. We have seen increased burdens on our farmers to comply. You only have to look at the amount of money our growers and exporters are now expected to pay to get export licences and the fees they are charged through AQIS to get their products overseas—it is almost a wonder why anybody bothers to export from Australia at the moment, given the burdens that are put in place.

We were promised, when the whole concept of cost recovery was put to this parliament—despite the fact that we did not support it; we got it—that there would be a heap of cost-saving measures added in. Needless to say, we did not see any of those cost-saving measures. Now we find, once again, that the poor old primary producer has to bear the burden of these increased costs, without having any benefit of the cost-saving measures that were promised. You talk the talk but don't walk the walk. It is this which is causing a whole heap of damage to Australia.

The APVMA bill that was recently put through this place tried to say that it would streamline things for Australian producers. You cannot streamline something and make it less of a burden on producers when you are increasing the cost and going for full cost recovery. You just end up with a situation where what the government says and what it does are two completely different things. Everyone is getting a tiny bit scared about the sovereign risk associated with all this.

What of the cost of this bill? During estimates, when Senator Birmingham was questioning the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, it was noted that the EPBC Act requires $32 million a year and 210 staff to operate the department. It admitted that changes to the existing EPBC Act, to add a new environmental test, which is to be given effect under this bill, will cost $38.5 million over the forward estimates, with ongoing costs of $10 million a year. At the same time, the changes will require an additional 43 staff this year, rising in coming years to 50.

How on earth can we be trying to reduce the burden on our community, on our producers—on the people who are actually productive out there in Australia—when we are making changes to bills that increase the burden and increase the amount of debt we have to deal with? How on earth can this bill achieve anything for Australia, given the extraordinary cost it is to government and industry at large, when we have not even got to what the implications will be for the mining industry?

The coalition recognises that communities have concerns about coal seam gas mining. Everybody has concerns about things they do not fully understand. I live on the river. We have just been through the most extraordinary process with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I for one, as an irrigator and a licence holder, understand the importance of water and do not for one minute take away the importance of water—the very sustainability of this country. We are not saying that water and the impact on ongoing water resources is not extremely important. We also recognise the importance of farming. We are the party that supports farmers. We are the party that supports country people.

I have been particularly distressed since being here that the current government does not seem to understand what it is the farming communities of this country need in order to become productive. I live in an area where you see people pulling out orange trees and burning them, simply because they do not have the support out there to make a profit. This is very distressing. But I can assure you that I, as a member of the coalition, entirely understand the importance of farming in Australia. The coalition also understands the importance of being productive. Any of us who have run out own business understand that if you are not productive you do not go on for terribly long. As a country, we need to remain productive. These sorts of bills and the introduction of an additional layer of burden to our communities are making us less productive not only in Australia but also on the world stage. We have seen some extraordinary situations happen over recent times due to Australia not being competitive.

South Australia, the state that I represent in this place, had the terrible announcement in September last year that BHP Billiton were not intending to continue with their mining expansion at the Roxby Downs site. For South Australia that was a major, major body blow. What has been most distressing is that underlying that decision by BHP Billiton was the fact that they were not able to afford to continue to mine that particular site because of the compliance costs, the regulatory costs and the burdens that were placed on them by government. We should take away some of these burdens—and the mining tax jumps to mind as the obvious one—and most of the mining industry would breathe a great sight of relief if we no longer had it. The fact is that the sorts of bills, like the one we are today talking about, are just more burdens on miners and on the sovereign risk that we present in constantly changing the rules halfway through the process.

During the hearings we heard from a number of people. We heard from people that, obviously, were very concerned about the impacts on the water from mining projects. We also heard from those that had very big commercial interests in the operation of these mines. We should not shy away from the fact that companies like BHP Billiton, like Santos, and companies like the Queensland coal and gas company are really important contributors to the Australian economy. We cannot move away from the fact that Australia needs these guys because they are a very important part of our economic base. I think these guys are intent on ensuring that they protect the environment, because the last thing they want to do is to be shut down. There comes a time when a balance has to be achieved and acknowledgement that we cannot all be on one side or the other.

In relation to the committee's inquiry, I just referred to BHP Billiton's evidence as an example. They expressed, quite upfront and quite loudly, their support for robust environmental regulation, and the importance of minimising duplication, cost and complexity in that regulation was something that they were calling for. They had concerns about the technical drafting issues that may result from unintended consequences of these bills on the existing operations, impacts on the bilateral approval processes with states and the general uncertainty around the impacts on the timelines and requirements for approvals.

As Senator Sinodinos quite rightly pointed out, strongly and regularly, during his statement to the house: where is the Regulatory Impact Statement? You would think it would be reasonable for a Regulatory Impact Statement to be undertaken when introducing such a piece of legislation as this so that we could ensure that the concerns of everybody are considered as part of this process. It seems to me that the consideration of a very one sided situation is occurring here and that we are not actually taking into account the things that the mining industry—a very important part of our economic base—have put forward. They seem to have been totally disregarded as if there was no importance in them at all. The fact that we have no Regulatory Impact Statement, I think, is an absolute travesty of justice in this situation.

BHP Billiton also expressed concern about the potential impact on existing projects. I think this is a key point in the sense of legislation that may be passed which will affect things that are likely to happen in the future. Of course, any business that is in possession of all the facts will make a decision as to whether they choose to proceed or not to proceed. It makes it very, very difficult for those companies or those projects that are part way through and have been commenced. This particular bill is still likely to impact on them. BHP Billiton expressed a direct concern for current projects when they said:

These will be subject to increased regulatory assessment additional to assessment activities already in place. This includes referral of all water related impacts of new projects to the Independent Expert Scientific Committee for advice. This duplicates existing state assessment processes and further complicates and extends the assessment of major projects.

It seems completely unreasonable to apply what is, in essence, a retrospective legislative requirement on things that are already occurring. Once again, had we had a regulatory impact statement on the proposed changes, this would have ensured that these concerns were taken into account and dealt with. That way, the concerns raised by a number of miners during the inquiry process may have been alleviated, instead of us causing more angst, more concern and more risk and increasing the likelihood of mining projects in this country not proceeding.

This whole idea that it is okay to make changes on the run is wrong—that it is okay to give organisations and businesses one set of rules and objectives, tell them these are the ground rules under which they must operate and then turn around and change them. We do not have to look terribly far to see some of the most horrific consequences of knee-jerk changes to regulation or public policy on an existing operation. Let us just look at the northern part of Australia and see what they have done to our cattle producers there. If ever there were a most disgusting and irresponsible policy change in Australia, it has to be that. In the process of purporting to be dealing with an issue in relation to the treatment of animals, I do not think too many people from the government have been up and had a look at the consequences of thousands and thousands and thousands of cattle starving to death because producers were not able to get them out of the country and there was not sufficient feed for them to be fed. Nobody likes to see any animal hurt—I am the world's greatest softy when it comes to animals—but, when we see hundreds of thousands of cattle dying from starvation because of a policy decision that completely destroyed an industry, the government really does need to be held to account for the consequences.

Once again, we have a great big boat in South Australia tied up to a wharf—a great big boat that legitimately bought a number of licences to go fishing in South Australian waters. They bought these fishing licences off genuine people who had legitimate licenses and they were not going to take one more fish out of the South Australian fishery than would otherwise have potentially been taken by those who owned the licences. But, because of a knee-jerk reaction, once again we had a policy change part way through a company's project. It is just not fair. You cannot possibly expect a company to make a sensible decision when the facts before them at the time they make the decision are likely to be changed at the drop of a hat. It is just not right and it must not happen. Likewise, with this particular bill, the regulatory burden will impact on projects that are already underway. Businesses cannot possibly be expected to make decisions under those conditions.

Finally, the sovereign rights of the states here are another matter that really does need to be considered. To me, this smacks of, 'The states can't be trusted.' It seems we are playing Big Brother on all this in saying to them, 'I'm terribly sorry, a few people have complained about the way you're handling the administration of these projects. So, because you can't be trusted to handle them, we'll just come in over the top of you. We'll decide because we know best.' The question in that is: where on earth does this issue end if we think that, every time somebody does not like the way a state, which has a sovereign right to operate in this jurisdiction, handles something, we can just hand the powers on to the Commonwealth and fix the problem that way?

The coalition does not oppose this bill. We acknowledge the community concerns about water resources. However, we do have very, very big concerns about the regulatory burden the bill will place on our communities.

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