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EPBC Draft Bilateral Agreement

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Tags: Environment, Planning

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Motion) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I move -

That the House:

(1) Notes on 12 August 2020, the federal minister for Environment, Hon. Sussan Ley MP, published in the Mercury the Australian Government's intention to develop a draft bilateral agreement under s. 46 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) with the State of Tasmania.

(2) Further, notes a bilateral agreement under s. 46 allows for actions, or a class of actions, to not require EPBC approval for the purposes of a Part 3 (matters of national environmental significance) provision.

(3) Understands that a bilateral agreement could easily ensure developments that infringe on world heritage properties and national heritage matters of national significance would effectively no longer require an EPBC approval.

(4) Further notes a recent court ruling by the Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal (RMPAT), upheld by the Supreme Court, found the Court does not have the jurisdiction to review the Reserve Activity Assessment (RAA) process.

(5) Further notes the weakness of the current RAA process, and a looming s. 46 bilateral agreement, will soon lead to a situation where large elements of developments in Parks are unappealable and effectively entirely up to the Government’s discretion.

(6) Calls on the Government to not enter into a bilateral agreement under s. 46 of the EPBC Act.

On 12 August, Tasmanians learned through the Mercury newspaper, that the federal minister for the Environment had signalled the Australian Government's intention to develop draft bilateral agreements under section 46 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) with the state of Tasmania. This means that the federal government is taking another step in its commitment to washing its hands of protections for rare and threatened and endangered species across the nation and to wash their hands of the responsibilities under the EPBC act by handing the authorisation for that process across to the states.

The Morrison Government has been clear about this from very early on. The 20-year review of the EPBC act, which is still in train, so far in their interim report, has found that that the 20-year old legislation is struggling to meet the needs of the environment, agriculture, community, planners and business.

Professor Graeme Samuels' interim report made the statement that it does not serve the interests of the environment or business. That was enough to signal concern for the federal government, despite the fact that he made it clear that the legislation was cumbersome and was not protecting environment values appropriately.

The fact that he signalled that has meant that they have fast forwarded their efforts to rip up the biodiversity protections across Australia that are enabled in the EPBC act at the moment. That is why they have come in ahead of the final report from the review of the EPBC act, as the federal minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley said: 'To commence discussions with willing states to enter agreements for single touch approvals'.

It is the single touch approvals, that language the minister is using and has become favourite jargon for the Prime Minister, which is striking fear at the heart of everyone around Australia who has spent their time loving and caring for their local places, for the values we have which are unique on the planet and that are increasingly threatened.

Those places in Tasmania we hold as a state, not only extraordinary values in themselves, but extraordinary values in the world. Our Wilderness World Heritage Area is the only world heritage area which has the word 'wilderness' in it. It has the word 'wilderness' in it because it is the place on the planet that has been least affected by the impact of destructive practices, of roads. It has been looked after and shaped by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years.

It is a place where we can see the impact of that custodianship on the land and the values of the quality of the wilderness and the beauty of the rare and increasingly threatened animals within it. I really speak to why we have to maintain the EPBC act in its current form and strengthen it. The bilateral agreement, as is being proposed under section 46 of the EPBC act, allows for the management arrangements to be undertaken between the federal and state governments so the process happens at the state level.

This will enable threatened species protections and protections for the marine environment to be subverted, even in world heritage areas. As long as a state such as Tasmania can claim an accredited management arrangement or an authorisation process to be in place then the federal government's EPBC approval for an action or a development would not be required.

This is extremely concerning for so many reasons. Our understanding is that bilateral agreements could easily ensure developments that would infringe on world heritage properties and easily ensure that national heritage matters of national significance would effectively not be assessed under an EPBC process. You have only to look at the expressions of interest process for world heritage areas and national parks in Tasmania. What an incredibly secretive and shameful process that has been. It is something that has caused a vast outpouring of opposition from people all around Tasmania, and far wider than Tasmania, people who understand the threat that the Lake Malbina proposal provides to the integrity of the Wilderness World Heritage Area that we are responsible for looking after.

It is because this Government set up a secret process through the Office of the Coordinator-General that this train of events, with secret expressions of interest processes for seeking tenders of developer who are interested in having access to the world heritage area, to privatise and to exploit those values for private gain. Because of that process we are now in the situation where there is a Federal Court case in place, an appeal, where there has been a huge outpouring from people in the state about this 'foot in the door' proposal that Lake Malbina represents.

The problem in Tasmania is, who would the federal government provide as the authorised agency to undertake this work on their behalf? Who could that be in Tasmania who would be independent? Who would be capable of scrutinising the impacts on rare and threatened and endangered species to the extent that is necessary to ensure that they are not just protected but that they are valued and the conditions for their life are enhanced? This is what we need to be doing at the moment in an extinction crisis.

The problem in Tasmania is that we have an EPA which is called an Environment Protection Agency but functions as an 'everything passes anyway' agency. Under the conditions, the legal framework of the EPA, it is constrained to not be able to operate independently of government. Unlike EPAs in other states, our everything passes anyway agency operates under decisions that are within the minister's reach. The EPA legislation does require that the board must comply with directions from ministers, and the EMPCA act, section 15, says that the board must act to uphold the minister's statement of expectations.

Let us be really clear about what those statement of expectations says right now. Page 3 of the statement of expectations says that, 'The board must facilitate affluence and productivity'. That is a very clear direction. The minister expects that directive to flow through to the approvals granted by the board, to the licence conditions that are put on activities, to the licence breaches, and whether they are enforced or not.

So we find ourselves in a situation where we had three salmon farm companies that were operating in Macquarie Harbour with extensive licence breaches to their farming operations, creating dead zones in a World Heritage area, creating massive nutrification in the water and algal blooms, and a huge amount of damage to the marine environment in Macquarie Harbour. But still, the EPA was not capable, and did not act to intervene and to effectively enforce those licence breaches. So, without that ability for independence, we have salmon farm expansion around the state, without any real possibility of monitoring the marine impact of salmon farm plastic pollution, of the impact on local estuaries, such as we have seen where salmon farms have been operating for decades.

They have now moved out of some of those estuarine areas in the Huon and the Channel, because they have effectively created dead environments there. They have moved into new areas, because they are new places to plunder, but the concerning thing is without the intervention of an independent EPA, it is difficult to require the proper monitoring that is necessary to ensure the protection of the marine species, and also to uphold the enforcement of breaches when they occur on the community.

The major projects bill that is being debated at the moment - and do not worry, I am not going to go into any details; I think we have made the points very loudly and clearly in this House. But the combination of the major projects bill, along with a functionally weak EPA, and this proposal for bilateral arrangements between the federal government and Tasmania, strikes a frightening accord for people who are concerned about the protection of natural species.

It is not overstating it to say that there has been a determined effort on the Liberal state and federal governments to come into office and to rapidly move to weaken as many environmental protections as they can get their hands on. The Greens are standing up to this today in the Senate. They will be standing against the weakening of the EPBC Act and the legislation that is coming before them.

Here in this place, the Greens in Tasmania will always stand up for stronger environmental laws. They have come to a place where we did not believe they could be weaker than they were, but sadly that is what we are seeing with this proposal for bilateral arrangements, because it would remove the responsibility of the federal government to assess so many developments where they have been the last bulwark, if you like, between rampant development in Tasmania, and development that is undertaken understanding that it can be conducted in a way that does not threaten and endanger species that need protection.

There can be a relationship which is healthy and functional between development and the role of the EPA, to make sure that development looks after and protects rare, threatened and endangered species. It enhances functioning communities of forests and wild places. That is what we need to do, particularly now more than ever because of the extinction of plants and animals, insects, birds and all types of mammals that is happening around the planet, and also in Australia.

After the bushfires last year, people on the mainland are really devastated at the prospect of these bilateral arrangements coming in, because they are facing the possible extinction of a number of species, after what has happened with the bushfires. So much habitat lost. So many animals directly killed. So many more weakened. Communities of animals and plants weakened because they have been disconnected in the landscape. We are at a tipping point. Now is the time to act and be stronger in our laws that protect nature.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we do not support this proposal for a one-stop shop to weaken the environment laws even further in Tasmania. The weakening of the federal EPBC Act will mean a weakening of environment protections in Tasmanian.

It is not possible to hand over the assessment of rare, threatened and endangered species of national significance to the Tasmanian government, to the Tasmanian EPA, to our Tasmanian processes, and expect to get anything like the level of assessment and the quality of decision that happens at the federal government. Poor as it often is, it is vastly better than what is on offer here in Tasmania.

We do not support these bilateral arrangements, and we will be doing everything we can to speak against them and oppose these horrible laws.