SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (16:53): This matter of public importance has been nominated by the Australian Greens. When we look at matters of public importance sometimes we need to look at their tone at the very outset, before we get into the detail. Today we are discussing the Gillard government’s plans, at the upcoming COAG meeting on 6 and 7 December, to hand federal responsibility for protecting our nationally important wild places and most vulnerable species to state governments at the behest of big business. So it is evil big business that the Australian Greens would like us to focus the debate on-the pejorative term ‘big business’ is thrown in there at the end, that little swipe saying that anything business may want must be bad. That is not the case.

Far be it from me to have to stand here in this place and defend actions that the Gillard government may be taking, but equally there must be credit, to some degree, where it is due. In this case credit is due because the Gillard government is trying to work through the processes that exist within the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to facilitate arrangements where the states might be able to streamline some of these environmental approval processes. The coalition has a very clear standard about streamlining-we understand it is one that the government is seeking to apply as well-and that is that current environmental standards should be maintained. This should not be about stripping away standards, but it should be about improving efficiency-removing the costs and the complexity that all too often in Australia mean far too many developments face multilayered approvals processes that see cost and time and delays and uncertainty and hassles for investors mount as they try to get local government approvals, state government approvals and federal government approvals for development proposals. We think it makes sense to move towards something that is more streamlined but that maintains a core level of standards.

The coalition government was proud of its achievement in introducing the EPBC Act. My predecessor as a senator for South Australia, Robert Hill, was the environment minister at the time, and he would cite it as one of his great accomplishments-and so he should, because the act does provide some national standards for environmental protection. Those national standards should be maintained. But they should not be maintained as standards alongside the maintenance of some fake belief that it must all be done by the federal government in a bureaucratic and administrative sense-if the capacity is there, as the act provides for, for states to undertake some of these assessments in conjunction with their own assessment processes, then that is a perfectly sensible step to take as long as standards are maintained.

The coalition has identified very clearly that red tape and so-called green tape is a mounting problem for development in this country. The more investors see that it is going to take a long time and a lot of hassle and cost to get approvals, the more likely they are to think it is easier to go and do business elsewhere. If we can reduce the time involved, if we can reduce the layers of government they have to deal with, if we can reduce the complexity and if we can reduce the cost, we will maximise the chance of investors deciding that Australia is the right place to do business and bring their dollars to. That is what we should all want. That is why the Leader of the Opposition announced earlier this year coalition policy for a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, coalition policy that will seek to ensure that the states and territories can opt into administering a single approvals process under the Commonwealth EPBC Act for major projects so that there is a capacity for those dual assessments to be undertaken covering Commonwealth and state requirements at the same time.

Equally, we say that if the states would rather have the Commonwealth as a sole designated assessor we are willing to work through that process as well. So, from the coalition’s perspective, our desire is not to be prescriptive about saying the states should do all of it or the Commonwealth should do all of it, but we should try to reach an outcome where you do not have both levels of government applying the bureaucracy and doing the assessments.

In addition to the single assessment process, we would also seek to create, working with the states, single lodgement and documentation processes for environmental appointments, once again seeking to reduce and minimise the paperwork, the green tape, the cost and complexity that comes with getting developments off the ground. We think that by offering this as an option to the states, rather than simply handing it over, we also create the capacity for some competition between the states. I happen to be someone who believes that if we are going to stick with this model of a federation then we should put the states to some work: give the states the capacity to compete against each other to see who can be the most efficient and effective at doing their job.

Once again, I stress that that does not mean that you undermine the Commonwealth environmental standards through that process. We would expect there to be, and would ensure that there is, strict application of those Commonwealth environmental standards. The option, as I said, would be before states and territories to have the Commonwealth designated as a sole assessor instead, if that were a preference. But the priority is to make sure we shift to a situation where there are not multiple layers of bureaucracy undertaking different assessments at great cost and great complexity to those seeking development approval.

Senator Waters: We already have existing arrangements; you know that!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Waters highlights arrangements that may exist, and yet Senator Waters and the Greens seem to have this enormous problem and concern with the idea that those existing arrangements could be built upon and improved. With existing bilaterals in place, why can they not be built upon and improved? Why can we not work to an ambition of a one-stop shop? I hope that is what the government seek to do through the upcoming COAG meeting and through their work in this regard.

I am not afraid of the fact that big business might be advocating this. Governments should be able to respond to all stakeholders and all interests, including the so-called ‘big business’ in the Greens’ motion. Respond to them, of course, knowing that they come with their own vested interests. And you need always to act with your eyes open to the vested interests of whomever is knocking on your door. But that does not mean that you reject all of their points and their views outright. You accept what makes sense and you apply the other necessary tests to them. In this case, what makes sense is to reduce the bureaucracy and to achieve a one-stop shop approach but to do so whilst maintaining your Commonwealth environmental standards as the minimum test through these processes.

So if the coalition win the next election we will certainly work through the type of process that I have outlined today and that Mr Abbott announced back in April of this year as coalition policy. If the government at the December COAG meeting is able to work through something similar, then we will welcome that. We will welcome anything where this government actually reduces the red tape and green tape that are clogging so much of business in this country at present.