Interview with Norman Swan, Radio National

29 January 2021


NORMAN SWAN: The Morrison Government has released the final report into a review of Australia's Environmental Law - three months after receiving it from competition watchdog boss, Graeme Samuel. It finds that the environment has suffered from two decades of failure by governments to improve and implement protections meant to ensure the survival of Australia's unique wildlife, with business also being caught up in red tape.

Among the 38 recommendations is a call for a major overhaul of  Australia's environmental law, including new mandatory national environmental standards and the establishment of independent monitoring bodies. Sussan Ley is the Federal Environmental Minister- Federal Environment Minister. Welcome to the RN Breakfast - welcome back.

SUSSAN LEY:  Lovely to join you in the studio, Norman.

NORMAN SWAN: So this report warns of dire consequences if these recommendations are ignored. It sounds as if you've ignored them already.

SUSSAN LEY:  Not at all. When I started this modernisation process, I said this Act hasn't been touched essentially for 20 years, and it’s time that we modernised it, but we focussed, as Graeme Samuel says, on outcomes, not process.

It's a very process driven piece of legislation. It's incredibly duplicative. If you're on the environmental side or the business and development side, you all agree that it has failings. So it is failing to protect the environment, but it's also failing to support ecologically sustainable development, which is actually what its purpose is.

So Graeme Samuel has handed down his report, we tabled it yesterday. I think he's done an excellent job. We're going to work carefully through the recommendations. There's a big piece of reform ahead of us.

NORMAN SWAN: He says you can't cherry pick these recommendations, they're a package. So you've already seem to have rejected an independent regulator to, to monitor this, and there's no environmental standards in your bill?

SUSSAN LEY: Not at all. I've always said assurance, or an independent regulator is vital. There's been discussion about what that looks like and where that lives. So the discussion has been about form rather than function.

We pretty much all agree that assurance is important, in fact it's very important - it gives confidence to the overall system. I sat down with a roundtable of stakeholders yesterday, I drew their attention to Graeme Samuel's Environmental Environment Insurance Commissioner model, asked them what they thought of it - lots of agreement around the table, we will work through that.

In terms of standards, National Cabinet met towards the end of last year and agreed to progress the standards as a matter of priority. So I'll be picking that piece of work up again, that was identified early-

NORMAN SWAN: But they're going to have to be in- to get the crossbench to support you they're going have to be in the bill, aren't they?

SUSSAN LEY: The standards will be, I anticipate, within their own legislative head of power. So that gives them rigour, if you like, as they sit next to the bilateral agreements we will have with the states and the assurance model. I see it as a whole package and people need to have a good look at it, and that's why, as we work through the recommendations, we'll let them do that. And of course, I'll be having those conversations with colleagues.

NORMAN SWAN: So, how can you expect the crossbench to pass this bill if it's just on a promise that the environmental standards are coming? This is all wrapped up in one. If you're going to give this to the states - so I should just explain really that the- for a single touch approach you're vesting power in the states to approve projects so that business doesn't have to mess around - but they've really got to do that within a strong regulatory environment. And the reservation is that it's not in the bill. So you're going to give it to the states - they're off and running, they're quite happy to do it, but they're not necessarily able to do it.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, couple of things there, Norman. There is a streamlining bill before the parliament now, but I anticipate further pieces of legislation and regulation to implement standards, and I made that very clear with the streamlining bill.

That gives the architecture; it sets the framework; and of course, will introduce standards. and we'll give people a good look at them. And we'll draw them- draw their attention to the National Cabinet decision, but we start with standards that come directly from the Act.

But just on the states, I do want to make this point, we're not handing anything over to the states - we're accrediting them against our strong national standards.

NORMAN SWAN: Which you don't have yet.

SUSSAN LEY: Yes, we do. We're bringing those standards forward, we're developing now. National Cabinet said turn the existing Act into standards and start there. That's where we do want to start, and that's where I'm going to start when I talk to, as you say, crossbench and other colleagues.

But the states and the Commonwealth are not harmonised. And what we will do is accredit the states against those national standards. So we're handing over control of environmental protection to them; we're retaining that by way of Commonwealth oversight.

NORMAN SWAN: What are the criteria for the accreditation of states?

SUSSAN LEY: We'll look at the Act that they have in place. They have to meet those national standards, and yes, people will see the standards; will have to identify their compliance processes against those standards; and, if their acts don't measure up and they'll have to make changes to them. So that is the nature of the bilateral agreement that will have with each state.

And I've also been criticised by people who say it'll be different with each state - no, it won't; it'll be one set of national standards. And I expect, in the conversations I've had with environment ministers who are interested in this, but we've all got that ambition to lift environmental protection across the country, and I see that as a very strong outcome.

Because when you get these blockages, this unnecessary complication, you actually get processes for no environment improvement, and you get the duplication that leads to frustration. I think the average time for approval is 1009 days. Time is money - that doesn't necessarily add up to the protection of our precious environment.

NORMAN SWAN: I mean, if I was sitting on the crossbench through Rex Patrick, the last thing I'd want to do is approve you're streamlining bill until I've seen concrete standards on the table with legislation there that's been properly consulted. I mean, when is that- what's the time frame for that?

SUSSAN LEY: Totally understand that. I've had lots of conversations with Rex, sent him a quick text yesterday to say when- we're catching up next week and exactly- on exactly that matter. I'll be able to put those ideas to him, hear his thoughts and continue the discussion. And I totally accept that people do need to have a look at the standards.

NORMAN SWAN: And the independent regulator is- that's sealed and concrete? You've got- you're not resiling from that one?


NORMAN SWAN: Because the last time I think we spoke to you, that was really in question.

SUSSAN LEY:  No. The independent regulator needs to be strong; needs to be, as we say and you've just said, independent; needs to be a cop on the beat. Exactly how and where it lives within Government is a matter for discussion.

But as I said, I- Graeme Samuel made some good recommendations in chapter seven about what it looks like - I've had a look at them; I've asked other people what they think. I'm very comfortable that we'll work through to a strong model that provides the assurance that absolutely underpins our standards and our agreements with the states.

NORMAN SWAN: So why are you rushing through the streamlining bill when there are all these loose ends?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, that was at the end of last year and- I mean, rushing is probably not the word I'd use. We needed to get our skates on and start a really long reform process. But we all knew that the Act was deficient, we all knew the Act wasn't working, so this was a first important step to change.

NORMAN SWAN: But you're opening yourself up to criticism that you're just pleasing business here and not the environmental lobby by going hell full out with a streamlining bill?

SUSSAN LEY: Definitely not. And I do appreciate that the streamlining bill comes first and business, industry and our green groups and communities - because communities are very much embedded and invested in environmental protection - will need to have their say about the next steps. And I'm looking forward to that.

NORMAN SWAN:   Let's go to the Labor frontbench reshuffle. Mark Butler's being dumped from the climate change and energy portfolio to be replaced by Chris Bowen. That the move seen as allaying concerns in mining electorates and probably being a bit pro-business. Does this narrow the policy difference between the government and the opposition?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I tend not to make gratuitous remarks about colleagues in the Parliament. And Labor's reshuffle is a matter for Labor.

NORMAN SWAN: Everybody else does. Why can't you?

SUSSAN LEY: I know they do, Norman. What I would say is I just haven't seen a clear policy come from Labor on the matter of the- you know, the new frontbench ministers- shadow ministers will need to articulate some policy pretty quickly, because at the moment I'm not seeing any at all.

NORMAN SWAN: So, Parliament resumes and independent MP, Zali Stegall's private member's bill is up there for the 2050 net zero emissions targets. Australian business is in support of that. Why isn't the Government?

SUSSAN LEY: The Prime Minister and Angus Taylor have said they'll move to net-zero emissions …

NORMAN SWAN: But not by when.

SUSSAN LEY: … as quickly as possible, but they'll do it via technology - not taxes. They'll use the technology road map - the five stretch targets, as Angus Taylor calls them. And I must note, as someone from a rural electorate, one of them is soil carbon - improving the health, the carbon, the water retention in our soils lends very easily and well to our climate adaptation agenda which I have responsibility for.

And we've made some global partnerships and agreements about the work we will do on climate adaptation, recognising a climate that is changing and adapting our landscape and systems in support.

NORMAN SWAN: But without a target, you don't know where you are. I mean for example, the science says that unless you reduce targets, the target by 2030 to by 50 per cent on 2005 levels, you're not going to get there. And already, we're seeing the effects of a 1.1-degree rise, and to hold it- or to 2 degrees you're really going to be struggling; and yet there's this resistance to targets.

SUSSAN LEY: There's no resistance to the target in the Paris Agreement. There's no resistance to our ambition to reach net zero via a clearly articulated pathway. I think there would be resistance from the Australian people if they saw targets that are effectively there in design only but not in purpose, not in practical action. And that may well cause them to lose confidence, and have rising electricity prices, and affect their standard of living.

So, we're taking this in a staged and appropriate process. And as I said, we're being practical about the things we can do with climate adaptation, with climate resilience. A new part of my department is dedicated to climate resilience services - to inform people, to allow them to have the best information.

NORMAN SWAN: But it's wrecking the environment you're pledged to protect.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I don't agree with that, Norman. I think that we need to recognise that the climate is changing and Australian farmers and, in fact, the community as a whole, needs to adapt to that and give them the best tools to manage that.

But remember, I talked about soil carbon before. You know, that's a good story to tell. That's something the rest of the world is really interested in; that adds to the resilience of our farming system. So it, if you like, ticks the box for the environment; ticks the box for carbon emissions; but, also for the farmers and farmers manage 50 per cent of our environment. And they do it very well in many cases, and they're very interested in developing adaptation around the changing climate.

NORMAN SWAN: Sussan, thanks very much for joining us.

SUSSAN LEY: Always a pleasure.

NORMAN SWAN:   Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley here on RN Breakfast.