SPEAKING ON A BILL | MELBOURNE STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT (ENVIRONMENT MITIGATION LEVY) BILL 2019

Mr Melhem: I also rise to speak on the Melbourne Strategic Assessment (Environment Mitigation Levy) Bill 2019. In doing so, I think this is good timing. It is great to actually have this bill in the house in light of the recent bushfire events where a lot of animals and species have been impacted and millions and millions have disappeared with the threat of being lost forever. So I think it is very good timing to introduce a bill like this to make sure we maintain biodiversity in Victoria, particularly in Melbourne as part of the growth plan which was established back in 2008 by a former Labor government and then came into effect in 2010. This is a continuation of that program.

The bill establishes a Victorian head of power and legislative framework for the Melbourne strategic assessment, MSA, program. That has come as a result of a major review that was conducted to basically make sure that the MSA program was developed in parallel with the Melbourne 2030: A Planning Update—Melbourne @ 5 Million report, which identified areas to be considered for new urban facilities or development, and the subsequent Delivering Melbourne’s Newest Sustainable Communities report, which recommended an expansion of Melbourne’s urban growth boundary to include 60 000 hectares of new land for urban development.

The program talks about the establishment of a 15 000-hectare western grassland reserve to protect Victoria’s endangered native grasslands. I am pleased to report that it is in my electorate, and it is a very welcome development. It also establishes a 1200-hectare grassy eucalypt woodland reserve in Melbourne’s north and also protects and manages important habitat for the southern brown bandicoot and the growling grass frog. It establishes 36 conservation areas across the new suburbs in Melbourne growth areas and that goes on to the south-eastern suburbs.

Melbourne is growing, and as part of that growth it is important not to just build high-rise buildings or houses. If we finish up with just houses, concrete and asphalt and lose open space in the process, we will destroy the natural habitat for various animal and flora species which had been there for thousands and thousands of years before we even arrived. We can coexist, and it is important to make sure that we provide a balance for nature, humans and animals. We can actually coexist and live together. That has been worked on for a long, long period of time, and a lot of it has been implemented, but this bill will enshrine a lot of these changes in law.

The bill provides the legislative underpinning to the existing MSA, simplifies the MSA program’s levy structure and administrative processes, reducing costs and improving compliance. It also indexes and updates the levies to return the program to full cost recovery by 2024–25. I think it is very important that we do that. It also looks at improving the MSA program’s operational and financial transparency. It secures and embeds the MSA program’s streamlined approval regime as well as its economic, environmental and social benefits for Melbourne’s growth corridors and Victorians generally. I think it is very important to get all the efficiency we can put in place to make sure we deliver on this program and make sure there is full compliance as well.

A benefit of this program is significant reductions in holding costs for developers compared to the usual project-by-project and offset approach to environmental approvals. The cost reductions are estimated at between $25 million and $28 million annually. I think that is an important point. Instead of focusing on a project-by-project approach, taking a holistic view of how we deal with all of this will, one, deliver a greater outcome and, two, provide some efficiency and some consistency across the board instead of leaving it to individual developers or projects to basically develop their own approach and try to navigate the system. That is why the MSA program will do that. It is all about getting the right outcome.

I talked earlier about having a strategic assessment program versus a project-by-project approach. This program will consider conservation measures as part of a strategic and long-term plan and identify areas of important biodiversity value at the outset to ensure their protection. It allows urban development to occur under both Victorian and commonwealth laws in one process, provides certainty to developers and strengthens coordination, consistency, transparency and accountability for decisions made under multiple regulatory regimes.

There has been major consultation with the commonwealth to make sure our Victorian laws work hand in hand with the commonwealth laws so there is no conflict and make sure we achieve the desired outcomes. That is why there has been a fair bit of work with the commonwealth in relation to this, particularly as the commonwealth government protects matters of national environmental significance, which includes threatened plant and animal species and threatened vegetation communities, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

So it is very important that we work closely with the feds. There are various other Victorian acts which will apply. In relation to clearing of areas of native vegetation, that is regulated through the native vegetation clearing regulations and also Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, the Wildlife Act 1975 and the Environment Effects Act 1978. As you can see, there is various state legislation in place as well as federal. It is important that we will be able to marry them together to make sure we get a great outcome. This bill will make sure we have that consistency and all this various legislation working in harmony so that we can get the best benefit out of the MSA program. That will be something good for the environment and for Victorians.

There are some administrative changes and efficiencies, which I talked about. Some of these changes include that the MSA levies will be imposed by Victorian law, so they will basically become legislation. The levies will be adjusted annually according to a tailored composite index designed to reflect changes to the cost of implementing the program. The levy rates will be fully reviewed every five years. The number of events that trigger the requirement to pay MSA levies on freehold land are minimised and made clearer for both the regulated community and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to identify when the MSA levy event has occurred. Also it is proposed that infrastructure and utility providers will no longer be required to pay MSA levies if they undertake actions associated with urban development on freehold land. There will be an effective compliance framework with administrative hold points whereby subdivision lodgements and building permit applications will be held until MSA levies have been paid. We do not believe there will be any impact on the property industry as a result of this legislation, or the impact will be absolutely minimal.

The bill also gives the commissioner for environmental sustainability increased oversight and powers to review and audit the government’s implementation of the MSA and its outcomes. I think it is very important that we have someone independent of the government to actually monitor what we are doing and make sure we are achieving the outcome that this bill is set to achieve. The MSA program was designed to achieve a particular outcome, and we are making sure we are achieving that outcome. A review will be done every two years examining the government’s progress towards meeting the program’s conservation outcomes. The review will invite submissions from the public and will be tabled in Parliament. It is another example of the Victorian government’s focus on transparency. I think we were debating some of these similar matters about transparency and auditing yesterday in relation to the fires and about the inspector-general doing the audit as an independent body. So the commissioner for environmental sustainability will be doing exactly that. There will be a five-yearly review of the levy, which I mentioned earlier.

I just want to turn to what impact that will have on my electorate. I am very pleased that it is going to have a huge impact on my electorate of Western Metropolitan Region because, as we know, the western suburbs of Melbourne are some of the fastest growing suburbs in the state. Places like Kororoit, Melton, Sydenham, Tarneit and Werribee will be some of the huge beneficiaries out of this program. I will just go through some of the examples. In the Kororoit Creek north grassland west section, 13 hectares will be set aside as a high-quality native grassland with a significant population of spiny rice flower; also in the Kororoit Creek north grassland east, 41 hectares of high-quality native grassland with a significant population of spiny rice flower. The Kororoit Creek regional park is a great initiative. The government is already setting aside 175 hectares to basically have a regional park in the western suburbs of Melbourne. It is long overdue. I know it is progressing really well, and I am looking forward to the park starting to take shape. A bill like this will make sure that will become a reality.

The Greigs Road grassland at Mount Cottrell in Kororoit will have 46 hectares; the Ravenhall North grassland, 35 hectares; the Deer Park quarry grassland at Ravenhall, 94 hectares; the Mount Atkinson grassland in Kororoit as well, 25 hectares; the Middle Road grassland, 95 hectares; and the Middle Road south grassland, 35 hectares. The list goes on. The Truganina Cemetery grassland will have 4 hectares; the Woods Road grassland in Truganina as well, 22 hectares; and the Ballan Road reserve in Wyndham, 52 hectares. The western growth corridor growling grass frog north corridors will have 504 hectares; and the western growth corridor growling grass frog south corridors, 520 hectares.

These thousands of hectares just in my electorate will benefit from this bill and will benefit from the MSA program.

In the northern growth corridor there is a long list as well and also in the south-east. It is mainly the northern and western suburbs, where the significant growth in population is taking place, that will be the big beneficiaries out of this program. It was a commitment of former Labor governments, the Bracks-Brumby governments, from 2008, and now we continue that legacy by making sure that we continue with that program. We will make sure that we keep our open-space policy and make sure that what used to be the green wedge at one stage will be balanced with the growth of population. We do not want that to happen at the expense of destroying grasslands and endangered species which have the same right as us to actually continue to exist. We do not have the right as humans, as the supreme beings, to decide that we can live but they cannot. I think we can coexist. This bill and the Melbourne strategic assessment program will actually allow that to occur so that we can live together in harmony.

I will finish off by just making reference again to the horrific fires this country and this state have faced. They are the biggest fires since 1939 and millions and millions of species and animals have basically disappeared. This will go some small way to preserve these habitats and these areas. With that, I commend the bill to the house.