I feel somewhat inadequate following the erudite and philosophical contribution of the member for Essendon.
I rise to make my contribution on the Environment Protection Bill 2017.
It is a bill that introduces significant changes in the management of the Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA).
It aims to modernise the EPA’s governance, clarify its organisational objectives, create a new role for a chief environmental scientist and amend its status to that of a public entity.
I spoke yesterday briefly about the tyre dump close to the town of Numurkah in my electorate. It poses a significant fire risk and has been both a public health and environmental hazard for a number of years. It caught fire in 2013, forcing residents to stay in their homes and keep their doors and windows closed while firefighters battled to get the flames under control. The chance of this occurring again is real, although the consequences for the community could be much greater, because the tyre dump is very large. We saw at Coolaroo just recently the consequences of a fire in these waste recycling places, resulting in a significant number of people being evacuated from that area.
In addition to that there are also estimated to be 9 million tyres at the Stawell tyre dump, one of the biggest tyre dumps in the world. It is now owned by an internet marketing company based out of Panama, where they do not have to disclose who their directors or shareholders are. It really creates a question about how someone or even a government deals with this. I understand the EPA has threatened to take control of this site to deal with the issues around it.
However, it certainly raises the much bigger issue of waste management that is out there. It is something that we all struggle with. I am sure we were all interested to see the ABC’s contribution on waste and the coffee cups sitting packed into a tram, the big ball of plastic bags outside Parliament House, and of course the Four Corners program on Monday night, which highlighted what can only be described in some instances as illegal activity in terms of the dumping of waste material. The program brought home to me the fact that it appears that the recycling industry has crashed. The recycling of product that was once able to be used productively and turned into other goods is presently in a crisis in that nobody wants it. For instance, it would seem that the recycling of glass is a more costly exercise to do in Australia than it is to just buy bottles from China, which is a much cheaper situation. The fact that that has happened really raises very serious issues around how we are going to deal with waste in the future, because I think we thought that recycling and the re-use of a lot of product would be part of the answer. It avoids of course so much going to landfill.
With the tyres at Numurkah the Shire of Moira went so far as to take the owners of the site to the Supreme Court. The shire successfully obtained orders against them, but again it is just this long and continuing saga of how you get action and how you make something happen. While there are orders in place, it is a very slow process, and in the meantime anything can happen, and of course it has happened in a number of places.
The potential health implications of these sites and the impact on communities and people is really important. I welcome that this bill provides that the health impacts on communities will now be one of the objectives that the EPA will be able to take into account. It will also have more teeth when it comes to dealing with some of the matters I have described.
There are some other welcome changes. They bring the EPA more into line with community expectations. They reflect that interconnectedness between the environment and human beings and human wellbeing. The member for Essendon talked about the 1970s approach to somehow coming to terms with our environment, but as well as that, as individuals and as communities we are now really concerned about the health impacts on us individually.
With things like chemicals in waterways, even the recent issue of Weekly Times is highlighting the use of chemicals that are polluted with other chemicals being used on crops to the detriment of crops. It would appear from that reporting that there is very little regulation of product coming in in huge quantities from China and being used on crops. So much of what we put on plant material ends up in the food chain. We all know that. We all worry about that. So while the role of the EPA is not to monitor every aspect of this — there are many agencies that are engaged both at a federal and state level to look at these things — again I certainly welcome this sort of a change, and I think it does meet community expectations to do that.
We have seen the Hazelwood fire and the implications of that on public health. In fact the then chief medical officer was criticised for taking three weeks to advise the people of Morwell of the implications to their health and that maybe they should think about moving for a short time. The Fiskville fire indeed also raised issues, and I was listening to you, Acting Speaker Ward, when you spoke on some of the criticisms of the EPA arising out of that.
The legislation also provides for a new governing board. Up until now it simply had a chairman alone filling that sort of governance role. I think people again would welcome a more broadly based board with the range of skills that it would be anticipated that would bring — the appropriate scientific, engineering and governance expertise that you would expect of a modern board. The introduction of a chief scientist will also I think increase the credibility of the EPA and probably broaden the range of activities that it is able to engage in.
Governance of course is a particularly important issue, and it is a challenge for all boards. Every now and then, or quite regularly indeed, we see challenges that companies and boards face in relation to governance issues. I think most recently the Commonwealth Bank of Australia example is a classic case of a situation where things are happening within an organisation where the board may not be fully apprised of what is going on or what they certainly ought to be. I remember when I did the company directors course many years ago one of the real takeaways from that was the importance for board members to know what their business is and to actually walk the floor. If it is a hospital board, walk through the wards; talk to a few people. You do not have to do it all the time, but understand what the business is. Understand what the service you are providing is. Talk to the people who work in the business or the organisation, be apprised of what is going on, listen to people and understand what complaints are being made about your organisation.
That governance role is really important. I think in current times we have seen a real lack of that connectivity between board members and their organisations, and there is always that conflict that you face between getting involved in the day-to-day operations and maintaining your governance role as a board member. There is a line that has to be walked, and for you to do your job properly you have to understand and know the business or the service that you are providing and be responsible for it, because as directors on a board you are responsible for it.
The HIH case was another example of a gross lack of governance. That goes back a long way now, but the impact on the building industry and the insurance industry at that time was great and led to a number of court cases, with one of the prominent judges in one of the cases reflecting on the evidence he had heard over a long period of time and saying, ‘If only people had asked the question, “Is this the right thing to do?”’. I think when I look at all of those examples that I have given previously of things going wrong, of problem areas: had people asked that question, we would not be seeing so much failure of governance in a range of boards and organisations.
My time is nearly up. I support this bill. I think it continues to modernise a piece of legislation that is really important in our society and that our community expects to have, and these changes should promote environmental protection in our state generally.