Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2018 Second reading speech - Huong Truong MLC



Ms TRUONG (Western Metropolitan) (11:24) — I rise to speak on the Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2018. If you throw anything into the bin in Melbourne, there is a reasonable chance that it will end up in the western suburbs. In the west we have two of Melbourne’s three major tips — at Werribee and Ravenhall. The Werribee tip was once a quarry, but it keeps getting higher and higher. The locals now call it ‘tip mountain’. The Ravenhall tip, a few suburbs west of my home in Sunshine, is also undergoing a massive expansion. And these tips stink. I do not know if you have ever spoken to people living near these tips about the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA), but they are angry. They have organised themselves, they have been fighting to protect their communities for years and they do not feel they are being heard. I will quote the planning panel that considered the Ravenhall expansion, because they put it a little more politely than some of the locals might:

Residents reported that their complaints were not taken seriously, were rarely acted upon, and they were often told by the EPA officers that they must be mistaken about the landfill being the source of the odour.

It is not just the EPA’s response to tips that makes people in the western suburbs angry. We have heavy industry, major roads and a whole lot of contaminated sites. To quote one western suburbs resident, the EPA:


… have no idea of what environmental justice means! They think it’s great if they simply didn’t give industry everything they wanted.

What I am hearing in these sorts of comments is that our communities have been demanding that the EPA be strengthened and do what it is expected to do.

Fortunately things are starting to change. Last year the Environment Protection Bill 2017 was passed, and hopefully soon this 2018 bill will join it in law. These are huge and important changes which will make Melbourne a better place to live and Victoria a lot cleaner. One of the most exciting parts of the bill is the general environmental duty. This bureaucratic sounding title takes up the principles of OH&S, which is to say that instead of dealing with an accident or incident after it has happened, let us avoid it in the first place. The general environmental duty means that pollution will no longer be something to be cleaned up; it will be something to be avoided. Doing things that might harm the environment or our health means that you need to take responsible steps to avoid the harm before it happens. This could make a real difference to how we approach polluting industries and activities. All my fingers and toes are crossed that it will make a difference to my neighbours in Brooklyn, where sometimes the air is so polluted that their kids cannot go outside to play. A number of residents have purchased air quality monitors and found pollution is being trapped inside their homes, such that pollution readings are higher than outside.

This bill makes a whole series of reforms, which we Greens hope will make the EPA the organisation it is meant to be — that is, one that looks after all Victorians. We are very glad that the bill also includes a backup plan. It gives the community the right to take companies to court when they are failing to protect the environment. Ideally, the EPA does this, but if it does not, we, the community, will.

This bill will also make some changes to the landfill levy, now called the waste levy, which is charged on waste being dumped in landfill. This levy collects a lot of money. According to the recent Auditor-General’s report, there is currently half a billion dollars of landfill levy sitting in the government’s bank account. It is worth remembering that this has not always been the way with the Sustainability Fund.

About eight years ago I was invited by the late Mike Hill, a former Brunswick mayor and much-loved pioneer for sustainability, to sit as an observer on the advisory committee that oversaw the expenditure of the Sustainability Fund. The committee included Mike, councillors representing local government peak bodies, councillors from rural and regional Victoria and the head of Sustainability Victoria, the then secretary of the committee.

Their model for getting meaningful, locally relevant collaborative outcomes was simple and sound, born out of a global movement that sought to have local jurisdictions explicitly and intentionally prepare local sustainability priority statements spelling out what was most important to their communities. From that foundation, the committee focused the distribution of funds to encourage local councils to get together to co-design proposals and projects with subject matter experts from state government that met their local sustainability priorities. Empowering, strategic, inclusive by design, this approach provided a context for lessons to be learned and shared amongst councils, practitioners, researchers and industry.

In my time at Brimbank City Council other government funds, such as Melbourne Water’s Living Rivers program and Sport and Recreation Victoria’s funding programs, have never suffered the kind of strategic misalignment and underspend that the Sustainability Fund has in recent years. The Victorian Auditor-General’s recent audit report Managing the Municipal and Industrial Landfill Levy noted that processes for deciding how this money should be spent have been less than adequate. The Andrews government seem unremorseful, though. The government says it has accepted the report’s recommendations, but I am not convinced.

Some of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s responses to the specific recommendations read like, ‘We think we’re already doing enough, but to avoid any doubt we will tweak this and that’. To me this reads like a failing of something institutional or structural that has led to so much of these funds remaining unspent. It took an Auditor-General’s audit report to raise the alarm. We know well that state government can be an agent of change, bringing stability for industry to innovate and transition. State government can be critical in supporting and genuinely empowering local governments to do what they do best — collaborate with each other and keep things real and relevant for our communities.

I note in Mr Melhem’s contribution his support for communities who are feeling unheard in their complaints and distress at the Ravenhall tip’s breaches of EPA requirements. To have sat on a mountain of cash while approving landfill expansions in the face of community opposition is also culpable. It has cost us huge opportunities and time. The window is near shut for us to deal with climate change, and the longer we wait to reverse the damage of waste and litter, the harder it gets. So we Greens are keen to see this bill before us include changes to how funding decisions are made and reported in relation to the distribution of the Sustainability Fund. To this end we have some proposed amendments, which I would like to have formally circulated to the house.

Greens amendments circulated by Ms TRUONG (Western Metropolitan) pursuant to standing orders.

Ms TRUONG — These amendments now being formally circulated are slightly different from the ones previously informally circulated to members, the difference being that there are changes to references to Sustainability Victoria to now reference the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in some places and to make them suggested amendments to the Assembly due to the financial implications relating to remuneration and allowances payable to the proposed Sustainability Fund account advisory committee. We want this legislation to make sure future governments are also accountable for how they spend this money. Our local councils and communities deserve to have confidence that the state government are making the best of their contributions to the levy and are seriously doing all they can to accelerate the transition to a clean, circular economy.

The landfill levy matters, because how we deal with waste stands to be transformative for Victoria and the rest of Australia. I have visited landfill sites, seen for myself industrial-scale composting, met with industry and read more reports than you would care to know. In the past we have used things once, chucked them in landfill and not given it another thought. The public now recognises this broken, one-eyed capitalist approach to waste for what it is — predicated on an unstable and unrealistic take-make-dump mentality. Victorians are now very readily wanting to value waste as a resource. It can be used to make new things, fertilise our crops, create jobs and more.

Yesterday the public outcry following the failure of both the Labor and Liberal parties to support a container deposit scheme was immense. Victorians are sorely disappointed. They were angry and vocal. ‘Why not?’, they ask. They want to move up towards the top of the waste hierarchy, and we Greens want to meet them there, but instead we are losing time and opportunities pass by as the landfill levy sits in government coffers propping up the bottom line.

Please do not defer to corporates pushing waste to energy. Meet us at the top of the zero-waste hierarchy. Help us avoid, rethink, reuse, repair, recycle, share, innovate, redesign and close the loop for real. Has this political moment, this public consciousness, arisen thanks to the recycling crisis or thanks to the grassroots movement building around programs like the ABC’s War on Waste? Or maybe it has just become too obvious and too hard to ignore how dumb it is that we keep doing things like this. We Greens will not be supporting the reasoned amendment moved by Mr Davis. This bill does many great things. We Greens are looking to move some important amendments and will be supporting this bill.

Huong Truong MLC