Environment and jobs motion

By Terri Butler MP

01 September 2020

I regret to say that Australia is in the middle of a jobs crisis and an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing on both counts. Never has that been made more starkly clear than in the most recent Auditor-General's office report, Referrals, assessment and approvals of controlled actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This is perhaps the most damning Auditor-General report that anyone in this place has seen for some time.

Motion and full speech

I move:

That this House:

(1) welcomes the release of the Auditor-General's report, Referrals, Assessments and Approvals of Controlled Actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act);

(2) notes that Australia is currently experiencing an environmental crisis and jobs crisis, and the Auditor-General's report confirms the Government has failed on both counts;

(3) further notes the damning findings from the Auditor-General including that:

(a) there has been a 510 per cent increase in the average delays for approval decisions since the Liberals and Nationals were elected (between 2014-15 and 2018-19);

(b) between 2014-15 and 2018-19, delays to environmental approvals for jobs and investment from major projects exploded from 19 days on average to 116 days;

(c) 79 per cent of approvals assessed were non-compliant or contained errors;

(d) in 2018-19, 95 per cent of key decisions (referral, assessment method, approval), were made outside the statutory time frames, with just 5 per cent of decisions being made on time;

(e) conflicts of interest are not managed;

(f) reporting arrangements are not consistent with the EPBC Act; and

(g) projects or environmental outcomes are not being monitored;

(4) acknowledges the extraordinary nature of these findings, which make up one of the most damning reports published by the Auditor-General to date;

(5) notes that:

(a) the report reveals the extent to which Government cuts to the environment department, which are estimated to be 40 per cent since 2013, has smashed the department's capacity to make good, timely decisions to create jobs and protect the environment; and

(b) Government cuts and mismanagement (Liberal party blue-tape) is at the heart of job and investment delays, poor quality decisions and legal challenges; and

(6) calls on the Government to:

(a) take responsibility for their abject failure on the environment and jobs; and

(b) stop tying up projects and strangling the environment with Liberal party blue tape which is delaying jobs and investment, putting a handbrake on our economy, failing to protect iconic Australian species like the koala and allowing the state of our natural environment to rapidly decline.

I regret to say that Australia is in the middle of a jobs crisis and an environmental crisis, and the Morrison government is failing on both counts. Never has that been made more starkly clear than in the most recent Auditor-General's office report, Referrals, assessment and approvals of controlled actions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This is perhaps the most damning Auditor-General report that anyone in this place has seen for some time. The language is uncharacteristically blunt, and it's no wonder, when you look at some of the outcomes that the Auditor-General found in relation to this government's administration of decision-making under the EPBC Act. Why is that import? It's important for a few reasons.

It's important because the fact is Australia is in the middle of an extinction crisis. Environmental protection has been woeful under this government. This government has taken the axe to the environment department since the day it was elected. When this government was first elected, it cut hundreds of jobs out of the environment department, and we're seeing the consequence of that now, years later. It's also important because jobs and investment depend on well-made, timely decisions under the EPBC Act. This is the legislation under which projects are approved. It's very important that the decisions be made on time, where there's no reason for delay, and well. Decisions need to be of a high quality, and they need to be litigation-proof, having been made well and properly in the first place. But this government's cuts have been woeful, and they have led to absolute tragedies in relation to decision-making under this legislation.

The Auditor-General found that there had been a massive blowout in delays in decision-making. If you look at it, there's actually been a 510 per cent increase in the average delays for approval decisions since the Liberals and Nationals were elected. Between financial year 2014-15 and 2018-19, delays to environmental approvals for jobs and investment for major projects exploded, from 19-day delays to on average 116 days. Really concerningly, in financial year 2018-19, 95 per cent of key decisions were being made outside of statutory time frames. Every single one of these delays, where it's not necessary—where it's being done because of funding cuts and workloads, not because of legitimate reasons—means delays for jobs and delays for investment. That's why it's really important that the government face up to the damage it has done to our economy through its attacks on the environment department as well as the damage it has wrought on our environment, our species and our habitats.

The other thing, as I mentioned, that has been absolutely terrible under this government is the quality of decision-making. If you have poor-quality decision-making, not only do you expose these decision to litigation, which means more delay, but you also expose the decisions to just being wrong. This is crucial legislation. The future of our nation's environment and species depends on decisions being made correctly. This government, in allowing its decisions to be made poorly, is running decision-making into the ground. For example, the Auditor-General said that 79 per cent of the decisions that it considered were either affected by error or non-compliant. This is a significant problem. What's happened here is that the government, after being elected, has come in with an ideological agenda, an anti-environment agenda, and it hasn't given any thought to how that agenda might affect decision-making, the approval of major projects and the certainty for business, industry, investment and jobs. So they've taken the axe to the department. The government has cut an estimated 40 per cent of environment department funding since being elected—40 per cent. Imagine the damage that that causes. In fact, you don't have to imagine it, because the Auditor-General has published this quite scathing and blunt report.

The other thing I want to mention that this report made really clear is a governance failure. This report said, 'Conflicts of interest are not managed.' Remember this is a department that considers tens of billions of dollars of projects. Clearly the risk of conflicts needs to be managed, but this government has failed to make sure that people can have trust and confidence in the environment department by making sure that conflicts of interest are properly managed, and that is an absolute disgrace.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Zimmerman ): Is the motion seconded?