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31 October 2008
Thank you for the invitation to speak tonight. I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners past and present of the land on which we meet.
The Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand and the Government has a shared interest in achieving environmentally sustainable development in an open, efficient and effective way.
Despite the significant economic challenges we now face, the Rudd Government remains committed to its environmental agenda.
The theme of this conference Coming to the Rescue: Environmental Practice in the 21st Century is entirely appropriate given that we are living in a time in which the environment is front of mind and centre stage; a time in which good environmental assessment and reporting is more important than ever.
It is also very pleasing to see the young people of Australia developing creative and original ideas to help the environment. I congratulate them on their achievement and will read their papers with enthusiasm. We are always on the lookout for new ideas.
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is the Australian Governments primary piece of environment and heritage legislation.
The EPBC Act defines in 932 considerably detailed pages the legal framework within which I work to fulfil my responsibilities as Environment Minister to protect our precious environment, heritage and biodiversity.
And although the Act defines a detailed framework within which decisions are to be made, in making my decisions I never lose sight of the Acts primary objectives: the protection of the environment, the conservation of our biodiversity, and the principles of ecologically sustainable development.
The Act is the tool the Federal Government uses to make sure that actions of all kinds from mines, to fishing programs, to housing developments to animal imports are regulated so as to ensure they will not have unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance.
These matters include threatened species and ecological communities, national and world heritage sites, and Ramsar wetlands of international significance.
This Government is committed to ensuring that these and other matters of national environmental significance are protected.
It is through the prism of the EPBC Act and the decisions made under it that the Government seeks to reconcile two competing imperatives: environmental protection and economic development. Reconciling these imperatives – sometimes described as striking the right balance – is a constant challenge.
Given the serious environmental and economic challenges we face it is worth restating that the environment is not a subset of the economy: indeed it is the other way around.
And so it is on the bedrock of a healthy and productive environment that our sustainable future rests.
Consequently, the effective administration of the EPBC Act is one my most important responsibilities as Environment Minister.
Although the EPBC Act is potentially a very powerful tool for the protection of the Australian environment, it hasnt always been used to full effect.
It is worth pausing to ask why it was that under the watch of the Federal Liberal Government from 1996-2007 Australians witnessed, for the most part, a continuing deterioration in the stocks of our national assets.
In part the reason was political. There was rarely any evidence of a true appreciation of the scale of the environmental challenge facing us – as evidenced in the Howard Governments pitiful response to climate change, and to an unfolding water crisis the Liberal Party did practically nothing to respond to.
There was no effective program delivery to protect or revitalise the environment, a deficit that has been corrected in only ten months by this Government with the establishment of the Caring for Our Country and Water for Our Future programs.
A further contributor to environmental decline has been the traditionally ad hoc, fragmented and reactive case by case approach to environmental management.
This decline in Australias environmental health must be reversed.
As a Labor environment Minister, my decisions are based on rigorous and comprehensive scientific assessment, followed by a consultative, transparent and fair decision-making process, carried out in meticulous compliance with the requirements of the Act, and informed by its overriding objectives.
I'd like to talk you briefly through a number of recent decisions that demonstrate the approach I'm taking as environmental regulator.
Recognising that State, Territory and local governments also have a very important role to play in environmental decision-making, Im committed to taking a cooperative approach to working with other governments, as well as with industry, developers, traditional owners, NGOs and the wider community.
Two recent decisions in relation to Queensland proposals one rejecting a housing development in Mission Beach and one rejecting a coal mine, rail line and port infrastructure impacting on Shoalwater Bay illustrate my approach.
In July I rejected a proposed housing development near Mission Beach in Queensland on the basis that it would have had a clearly unacceptable impact on the Southern Cassowary, an enormous and spectacular flightless bird that is, very sadly, listed under the Act as endangered.
This was only the second time that a proposal was found to be 'clearly unacceptable' and rejected outright at the referral, rather than the assessment, stage.
The proposed housing development was to be built in an important Cassowary movement corridor in an area where Cassowary habitat was already under enormous pressure, and I concluded the development simply could not proceed without having an unacceptable impact on the Cassowary.
The same mechanism came into play in September when I received a proposal to build a new mine, serviced by a 500 km rail line and port. The key environmental issue was that the rail line and port were to be constructed in the environmentally sensitive and significant Shoalwater Bay area.
I looked long and hard at the information provided to me by the proponent, and concluded that this proposal, and in particular the construction of a major coal port and associated infrastructure, would have clearly unacceptable impacts on the internationally recognised Ramsar wetlands at Shoalwater and Corio Bay, and also on the high wilderness values of the region.
It was clear that the impacts of the proposed rail line and port facility were simply too great to effectively mitigate, and so would inevitably destroy the ecological integrity of the area.
In announcing my decision I pointed out that it did not prevent an alternative proposal being considered in the future—one that does not significantly harm matters of national environmental significance.
I want to stress that these two decisions are not nor should they be seen as antidevelopment. Rather, they show how the Act can be used to prevent development that is clearly unacceptable in environmental terms.
What is particularly encouraging is that these decisions have already had a positive impact, prompting a number of proponents to approach my Department in the early stages of project planning to discuss whether their proposals are heading in the right direction in terms of environmental impact.
Such pre-referral meetings are beneficial in both environmental and economic terms. They give proponents a chance to get an early steer on the acceptability of their proposal, and so provide greater certainty to proponents, because the sooner a proponent knows that a proposal will have unacceptable environmental impacts, the sooner acceptable alternatives can be pursued.
However, 'clearly unacceptable' decisions are rare, and working to promote a cooperative and constructive approach to environmental protection remains a key part of our approach.
This means that in many cases, projects with potentially unacceptable impacts can be approved after conditions have been negotiated to ensure the environment is protected.
For example, earlier this year I approved a major new hospital development in metropolitan Perth, but only after extensive conditions were negotiated to ensure that the Carnabys Cockatoo, another threatened species, would be protected by the establishment of new foraging habitat to offset – and indeed to exceed – the area to be cleared.
I expect environmental conditions to be strictly enforced, and I have tasked my Department to make sure that this happens.
For instance, my department recently took action for breaches of approval conditions by a company conducting forestry operations in the Tiwi Islands.
This resulted in the company being required to spend an estimated $2M on remediation measures, post a bond to the Department of $1M and provide $1.35M to the Tiwi ranger program over the next three years for the purpose of carrying out environmental projects.
However, the decisions that Ive been describing are primarily reactive rather than strategic, because they are only made in response to a given proposal or action.
This kind of decision making does not protect the environment from what has been characterised as a 'death by a thousand cuts', a situation which can occur where there are a number of proposals, none which will have a significant impact by itself, but which in aggregate can have a devastating impact.
To some extent the threats to the environment posed by incremental development can be addressed by a new approach to environmental regulation described in the Act as a 'strategic assessment'.
Under a strategic assessment, the government works cooperatively with industry, land holders, local communities, environmental groups and other stakeholders to ensure that all interests are heard and accommodated in a comprehensive assessment of a defined area.
Once this assessment is complete, parameters are defined within which development can occur, without further assessment.
In this way, strategic assessments provide for better environmental protection; greater efficiency; greater business certainty and more effective community engagement.
They are an example of the smarter and more effective environmental regulation this government is working to implement.
By way of example, in February this year the Australian Government entered into an agreement with the West Australian Government to conduct a strategic assessment of the development of the offshore Browse Basin gas reserves in the context of an assessment of the environmental and heritage values of the entire Kimberley region.
Instead of a business as usual approach in which I would receive a number of separate referrals, each for an LNG processing development and associated infrastructure, under the strategic framework all parties are working to identify a site for a single LNG processing hub.
If approved, all industrial development associated with LNG processing in the region will be located in just one small part of the Kimberley, and so enable the development of the massive economic opportunities from the Browse Basin without compromising the environmental and heritage values of this unique region; and without inflicting an environmental death by a thousand cuts.
Despite the recent change of government in WA, I am happy to say that, to the best of my knowledge, all stakeholders remain committed to this process, from local communities and traditional owners to mining companies and most environment NGOs.
And I believe that the extent of cooperation between these groups, despite their diverse interests, speaks volumes for the value of this approach in facilitating ecologically sustainable development.
Strategic assessments will also be of benefit in the urban context, and last month the Commonwealth and ACT governments agreed to conduct a strategic environmental assessment for the proposed new suburbs of Molonglo and North Weston in Canberra.
As you would appreciate, in both examples incorporating strategic environmental assessment early in the planning process offers the best opportunity to provide up front protection for matters of national environmental significance, such as endangered species and ecological communities.
It also allows us to find the best balance between environmental and other imperatives, such as the need for energy resource development and for affordable housing.
Discussions are also underway with other states about potential strategic approaches. Here in Victoria, for example, we are discussing the possibilities for applying strategic environmental assessment to the urban growth areas on the peri-urban fringe of Melbourne.
These significant decisions represent a new and reinvigorated approach to environmental regulation, in which the over-riding objectives of the Act are front of mind, actively guiding decision-making and strategic direction.
But we must still ask ourselves: Does the EPBC Act in its current form provide the best framework for ensuring environmental protection and biodiversity conservation for Australia?
The Act commenced in July 2000 and its a requirement that its independently reviewed every ten years.
Tonight I am pleased to announce the first independent review of this legislation.
I have appointed Dr Allan Hawke to undertake this review.
Dr Hawke has an impressive career in both academia and the public service. He has headed several government agencies and participated in several major inquiries into the Public Service such as the Review of Commonwealth functions and the Review of Commonwealth Administration. Dr Hawkes scientific, academic and public policy background makes him the ideal person to carry out this review.
I have also appointed an expert panel to assist Dr Hawke in undertaking this review.
What I am looking for from this review?
Dr Hawke will be formally seeking submissions as part of his review the first round of public submissions is now open for the next six weeks. Next year there will be further opportunities for public input.
Copies of a first discussion paper prepared for the review are available tonight, and this paper will also be available on the departments website.
I am aware the Environment Institute has a long standing interest in the EPBC Act and has recently made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the operation of the Act. I encourage the Institute and its members, and others who care about the management of our environment, biodiversity and heritage to contribute to this review.
It is surely the case that good environmental outcomes depend in part on a competent and ethical environmental profession. This is where your Institute plays a key role.
And so tonight it is my great pleasure to congratulate the winners of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand Merit Awards. These people have been recognized by their peers for their outstanding service and contribution to environment practices and to the Institute. These awards recognize the legacy that such achievement provided to the environment profession.
In closing, your profession provides an example of the kind of new opportunities for employment and economic growth arising from the environmental challenges we face.
The Green Gold Rush is now well underway, and its good to see your important and innovative profession in its vanguard.
Congratulations once again to the winners, and I look forward to your contributions to the review of our country's premier environmental legislation.
The task of securing a healthy environment is central this governments agenda, and is critically important for all Australians. May good environmental practices flourish as together take on this challenge.