Establishing Environment Protection Australia


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle—Deputy Speaker) (11:36): It is with great pleasure that I rise to speak on the package before the House today of nature positive bills, because, after 10 years of environmental neglect, we really have a lot of work to make good on those past wrongs and those actions that were not taken when they were perhaps most timely needed to be taken. Still, one should always aim to make amends, so making up for those past wrongs is very much a part of the package that is before the parliament today.

The Albanese Labor government is indeed committed to ensuring that our precious and irreplaceable natural environment is repaired and that it continues to be nurtured and protected so that the environmental vandalism of the past remains in the past. There was a very strong platform when coming to this government. When we took our policies out to the Australian public, we promised a strong national independent environmental protection agency that would be that tough cop on the beat and today we are delivering on that. That is an important part of this package.

In my region, the package does a number of critical things. It not only delivers the environmental protection agency but it also has some important work around establishing Environment Information Australia—we will come to that—and a number of other important matters. But for time being, I will just say that the establishment of a national environment protection authority for Australia has been long requested by my community. We first came across this need when we had to tackle the PFAS contamination around the Air Force Base at Williamtown in my friend and electoral neighbour, the member for Paterson's, electorate. What was critical and missing at that time was having any kind of national overview and the capacity to act in a coordinated fashion, not just to deal with the matters of treatment of PFAS now but to ensure there are adequate protections going forward and to do some of the detailed work on it. It was a recommendation in inquiries that I took part in and that the member for Paterson led again in the following parliament. So the establishment of an Environmental Protection Australia is great news for the people in Paterson, around Katherine and all those areas where we've subsequently found PFAS to be such a big issue. That is just one example of why you need a proper national body that is well coordinated and well managed to do the work.

As I said, it was something that my community was alive to, through that experience with PFAS and through many others as well, which I will come to. A national EPA will ensure compliance with environmental laws that do in turn ensure that nature is protected while supporting the sustainable development of industries that are wanting to do the right thing. This isn't some pretence that this is a pristine world where humans are not interacting with environment, but we are making sure that those people that do engage in properly thought through sustainable development options—we have industries that work in that space too—have a national EPA body that they can trust and work with and that has the trust of our communities to be always upholding the protection of our environment front of mind. A national EPA will also streamline regulatory decision-making and restore public trust in environmental law, which has been significantly eroded after a decade of neglect and sometimes open vandalism.

The current regulatory system is broken, and this is widely agreed on by all parties. It is a rare day when you have all your environmental groups alongside those doing business and development agreeing that the current regulatory system is broken. The EPA that is part of this package of bills is designed to fix that. We recognise that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. This our mechanism to do that. It will provide tougher penalties for people who do the wrong thing, as it should. It will make careless or deliberately unlawful operators think twice about breaking environmental laws. We need those disincentives to be powerful. It will improve the processes for businesses, providing more certainty and reducing red tape, which will be a welcome relief from the current complex bureaucracy and uncertainty.

Most importantly, a national environmental protection authority will protect our unique natural environment. That is its primary job. Many of our unique native plants and animals are now facing extinction due to years of environmental mismanagement. I know that my office would not be alone with regard to the level of anxiety, which is expressed by many, particularly our young environmentalists, all of whom are very well schooled now through the education system about extinction of our precious mammals and much of our flora. That is what is uniquely Australian. So, making every effort to stem those extinctions, we've made some very strong commitments around zero new extinctions. It's a very important step for the Australian parliament to be taking. This agency will have a particular focus on land clearing and deforestation, which of course is the single biggest cause of extinctions.

I've got to say that this will be very welcome news for my favourite Australian bird, the rare freckled duck. The freckled duck is endemic to Australia and predominantly found in the eastern interior of the country, being wetland dependent. It's drought, habitat destruction and hunting that continue to put untold pressure on the freckled duck numbers. Thankfully, since 1993 the Hunter Wetlands Centre in my electorate of Newcastle—which I note was once a dumping ground, basically, for a lot of industrial waste and is now an internationally recognised Ramsar wetland. It's a perfect example of what can happen; this is now the habitat for the very endangered freckled duck. We have been running a captive breeding program to conserve the freckled duck numbers, which has since produced the largest captive population in Australia. So my community is playing a very important role in the protection of this particular duck species that's now endangered and on the verge of extinction. We're doing our part to try and turn that around, and the legislation that we're putting before the parliament today is going to help us in this regard.

I do want to say a very big, deep personal thanks to the Hunter Wetlands Centre and their amazing community of volunteers for their excellent advocacy and hard work in my community. It's with deep gratitude that I bring your work to the attention of the Australian parliament today.

Thankfully, the Hunter Wetlands Centre was indeed included in the internationally recognised Hunter Estuary Wetlands Ramsar site back in 2002, providing a much-needed safe haven for the freckled duck. In 2016 the centre started a program releasing healthy juvenile ducks back into the wild while keeping the captive breeding program operating on site. That's a good news story to share with the Australian parliament. The program has already helped expand the numbers of this rare and vulnerable species in the wild, and this is a huge success story for the freckled duck.

This Labor government went to the election promising better environmental protections, resulting in many more success stories like the one I've just shared with you today. Through the establishment of the EPA, we will be able to deliver for the freckled duck, for her rare and endangered animal friends, for plant and marine life and for Australians who love the environment and know what we can do better.

We'll also be able to monitor—this is important—and report on freckled duck numbers so that we will know if they need our help again in the future, through the establishment of Environment Information Australia. That's what this package of bills also enables us to do—to set up Environment Information Australia. Currently, environment information and data are terribly fragmented. It's of uncertain quality. It's difficult to access and often unusable, so it's not especially helpful for any of us right now. The proposed EIA will collect and report on high-quality and authoritative environmental data more accurately and with increased frequency to provide for faster, better decision-making.

The agency will work collaboratively with Australia's experts on our natural environment, including First Nations people, who have a deep, intimate connection to and knowledge of Australia's unique natural environment. They come with 65,000-plus years of knowledge about those very intricate ecosystems and the exquisite examples of flora and fauna. They are amongst our most respected environmental scientists. They will be working with and feeding information into Environment Information Australia, along with other environmental experts in their fields. Together they will collect and provide transparent and precise reporting and accurate evaluation of data and environmental protection laws to inform good investment, good policy and good regulatory decision-making. That's what the Australian community expects of any government. Certainly this government is one that holds a high bar for what we expect from the agencies and services that we establish, and this will go a great way to help restore some of that public trust.

The bills are also the second of a three-stage approach that the Albanese Labor government, under the direction of the minister for environment, the member for Sydney, has around the Nature Positive Plan. We've established the world's first nature repair market—that's already been done; that was in the first tranche of legislation—making it easier for landholders, including First Nations people and organisations, conservation groups, farmers, businesses and charities, to invest in the great work of repairing nature. But we know that there is lots more to do. No one pretends otherwise. Our planet is a very important asset to each and every one of us, and Australia will be doing the heavy lifting necessary to ensure that for the continent of Australia, at least, we are doing everything we can to stem some of that damage and degradation from years of neglect. That's not a position any of us want to go back to.

We know that there's the need for the big reforms of the EPBC Act, which we are committed to fully delivering in that next, third stage of our Nature Positive Plan. Native forest logging will be regulated by national environmental laws, for the first time ever, through the National Environmental Standards, and that is part of our Nature Positive Plan too. There is much more work to do, but you can be assured that this government is deeply committed to delivering the strongest environment laws this country has ever seen.