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Nature Positive reforms debate

June 27, 2024:

There is no doubt that our environment is in a perilous state, and no-one has acknowledged this more clearly than the current Minister for the Environment and Water. In the most recent state of the environment report, it stated that 19 of Australia's ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. Much to the shame of the previous coalition government, in 2021 they hid this report from the public. In December 2022, over 18 months ago now, the current environment minister committed to a landmark overhaul of Australia's environment laws, something that was strongly welcomed across my electorate of Mackellar.

In making that commitment, the minister stated: 'Australia's environment laws are broken. Nature is being destroyed. Our reforms are seeking to turn the tide in this country—from nature destruction to nature repair.' Unfortunately, very little has changed in terms of the state of the environment since then. We continue to watch on as our native forests, including critical habitats for threatened species, continue to be clear-felled. We have witnessed the largest and worst ever bleaching of our Great Barrier Reef, and land continues to be logged for farmland at a rate that leaves us being a global deforestation hotspot.

There are changes to our broken environment laws that simply cannot wait any longer. It was, therefore, extremely disappointing that the government recently announced that it would be back-pedalling on its commitment to address the environmental catastrophe in this term of government. Specifically, in April this year, the government announced it was changing course by creating the previously unarticulated concept of three stages of nature reform. Stage 1 involved retrospectively labelling one small change to the environment laws that occurred in December— an expansion of the water trigger. Again, it was something very welcome, but it was retrospectively labelled as stage 1 of the reforms. This was one small change that the government was pushed into, forced to do, when it needed to offer a carrot in the Senate to ensure the passage of the nature repair market legislation. I'm very proud of the role that I played in advocating this change through the introduction of my private member's bill for the water trigger to be expanded. It was expanded so that all types of gas fracking projects now need to be referred for assessment under the EPBC Act if there is likely to be a significant impact on water resources. We are watching and waiting to see if this is actually going to occur in terms of what is happening with gas fracking projects in the Beetaloo basin currently. Stage 2 is the nature-positive bills, which establish two new bodies: Environment Protection Australia and Environment Information Australia, which are the subject of the current debate. I'll talk more about these in a moment, but neither of these bills enact any changes to the broken environment laws themselves. Stage 3 seems to be everything else, including the substantive changes to the environment laws promised to be passed by this government in this term of government. Here we are talking about the introduction of national environmental standards, improvements to conservation planning and changes to assessment and approval pathways—in other words, the bulk of the necessary reforms. This will be the most important part of the nature positive reforms, and the government has given us no assurance that they will be passed in this term of government as initially promised.

However, back to stage 2, which we are currently debating. With the bills before the House, the government proposes to establish the Environment Protection Australia agency, the nation's first federal environment protection agency. It will also establish the Environment Information Australia body, tasked with monitoring and measuring our progress towards becoming nature positive. Establishing an EPA is undoubtedly positive and long overdue, and I strongly welcome and commend this move by the government. The environment movement has been calling for a strong regulation and enforcement agency now for decades.

Unfortunately, however, the version that the government is proposing with this bill will not create the effective, independent or fit-for-purpose EPA that is required to effectively protect our environment. It is instead a significantly flawed proposal and must be strengthened here in this legislation if the Australian public is to be able to trust that it will both be effective and truly act in alignment with the public interests and expectations to protect Australia's environment. We need to be able to trust that it will act in the public interest rather than in the interest of powerful lobby groups. And it must be strengthened now in this current legislation, which is setting it up.

Under the government's bill, the EPA will be headed up by a CEO which will be selected by the minister appointed by the minister. However, environment groups across the country have made clear that the EPA must be set up in a way that permits it to have far greater independence from the government of the day. That is why it is critical that the EPA be a board and one based not only on expertise and quality but also on independence from government. This means that appointments to the board must be made by an independent selection panel, not at the discretion of the minister. Appointments made at the discretion of the minister would leave the EPA open to political influence and, therefore, pressure from powerful lobby groups. It is absolutely critical that we do everything we can to end this jobs-for-mates culture in Canberra and the politicisation of these important institutions and bodies.

The EPA must also have a well-defined mandate and objective, and its decisions must be transparent. Ultimately, the EPA's functions must enable and ensure nature protection, and it must do so immediately in stage 2 with no further delay. Most critically, the EPA must be responsible for overseeing and assessing regional forestry agreements. Native forest logging undertaken under these agreements is currently exempt from federal environment oversight, completely exempt from our national environment laws. This absolutely must change if the government is to keep its promise of no further extinctions on its watch. I will be bringing amendments to this legislation which would bring an end to the exemptions of regional forestry agreements. Let's look at an example of the destructive conduct which is happening right now and which is perfectly permitted and legal under our current broken environmental laws. This is the clearing of trees, inseparable, of course, from any attempts to protect our threatened species. Over the course of this year and last, in one example only, more than 670 hectares of land was bulldozed in a region not far from Gladstone in Queensland. That land was cleared for beef pasture but with an area that was mapped as habitat for 37 EPBC listed species, including the koala, the northern quoll and the greater glider. In addition, in 2023, over 270 hectares were bulldozed in the Banana shire—again for beef pasture. It had been mapped as habitat for 45 EPBC listed species, including the ones I listed above. These areas of land were able to be cleared through a continuous land-use exemption under the current EPBC Act—

Debate interrupted in accordance with standing order 43.