SPEAKING ON A BILL | ENVIRONMENT PROTECTION AMENDMENT BILL 2018

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan) — I also rise to speak on the Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2018. This is the second of two bills to overhaul Victoria’s environment protection legislation by repealing the Environment Protection Act 1970 and creating a framework for a modern regulator to protect human health and the environment from pollution and waste. As we know, there has been a lot of talk in recent times about the effectiveness of the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) and whether or not they have got the right balance in relation to legislation for them to be able to effectively do their job and whether or not the EPA is actually conducting itself in a way where it is meeting the expectations of Victorians by enforcing Victoria’s laws. Hence the Andrews Labor government started an inquiry.

When we first came into government the then Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water, Lisa Neville, appointed a ministerial advisory council to undertake an independent inquiry into the EPA. That commenced in June 2015 and went on until 31 March 2016, so it was quite a lengthy process. This bill was not dreamt up at the last minute with the government basically deciding that we want to go and put in new legislation in relation to the EPA. In fact a lot of work has gone into this over two years, so it is no surprise. There has been a lot of talk about what we do with the EPA with various pieces of legislation — we are talking about Fiskville, we are talking about the major disasters we had in recent times — and there has been a lot of criticism in relation to what the government is doing to actually strengthen our environmental laws, hence the inquiry.

I am a bit confused by the opposition. On the one hand they are supporting the vibe and the principle of what the legislation is actually proposing to implement — they agree with all that — but on the other hand Mr Davis has basically decided he wants to shred it to pieces and pull it apart and refer it to another committee. It is very complex legislation, and he wants to refer it to a committee that will report back to the house on 18 September, in the last sitting week, and it can extend, so the next Parliament might deal with it. If we are fair dinkum about doing something about environmental laws and doing what we said we were going to do, then let us get on with it.

He talked about criticising third parties in relation to their rights and whether or not they are able to participate in a legal process if they have got interests, for example, like a particular polluter. I will give you a case in point. As an example, in my electorate at Ravenhall the operator of the Ravenhall tip has breached its licence many times over the last few years. The third party in that case is the residents of Caroline Springs and Deer Park and Burnside who actually voiced their opinion. I reckon that is a genuine concern. The new legislation will give these people the right to basically exercise their rights and make sure the operator, if they are in breach, is prosecuted properly. There has been a lot of criticism in relation to the EPA about whether or not they were strong enough in applying the legislation, and I think they have improved a great deal in the last few years, and I am very pleased with that. Even the operator, Cleanaway, has improved its operating methods.

Mr Davis talked about it being a bit like Eastern Europe and communism with these environmental laws and stuff, but, hey, let us talk about your mates in the conservative world, like Donald Trump. What did he do when he first came in? If we just simply leave it to business to regulate itself, we know what is going to happen. Look at what happened in the US — the first thing he did, a conservative leader, was basically sack the EPA chief executive officer because he did not agree with his view on the world. He just basically wants no regulation. To me that is probably what Mr Davis would like to see.

The government obviously will be opposing the referral to a committee. It is just another time-wasting exercise because a large number of stakeholders have been engaged in extensive consultation since the release of the Andrews government’s response to the independent inquiry, including the Australian Industry Group, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Municipal Association of Victoria, the Victorian Farmers Federation, the Waste Management Association of Australia, the Victorian Waste Management Association, Environment Victoria, Environment Justice Australia, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Australian Landfill Owners Association.

It has been a very extensive consultation process, so I do not know what the committee is going to achieve, because that process has already been carried out. I understand that part of this process — and to be fair, some of the concern was raised by the Australian Industry Group and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry; they have expressed concern about the proposed third-party right to seek a court-ordered civil remedy for a breach of the law. They believe that will lead to an increase in legal proceedings and so forth. Conversely, community environment groups support open standing for third parties as they see it as an important part of the process of community access to justice and of making the EPA accountable as a proactive protector.

So basically we have got two opposing views, and I think that what the government has done here with the legislation is it has struck the right balance by making sure we are keeping everyone on their toes and making sure everyone is doing their job. So basically if a third party decided to abuse their rights, there are processes in place where the court has the power to dismiss vexatious claims. It is basically all about striking the right balance. Sending that to a committee is not going to do anything; it is not going to add anything to what the bill is going to achieve.

This bill is trying to make sure that polluters are brought to account and that businesses have a clear framework put in place so they know what their rights and responsibilities are — ‘In order to operate in Victoria these are your rights and responsibilities; you have got an obligation to make sure you protect our environment’.

Within the EPA there has been a major restructure. There is a new leadership team now at the EPA with a new board, and new powers will be given to the EPA to make sure they can prosecute the polluters. It is not about punishing good businesses. Businesses are supportive of these measures. The ones who will not be supportive are the ones who basically want to break the law — the ones who do not care about the environment. So they are the only ones who should be worried about this legislation, not the ones who are actually doing the right thing. That is why there is a significant civil penalty that will be imposed on individuals and on corporations, and the bill goes further to actually impose criminal sanctions against individuals and corporations who breach the law.

Now, Mr Davis talked about the State Electricity Commission of Victoria model. If the government is operating a business, they are responsible like everyone else. There should not be any difference between a government agency and a private business. We have all got rights and responsibilities, and if we breach them then there are consequences to that; that is what this bill does. So we should not be afraid of giving an independent body like the EPA some more teeth. We have been criticising the EPA for years, but now we are finally doing something about it. There are no more excuses. This legislation will give the EPA the tools and the framework with which they can operate and enforce legislation to make sure businesses and citizens comply with their responsibilities in relation to the environment. It is not just businesses; people go and dump rubbish on the road, for example. We want to be able to have the right legislation in place to penalise these people. So we are not just talking about large corporations or small businesses, we are talking about everyone having rights and responsibilities.

We are not just putting this legislation in place. We are doing a lot of stuff in relation to waste management, which is one of our biggest issues and a major responsibility for the EPA to manage, including looking at having further investment in recycling and diverting a lot of unnecessary waste from landfill. As part of our government going forward or any government in the state of Victoria, I would like to see us diverting a lot of our organic waste from landfill; anything that could cause emissions could be diverted from landfill. Waste to energy is one avenue and one way to go about it, and I think it is very important that we head that way.

I want to congratulate Minister D’Ambrosio on the initiatives she has put in place in the last few years in relation to trying to improve that, whether it is the response to the current recycling crisis now that China has decided not to accept recycling material from Victoria or from anywhere around the world or supporting councils in trying to find alternatives to divert and minimise the amount of waste going to landfill. As a recent example, we are now starting to use recycled glass to make our roads, and that is a great effort by the minister and the Minister for Roads and Road Safety — to encourage our construction companies to use our recycled products on our roads. The City of Hume, as part of the minister’s direction to her department to encourage the use of recycled products, has recently used recycled plastic as well to actually test out on its roads. So these are some of the examples which this bill will now enshrine.

The bill does a number of things: it puts in place a set of rules which businesses and polluters have to comply with and it gives the EPA the necessary tools and funding. By the way, there has been significant funding put into the EPA to make sure they can do their jobs and they can get the best minds and the best people they can attract and employ to make sure they can enforce these laws and punish offenders. But firstly before you punish it is also about education. It is about educating businesses about their rights and responsibilities, about trying to rectify things if there is a problem or a breach and about making sure that the breach stops and does not occur again. But for people who are continually breaking the law by polluting our environment, they get punished and punished severely. So the bill puts all of that in place. In addition to it is the investment in trying to minimise waste by making sure that polluters stop polluting and invest in new technologies so we do not actually generate new pollution.

As we speak, this week there are a series of discussions with the federal government about the National Energy Guarantee where the state of Victoria will try to educate the commonwealth about how it is time for us to recognise that we have an environmental issue in this world and we need to protect our environment. But obviously there are certain people on the conservative side of politics that want to continue to pollute and pollute and pollute. With our targets on emission reductions, hopefully we can convince the commonwealth to come our way to make sure that we can achieve our targets.

This bill strikes the right balance. On the one hand it encourages businesses to do the right thing and makes sure the EPA is given the tools, the expertise and the right laws to enforce our environmental standards and to punish the people who need to be punished, but it also give citizens who are affected by polluters the right to go to court — people like Stop the Tip in Caroline Springs, who are in court currently in relation to Ravenhall tip. I have no issue with our citizens being given the right to voice their opposition and take civil action against operational companies that may be breaching our laws.

It is good legislation. I get that the opposition will not be supporting this bill. Basically they talk the talk but they are not prepared to walk the walk. They just want to waste time; they do not give a damn, frankly, about the environment and about waste and pollution. They just want to play games and stop this progress. I hope that the crossbenchers and the rest of the house will support this bill. I look forward to the speedy passage of this bill, hopefully sometime today. With these comments I commend the bill to the house.

9 August 2018