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"Environmental Reform Agenda"


after dinner Address

by Senator Robert Hill
Commonwealth Minister for the Environment

at the

Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Annual Dinner

Thursday 10 October 1996
Hyatt Hotel Canberra

I note the mission of APPEA is to promote a legislative, administrative, economic and social framework which efficiently and effectively facilitates safe, environmentally responsible and profitable oil and gas exploration, development and production.

The success of your mission is important to us. We also see the economic and social future of Australia as being linked with the future of our environment.

Last week I released the first National State of the Environment Report, which shows just how important that linkage is.

This Report, which represents the considered and independent assessment of some of Australia's most eminent scientists, provides a comprehensive overview of the condition of our environment and the factors that are influencing environmental change.

It is a Report that I would encourage all Australians to read.

Its message, I have to say, is a somber one.

It demonstrates that the cumulative impact on the environment of more than 200 years of white settlement has been dramatic.

And it shows that Australia continues to face very serious environmental problems - problems such as land degradation, the decline of our inland waterways and the loss of biological diversity.

But the Report also gives us reason for hope. One of the key elements of its overall message is that we have a beautiful, diverse and often unique environment.

We have opportunities in Australia which have long been lost to other countries whose environments have been changed out of all recognition.

And the Report shows that Government and community actions can and have brought about positive changes.

The scale of the problems identified, however, demand a sea change in the way we deal with environmental matters. We need to move beyond the politics of conflict and take advantage of the consensus that exists within the Australian community about the need for action.

We need to reform the way we deal with the environment, just as we are reforming other areas such as the labour markets and industrial relations, health, transport and trade and industry.

The National SoE Report identified the greatest failure of Australia in attempting to deal with its environmental problems as the use of "piecemeal efforts that treat symptoms rather than underlying causes". The Report called for a comprehensive, systematic approach which integrates different aspects of the overall solution.

The Government has developed such an approach. That approach involves the establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia, the biggest environmental program in the nation's history. We will confront the problems identified in the National SoE Report head on.

Through the Natural Heritage Trust the Government has committed more than $1 billion over the next five years to an integrated package of environmental and sustainable agriculture programs.

Key principles which will underpin the Trust include a strong emphasis on community participation in priority setting and implementation, a focus on causes rather than symptoms, and integrated delivery of programs at a catchment or regional level.

The initiatives to be funded from the Trust are aimed at reversing the decline in our natural capital. They will contribute to the conservation, repair and enhancement of Australia's unique environment into the 21st century. They focus around five interdependent environmental infrastructure packages: vegetation; biodiversity; rivers; coasts and oceans; and landcare.

On the basis of your mission - I'm sure it's a program you will support. But we must also ensure that the Trust, and all our other environmental programs, are effectively implemented.

And this is where my portfolio and your economic interests directly relate.

We will pursue reforms which build co-operation, not conflict, between Commonwealth and State governments;

Reforms which attack the inefficiencies, duplication and poor targeting of some government programs and legislation;

Reforms which encourage a partnership between government, industry and the wider community;

Reforms which take us beyond an obsession with process to focus on achieving outcomes; and

Reforms which will improve the investment climate for Australian business by providing more certainty about the government's role in environment protection.

And through such reforms, we will improve the level of environmental protection and enhance the quality of our environment.

One of the areas which needs considerable attention is the relationship between the Commonwealth and State governments.

In 1992 all governments signed the InterGovernmental Agreement on the Environment, which laid down the guidelines for managing this relationship. The Coalition endorsed the IGAE back in 1992 and we remain committed to it today.

The reality, however, is that the IGAE has not been effectively implemented. This is a matter for real concern. Our capacity as a nation to address the environmental challenges depends upon the ability of all governments to work together.

That is why we have put the environment back on the COAG agenda.

The Government has instituted, in consultation with the States and local government, a review of Commonwealth/State roles and responsibilities for the environment. The objective of this Review is to build a strong cooperative relationship with the States and to produce a clear definition of the respective roles of governments in relation to environmental protection.

The Government is committed to making full use of the potential of the IGAE to bring about a more effective environment effort. Accordingly the Review will address such matters as accreditation, devolution of programs and the triggering of processes.

While there are many factors that influence Commonwealth-State relations, a central problem is that the Commonwealth government has lacked a clear view of its own role in environmental matters.

Over the last twenty years or so the Commonwealth's powers in the environment field have expanded greatly, in response to both domestic priorities and the large number of international environmental treaties and agreements. These powers, however, have generally been developed in response to specific issues and this ad-hoc approach has led to confusion and uncertainty. Sometimes the Commonwealth has acted, whereas at other times it has remained silent.

During that period there has also been enormous change in the capacity of states to deliver environmental programs. For example, when the Commonwealth introduced the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 it was one of the first jurisdictions to do so. Now all states have impact assessment legislation.

In fact throughout the environment field there are now literally hundreds of pieces of State environmental legislation covering most issues in most states. And states have large environment departments and conservation agencies implementing a great range of programs.

At the same time the public has become much more aware of environmental problems. There is a much greater community expectation that governments should take action to tackle these problems. And there is a widespread view that the Federal government has a responsibility lead in these matters.

As I said, I think the Commonwealth has struggled to define its role in these changing circumstances.

We need to spell out more clearly when the Commonwealth will act. In Saving Our Natural Heritage (our policy document) we said the Commonwealth will concern itself with matters of national significance. The challenge ahead is to give real meaning to the term 'national significance'.

This will be a difficult task, and it will need to be addressed across the range of our interests, from environment impact assessment to heritage protection. But it carries with it the great benefit of allowing us to focus resources on the issues which matter most to the nation.

Frankly, I want to get the Commonwealth out of direct involvement in issues which are really of only state or local significance. But in return I want the Commonwealth's national leadership role to be properly accepted and implemented. Reform of this sort has to be a two-way street.

I believe that this is a common-sense approach which will be broadly welcomed.

There is no value for the environment in the Commonwealth merely duplicating state processes. I am quite comfortable with the notion of placing greater emphasis on accreditation, so long as there is a high level of accountability.

The IGAE sets out the basis for accreditation of processes, and I want to see the intent of the IGAE carried through. This does not mean, however, that the Commonwealth will be abrogating its decision-making responsibilities. The community has indicated that they wish the Commonwealth to demonstrate national leadership on a range of environmental matters. I want to be in a position where we can focus our efforts on getting the decisions right rather than pursuing long-winded duplicative processes.

My approach to the devolution of programs currently administered by the Commonwealth is based on a similar philosophy. I am willing to consider the devolution of some of our programs so long as all the appropriate checks and balances can be put in place. The bottom line is that if devolution will result in gains for the environment, then I will pursue it.

The implication of this approach is that we must focus on the outcomes we want to achieve rather than just the means of delivery. We need to hold the states and local government to rigorous performance measures, and we must have the means to monitor and evaluate their achievement. I will need to be satisfied that this can be done as a prerequisite to pursuing devolution.

But I stress again that reforms such as devolution and accreditation can only be seriously pursued once the Commonwealth has a clear view of its own role and there is widespread acceptance of that role.

There is certain to be considerable interest in the COAG review, and I will be ensuring that there is ample opportunity for consultation with all the stakeholders. I know of some of your frustrations in dealing with 2 and often 3 tiers of government. We will want to hear your views on how we can better manage the relationship.

As to the timing of the Review, at this stage I am expecting that COAG will consider its position on these matters at its meeting in the first half of 1997.

The review of Commonwealth - State roles and responsibilities is likely to lead to the need for legislative change. This will be a priority in the broader review of the Commonwealth's environmental legislation, which the Prime Minister has foreshadowed.

A number of major pieces of the Commonwealth's environmental legislation are beginning to show their age, with several key acts having been passed in the mid-1970's. The existing suite of legislation is fragmented and contains gaps and overlaps. Such problems can result in contradictory decisions, confusion and delay.

Not surprisingly, on the basis of what I've been saying, the key objectives of the legislation review include:

The review will also streamline the legislation, make it more efficient in being able to deal with new and emerging issues. I also want the review to look at the full range of environmental management approaches. Most States and Territories have already taken action to streamline their environmental legislation.

I intend that in relation to environmental impact assessment the reviews I have outlined above will result in much more efficiency and certainty in Commonwealth/State arrangements. Through mutual accreditation processes, improved triggering arrangements and better targeting of Commonwealth involvement, existing problems concerned with duplication of processes, delays in assessments and uncertainty should be removed.

In keeping with all good reform processes this one has commenced at home. Last month I released details of the proposed restructure of the Environment portfolio.

As foreshadowed in the budget statement "Investing in our Natural Heritage", the environment portfolio structure was reviewed by external consultants.

Structural issues identified in this review include overlapping functional responsibilities between the department and its environment agencies; a consequential lack of clear accountability for outcomes; ineffective coordination arrangements, and; a scarcity of economic expertise.

The restructuring process currently underway will streamline program coordination and provide for seamless policy development and program administration. It should also make your dealings with the Department more productive and efficient, which I'm sure you would all welcome.

The objectives of our reform process will include settling the contemporary environmental responsibilities in Commonwealth-State relations, updating the Commonwealth legislative framework to meet its responsibilities and providing efficient bureaucratic support.

In conclusion, I want to congratulate APPEA for its agreement with my Department to share experiences in relation to the marine environment. No doubt there are many other ways in which we can work together to achieve good profits and a good environment. I think the reforms I've outlined will help achieve those goals.

Thank you very much.

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