ABC Sydney Drive interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

RICHARD GLOVER: NSW has long had its EPA - the Environment Protection Authority. We talk about it all the time, but such a body has been missing nationally until now. Today, the Environment Minister and MP for Sydney announced a federal EPA, the Environmental Protection Authority, to oversee federal environmental approvals. At the same time, Tanya Plibersek has delayed the associated overhaul of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, seemingly after rising concerns from West Australians. So, can the new body, the EPA, really function without this accompanying act? Well, Tanya Plibersek is here for us. Minister, good afternoon.


GLOVER: Yeah, good. What difference will a federal EPA make?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, let's start with your introduction, which is about 100 per cent wrong. This is the second stage of our environmental law reforms. We did the first stage in December last year when we established the nature repair market and broadened what's called the water trigger in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. So, that's protecting water sources. It used to be only when there was coal mining or coal seam gas, we broadened it to all types of unconventional gas. This is the second stage of our environmental law reform, which is for the first time establishing an environment protection agency, independent and national, which will have much stronger powers than anything that the current department has. It'll be an independent statutory appointment that governments can't interfere with. It'll be able to issue stop work orders if there's any suspicion, for example, of illegal land clearing. Penalties will be really substantially increased. The penalties at the moment, you know, a lot of people would say that some of the penalties are so low that businesses can just consider it the cost of doing business. The maximum penalties will be increased to as high as $780 million or up to seven years in gaol. And the EPA will also be able to give much better guidance to proponents, like people who are thinking about doing a new housing development or a new solar farm or wind farm, so that they can avoid doing damage in the first place.

GLOVER: But wasn't it always said that this would act in cohort with the EPBC Act, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act? I think you did promise that that would be legislated by the of last year.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, we promised that we would have some legislation for people to look at. At the end of last year, we passed the first tranche of the legislation. We're on the second tranche now, and we're going for the third tranche as quickly as we can. But what we've got is an Environment Protection Act that is about 1000 pages long. Now we want to replace it with something that gives stronger, better environmental protections and faster decision making. And we've had, so far, hundreds of hours of consultation with more than 100 organisations. We've had big public webinars where thousands of people have participated. It is a big and complex job to get this right, but we have to get it right because, as Professor Graeme Samuel found in his review of the environment laws in 2020, they're not working to protect the environment and they're not working for business. We've got the worst of both worlds at the moment.

GLOVER: Now, I know Graeme Samuel has supported you in doing this series of tranches, as you've explained, but not everybody has. I notice, for instance, that the Australian Conservation Foundation describes themselves as frustrated and deeply disappointed. Their idea and the idea of some of your critics seems to be that it's very well to give these. It's all very well to give these new powers to the EPA, and that's great, but they're basically enforcing an act which doesn't do enough.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. We've also had environment groups say that the establishment of a national EPA is a game changer for the environment in Australia. So, I, you know, I know that this isn't going as quickly as some people would like. On the other hand, quite often they're the same people who are in the consultations we're having, giving me, you know, dozens of pages of changes that they want to see to the draft legislation that they have already seen and had in their hands.

GLOVER: Okay, but I spoke -

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: There is no unnecessary delay here. There is a careful approach to make sure we get this right, because this is generational change. John Howard's laws have lasted for 20 years with all of their failings. I'm not going to go into the parliament with a flawed set of laws that we can't get support for.

GLOVER: Ok. But, of course, those John Howard laws, as you describe, are still the standing laws until you change the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act. So, is this new -

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That's not really right, because we've already changed the first lot in December. And in this tranche of legislation, we'll be giving the Environment Protection Agency the ability to issue stop work orders. We'll be taking maximum penalties from around $15.5 million to $780 million. I mean, there's quite substantial changes there as well.

GLOVER: Ok, but aren't all those, I know the watchdog now has bigger teeth, but is it still policing the old policy rather than the new policy?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. And that's why we need to get on with the third tranche of legislation. Like I said, the way that we're doing it is by giving people the policy changes that we're proposing to make. They comment on the policy proposals we're proposing to make, we then give them the draft legislation to look at. We have spent hundreds of hours with environmental groups and with business groups going through this meticulous process. The reason the process is meticulous is because these changes are consequences. And, you know, they're the only changes I'll see, you know, in my, the rest of my time in politics. These will last for decades and we need to get them right.

GLOVER: Okay. Will we get them right before the election, which people talk about as being in something like May next year?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, we're going as fast as we can. And like I say, the same people who are saying we'd like the changes yesterday are the people who are being consulted and offering detailed commentary that we're taking into account to make sure we get it right. Ok.

GLOVER: But have you - I know you've got to go -

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'd like to have it done yesterday, too.

GLOVER: Ok. I know you've got to go, but is there a pledge that we will have this done before the next election?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, there's a pledge that we'll do it as quickly and as effectively as we can and get it right at the same time. And what getting it right means is stronger, better protections for our environment and also faster, clearer decision making so that we can get on and build those renewable energy projects, the new housing, the roads, the rail projects that we need to get done.

GLOVER: Okay. But I think that was a no to the idea of a pledge that it would be before the next election?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we're doing it as quickly as we can. It's a big job.

GLOVER: Minister, thank you very much for your time.