SPEAKING ON A BILL | ENVIRONMENT AND PLANNING COMMITTEE
Mr Melhem: I also rise to speak on the motion moved by Dr Cumming in relation to her reference to the Environment and Planning Committee which relates to the air pollution issue. That is something I will be supporting, as the chair of the Environment and Planning Committee. The only news I have for Dr Cumming is I think the October 2020 deadline might be a bit difficult somewhat because of other inquiries or references already before the committee, but should the house agree to this referral, that is something I am sure will be discussed at the next committee meeting to decide whether or not the 2020 deadline can be met.
As a general principle I am happy to support—and I believe the government is supportive of—the reference by Dr Cumming, because we all know that as a basic human right we are all entitled to clean air. It is vital; that is the only way we can survive in a healthy manner. If you do not have clear air, then you are in trouble. We see this from time to time, like in the recent bushfires where the people of Victoria—not just Victoria but New South Wales, South Australia and part of Queensland—actually went through a very difficult period when we had to put up with unclean air: pollution, smoke.
It was horrendous for a lot of people, especially people who suffer from asthma, elderly people and young people. It was a very difficult period. I am not sure what we can put in place to avoid that when we have a disaster like this. We can obviously put some mitigating things in place like staying indoors and putting masks on or prevent the fires from occurring in the first place. Is that going to really happen? Are we going to eliminate bushfires in this state or this country? I do not think we have the power to do that, but we certainly can help to reduce the occurrence of these bushfires and their impact by talking about climate change and looking at how we can do things differently to mitigate against that and reduce the frequency or the severity of bushfires in the state. But the fact remains that we will have bushfires.
We will have warehouse fires like we did in Footscray not long ago and Campbellfield, but we can do more to prevent these things from happening again because they are to a large extent dependent on human error or not error—some of it is probably by design. People are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. People are storing chemicals in residential areas or storing chemicals they are not supposed to have—or at least they are not supposed to have the volume—in their warehouses. To me that is just driven by greed. They are just getting stuff in and storing it there and they do not do it in a safe manner.
The Environment and Planning Committee, when we were doing the waste and recycling inquiry, heard a fair bit of evidence in relation to these fires and in relation to waste, and the message from the community is very clear and the government is responding. We need to deal with these rogue operators, and for one of them in my electorate, in Footscray, we are still doing the clean-up as we speak. We need to deal with these people harshly to make sure these things do not occur again.
The government has done a fair bit in relation to dealing with these sort of operators. I want to spend a bit of time on this because you can all have all the rules you want but if you have not got enforcement mechanisms in place to enforce a particular piece of legislation or rules, you might as well not have those rules. That is why I want to commend the government and Minister D’Ambrosio in relation to the work that has been done in the last few years in relation to reforming the Environment Protection Authority Victoria. We have committed nearly $200 million to actually reform the EPA.
The EPA had a reputation over the years of not having enough resources and being a toothless tiger—they are not able to do much, you cannot get onto them—but let us look at the work that has been done in the last few years. We have got a new team at the EPA. They have been getting new powers which were passed in this house I think in the last Parliament, and we have got to recognise that they are doing far more than they were doing years ago. That is like everything else with restructuring and things changing over time and evolving. The EPA, like other organisations, have suffered over the years from a lack of resources and expertise; even paying people the right amount of money to be able to attract the right scientists and the right specialists to work there was a real issue. Funding I believe is not the problem anymore. They are able to attract the right people so when they go out to a workplace or they go out to a factory they are able to deal with these sorts of issues in a very professional manner and they have got the expertise so they are able to do it. That is why I am pleased that the EPA is actually now stepping up to the mark and trying to address these issues.
What else can we do about air pollution? Transport I think was one issue in talking about the inner west in relation to trucks. Yes, it is a big issue. The west, for example, in my electorate, is transforming. The population has doubled and it will be tripled. People can say of areas like Yarraville and Newport and some of these areas close to the port that you do not need to live there because there are trucks there all the time. That is not the answer, and we all know that. But there has been a fair bit of improvement over the years to make sure that trucks are not driving through residential streets, and there is a fair bit of work to be done to further improve that to make sure we move away from it. We are not going to stop trucks going into the ports, not in the short term. That is why freight and rail programs have already been put in place to actually have more stuff put on rail to go to the port instead of using trucks.
The next one is, and I want to give the industry a bit of stick here as well, they are moving towards cleaner trucks. There is no reason why we cannot start using cleaner trucks and start phasing out older trucks: just get them off the road and use cleaner trucks. That is happening but I am not sure it is happening at the right rate. We need to fast-track that and make sure we do more of it. That is why we are talking about electric vehicles—the state government is pushing toward encouraging that. We are talking about renewable energy, and we are criticised about renewable energy targets. We are looking for a 50 per cent target by 2030 I believe.
These are all things this government is doing to make sure we reduce the impact on climate change and try to improve air quality. When we have these fire events from time to time they are unfortunately events we have to deal with, and in order to deal with that we need to make sure we have got the right legislation, the right resources put in place to make sure organisations like the EPA are able to enforce that.
Dr Cumming made mention of the air quality statement. My understanding is that it is due to be released shortly. A fair bit of work has been done in that space to put out a Victorian air quality statement. We want to lead the way in Victoria, and on Dr Cumming’s resolution that Victoria can be a progressive state and lead the country, I think we are. We can do better though, and we can be the leaders in Australia—even in the world. I think the credentials of the Andrews Labor government in relation to environmental issues are second to none in the commonwealth of Australia. We are leading the country in relation to addressing issues like climate change, of which air quality is one.
Going back to the EPA, as I said earlier, you have got to have the right regulations and an enforcement system put in place to make sure you enforce them. That is why when the independent inquiry into the EPA was carried out by this government and nearly $200 million invested to make sure we have a modern EPA, I think it was welcome, and all that will start to pay some dividends shortly.
Another review was done by the Victorian Auditor-General in relation to air quality. One of the case studies that the Auditor-General picked up on was the poor air quality arising from the Brooklyn industrial precinct, which he said:
… presents a good example of the complex issues involved in air quality management. It demonstrates how EPA needs to continue developing a close working relationship with councils and other government agencies to address harmful air emissions.
He recognised that there had been some improvement but also made reference to the fact that further improvements could be made. That is the point about various agencies and governments working at various levels to make sure we achieve that outcome.
The Auditor-General put out five recommendations for the EPA to implement, and my understanding is that the EPA and the Department of Water, Land, Environment and Planning have agreed to actually implement the five recommendations. They are that the EPA:
1. expand its air monitoring network by:
• reviewing and updating its current Monitoring Plan to reflect its risk-based approach to environmental regulation …
• in addition to its ambient air quality monitoring for purposes of the NEPM AAQ, designing and implementing …
air quality monitoring et cetera. That has been accepted. Also:
2. improve its reporting on air quality …
3. expand and update its knowledge of Victoria’s air quality—
and I think that is very important; we need to make sure that we have got the data so we can compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges—
• completing a comprehensive Victorian air emissions inventory to identify current major point and diffuse sources of air pollution …
Recommendation 4 is to:
work with all relevant councils to address air quality issues at the Brooklyn Industrial Precinct …
And 5 is to:
clarify the roles and responsibilities of relevant Victorian Government agencies with respect to air quality management, and develop protocols to ensure accountabilities are understood and coordination is achieved …
So they are some of the recommendations from the Auditor-General, and they have been accepted by the EPA.
In conclusion, in the last minute I have, I think it is an issue where we can all agree that we can do better in improving our air quality in Victoria. But I think it is important to note that we do have good air quality in comparison—we are not behind the rest of the world. We are doing reasonably well, but we can do heaps better. If we want to be a First World country, then we need to have First World standards, and that is what I think should be driven. It is not about, ‘Let’s go and criticise. There’s a problem here, there’s a problem there. We are doing enough, and that should be good enough’. To me, if we want to be a First World country and a First World state, yes, we should provide our citizens with First World-quality air to breathe and make sure that people do not fall ill and we do not have 4800 people in Australia dying because of respiratory problems. So with these few words I commend the motion to the house.