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Private Members Motion on Nature Positive Reforms

June 24, 2024:

I rise today to speak on behalf of the people of Mackellar and millions of other ordinary Australians across the country to express their deep concern about the state of Australia's environment, and, in particular, their dismay at the government's decision to delay its promised overhaul of our national environment laws: the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The most recent State of the environment report was completed in 2021. The coalition government, at the time, hid that report, and it was not released to the public until Minister Plibersek did so in July 2022. The report concluded: as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction … many species and ecosystems are increasingly threatened.… Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem condition …

The report contained many alarming facts, including that more mammal species have become extinct in Australia than on any other continent, that Australia continues to have one of the highest rates of species decline amongst OECD countries, that there are now more foreign plant species in Australia than native species, that at least 19 Australian ecosystems have been reported as showing signs of collapse or near collapse, and that 7.7 million hectares of habitat for threatened species was cleared or substantially degraded between 2000 and 2017. It made for truly sobering reading and clearly demonstrated that our current environment laws are way too weak and that enforcement of these weak laws is ineffective.

Six months after releasing the report—over 18 months ago now—the Minister for the Environment and Water stated that Australia's environment laws are broken and nature is being destroyed. She said, Our reforms are seeking to turn the tide in this country – from nature destruction to nature repair.

However, the most crucial part of those reforms—the strengthening and reforming of the laws that actually protect our environment—has been postponed. It has been kicked down the road. Yes, we understand that these reforms are complex, but they are also extremely urgent. These reforms have been relegated to stage 3, and no timeline has been set for these substantive reforms to be enacted. It seems increasingly likely that they will not be introduced prior to the next election.

It is a positive that this week we will be debating stage 2 of the environment reforms, including the government's plan to establish an environment protection agency and an environment information agency. The new EPA will have stronger enforcement powers and penalties, which is good news. However, it is hard to see how it can protect our environment when it will be administering the very same laws the minister described, just 18 months ago, as 'broken'.

A key weakness of the EPBC Act is that it contains major exemptions for certain activities, such as native forest logging and land clearing for agriculture, so that these activities can proceed without having to be assessed for their environmental impacts under the act. The regional forestry agreement exemption, for example, means that even when logging projects are to occur in critical habitat for threatened species they still don't need to be assessed under the EPBC Act for unacceptable impacts. In light of the extreme state of environmental degradation, the RFA exemption is anachronistic and, as Professor Samuel, author of the State of the environment report, said in the recent Senate hearing:
We ought to get rid of those RFAs. They should never have been introduced in the first place.

The other egregious flaw in the EPBC Act is the continuous use exemption, which permits land users to clear old regrowth, even in the habitat of threatened or migratory species. It is being used as a loophole by farmers to undertake far more intensive and extensive land clearing. In just one example, last year more than 670 hectares of land was bulldozed near Gladstone in Queensland. The land was cleared for beef pasture, but it is within an area mapped as habitat for 37 EPBC-listed threatened species, including the koala, the northern quoll and the greater glider. This type of destruction of critical habitat for threatened species is permissible under our current, weak national environment laws.

These egregious exemptions need to be repealed immediately, not at some unspecified time in the future that may or may not ever happen. We call on the government to honour its promises by repealing the RFA and continuous use exemptions, now, in stage 2.