Environment Protection and Biosecurity Conversation Act 2009

3 December 2019

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (19:34): I rise to speak on the review of the Environment Protection and Biosecurity Conversation Act 2009 which commenced a little over a month ago. The EPBC Act is the Commonwealth's key piece of environment legislation and deals with issues of national significance, including threatened species, wetlands and heritage listings. This will be the second statutory review of the EPBC Act, and I welcome the decision to have the review chaired by Professor Graeme Samuel, who I'm sure will preside over a rigorous and inclusive process. However, I have concerns with the review. This will be a lengthy, complex exercise. The minister has indicated it will run for around 12 months and require significant input from expert stakeholders. It will come at substantial public and private expense. For that investment to be worthwhile, we must have some confidence in the review, not only that it will be run effectively and independently but also that the report and its recommendations will be acted upon by the government.

The previous review of the EPBC Act, known as the Hawke Review, was undertaken by the esteemed Dr Allan Hawke and completed in 2009. That review received more than 200 submissions, undertook consultations across Australia and ultimately made 71 recommendations that aimed that ensuring the act was relevant, effective and efficient. It took almost two years for the government to respond to that review. I acknowledge there were certain factors complicating the response, not least the change of Prime Minister, the complexity of the policy areas and the efforts to build opposition support, but the government ultimately agreed with 56 of the 71 recommendations.

Unfortunately not all of those 56 recommendations have been implemented. In fact, despite all of the time and effort of hundreds of experts and members of the public, a significant number of recommendations agreed by the then government have been essentially ignored. They have been ignored but not forgotten, because some of the recommendations are still worthwhile and will no doubt be raised in the latest review. They include the recommendations about ensuring access to information by either the public or decision-makers. For example, recommendation 12 requires that the government identifies critical habitats when it lists a species as being threatened. Recommendation 46 would have the department improve its website and allow for email alerts about EPBC processes. It also includes recommendations that will ensure the Department of the Environment is adequately resourced to avoid unnecessary delays and inefficiencies. This concern has very much not gone away.

The department's annual report for 2018 shows that two in five project decisions were late, largely because of workload issues. If the government wants the department to comply with the schedule, it should ensure it has the resources to do so. There are actions which are commonsense and uncontroversial—actions which have been studied, recommended and accepted—that could have and should have been implemented five or 10 years ago. If parliament cannot deal with uncontroversial reforms, how will it deal with issues that are more contentious, like whether to extend the EPBC protections to threatened ecological communities?

My concern with this latest review is that it runs the risk of being another very expensive, empty exercise. It needs to be taken seriously by the government, the opposition and my colleagues on the crossbench. The Senate's ability to serve the community depends on the community's willingness to engage with us through inquiries and reviews. When members of the public see reports left to gather dust on the shelf, it undermines their confidence in us and their willingness to engage with us. So I call on this government to take the EPBC Act review seriously, to listen to the stakeholders, to act on the concerns they raise and to respond to Professor Samuel's recommendations in a very timely manner, unlike the previous review. To demonstrate their seriousness, the government's response and consequential legislation should be introduced and dealt with very much during this term of government.

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