This government went to the election promising a strong, national, independent environment protection agency that would be a tough cop on the beat. It is really important that today we are delivering on that commitment. I know this is something that is important to my community. I have had a number of conversations with local people who want to know that there is a national regulator, a national EPA, in place to protect our biodiversity and to protect the special places—places in my community and right around Australia—that make our country the unique place it is.

After a wasted decade under those opposite—a period where nature was not valued, a period where we did not have these protections in place for our environment—Labor is getting on with the job. I thank everyone in my community who has engaged with me on these laws, who engages with me more broadly on the importance of protecting our environment and our climate and who continues to do that work with me and to talk with me and with the government about how we make sure we are putting these protections in place not just for now, not just for our community as it stands, but for the future as well. At its heart, that is what these bills, the Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024 and the associated bills, and these efforts are all about. They are protecting places—and we are losing too many—now but also into the future. These are very important bills. We want to see our precious natural landscapes repaired instead of continuing the decline that has happened for too long, that we saw happen under those opposite during a wasted decade of environmental vandalism.

There are clear choices before this parliament. Do we want to see an independent environment protection agency or not? Do we want to get better data to inform environmental decisions or not? Do we want to put in place tougher penalties for those breaking environment laws or not? Do we in fact want Australia to be the first jurisdiction in the world to enshrine a definition of ‘nature positive’ in legislation or not? All of these are what we are achieving with what is before the parliament, and the answer to those questions has to be yes. The responsibility is on us to do this work, to deliver these reforms and to make sure that we get on with the work that is still to be done.

Our new EPA, Environment Protection Australia, along with Environment Information Australia, will ensure compliance with environmental laws. It will improve processes for business. It will integrate environmental data collection so there’s consistent and reliable information on the state of the environment across the country to inform decision-making and to track our progress against our goals, like protecting 30 per cent of our land and oceans by 2030. It is clear that the current regulatory system does not work, as in fact the National Farmers Federation has said. Our members have said for years that the current act is broken. It’s hard to engage with producers who want to do the right thing, and, in some instances, it’s preventing best-practice management of the landscape. So we are fixing our laws so that they are less bureaucratic and they provide more certainty for community and for business.

But, of course, we are also making sure that they improve nature, they protect our unique native plants and animals and they prevent extinctions, which are happening at far too great a rate. That is absolutely what people in my community expect of government. They expect us to be looking out for this important work now and, as I have said, into the future. These build on reforms we have already made. Last year, Labor passed legislation to establish the world’s first Nature Repair Market. We’ve also increased the reach of our environmental laws so that the minister for the environment must assess all unconventional gas projects, including shale gas, which trigger our environmental laws.

We are now moving, establishing an Environment Protection Australia and Environment Information Australia. These are crucial elements of our plans to create a nature-positive Australia. We do want to get them in place as soon as possible so that they can begin their important work, and that is an important part of why this bill is before this parliament right now. We need to begin this work. We can’t keep pushing it out, waiting for something perfect to be the solution. We’ve got to get on with it. These reforms have been widely welcomed.

We do recognise that even beyond this bill the job is not finished. There is more work to do. Our government will continue consulting on the broader reforms to our environment laws so that we can get them through the parliament and passed. So I encourage those opposite, I encourage the Greens and I encourage the crossbench to work with the government on good faith to get this piece of the puzzle done and to work on what comes next so that we really are making sure that we have a nature-positive Australia and we are protecting our special places, our biodiversity and our crucial habitats now and into the future.

In terms of this bill, combined with the significant additional funding we are putting in, this stage of the reforms will deliver stronger environment powers, faster environment approvals, more environment information and greater transparency. These are big steps forward. For the environment and for business, they are steps that we think are important to take now. Environment Protection Australia is an important part of delivering on our Nature Positive Plan. Passing this legislation means that we can get on with the nuts-and-bolts job of setting up the new EPA before they’re being asked to administer new environmental laws. It will allow for that smoother transition of responsibilities from the department to the agency.

We are also establishing Australia’s first national independent environment protection agency that will have strong new powers and penalties to better protect nature. So they will administer Australia’s national environmental laws, better protecting our environment, making faster and better decisions and being charged with delivering accountable, efficient, outcome-focused and transparent environmental regulatory decision-making. If you ask anyone who has been involved in environmental decision-making processes to date, they would say that certainly has not been the process that they have engaged in. There is so much work to do, so much improvement to be made, and we must get on with this step of making that improvement.

The EPA will be a national environmental regulator responsible for a wide range of activities, including in relation to recycling and waste exports, hazardous waste, wildlife trade, sea dumping, ozone protection, underwater cultural heritage and air quality. As we do this work, we’re also investing in people and their capability and in planning and systems—again, to do that work of making the system work better and making it work faster to deliver quicker yeses and, where necessary, to deliver quicker noes.

I come back to point that this is a tough cop on the beat—a tough cop that has been sadly lacking under those opposite but that we are putting in place now. In fact, audit work that we have done has found that one in seven projects using environmental offsets under our environment laws have clearly or potentially breached their approval conditions. Another audit found that one in four had potentially failed to secure enough environmental credits to offset the damage they were doing. This is unacceptable. We do need new systems of monitoring, compliance and enforcement, and that is what this bill does.

We’re building on the good work of the Samuel review, which found that the regulator wasn’t doing the functions it should; that serious enforcement actions are in fact rarely used and that penalties should be in place that are more than a cost of doing business. Again, this will be a major change from where we have been in this country before. It will mean that we are doing this work with an agency that has the powers to really make sure that we are protecting our environment as we should. It will deliver proportionate and effective risk based compliance and enforcement actions using high-quality data and information—another new piece that comes from these laws—so that we will actually have the information that we need to act on. As I said, this is a really significant change.

We are also increasing penalties for extremely serious breaches of federal environmental laws. Courts will be able to impose penalties up to $780 million in some circumstances. EPA will be able to issue environment protection orders or stop work orders to address or prevent imminent significant environmental risks and harm in urgent circumstances. EPA will be able to audit businesses to ensure they’re compliant with environmental approval conditions. The minister will retain the power to make decisions where they wish to do so and, in practice, will make decisions based on the advice of EPA, really playing that important role in the full delivery of the Nature Positive Plan and beyond as we continue to work on the next stage of legislation that we need as well.

I reflect on how important this will be in my local community, where so many people are passionate about our local environment and our local biodiversity. Just recently I was at Diamond Creek with Friends of Edendale. We were engaged in a tree-planting there, supported by funding from this government and the work we’re doing to restore our urban waterways. The group there is doing this work to protect habitat and to restore biodiversity in Diamond Creek and surrounds. This is a really special place. It is somewhere where they tell me the platypus lives. Of course, I’ve never seen it on the spotting trips—I’ve tried to go and see the platypus—because they are elusive, but I believe there is a platypus in Diamond Creek and I hope to see it one day.

The Friends of Edendale, who I know do this work protecting our local environment, and the Friends of Yarra Park Flats, who are working to restore the Annulus Billabong—again, supported by funding from our government to restore this urban river and this urban waterway—are passionate local people who understand how important biodiversity is not just for our local area but more broadly for our city, for our country and for communities right around the country. This legislation makes a difference for all those groups. It says to them that the efforts they’re putting in in Jagajaga and the efforts of similar groups around the country are respected and that the laws are in place to make sure that we have a cop on the beat that is looking after our nature, that is looking after our environment and that is doing so with the information that comes from Environment Information Australia, giving us that full piece to provide environmental data and information on what changes need to be in place and what we need to be protecting.

This is a marked change from where we have been in this country for far too long. It is a change from the decade of, as I said, environmental vandalism that we saw from those opposite, where nature was not respected, where there was no value put on these very special places right around our country and where there was no framework in place. There was certainly no accountability or enforcement mechanism in place. The result of that, unfortunately, is that we have seen too many habitats destroyed around this country. We do still have too many species under threat. We do need to turn that around, and that is why it is time for this bill and for the reforms that are contained in this bill: the new national EPA and the head of Environment Australia. Those reforms do need to happen now, while we also need to continue working on the next stages of what a nature-positive Australia looks like. Again, I do urge all of those in this place to engage in those discussions in good faith, recognise that there is still a way to go until we get the complete picture of a nature-positive Australia in place and do the work with us. Because in bringing forward this bill and in making these changes to ensure we have a strong environmental cop on the beat, this government is showing that we take nature protection seriously. We are showing that we will not put up with more and more habitat being lost across our country. We are saying that we are doing this work now for my community and for other communities right around the country now, but also, into the future, we are making sure that we protect places that are special, that are important and that are home to species that you will find nowhere else on earth. We’re doing that work for now and for future generations.

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