Mark Coulton MP, Federal Member for Parkes

Environment Protection an Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014

Monday, 16 June 2014

 I too rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill 2014. I might just makes some comments about the speech of the previous speaker, the member for Richmond. What we have just heard is base political activity. The member for Richmond was not speaking for the people of her electorate. You might be interested to know that the member for Richmond has probably the lowest primary vote of any member in this place—33.5 per cent. The Greens in the seat of Richmond had a vote of 17.6 per cent. So the member for Richmond was actually appealing to the 17.6 per cent of people in her electorate who voted Greens, and not to the 50 per cent of people who did not.

In the last election she ran a vicious anti-CSG campaign, in an electorate that I might add has no CSG. There is CSG in adjoining electorates, but the member will not dispute the fact that there is no CSG in Richmond. She is appealing to 17 per cent of people. I agree with the member for Richmond that it is a beautiful part of the world. But she is appealing to the people who go up there, clear their half acre of rainforest and then make sure that absolutely no-one else can do the same thing. They want to be the last house built in Richmond. It is the greatest area of nimbyism in New South Wales. You only have to look to Tasmania to see what Greens preferences have done to a resource-rich state of Tasmania. It choked them. That matter needed to be addressed.

The fact is that those licences were given out willy-nilly by the Labor Party. I know there are people from my electorate listening today. I might say that there has been a lot in the news about the Leard State Forest and the Pilliga. The reason we have extractive industries in those areas goes back to Bob Carr and his relationship with the Greens. He was so hell-bent on shutting down the timber industry and taking out the sustainable industries of the Pilliga and closing down the sawmills at Gwabegar, Baradine and Gunnedah and places like that. He was so hell-bent on closing down the timber industry in order to get Greens preferences that he allowed extractive industries in there. If the people of the Pilliga now have an issue dealing with extractive industries, they can thank Bob Carr. In fact, my state colleagues have gone from having a policy-free zone on extractive industries, when they came to power three and a half years ago, to now having the strongest environmental laws anywhere in Australia, if not the world, to control these industries.

Turning to the bill, what we have here now is a one-stop shop. I say to the people from my electorate listening to this speech that this is not a dilution of the environmental laws. This is a simplification, a streamlining, a remove of green tape, so that processes can get underway. This is not just for extractive industries. This also concerns the land management laws in the state. At the moment we have a real issue in parts of my electorate with the federal environment laws, with the threatened species act, and with the state laws. It is very confusing for landholders to undertake proper management of their land. Indeed, in about a half an hour the mayor of Walgett will be in this building to meet with various ministers to talk about the fact that the Walgett Shire is only 20 per cent developed. Green tape has choked up the good farmers of the Walgett area with regard to developing their properties, which would not only maintain the environmental efficacy of the region but also maintain its productivity.

So, the assessment and approvals process will be simplified, but in no way are the standards of the physical assessments being diminished. The federal government will be entering into bilateral agreements with state and territory governments across the country under national environmental law. It may not be widely known, but there have been provisions for a one-shop stop in the EPBC Act since its inception. The coalition is taking this opportunity to increase productivity while maintaining environmental approvals—contrary to scaremongering we have seen in this chamber today from the member for Melbourne and other members, who rely on scaring and misinformation rather than dealing with the facts.

The Commonwealth government will remain accountable for its obligations under the EPBC Act and will have an ongoing role in ensuring that the commitments reached by other bodies under the bilateral agreements are met. As a part of the process for establishing the one-stop shop the state and territory governments must demonstrate their ability to meet the high standards set out by the EPBC Act. In some cases, if the existing assessment process has not been of a high enough standard, it will be strengthened. That is a key point. In some cases, this bill will actually strengthen the environmental legislation that protects our landscape, and that is a very, very important point. Those opposite and others who are on this bandwagon will try to play this as some sort of dilution of the environmental laws. It is actually a strengthening of the environmental laws, but it is also a streamlining.

I would now like to speak for a moment about the water trigger. Water resources will continue to be included as an item of national environmental significance under the one-stop shop. There are no changes to the environmental standards under the EPBC Act. Under this legislation, the minister will be able to accredit state and territory processes for approving projects involving the water trigger. However, the important thing is that the minister will make this accreditation only if those high standards are maintained. I would like to point out that unfortunately, as we are seeing now and in previous times, this water trigger has been used in this place for political purposes. Very rarely have environmental laws been the friends of the farmers, and I would say that also to the people who are listening to this in my electorate at the moment. The environmental laws have the ability to be extremely detrimental to farming operations. So, while we need to maintain the high standards, we need to maintain the water trigger, we also need to make sure that farmers do not get caught up in the web of environmental green tape any more than they already are.

As a former farmer I understand the importance of water in our regional communities; I absolutely do. However, I will not use water as a political football, as some people in this place choose to do. I believe that having the right assessments and the high environmental standards is essential in a project that may affect water as a matter of national significance.

I have always supported the establishment of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development. I believe that this independent group of experts in the field are the ones who should make the recommendations as to any project put forward. The coalition now seeks to make available to the states and territories the advice from the committee. This sharing of information and access to scientific advice is a useful step to help ensure that the right decisions are being made throughout the approvals process. Independent science is an essential part of this process.

Under this legislation there will be greater transparency into decisions being made and access to information. There will be greater community involvement, which I believe will be welcomed by my community. There will be state and territory audits and transitional and five-yearly reviews of the bilateral agreements and the reporting mechanism. The minister will be checking to ensure that the standards are maintained and that the high standards for environmental assessments remain. Under this legislation the minister still holds the power under the EPBC Act to cancel or suspend an agreement. That is a very important point. The minister has not abrogated his obligations as the final arbiter. But, in cases where the streamlining of the state and federal processes can be done under the highest standards, that is the process. The minister still holds the power under the act to cancel or suspend an agreement.

I have said many times that further environmental legislation that interferes with agricultural practices is not in the best interests of the farmers in my region. And I will close on that point. There is information coming around regional Australia at the moment that is designed to misinform and scare farmers with regard to their relationship with extractive industries, and it is important to note that thanks to this legislation and thanks to the work of my colleagues in New South Wales we now have strong environmental legislation that protects our environment. But the only result that the groups that are driving this will be happy with will be the complete removal of extractive industries. And you have to remember: in New South Wales, if you go back to the Hansard in New South Wales and look at speeches made by the Greens back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was the Greens who were advocating for coal seam gas industries as a clean alternative to coal. And Bob Carr complied, with the help of Bob Devis, to make those changes. That is history. We now have to deal with the situation that Labor has placed us in, and this legislation will strengthen our environmental oversights but also reduce the strangling green tape that many people in Australia deal with on a daily basis.

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