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My amendments to our federal environmental laws

July 4, 2024:

Along with many Australians across the country, I was disappointed when in April this year the environment minister announced that the Albanese government had postponed its promise to fix Australia's broken nature laws under the EPBC Act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The minister has said that the plans have been simply pushed back, but with no firm commitment to get them passed through parliament before the next election, it may be that these broken laws have a good chance of remaining broken. This is why the opportunity must be grasped right now to strengthen our national nature laws meaningfully.

We've been debating today the so-called stage 2 of the EPBC Act reforms, which will establish two bodies: Environment Protection Australia and Environment Information Australia. These are indeed crucial bodies that do need to be established, and I commend the government for creating them. The problem, however, is that these bodies, once established, will only oversee our fundamentally broken laws—laws which for the past 25 years have failed to protect nature in this country. This is why I bring a series of amendments to the bills today, in an attempt to fix them right now while there's the chance to fix some of the most egregious failings of the EPBC Act as it currently stands. Australia was hopeful after the 2022 election—hopeful of climate action and hopeful for nature protection. Unfortunately, two years down the track, we continue to watch on while our native forests, including critical habitat of threatened species, continues to be clear-felled. We watch on while land-clearing for the beef industry continues at a rate that makes Australia a global deforestation hotspot, alongside the Amazon and Borneo. And we watch on while the list of threatened species in this country continues to grow rather than contract.

I've been working on a range of amendments with dedicated environmental organisations. They all agree that these amendments I bring forward today are both critical and urgent but also simple and achievable. In consultation with these groups, I've drafted amendments which do three things to protect our bushland and our trees. The first is to repeal the exemption for regional forestry agreements in the EPBC Act. Logging conducted under these agreements is currently exempt from needing federal government approval. My amendments would fix this by simply requiring that, like all other conduct that may have a significant impact on our environment, logging under these regional forestry agreements must be referred for assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. It is a simple ask. As Professor Graeme Samuel himself said: We ought to get rid of those RFAs. They should never have been introduced in the first place … I'd be urging state governments to get rid of them … But they shouldn't be there. I thought they were a shocker, frankly.

The second amendment is similar. It would repeal what is called the continuous use exemption. Under this exemption, land-clearing activity on private land that was occurring before the environment laws were introduced in 1999 is allowed to continue. This exemption is being exploited and is largely responsible for making Australia a global deforestation hotspot. It must be repealed. Again, this amendment does not prohibit land clearing; it simply requires that you need approval if you want to clear land, to ensure that critical habitat for threatened or migratory species is not being destroyed.

The third amendment is the insertion of a new provision that puts beyond doubt the circumstances in which logging needs federal government assessment and approval. This amendment makes clear that any area over 20 hectares where threatened or migratory species may exist must be referred for assessment under the national EPBC Act. These amendments do not ban anything or prohibit anything; they simply put land clearing and native forest logging on the same footing as other activities which require federal government approval. If approved, they can still go ahead.

It is possible to take the opportunity right now to fix these clearly broken parts of our national environment laws. These amendments are urgent and they are possible. There is no need to delay, and our wildlife can't wait. I commend these amendments to the House.