Handing over environmental approval powers to the Newman govt is not a great idea

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has put Australia on notice. We need to do better when it comes to the reef. The committee has warned us that if there is not substantial progress on the key issues they have identified, they may include the reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (13:22):  It is a pleasure to rise to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014, which—as my colleague and namesake, the shadow minister has pointed out—has nothing to do with protecting the environment or conserving biodiversity. This bill does nothing for either of those things. It amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to facilitate the Australian government delegating environmental approval powers to state and local governments.

Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, coming from Queensland, as you do, I strongly oppose this move. I do not want Campbell Newman, Jeff Seeney or the Queensland Coordinator-General having the power to approve developments in the Great Barrier Reef. This bill, along with the bilateral agreements being developed, will mean that World Heritage sites, nuclear activity—such as uranium mining—and species protected under international treaties will be put in the hands of state governments, including the Newman government.

Labor oppose this bill, because we believe the national government is responsible for matters of national environmental significance. The Australian government has a responsibility for protecting Australia's precious environment, and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, in particular, accounts for matters of national environmental significance. The Abbott government, unfortunately, has no interest in protecting Australia's environment for the future. I was as surprised as anyone to hear the Prime Minister refer to himself as a conservationist, in recent days, given that the track record appears to point to the opposite conclusion. Since coming to government, Mr Abbott and Mr Hunt have made bad decision upon bad decision that have hurt our environment. This bill is the furthest they have gone in terms of putting our environment at risk to irreparable damage by leaving decisions of national environmental significance to state premiers and their ministers and, in the case of Queensland, to unelected persons as well.

The Newman government is an example of why state governments should not be trusted with managing our environment. Last week, the Queensland parliament considered rushed changes to the environmental approvals laws of the state which are complementary to the changes in this bill. The Newman government has attached the changes to a bill about a much less controversial topic. As my state colleague the member for Mackay has said in that debate:

There is no need for the legislative changes to give the Queensland government power to issue federal environmental approvals—

to be attached to that much less controversial bill. He continues:

These changes could have been in a stand-alone bill and scrutinised in its own committee inquiry. The attachment of the legislative changes to give effect to the Abbott-Newman deal to hand federal environmental approvals to the state is sneaky and underhanded. The rush to effect these legislative changes is unnecessary.

That was what he had to say in respect of the complementary legislation in the Queensland parliament last week. During the same debate, my colleague the state member for South Brisbane said:

The EPBC Act is the most important piece of environmental legislation in Australia. The matters of national environmental significance that the EPBC Act protects are: matters of World Heritage, national heritage, wetlands of international importance … threatened species and communities … migratory species, protection of the environment from nuclear actions, the marine environment, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the protection of water resources from CSG and mining.

It is particularly important to note that the member for South Brisbane said the following in relation to the Newman government's record when it comes to the environment:

We are privileged to live alongside some of the greatest natural wonders in the world … Sadly, the Newman government has proved it cannot be trusted to protect our natural environment. The Newman government has systematically stripped away vital environmental protections, leaving our precious natural heritage at risk.

She then went over the following list:

They overturned Labor’s 23-year ban on uranium mining in Queensland. They ended the moratorium on shale oil mining and refinement … They extended sandmining on North Stradbroke Island up to 2035 … They introduced legislation … to repeal wild rivers declarations. They scrapped a world-class coastal management policy. They encouraged interstate companies to dump waste in South-East Queensland landfills. They stripped away statutory protection for native vegetation … They have made it harder for community groups to appeal environmental approvals.

As my colleague said:

The fact that the Abbott government has looked at this record and still decided to hand over its powers to the Newman government is a shocking indictment of its own environmental credentials.

As you can see from what the member for South Brisbane had to say, there is cause for concern about handing over powers to the Newman government when it comes to the environment. She is not the only person who is worried about their record. The Friends of the Earth in Brisbane wrote to me with particular concerns about handing over powers with respect to uranium, but with concerns also more generally about the bill and the handover of powers. The Newman government's record on the environment has been slammed by its own Auditor-General, who, in a report tabled in April, has said that the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection:

… is exposing the state to liability and the environment to harm unnecessarily.

We cannot trust the Newman government, given its track record. That is particularly so when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef. It is one of the great wonders of our natural world. Like lots of Queenslanders, as a child I visited the reef on a number of occasions. I want others to be able to have the same experience. I fear that, with the Newman government in charge, people will not be able to have that same experience. I am not alone in my concern.

I congratulate WWF-Australia and the Australian Marine Conservation Society for their joint campaign Fight for the Reef. They and many of my constituents are greatly concerned about the way that developments are affecting the reef. The campaign is presently focused on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee's upcoming decision about the reef. The committee has commenced its meeting from 15 to 25 June, which is being held in Doha. It is considering a draft decision that explicitly warns Australia that the changes to be made by the bill that we are debating today are premature. It also states that the committee is concerned about dredging and dumping near the reef. The relevant provisions of the draft decision that the committee is considering are as follows:

The World Heritage Committee … Requests the State Party to ensure the full completion of the independent review of the institutional and management arrangements for the property, as recommended by the 2012 reactive monitoring mission, as a key input to the LTPSD—

Long Term Plan for Sustainable Development—

and considers that the transfer of decision-making power from Federal to State levels, before the vision, framework with desired outcomes and targets, and governance requirements to deliver the LTPSD have been adopted, is premature, and should be postponed to allow further consideration …

Those are not my words; they are those of the UNESCO World Heritage committee, and we ought to consider them. The committee also expressly recorded its concern about the government approval for dumping three million cubic metres of dredge material inside the property, which is very near the reef, prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative, potentially less impacting development and disposal options.

The draft decision is crucial. The committee has put Australia on notice. We need to do better when it comes to the reef. Specifically, the committee has warned us that if there is not substantial progress on the key issues they have identified, they may include the reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The Newman government claims that tourism is one of the pillars of the Queensland economy. If the reef is listed as World Heritage in Danger that will be a blow to tourism. Just today The Cairns Post published an article from journalist that said:

TOURISM leaders say the Far North’s reputation as a top holiday destination—

(Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Vasta):  Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.

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