Press conference on Labor’s Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business


MARGARET SHEIL, VICE CHANCELLOR QUT: Well, thank you everybody, for coming here today. My name is Margaret Sheil, and I'm the vice chancellor of QUT. And it's wonderful to have the opportunity to have this event here at QUT. I begin by acknowledging the Tourbillon Niagara people on whose lands QUT stands and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. And we acknowledge that this important site here has always been a place of teaching, learning and research. So it's wonderful, as I said, to host this event today. QUT has sustainability as one of our priorities in our strategy, both our previous one and the current one. And we're very committed to education and research in the environment and also this wonderful facility, which also is educating the next generation through the interactive displays.

So I'm going to get out of your way. But I'm just going to say I'm going to welcome the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, MP Minister for the Environment and Water. The Honourable Meaghan Scanlon, MP, Minister for the Environment and Great Barrier Reef, and Minister for Science and Youth Affairs, Tim Reed, President of the Business Council of Australia, and Dr Paul Sinclair, Campaign Director for the Australian Conservation Foundation. So I'm going to hand over to Minister Plibersek and thank you all for being here.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thanks so much, Margaret. It is really exciting to be here today to launch the government's response to Professor Graeme Samuel's review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Australia's environment laws are broken. Professor Graeme Samuel's 2020 review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act found, and I'm quoting now, "The EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform. Australians do not trust that the Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community. Nature's being destroyed, businesses are waiting too long for decisions. That's bad for everyone, and it has to change."

Labor today is delivering on one of our key promises by responding to Professor Samuel's review and announcing our Nature Positive Plan: better for the environment, better for business.

We want an economy that is nature positive to halt destruction and repair nature. We will build our legislation on three basic principles: clear national standards of environmental protection, improving and speeding up decisions and building trust and integrity.

Our Nature Positive Plan will be better for the environment by delivering stronger laws designed to repair nature, to protect our precious plants and animals and places. For the first time our laws will introduce standards that decisions must meet. Standards describe the environmental outcomes that we're seeking. This will ensure that decisions that are made will protect our threatened species and ecosystems. And of course, a new Environmental Protection Agency will make development decisions and enforce them.

Our Nature Positive Plan will also be better for business by delivering more certainty, saving time and money with faster, clearer decisions. Regional plans will identify the areas that we want to protect, areas that can be fast tracked for development, and areas where development can proceed with caution.

Today I'm announcing that we're kicking off this regional planning process in partnership with Queensland, and I'm so delighted that the Queensland Minister, Meaghan Scanlon is here, and will give you greater details on this in a moment. Other states are interested too. That means less red tape, it means easier paperwork, it means less duplication, streamlining and speeding up assessment processes.

Our Nature Positive Plan is win win. It's a win for business and a win for the environment. I'm really looking forward to continuing to work with the business community, with environmental groups, with First Nations people, to give better environmental protection and faster decision making.

Getting to this point has required cooperation, it's required compromise, and it's required common sense. I'd really, really like to thank the environmental groups and the business community that have worked so collaboratively with the government to get us to this point.

This is a serious step forward. Fixing our environmental laws is a big job. I know that there will be agreements down the track, I know there will be disagreements down the track, you'd expect that, in an area where there's so much reform to be done. But to date we've managed with cooperation, with compromise and with common sense, and I'm sure that we can proceed that way in the future as well. Thanks Meaghan.

MEAGHAN SCANLON, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: Thanks, Tanya, and it's wonderful to have you and everyone in Queensland today. Of course, Queensland called on the former Morrison Government to properly address the Samuel's review recommendations, not just cherry pick recommendations. We are incredibly pleased to have the Albanese Government release this report today to appropriately respond to the recommendations, and of course we'll be looking through those and working with the federal Government. But, of course, very pleased today to be working with the federal Government on recommendation 25, which is around delivering bio regional plans.

This is about speeding up decisions while also delivering nature positive outcomes. It works like a traffic light system. It looks to, at a landscape scale, of looking how we can protect, restore and allow sustainable development. So it looks at that cumulative impact, not just projects, one by one, but looks at the whole landscape scale, looks at where we need to preserve wildlife corridors, and where sustainable development can occur while not compromising biodiversity.

So we really look forward to signing this Memorandum of Understanding today with the federal Government. We'll be focussing on three key areas. The first will be around urban development, particularly in the Southeast, and the other two areas will be around rare earth minerals, as well as renewable energy.

We know it's incredibly important, if we're going to preserve biodiversity that we take action on climate change. But we need to make sure that that doesn't compromise on biodiversity. This regional planning is about making sure we can do both. So really excited to be here today for this announcement, and look forward to also meeting with the conservation sector later on this morning as well.

TIM REED, PRESIDENT OF THE BUSINESS COUNCIL OF AUSTRALIA: Well, Ministers, let me say on behalf of the Business Council and the business community how delighted we are to be here for these announcements today, so thank you for the invitation. Professor Samuel's review was a wake up to all Australians. The system that we have today for environmental planning and for development progress is broken; it's not working for today, and won't work tomorrow.

In terms of business, it is too expensive, it is too uncertain, and it takes too long to get complying developments off the ground. Ultimately what that means is that it drives up the cost to all Australians, the cost of their home, the cost of electricity, the cost of almost every good that we have in our society. And jobs, critical jobs, great jobs, high paying jobs are delayed, are deferred, and ultimately aren't created.

But this system isn't a system that's working for one part of the community at the expense of other; it's actually failing everyone. Because while businesses can't get these investments off the ground, the environment is unsustainably going backwards. And thus, not only is it not working for today, but it's not working for tomorrow, because the thought that we can have economic prosperity going into the future, it is separate from a stable, reliable, thriving environment just doesn't make sense. And the important thing that Professor Samuel said is that we can't think about one or the other, that we have to think about both. We have to think about protecting biodiversity; we have to think about strengthening the environment, while also creating an environment where business can get on, can create jobs and can get investing under way.

And so, Minister, we're delighted that so quickly into your term you've responded so positively to Professor Samuel's review.

As the Minister said, that has involved collaboration across all groups in the community, and I know that there have been a number of business groups, not just the Business Council, that the Minister has engaged with in this process.

Today's announcement of National Environmental Standards that will achieve certainty for business and improved environmental outcomes underpin, will be improvements across the entire system.

Regional planning is at the core, and Minister Scanlon spoke about that a moment ago. The importance of regional planning is that it does enable development to take place in ensuring that it complies with the unique biodiversity of a specific region of our nation, while also ensuring that that biodiversity is continuing to improve, that the health of the environment in that local region moves forward, an EPA, which balances environmental, social and economic outcomes. We cannot have one progressing at the expense of the other. What today's announcement says is that we're going to move forward ensuring that we gain on all fronts.

Minister, perhaps I'll just conclude by underscoring your comments. I'm sure there will be, as we move from here forward to legislation, areas of disagreement. But it gives us great heart that we're able to work together and collaborate and work through those as we move forward. Thank you everyone.

DR PAUL SINCLAIR, DIRECTOR OF CAMPAIGNS AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: G'day. Australia's environmental law is busted and mistrusted. Our national environmental laws are failing to protect our wildlife and the habitats they depend on. The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomes the Minister's commitment to implement a new national Environmental Protection Agency, the first in this country's history, and to strengthen our national environmental standards to establish new standards that will drive this law forward to protecting the environment.

Having a Minister willing to fix a broken system is a great thing, and we are appreciative of that endeavour. With National Environmental Standards, we need to see those standards incorporating all sectors, including the native forest logging sector. For too many years that sector has been excluded from natural environment laws at great expense to species and some of the world’s greatest forests.

We are disappointed that we don't see today, reflected today a climate trigger in what's proposed. A climate trigger would assess the damage that's been done by burning coal and gas on the amazing places of Australia, from the Great Barrier Reef in the east to the Ningaloo Reef in the west, to the seagrass meadows in the south, and to the wetlands of the north.

There's a heap more detail to work through over the next six months. We're really excited and optimistic, but together with the Minister and stakeholders, like the BCA, that we can work together to create a strong, positive national environmental law, the best that this country has ever had.

The test of success of that law is going to be the degree to which it can stop the extinction of species, like the amazing koala or the black cockatoo.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Okay. Now, if you've got any questions for me, we'll ask them first, and then I'm sure the state Minister, Meaghan Scanlon, will be delighted to answer questions as well, and our special guests as well, if you've got questions for them. So any questions for me?

JOURNALIST: Minister will the EPA report to the Parliament? Wouldn’t it be more independent to report to the Parliament?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the EPA will be established as an independent organisation with a statutory appointed chair, it will have its own budget, it will be responsible for both assessing and approving development applications, and it will also be responsible for making sure that any conditions are implemented. It will have a number of other responsibilities that are currently undertaken by the Department of Environment. And of course, one of the reasons that we're establishing it in this way is to make sure that it is transparent, that it is answerable to our democracy that people can see the decisions that are being made, and why they're being made and how they are being made, and can have confidence that there is integrity in the system.

The details of the design are again something that we'll continue to work through with stakeholders over coming months, but this is an exciting Australia first, and it delivers on an important promise that we made during the election to have a strong independent EPA, a tough cop on the beat, that is operating at arm's length from government.

JOURNALIST: The government has promised new legislation 2023, and introduced before the end of that year. And could you please walk us through a timeline of what we can see next?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the government's response to Professor Graeme Samuel's Review today is the first step. What this response will tell you is our disposition on a number of recommendations that Professor Samuel has made. The next stage is to go into a more detailed design process, designing the legislation, designing the National Environmental Standards, so there will be a number of National Environmental Standards on matters of national environmental significance, on consultation with First Nations people, on community consultation, on offsets, on regional planning, and these National Environmental Standards will work side by side with legislation.

We'd expect the first National Environmental Standards to be released at the same time or around the same time as an exposure draft of the legislation.

Now, I need to be clear: this is large, complex consequential work. We will do it methodically, we'll do it in the way that we've been working collaboratively up till now with environmental organisations and business organisations. As I keep saying, up till now it's taken compromise, it's taken cooperation, and it takes a lot of common sense too. And that's how we'll be proceeding next year.

JOURNALIST: Professor Samuel didn’t recommend a climate trigger in part because he think the Coalition would report one. Do you think people will accept that [inaudible]?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm so proud to be part of a government, that as one of its first acts actually legislated stronger carbon pollution reduction targets. So, we have a legislated path to net zero emissions. What we're not going to do is have two separate systems for assessing carbon pollution emission from projects.

What Professor Graham Samuel has recommended is transparency around the lifetime emissions from projects at a domestic level, and we'll be doing that. So, in the lingo, Scope 1 and 2 emissions from projects will be transparently disclosed, and of course, very large projects will have to fit into the safeguards mechanism that my colleague, Chris Bowen, is currently finalising with business and other stakeholders.

JOURNALIST: When will the national standards apply?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that's something that we'll be working through very closely with stakeholders, with forestry industry and environmental organisations. We want to have a forestry industry here in Australia; we want a strong and sustainable forestry industry, both because we need the products that are produced, and because we need the jobs as well.

But we also know that we have some critical areas where there are threatened species, and working cooperatively, collaboratively, I'm sure that we can come to a common sense understanding of how we have a strong forestry industry and we better protect our environment. But that's something that we'll work very closely with the industry on.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: You've gone straight to the detail, and my very clear message today is that the government's response to the Samuel Review is a first step, and when any interested party reads this report, our response to Professor Graeme Samuel's Review, they'll be able to see the direction that we're heading, but for matters like species per hectare, and so on, we're a long way down the track.

These are things that will be negotiated over time; we'll release a draft of the legislation, people will be able to comment on the draft legislation, they'll be able to comment on National Environmental Standards, and I think this approach of slow methodical transparent engagement with all of our stakeholders is really important to try and keep the incredible consensus that we've had up till now. Of course, environmental groups and business groups don't agree on every detail of Graeme Samuel's review, but what we've had is this remarkable willingness and desire to work together. Why? Because what exists now isn't working. Our environmental laws are broken. They don't work for business; they don't protect the environment.

What we're seeking is a win win; a win for the environment, a win for business, because we want the jobs that these new developments will bring. And getting there is going to take a lot of patience it's going to take a lot of patience, and a lot of negotiation, but I think we're up for it.

JOURNALIST: Does it include new planning legislation in each state?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We're working very cooperatively with states, I've had a great meeting with state environmental ministers, states are interested in a regional planning approach, but we're not talking about diving into state's planning regimes.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]  

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to be commenting on individual states' planning mechanisms today.

JOURNALIST: I'm sure it happens with other states as well. The state government set up planning provisions for large developments and environmental ministers can't challenge clearly those areas.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to talk about states' planning regimes today.

JOURNALIST: When you draft the National Standards will it be written by experts or stakeholders?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We'll be working with all of our scientists and experts, and of course National Environmental Standards will be consulted on very broadly.

Can I say, one of the other really important recommendations that Professor Samuel highlights is a real failure in the data capacity of our environmental planning system at the moment. We know that for each project, most proponents are starting from scratch to get the information together that says, yes, this is a development that can go ahead, it's not going to have significant impacts.

That takes ages. To get the information that says this development shouldn't go ahead because there are threatened species here or some other unacceptable environmental impact, can take even longer.

If we're talking about   just take, for example, renewable energy projects, we want to see more renewable energy in Australia, that's a great contribution we can make to reducing the impact of climate change. We're talking about projects taking 600, 700 days to be assessed. We want to see faster, clearer decision making, because of the jobs it brings, because people need homes to live in, because we need to be building more renewable energy projects and linking them into the grid so people can get cheaper, cleaner energy to their homes and businesses. We want roads to drive on, and you know, trains to catch. Sustainable development is absolutely necessary for this country. We want to see it, but we also need to better protect an environment.

We have become the extinction capital of the globe in Australia. We are not doing well enough to protect our environment. The reason we've seen so much collaboration between environmental groups and business groups, with Professor Samuel, and with our government, is because it's not working for anyone, we need to make it work for everyone.

JOURNALIST: You spoke about compromise. The ag sector has already raised their concerns that they will be the ones compromising the most. What assurance can you give to that sector?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm not sure that I heard the question properly. Did you say the ag sector, farmers? Yes. Well, of course, as well as environment and business groups we've had great engagement with the National Farmers Federation, and other representatives of agricultural industries. We are absolutely determined that Australia will continue to be a wealthy and productive country that's exporting our goods all around the world, and that's what keeps us prosperous.

I know farmers are some of the best environmental custodians in our country, and I'm very hopeful that not only will farmers welcome the detail of these proposals, which will give them certainty as well, but they will also be excited about the new opportunities of our Nature Repair Market. Our Nature Repair Market is a way for people in regional communities and rural areas to earn money from doing the environmental stewardship that they want to do in many cases, are desperate to do. This will apply for farmers, it will apply for First Nations, Traditional Owners, First Nations people who are managing Indigenous protected areas. This is a great new opportunity for seeing investment in our regional and rural communities.

JOURNALIST: The document says you will accredit states for approvals, can you tell us what role the national EPA will have in approvals?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. So states and territories that want to be accredited to do approvals will have to meet the same high standards that the Commonwealth would meet, and the EPA would be involved in the accreditation, but also in case a state failed to meet those high standards, then EPA would be able to recommend withdrawal of the state's accreditation.

Now, can I say, accreditation was one of the recommendations of Professor Graham Samuel. We're very happy to work in partnership with states and territories on accreditation. But this is not something – as the previous government tried to do, that we would even consider ramming through on its own.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible].

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And you might have some questions for the state minister. So thank you all very much for coming today.

JOURNALIST: Minister, could you just walk us through what this regional plan means for Queensland.

SCANLON: Yeah, so these regional plans mean working with the federal Government, both in terms of the EPBC process, but also all of our laws to really look at the cumulative impact of that development and work out what areas need protection. So effectively, no go zones. What areas need to be restored and what areas would we approve sustainable development. So, it's about speeding up those processes, giving confidence to industry, but also making sure we don't compromise biodiversity.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] South East Queensland [Inaudible] a big push to provide extra housing and things like that.

SCANLON: Yeah. So, one of these areas will be in southeast Queensland to deal with urban development. We of course, we know that we have many people moving to the state, and we need to be able to house those people, but we also need to make sure we protect that biodiversity. So, we'll be working through the detail of that. But as I said, there's three key criteria that we're working towards under that traffic light system, and we'll have more to say on that soon. But this is about making sure we work in partnership on that proposal right now.

JOURNALIST: Can I please ask you one more question?


JOURNALIST: Do you feel satisfied as Environment Minister that you cannot get to lengthen priority development areas?

SCANLON: So, in terms of priority development areas, they need to go through the EDQ process, where they do need to address particular environmental criteria. We also have a whole range of other criteria that developments need to go through. They also sometimes need to go through the EPBC process. And as has been mentioned today, that system is clearly not working to the standard in which Queenslanders and Australians would like to see. So we acknowledge there's work to be done, but the systems are in place at the moment. But we all acknowledge they need to be improved, and that's what today is about.

JOURNALIST: Do you envisage that the state government will have to put in legislation or [indistinct] legislation to fit in with the national accord.

SCANLON: We'll look through that detail as we progress this Memorandum of Understanding. This is really the early piece of that work to determine what schemes might need to be changed and how we make sure this process is as streamlined as possible. So we're still really at that beginning stage, but we'll update you as we progress.

JOURNALIST: Do you expect the state [Inaudible] to have it's own EPA or [Inaudible] before it's accredited by the federal Government.

SCANLON: Thanks, Ben. Of course, we committed during the election to doing consultation on an independent Environmental protection Agency here in Queensland. We've completed that consultation, and I look forward to updating everyone soon. Of course, I acknowledge that people want to see those decisions made independently. We do have an independent regulator, but we have acknowledged the concerns raised, and that's why we've done that consultation.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible].

SCANLON: Well, as has been mentioned, we're still in the very early stages of the proposal around a federal EPA, and we still need to respond to the consultation paper of our EPA, so it's probably a bit too early for me to comment.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] can you just talk through different scenarios [Inaudible].

SCANLON: Yeah, so this is looking at that landscape scale. So we'll look at areas where we say that simply development simply can't occur there, but we think that it can occur in a different area. It's about preserving biodiversity. Of course, right now, we have a whole range of protections in place, but they're not looking at that cumulative impact. And this is really about looking at that landscape scale. So we'll, of course, work with all of those industries as we progress through this Memorandum of Understanding process. I think we need to sign these agreements.