The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for the Environment
Topics: One-stop shop, NSW fires, PM volunteering to fight fires
Transcript: ABC Radio National - Interview with Fran Kelly
21 October 2013
FRAN KELLY: Greg Hunt, welcome to Breakfast.
GREG HUNT: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Now Minister, you're handing project approval powers to Queensland and to any other State that will sign an MOU.
How much Commonwealth oversight will there be under this new arrangement?
GREG HUNT: Well, there is significant oversight and in fact the broad principle here is to maintain in their entirety, Commonwealth standards, but to move to a single assessment and over time a single approvals process.
It's important to understand that around Australia the timeframes have continued to extend for making decisions and that's not helping with standards, but it's sure hurting with actually getting decisions made.
FRAN KELLY: Can we go to that because...
GREG HUNT: If you can do it nine months we should be able to this.
FRAN KELLY: Yeah, I want to ask you about that because I want to ask you where the evidence is that Federal approval powers are slowing down things beyond the twenty-eight day timeframe for you as Federal Minister to make the decision.
GREG HUNT: Well, it's very easy. I opened the bottom drawer when we came in and there were fifty projects from what's called the Water Trigger, none of which had been processed by the previous government. So that's just one arm of the Federal Environment Act. They changed the law and then made no decisions.
So these weren't even decisions as to whether to approve or not approve projects. It was just whether to require a certain type of assessment under the Water Trigger.
Now, in my case I decided that forty-seven out of fifty of them would face this trigger, but these were decisions that were literally piled into the bottom drawer and time was frozen. So they had passed all of their due dates. They had not progressed any of the projects and nothing could be determined beyond this area until the decision was made by the Federal Minister.
So it was sort of an extraordinary act of either incompetence or negligence that you change the law, you freeze the project and you won't even determine whether or not the law applies.
FRAN KELLY: But was this holding up projects? Many of those projects didn't even have State approval yet.
GREG HUNT: No, in this case what I found is that this was often the last element. There are a number of projects that had been waiting for the decisions, determinations to be made on the Water Trigger and that's an example of a broader problem where time has been allowed to go - to extend and projects are delayed and there's no actual environmental benefit, it's just a long slow process.
New Zealand does it in nine months.
FRAN KELLY: With respect Minister, what you've outlined there might be a problem with the Minister, but it's not necessarily a problem with the legislation which I would go back to, sets a twenty-eight day timeframe for the Federal Minister to make a decision.
In fact business was asked this question at a senate enquiry and major business groups couldn't supply any evidence of major delays because of Federal powers in oversight and there's a lot of that in the majority reported to the committee.
So there's a twenty-eight day timeframe which you as a Federal Minister, if you are operating effectively, can use to make a decision. Where's the hold up?
GREG HUNT: Well, we are clearing things and that's what we're doing at our end.
FRAN KELLY: So it's working as it is.
GREG HUNT: Well, hold one sec, Fran, let me point to examples.
I have six hundred Federal environmental issues that are in the list of registered projects. Many of them go back, not just eighteen months, but two years and well beyond that. So the twenty eight-days is one timeframe for one step. The entire system runs in parallel with what happens at the State level.
So what we can do is move to a single assessment process and a single approvals process and a single documentation process and why does this matter? It means that we can still have high standards, but that rather than waiting one and two and in some cases three years for decisions, things can be done far more efficiently. That's a national good to be able to get decisions made without duplicating resources.
FRAN KELLY: Everyone wants decisions made effectively of course, but they also want the environment protected. And so when you say high levels of protection, are you telling the Australian people now that the levels of protection embedded in this MOU are the higher standards currently covered by Federal environmental law?
Are they the standard?
GREG HUNT: Correct.
FRAN KELLY: So the States are signing onto the Federal environmental protections?
GREG HUNT: The Federal environmental law remains and remains unchanged in its standards. That's clear and categorical and absolute.
So what's the deep point here? The point is we can do things better. The Water Trigger is one example of chaos in decision making, but right across the board there's a huge duplication of effort and of work and it's just like if you have to fill in paperwork twice. You have to be on the phone to two different agencies rather than to have a single central agency to call for your personal issues if you are looking to try to deal with unemployment benefits if you're looking to have work related entitlements.
FRAN KELLY: But that body of work has arisen because State Governments in the past have needed to be overruled to stop things like oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, sand mining on Fraser Island, logging of wet tropics rainforest, things like that, the Commonwealth has had to step in.
GREG HUNT: Well, here what we have is Federal standards that remain. Federal standards that are fixed and constant and that's I think the right outcome in terms of standards. But progressively over time what we've seen is that we are losing the battle to make efficient decisions.
And again, I do want to use the New Zealand example. New Zealand which has unquestionably high environmental standards, arguably some of the best in the world, has a nine month statutory timeframe.
They're able to achieve it through a one stop shop process with a limited timeframe. We ought to be able to achieve the two same procedures here of a nine month's timeframe and a single process.
And it's important to remember that both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd agreed on the problem, agreed on the solution, but didn't...
FRAN KELLY: And then got legal advice saying it wouldn't work.
GREG HUNT: No, no, they were actually mugged by the Greens who stopped them from doing it.
FRAN KELLY: There was legal advice suggesting there were too many State laws and standards and the Commonwealth could never guarantee the States would deliver.
GREG HUNT: Well, in his last few weeks in office before the Election, Mr Rudd was saying that this was a priority, that this was something that he would deliver.
This was the central element of the April 2012 COAG agreement or Council of Australian Governments. It was the grand announcement and unfortunately at the last second with no warning to business or the States, the Commonwealth pulled the rug out from under it a year ago.
Well, we're delivering what the two previous Prime Ministers said was an urgent, important critical need and I think it is.
We can do things more efficiently and we've already got on with the job and signed a first Memorandum of Understanding and will be doing it with other states as they are ready.
FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. We're speaking with Environment Minister, Glen Hunt.
Minister, New South Wales is facing another really tough day on the bushfire front. Do you think there is a link between climate change and the severity and the frequency of bushfires? Because I note that the former Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg says, it's a feature of the slowly evolving climate. We've always had fires, but not of this nature and not at this time of year and not accompanied by the record breaking heat we've had. Is there a connection?
GREG HUNT: Look, I want to be very, very careful about anything which politicises these fires. At the moment there are, according to this morning's reports, over two thousand RFS and related volunteers out in the field. We've had two hundred people that have lost their homes.
And the very reason that we have a RFS in New South Wales, that we have the CFA in Victoria and other states have equivalent volunteer services is that we've had well over two hundred years of bushfires since European settlement. It's a feature and a history of Australia. I will let others in time debate the issue of severity, but right now the focus has to be on those affected and those fighting the fires and I know there have been some attempts by some to politicise it. I don't think that's the right thing to do. We have long term work to focus on.
FRAN KELLY: I'm not sure why it's politicising to be asking your - you're the Environment Minster, your view in terms of the science and the views of people, but that's a timing issue is what you're saying. The time is later to discuss that.
GREG HUNT: I think that it is important in the midst of a massive threat, clearly a tragedy in terms of the loss of home and there has been on the Central Coast the loss of a life, to be rightfully focusing on the volunteers, the families and the actions that are required.
It feels as if there has been a certain amount of opportunism and I don't think that that's appropriate. I do think that we look at this all in the long term in the context of Australia's history and what we have to be preparing for over coming decades.
So I'm happy to look at that long term. I just think that to misuse an event like this from certain quarters, it's just not the right thing to do.
FRAN KELLY: And just finally, Minister, Tony Abbott is one of those volunteers. He was out working over the night in the back burning with his brigade, the Davidson Rural Fire Service Brigade. He's been a member of that for thirteen years.
Do you think the PM should keep fighting fires now he is Prime Minister?
GREG HUNT: Yes, I do. I think this is who he is and I think it's very important to understand that he goes off and he does these things and he's gone off and done them quietly by himself without media.
He has not sought media. This is the very essence of who and what he is, the community base and for him he would feel, and I know this, he would feel that he was shirking his duty if he used his office to try to avoid what he regards as a blood commitment to his fellow fire fighters, the men and women, not just of Davidson, but of the RFS in general. That's just who Tony Abbott is.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
GREG HUNT: Thanks, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Greg Hunt is the Federal Environment Minister.