Environment and water budget consideration in detail

By Terri Butler

12 November 2019

An opportunity for questions to the Ministers.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (10:27): Under this government, Australia's natural environment is in serious decline. Our threatened species and national icons like the koala are under serious threat, exacerbated by the summer's national bushfire crisis. The environment laws are not fit for purpose. The government have made a mess of administering the environmental laws, and now they're making a mess of reviewing them.

Last summer's bushfires caused more than 17 million hectares to be destroyed. Three billion animals were killed or displaced. Even before the bushfires, Australia had the highest mammal extinction rates in the world. Yet, after the government announced $50 million in immediate so-called support for wildlife harmed by the fires, it dragged its heels in getting that money out the door, with only $19.1 million of it spent in the same fiscal year as the bushfires occurred. Minister, how can Australians trust this government to protect the environment, when your government is all about the photo-op and never about the follow-up?

Our threatened species are in decline. Fewer than 40 per cent of threatened species have recovery plans, and the government seems to be completely clueless about whether all the recovery plans that do exist are being implemented properly. The Morrison government recently announced a new 10-year Threatened Species Strategy, but there's no funding attached to it—and it replaced the previous, failed five-year strategy. Minister, when will there be a funding commitment to back up the new strategy, and when will the new strategy be in place?

Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory were listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act back in May 2012. The government has announced that they are being formally considered for up-listing in the wake of the fires. The government was supposed to create a recovery plan for the koala by 2015, but as at October 2020 that recovery plan still does not exist. It is now five years overdue from the original deadline. The previous Labor government's national koala conservation strategy ran until 2014, and the Liberal-National government has not yet bothered to replace it, so there is no current strategy in force. Minister, how can Australians trust this government to make sure that future generations don't have to resort to reading about koalas in the history books? When will the threatened species recovery plan for the koala be finalised, and what will be done to ensure that its implementation is monitored?

The second 10-yearly statutory review of the EPBC Act is now underway. The interim report released in July recommended immediate reform directions, but the government tabled a bill that was inconsistent with that interim report and instead tabled a bill that was described recently by the then Minister for Finance, Senator Cormann, as being a 'carbon copy of a bill pursued by Prime Minister Abbott in 2014'—a 'carbon copy' of an Abbott-era bill instead of a bill giving effect to the interim review from respected regulator Graeme Samuel. The final report was due to be provided to the government in October 2020.

Minister, when will the final report be made public? Does the government intend to bring forward legislation that is consistent with the interim report or the final report for this parliament and the Australian people to consider? Will that legislation, if it exists, contain interim national environmental standards, and, if so, will those national environmental standards have the support of a broad cross-section of the Australian community, including environmentalists, business, industry, resources, regulators, lawyers and others, including of course traditional owners? Will the government be proposing an independent compliance body, and, if so, what form will it take? Is the government considering the Academy of Science's proposal for a bureau of biodiversity to substantially increase data collection, which is a serious issue identified in Graeme Samuel's interim report. When can the Australian people expect to hear something meaningful from the government in relation to the interim report's strong concerns about the protection of Indigenous heritage and the imperative to reform decision-making to ensure Indigenous peoples are respected and get a real say in relation to environmental decision-making?

In 2020, the Australian National Audit Office released a scathing report on this government's decision-making under the EPBC Act. Approval delays had blown out by 510 per cent. Seventy-nine per cent of decisions were affected by error or were otherwise non-compliant. In a single financial year, 2018-19, 95 per cent of key decisions were made late. The government have tacitly admitted that it was their longstanding underfunding of the department that caused these delays and problems, by providing additional funding. Minister, will the government apologise to the workers whose jobs have been delayed and the firms whose projects have taken longer to get off the ground because of this government's budget cuts and woeful administration of environmental decision-making?


Mr JOSH WILSON (Fremantle) (10:37): I'm interested in the government's programming and resources when it comes to national heritage, specifically Indigenous heritage. I've got some questions for the minister on that. I acknowledge what the member for Wentworth said about the Antarctica program. Obviously there was a lot of foresight by the Gillard government to commission the new icebreaker. It is behind schedule. It means we won't have an operative vessel this summer. The Aurora Australis has been retired and the Nuyina is not yet delivered. The comments the member for Wentworth made about Australia's role in Antarctica are important. It's salient, I think, to reflect on the fact that we've only conducted a very limited number of inspections of bases in our territory since the 1960s. Until recently, that was as few as nine. I think we've changed our approach and we're going to do more of those. That's yet to be seen.

I really want to focus on national Indigenous heritage. There's no doubt that we have a badly inadequate national protection framework for Indigenous cultural heritage. Sadly, we saw that through the tragedy at Juukan Gorge and the caves there earlier this year. We saw sites that had evidence of occupation dating back 46,000 years wantonly destroyed as a result of failures all around—failures by Rio Tinto, but certainly failures when it comes to the Indigenous cultural heritage protection framework at every level, including the Commonwealth level. We did not need the Juukan Gorge tragedy to tell us that that framework is in a state of failure. It has been like that for some considerable time. There have been alarm bells all along the way.

This government itself committed to a review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act in its heritage strategy in 2015. It said that review would occur by the end of 2017. It never appeared. The northern Australia white paper said that the same review would occur. It never appeared. I'd like the minister to explain what is actually being done in this space. Since the Juukan Gorge cave tragedy and travesty, we've been told that there will be some roundtables, and some of them have already occurred. That's sort of standard government practice when there's a disaster: let's call for some roundtables. There was supposed to be a review and a plan for reform delivered at the end of 2017. That was three years ago. If that had happened, maybe what happened at Juukan Gorge might not have occurred. So I think it is for the government, and certainly for the minister, to explain what actually is being done and what the resources and timetable are to get on with the job that the government tasked itself to complete three years ago, about which it has done absolutely nothing.

The second thing the minister should explain is what actually occurred in her office. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act creates emergency intervention powers for the minister so that when a state protection framework isn't working the minister can step in and say: 'Hang on a second. We've got to pause.' What happened in this case? The traditional owners contacted the minister's office. They were told they would get a phone call back, and it didn't happen. It was like dropping a stone into a deep and empty well. There wasn't even a splash. Nobody got back to them. As a result, the department wasn't even aware of the prospect of the destruction until after it had occurred.

That is not good enough. Any minister that has emergency intervention powers must have their office set up in such a way that they can respond when that need is triggered. It didn't happen in this case. It's no answer for the minister to say that it was too late. We actually don't know that. It's no answer to say that it was too late, because the next time it happens it might not be too late—if it was in this case, and we don't know that.

What I want the minister to explain is what she has done in her office to address that failure. The first thing would be to acknowledge it. The Prime Minister this week talked about human frailty. We make mistakes. Ministers make mistakes. But things aren't going to improve if people don't have the courage to say: 'That wasn't right. What happened in my office wasn't correct. Someone should have got back to the traditional owners, and it didn't happen.'

The CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency—his agency was contacted, and they made a mistake in not reaching out to the department. They acknowledged that when they appeared before the inquiry. They said: 'We made a mistake. We've adopted a new protocol, and here it is; we table it.' Where is the equivalent from the minister? The minister needs to explain how now, going forward, if ever a traditional owner calls her office, it doesn't end up being a case of being told, 'You will get a phone call back from an adviser who's on leave,' who doesn't get contacted and who never makes that phone call. There needs to be some sort of change so that that emergency intervention power, which is absolutely critical to preventing these kinds of tragedies, doesn't get stuffed up again. The minister should be prepared to say: 'It was a mistake in my office. I accept it. I own it. I'm doing something about it. I'm adopting a new protocol so that, if ever that phone call comes into my office again, that kind of failure doesn't occur.'


Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (10:47): It's interesting that the minister talks about 'a wheelbarrow full of reports', because, of course, one of the people who's been writing reports on the basin has said of this set of communities that they feel like they've been overconsulted but under-listened-to. That is a real theme that comes out when you talk to people in the basin. They feel like there have been a lot of wheels turning in attempts to consult them, but there has been very little action, there are very few outcomes and there hasn't really been enough listening—or, at least, they're not being heard. There has been review after review, but there hasn't been enough action yet. I want to talk about that, but let me start by agreeing with the minister and saying, 'Yes, Minister, I am very interested in compliance in the basin, and I'm not the only one.' One of the reasons I'm so interested in compliance is that trust and confidence are central to communities in the basin being able to not just survive but thrive. They need to know that they're getting a fair go. That's what farmers want, what traditional owners want, what communities want and what environmentalists want. They want a fair go. Part of that fair go is trust and confidence. This is important.

The Basin Plan is a $13 billion plan, and the value of agricultural production in the basin is $24 billion annually. It is massively important, not just to the communities in the basin—although, that is of course a very wide geographical area—but to the entire nation. We need to make sure that we have a government that understands what needs to be done. But this government has no plan for water security for our nation and has been quite woeful at handling the many criticisms that have been expressed about the way the Murray-Darling Basin has been governed and how the plan has been implemented. There is, of course, their traditional approach of saying one thing in the regions and then doing something else in Canberra. With that as the context, let me talk about compliance. Let me talk about trust and confidence.

The minister mentioned Robbie Sefton's report, Independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin. Robbie Sefton and her panel said:

We found many people have diminished trust in federal and state governments to deliver good long term policy and support rural and regional Basin communities. People in Basin communities repeatedly said they had lost trust because they feel over-consulted and under-listened to. We heard strong messages that successive governments have hollowed out their local and regional capability and knowledge and have not provided clear leadership or a compelling vision.

She also said, in making recommendations about how to improve the way that we all work together:

Governments and Basin communities need to work together to rebuild trust, and communities need to be put at the centre of conversations about their future.

This wasn't new. The Productivity Commission in 2018 had spoken of the legacy of community distrust and warned that if things didn't improve then trust and confidence would be reduced further. Infrastructure Australia has acknowledged the impact of the Menindee fish kill and other events in undermining confidence in the government's management of water. And, of course, Mr Keelty, who I join with the minister in thanking for his work in his time as inspector-general, said:

In the absence of strong, basin-wide leadership, there is a perception that some parties are too busy 'playing politics' and are ineffectual at making any tough decisions, especially when it comes to making decisions in the national interest and at the whole-of-basin level.

So a range of concerns have been raised by reviewers, by the Productivity Commission and by the inspector-general.

Minister, that is why we are so interested in compliance—because it goes to the question of trust and confidence, and those things go to the question of the quality of life of the people who live in the basin and the quality of life for our entire nation, because of the significance of agriculture and water to it. So that's why we're interested.

Your predecessor as minister, back in August last year, announced the creation of an inspector-general position for the Murray-Darling Basin, and we welcomed it at the time. In a press release, the government said, 'This inspector-general will be able to refer issues of concern off to the Commonwealth integrity commission.' There's only one problem with that: the inspector-general has come and gone and still no Commonwealth integrity commission has actually been established. So that never happened.

But what also never happened was a range of things that were meant to be occurring with the inspector-general. It was meant to be interim, for a short time, and then a statutory basis for the inspector-general position, with statutory powers. It never happened. Then, a year later, the government abolished the position. They say, 'We'll have a new position.' That's great, but—guess what—it's not going to be stood up until September 2021. So there will be a year gap in compliance. And, of course, as has been said by the minister, Mick Keelty did not continue. There is no current interim inspector-general. There is no compliance entity of the type that was sold to Australians with so much fanfare back in August last year. It's was just another photo-op with no follow-up.


Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (10:57): Following on from my earlier contribution, I've got some questions for the minister about the inspector-general model in the Murray-Darling Basin and the announcement in respect of a further compliance body being established and separated out from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Those questions are as follows. Minister, when will Australians see proposed legislation to establish the new compliance body? When will an interim inspector-general be appointed, if an interim inspector-general will be appointed? What powers will the interim inspector-general have, and what powers will the new, presumably statutory, compliance body have? How will the government secure the cooperation of the other basin jurisdictions with either the interim inspector-general, if one is to be appointed, or, once there is a statutory body, that statutory body, given constitutional constraints? In other words, how can the minister assure the Australian people that whatever compliance arrangements are put in place will be able to be effective and rely on more than just moral suasion?

I welcome the contribution from the member for Nicholls. I also want to talk about the implementation of the plan and the recovery of water that the member touched on. I think everyone in this room would acknowledge that the 450-gigalitre target is just not on track. It's just not. Minister, you spoke about progress in relation to the 450 gigalitres—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10:59 to 11:10

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Zimmerman ): The time allotted for consideration of the Agriculture, Water and the Environment portfolio has concluded. The question is that the proposed expenditure for the Agriculture, Water and the Environment portfolio be agreed to.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.