The 2021/22 Budget debate - environment

By Terri Butler MP

17 June 2021

This is such an important portfolio. Australia is a world leader in mammal extinctions. It's a very, very sad distinction to hold. Of course, the world is facing up to the need for diversity protection and for protecting habitats. It is to be hoped that Australia doesn't get left behind. Recently, the second 10-yearly review of the nation's principal environment laws, the EPBC Act, was conducted. The review was led by Professor Graeme Samuel, appointed by the government to conduct this review. Professor Samuel recently released his final report of that review. In that report, he recommended a staged approach to environmental reforms. He set out a first-stage approach, which was very considered and very thoughtful, but unfortunately the government seems hell-bent on completely ignoring it, and are instead dusting off some 2014 provisions from a bill that was unsuccessful in that year, and some proposed written standards that were prepared in support of that bill.

As the minister mentioned, the budget does go to EPBC reform. There are some matters in the budget for EPBC reform. But it seems very clear that the minister and the government's approach to EPBC reform does not enjoy broad support. As I said, the bill and the standards that they've produced really reflect the propositions that they put forward in 2014, propositions that a number of us who were in the parliament at the time spoke against. I was one of them. I spoke about my concerns about that 2014 bill.

Where we are now is that in his final report Professor Samuel put forward, amongst a suite of proposed reforms as a first stage of reforms—and of course he proposes a staged process—some recommendations in respect of national environmental standards. This is, as I say, an important review. It's a review in which Professor Samuel said that the current environmental trajectory is unsustainable, the natural environment is in decline and the threats are growing. This is a respected person in the Australian community, an experienced regulator, someone hand-picked by the government to give them advice. He has now done that and he's said those things. As I said, amongst the first tranche of reforms he proposed, he put forward some recommendations about national environmental standards. The government has disregarded those.

A number of people with significant expertise and history in environmental protection have expressed some serious concerns about the government's proposed environmental standards. There was a Senate inquiry in relation to the government's proposed bill. In the submissions to that inquiry, Professor Craig Moritz, from the Australian Academy of Science, said:

Regrettably, the standards that are now proposed—these interim standards—are not scientifically credible.

Professor Brendan Wintle, from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, said this bill takes us back. He said:

We're taking steps down a pathway, and we have no map. We haven't got a clear strategy or response from the government about how they're going to address Professor Samuel's recommendations; we're just stepping out into the void, as far as I can tell.

Professor Helene Marsh, Chair of the EPBC statutory Threatened Species Scientific Committee, in response to a question about whether she was concerned, said:

Yes, I am. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee was very extensively involved with the Samuel review. We worked with him, we met with him several times, we put in two very extensive expertise based submissions, we spent a lot of time with his team and we worked very closely on the standards. I don't think that his standards are perfect but I think that legally enforceable, outcome focused, granular standards are really, really important. I am disappointed that the proposed interim standards don't reflect the considerable amount of work that was done towards outcome focused standards. Professor Samuel's report only included a number of them, but he made a very clear list of the suite that was needed in the first instance. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee very much supports the development of the full suite of outcome focused standards as a critical step in moving forward.

She also said:

… I was very surprised, particularly as we had been consulted so extensively … and had put in so much work … with great enthusiasm, because we saw this 10-year statutory review as such an opportunity for change.

So my question to the government is: will they now listen to the experts, listen to the review panel, put aside their ideologically driven changes from 2014 and come back with something sensible for the opposition and the community to consider?