August 9, 2017  |  Second reading

Environment Protection Bill 2017

Mr HOWARD (Buninyong) — I am certainly pleased to add my comments in regard to the Environment Protection Bill 2017. This government is very concerned to ensure that we show best practice and good leadership in regard to protecting our environment. I want to particularly congratulate our Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, who is doing a great job to ensure that we do show leadership in this area. This relates to a very broad range of activities that we appropriately should do as a government in addressing issues associated with climate change, providing for renewable energy as much as we can and ensuring a clean environment and a sustainable environment for future generations.

As part of that, we need to ensure that the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) — an agency established way back in 1970, a world first at the time — as an agency acts in a way that ensures we can undertake the scientific evaluation of proposals in terms of land use and follow up on land use issues to ensure that the health of our community and our environment is being protected in an appropriate way. This body should have the appropriate opportunities to either prevent inappropriate activity from taking place or bring about sanctions against people who have done the wrong thing.

We know that when the EPA was established there was concern about the quality of our waterways. For example, at that time the Yarra River was being used as an industrial wasteland. Waste from industry could be flushed down our rivers, because people seemed to think at that time, or prior to that time, that that was an appropriate thing to do. We saw in so many ways industry and people in our communities inappropriately using waterways to dispose of waste and doing a whole range of things that were clearly very deleterious to our environment.

It has been great to see that since the EPA was established in 1971 it has been able to change the views of industry in regard to its responsibility for dealing with waste and also the views of local councils to ensure that they understand their responsibility in ensuring we use scientific best practice in dealing with waste and landfill. There are clearly substantial challenges associated with dealing with the huge amount of waste product in our communities. In a whole range of ways the EPA has been there to change the community’s view on our need to act in ways that recognise the potential harms to our environment, living spaces and health, and that has been great to see.

Ahead of the last election, as part of the now Andrews Labor government campaign policies, we said we wanted to reflect strongly on best practice in regard to our environment. We said that as part of the suite of activities we would be undertaking as a government we would be reviewing the EPA, because after 40-plus years of operation it was important that the EPA be reviewed with a view to strengthening the activities it can undertake. While the EPA has done a fantastic job during its time of operation, there have been times when it has been criticised — quite often because it has been under-resourced. That is why it is important we both review the operation of the EPA and allow for its proper resourcing.

It has been encouraging to see that in this last budget we announced an unprecedented $162.5 million over the next five years to support the EPA and its activities. To underpin that we reviewed the operation of the EPA. This bill is the first of two pieces of legislation that we will bring forward to strengthen the operation of the EPA in not just seeing it as, more or less, a sub-department of government or an associated department with just a CEO, but that we want to strengthen it by having a proper board to provide expert support and advice to the EPA in order to clarify the objectives of the EPA — something that was not in the original legislation.

We are recasting the legislation in regard to the EPA to strengthen its role and to make clear its objective, and the objective is to protect human health and the environment by reducing the harmful effects of pollution and waste. We have clarified that as a very clear goal which focuses on our environment and human health as being the responsibilities of the EPA. We have strengthened its role under the Public Administration Act 2004, which changes it from an administrative office to a public entity. This strengthens its independence from government decision-making. This will therefore play a role in the community feeling confident that the EPA will in the future represent and support their needs in terms of human health and in keeping our environmental management sustainable.

The functions of the EPA’s chairperson have been set out to clearly represent the changes that we have identified, and as I said, there will be a new governing board established to oversee the management of the EPA. That will have between five and nine members, who will have expertise in the areas of science, engineering and public health. This will strengthen the role of the EPA. Those areas are vitally important in its running. It needs to receive the best scientific advice and the best engineering advice, because the EPA looks at works approvals for new businesses and for council, at waste management facilities and so on. It needs to receive the best scientific and engineering advice to be able to grant those approvals, and to back that up it needs good human health advice. The board will also be in a position to establish advisory committees and bring into play other people with expertise to assist the EPA with its work.

I am very confident that with this legislation we will see significant improvements to the ways the EPA can do its work independently and not necessarily always have to refer back to the Department of Health and Human Services but be able to undertake its own assessments. While I did not intend to speak so fulsomely on this bill, it is something that is very important to me and very important to our community. It is important that the government gets it right when supporting the EPA both with dollars for resourcing and the legislative framework that backs this up. I support this bill and look forward to comments from others in this regard. I look forward to a good, sound future for the EPA in representing the people of Victoria.