TRANSCRIPT - ABC Radio National Breakfast with Hamish MacDonald

By Terri Butler MP

04 September 2020

Topics:  Environment legislation; Samuel Review; Gagged debate; National Cabinet; Queensland borders; Murray Darling Basin

HAMISH MACDONALD, HOST: The Federal Government has missed an opportunity to push through it's proposed changes to environmental laws before the next sitting period of parliament. The updated Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act passed the House of Representatives late yesterday but arrived in the Senate too late. It's been criticised as a reheat of Tony Abbott's failed one-stop-shop legislation of 2014 and provoked enormous outrage from Labor, from Independents and from the Greens around process. Terri Butler is the Opposition spokesperson for the Environment and Water. She joins me from Brisbane this morning. Good morning to you. 
MACDONALD: I do want to get to all of this but a question about the borders first. This will go before National Cabinet today. You'd be aware of the political heat between the states, territories and the Commonwealth. You've just returned to Queensland from the ACT. The ACT has had eight weeks of no cases. You've returned to a jurisdiction of Queensland that has thirty total active cases currently. But you're now in two weeks of isolation. What's the logic there? 
BUTLER: Well, Hamish I have also just been in a building that was attended by people from all around the country. Thousands of people usually in the parliament at the moment, much more stripped down, but still, people from all around the country. And I am perfectly happy to abide by the health advice and by the decisions made by our Premier. I think Queensland's Premier has attracted immense support here in Queensland for the work that she has done to keep Queenslanders safe. I am not going to buy into the question of what the border rules should be because I am not a state premier and nor am I a Chief Medical Officer for a jurisdiction. I am instead going to do the right thing and abide by the decisions that they make on the best medical advice possible. 
MACDONALD: But there is obviously great amounts of frustration particularly at the border between NSW and QLD. You acknowledge that there are people who live their lives across these borders in normal circumstances. Do you think it's appropriate that things continue as they are?
BUTLER: It's just not a question for me it's a question for the state governments, for the jurisdiction concerned. I mean we're as you know, not in the National Cabinet, it's not national - 
MACDONALD: We are a Commonwealth - 
BUTLER: - it's not national, it's not a cabinet and the Opposition has been excluded from it so we have no line of sight into the National Cabinet decisions. We're not a state jurisdiction or a territory jurisdiction. These are really questions for those jurisdictions. And I, all I will say is I'm very grateful to live in a state where the Premier has worked so hard to comply with medical advice, has done such a good job of keeping Queenslanders safe. And certainly that's what people say to me as well. 
MACDONALD: So the fact that it's popular in Queensland means that it's justified? 
BUTLER: I didn't say that that was why it was justified. I said that I think it's very, very pleasing that the Premier is listening to the medical advice. She's done that whether it was popular or not. As you would probably know, we've got a state election coming on up here at the end of October - 
MACDONALD: - is that a factor? Is that a factor in these decisions? 
BUTLER: No, it's the context of what I'm about to say, which is that the Opposition leader, who has been immensely political about this issue, that's Deb Frecklington, tried to put our Premier under significant political pressure to open the borders, something like 64 times she called for the borders to be opened, and the Premier resisted that political pressure and followed consistently the medical advice and I'm glad she did as a Queenslander, just as a private citizen in Queensland, I'm pleased she did, because I think she's done what she needed to do to keep Queenslanders safe. But as I say, I don't have access to the medical advice, other than as a citizen. I'm not a member of that. And I'm not the Premier. And I'm not going to second guess the decisions that are made properly in accordance with medical advice.
MACDONALD: Let's talk about the environmental legislation. What has actually happened here? It seemed to get through the House of Representatives, was stopped in the Senate. There's a great collection of people that are very unhappy with the process.

BUTLER: Well, they're unhappy with the merits. The problem with this bill, I mean, of course, there was process problems, but the real problem with this bill is it was a reanimation of the corpse of some failed Tony Abbott era legislation that would devolve to the states powers to approve big projects or developments that affect matters of national environmental significance. It does so without any national environmental standards being presented, it does so without the establishment of the cop on the beat that was recommended by the independent review that's underway at the moment in relation to these laws. It also does so without any additional resourcing for the states. And it does so in a way that brings forward some of the, I think there's still a lot to come out about this bill, for example, as Tony Abbott tried to do back in 2014, the bill enlarges the definition of state agency to include local governments. So I think people would be really concerned about the idea that state governments that have obviously clear conflicts of interest given where their revenue comes from in approving major projects and developments being just given carte blanche to go ahead and approve these projects, without the very clear framework of safeguards that Professor Graeme Samuel the independent reviewer said should be established. 
MACDONALD: I just want to pick you up on that point though. Because Sussan Ley says that no state is actually going to secure the right to make approvals, these are her words, without signing up to legally binding Commonwealth led national standards and without showing that it can meet the provisions of the agreement. She says these standards will be legislated. That's not a free pass. 
BUTLER: Well it is a free pass Hamish because what she's effectively saying to the Australian people there is trust us, we'll do this later. What we'll do is we'll push through the rights to devolve to the states the decision making powers right now and then some time at an unknown future point we'll bring in these national standards, well I don't think that's good enough. Graeme Samuel, who's one of the most experienced and respected regulators in this country has just produced an interim report from his review and he said look, phase one reforms, national environmental standards, then you do the legislation for the devolution, you also do some cleaning up of the Act while you're at it, and at the same time you create trust and confidence in a system by creating a cop on the beat and making decision-making more transparent. Now that's the whole phase right? So what they've done is they've picked out the devolution bit of that, without all of the safeguards. Now, Sussan Ley might think that the Australian people are just willing to trust her, just to sight unseen, say alright, fair enough, we're just happy to believe that the Commonwealth Government will do the right thing by environmental decision making. But this is the same government that cut 40% of the funding to the department that does environmental decision making, leading to a situation where in recent years we've seen 95% of key decisions being made later than the statutory time frames and 79% of decisions affected by error or non-compliant -
MACDONALD: So I just want to stick to this particular legislation though - 
BUTLER: - but this is about trust Hamish. This is actually about whether people can have the confidence - 
MACDONALD: You've made it very clear that you don't think we should trust the government. I have a specific question though about this legislation and the way it's progressing through parliament. Zali Steggall the Independent had proposed an amendment that as I understand it would have added a reference in the Bill to the promised national standards recommended in that interim report of the review that you have just mentioned. Would that be enough to satisfy you if those amendments were made?
BUTLER: Well Zali had circulated her amendments but she didn't get to propose them because the government shut down the House, the ability to debate the bill. So when you say she proposed amendments, she had circulated some amendments that she had wanted to move. She did not get to move them. There was a couple of amendments, one relating to the fact that the water trigger decisions have been devolved to the states under this legislation and another setting out a regulation making power. Now those amendments certainly would have improved the bill but not to the point where it could have been accepted because the regulation making power, again just says to the Minister, go ahead and make the standards later - go ahead and make them later - but in the meantime, we're going to give the power to devolve right now. Now the problem with that is that Graeme Samuel has a consultation process involving everyone from the Minerals Council to the BCA, to the NFF, to the Australian Conservation Foundation, to the Humane Society, to WWF, to the Wilderness Society, to traditional owners, to academics, to environmental law experts. And that group is as we speak working on writing proposed national environmental standards. Now, what the government should do is get the output from that process, which would have broad buy-in if it was successful across all sorts of interests and views, and use that as the foundation or national environmental standards, and then ask the parliament to allow it to grant to the power, grant to the states and territories the power to make approval decisions. But they've put the cart before the horse. They've said, just give us the right to let the states do this stuff, just give us the right to let them do that and down the track we'll just decided what the national environmental standards are.
Now, I don't think Australians are going to be happy with that because remember, it was federal governments that stopped drilling on the Reef, that stopped logging in the Daintree, that stopped the damming of the Franklin. And frankly, these were Labor federal governments. But if it wasn't for federal government power to make decisions you can bet the states would have gone ahead with those things. Because as I said, they have a conflict, which is about their revenue.
So we have said really clearly we are open to considering anything that the government wants to seriously put up that's consistent with the Samuel Review, because we're happy to consider anything that will create improvements, but you have to manage these conflicts, ensure that there are adequate safeguards, and make sure that there is decent compliance in relation to these issues. And that's the problem with what they did. They rammed this through the House without any of those things, they cut off debate, there were a whole group of members who wanted to speak, who were on the list that didn't get to speak and represent their constituents which they should have been able to do in this democracy. Zali Steggall had amendments that she should have been allowed to move, at least, move and have debated on. And instead this government, with its allergy to scrutiny, its resentment of being questioned and its complete contempt for our democratic processes rammed this bill through the House. It was the second bill they did it to this week and I think it was a disgrace. 
MACDONALD: Let's move on to water, the Murray Darling Basin Authority, Keith Pitt the Minister, is expected to make a formal announcement today, splitting off some of the agency's regulatory functions ended buybacks. Are you satisfied that this will provide more accountability which has been demanded by all sorts of stakeholders involved in the Basin Plan?
BUTLER: Well, the truth is they haven't been buybacks for some time. What I am interested in is the separation of the compliance functions from the Murray Darling Basin Authority. This is a position that Labor took to the last federal election. It's a position that was recommended some time ago by the Productivity Commission. The government on the 1st of August last year announced that they would create an Inspector General of the Murray Darling Basin. That was created on an interim basis and more than a year later, it's still interim, it's still not supported by any statute and it still doesn't have any powers. So I'm pleased to see that belatedly, this government is finally moving to empower a cop on the beat in the Basin. But we have to wait and see the detail of this. I mean, the fact is, this is an announcement without a plan, which is, you know, so typical of this government, they make these big announcements, but they really fail on delivery.
And we've seen that time and time and time again, as we did with bushfires, as we've seen the number of issues lately. So I want to see how this is actually going to be executed. But in principle, this is something that is important, because just as there is with environmental decision making, there is a crisis of confidence in this government's leadership in relation to the Murray Darling Basin and water resources in this country. So I'm very interested to see what they're going to do to resolve that confidence and trust issue. 
MACDONALD: Terri Butler, take care of yourself in isolation. Thank you very much.
BUTLER: Thanks Hamish. It's lovely to talk to you. 
MACDONALD: Terri Butler is the opposition spokesperson for the environment and water and the federal member for the Brisbane seat of Griffith.