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The need for an independent Environment Protection Authority

July 4, 2024:

For two years now, I've been standing up in this place, highlighting the need for a greater level of independence in major Commonwealth appointments. At the last election, my constituents in Mackellar and people Australia-wide demanded that their government act with greater integrity, transparency and accountability. The government established the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is a really positive development, but that commission is only a small part of the integrity infrastructure that needs fixing and building in this country. After all, the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a last resort for corrupt conduct. You don't need to be a doctor to understand that prevention is better than cure and we need to build our institutions from the ground up with the systems in place to ensure that they can be trusted and that ethical conduct is the norm.

So I've introduced my 'Ending Jobs for Mates' private member's bill to establish a framework for independent recruitment and appointments for major Commonwealth positions. Since then, I've sought to amend just about every government bill which dealt with such appointments, from the safeguard mechanism legislation to Jobs and Skills Australia to the National Reconstruction Fund and the new Administrative Review Tribunal. To his credit, the Attorney-General understood the problem with the appointments process in the Administrative Review Tribunal and amended the legislation to make it mandatory for tribunal members to be appointed using an independent selection panel. This means that there is a precedent for new bodies to be set up in this way by the government, and so I urge the environment minister to set up Environment Protection Australia in the same way from the outset. If we are going to set it up, let's do it properly from the start.

My amendments to the legislation are simple and are in line with what the environmental community and integrity organisations have been calling for. Simply put, my amendments create an independent board to sit above the EPA, like so many other organisations have. This board would oversee the functions of the EPA and, importantly, select the CEO. The board's functions would include appointing the CEO, determining policies and long-term strategic plans for the CEO, advising the CEO and assessing and reporting on the CEO's performance. The board would have up to seven members, each with substantial experience and knowledge and significant standing in an area relevant to the EPA's functions. At least one board member must be an Indigenous person.

Critically, the board would be appointed through a robust and independent selection process, one which all Australians would be familiar with from their experience of getting a job and would absolutely expect to be in place for positions as important as these. The selection process would require public advertising of board positions, assessment of application against selection criteria, and an independent panel to conduct the interviews and shortlist three candidates for each position for the minister's final decision. The minister would also decide which board member is selected as chair. It is really a very simple process, and a process which incorporates independent selection so that the public can trust this process and ministerial discretion so that they have the final say, thus ensuring workability.

Most environment protection agencies in the states and territories around the country have an independent board, and I have heard no adequate explanation for why this, the most important of these boards, does not have an independent board. It is, after all, the agency which has the best shot, to use the minister's own words, in turning the tide in this country from nature destruction to nature repair. I look forward to hearing from the minister to explain to the Australian public why Environment Protection Australia should not be established in this most robust way.