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Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia - 31/03/2014 - Development of northern Australia

JULIEN, Mrs Patricia Ann, Research Analyst, Mackay Conservation Group

[11:49]

CHAIR: Welcome. Just a formality: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath I advise you that these hearings are a formal part of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of the parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I assume you would like to make a short opening statement in relation to your submission and then we can follow on with questions from the committee.

Mrs Julien : One of our major concerns as a conservation group is preventing a net loss of biodiversity in the region. Our region covers from the top of the Whitsundays, from Bowen, down to Broad Sound and west out to Clermont. We often have requests for assistance from graziers and other landowners and communities, even west of there. So we cover a fairly large area and of course with the mining boom there has been a huge impact on native vegetation and wildlife, and that is one of our major concerns. The other concern, which I have had for many years now, is from graziers and cropping people about impacts of mining on their properties. That has been a continuing issue and these are two of the things that I wanted to bring to the attention of the committee, because we are concerned about the long-term impacts of that on the region. We hope that any plan for the Northern Australia region will take all of that well into account. There needs to be a lot better planning than there has been to date.

Ms LANDRY: I would like to ask about your concerns regarding the development of Abbot Point. Did you want to talk about that at all?

Mrs Julien : I have been working on that for a decade, putting in submissions, and I am very concerned that the Kaili wetlands still to date have no environmental protection management plan. I have noticed that we have now got two large railway loops at one end of those wetlands, with the prospect of potential development, and the scale of it could be up to 500 million tonnes a year of coal exports. That is not going to happen any time soon, because of the dramatic decline in the price of coal, but we are looking at around 250 million tonnes, which is quite significant when you think they are only exporting now about 20 million tonnes a year. Fitting in with that is the recent release of the draft Galilee Basin State Development Area proposal with the multiple railway lines. There are about six proposals in there. We are very concerned about the loss of good quality agricultural land. There is a regional interest bill that has just come through that is going to be even more of a threat to the lands within that area. We are concerned about the communities of Collinsville and Merinda. They have been excised recently after an outcry from the community, from the railway precincts that are being proposed, but when I have inquired about this I have been told by the state development people is that the rail precincts themselves will be simply narrowed. So people will still get a fivefold to sixfold increase in traffic past their door. They will still be subject to the coal dust, which will be increasingly significant, and there is no proposal to cover those wagons. There was the coal dust and the noise. The noise will be incredible. I have got a video that I mentioned in my submission that gives you some idea of the noise that there is now. We are looking at much more noise. That was the SDA submission where I have got that reference. I will be happy to provide that if necessary.

Also, a report has just come out by Lock the Gate, which has a lot more facts and figures than I have on the impacts on agriculture in this region.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: In your Mackay Conservation Group constitution, what objectives do you have that led you into the concern about mining versus farming?

Mrs Julien : Because we were concerned about the conservation and loss of remnant vegetation—that is one of our major objectives—and adverse impacts of inappropriate developments on communities. They are the two things that would stand out from the constitution.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Is it something in your constitution, in your organisation, or could we safely say that you pick up on these other issues because it supports the overall cause of being against coal development? Is there something in your constitution objective that says that your gamut is to look after local communities or your job is to—

Mrs Julien : Yes, it is there. I just mentioned that. That is exactly what I just said.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Could we get a copy of the constitution?

Mrs Julien : Yes, I can provide you with a copy of the constitution. That is no problem.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: I am interested in the proposal that you have put forward for projects that are going to develop Northern Australia having to go through what you call a public interest test, outlining their contributions to long-term environmental, economic and social sustainability. You say that that should use the best science and existing cultural and environmental knowledge of regions in Northern Australia. There is a bit more detail there about that. How do you see that differing from the existing processes whereby companies who come up with any sort of development have to undertake an environmental impact statement and the associated studies that go with that, and in some cases they have to apply through the federal environment department under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Mrs Julien : I will give you some examples. The black-throated finch, for example, was not reported. It is an endangered species that is prevalent in the Galilee Basin. There was no mention of its presence in GVK Hancock or Adani until I brought it up. I brought it up with the federal government, and I was also able to get a grant from the state government to have BirdLife Southern Queensland go through there and survey a lot of the properties there. It is quite prevalent. Its presence is quite obvious. I think that would have been missed if I had not raised this early in the piece on those EISs.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: But doesn't that show that the process is working? I mean the government doesn't just take the application that comes to it at face value; it takes in other concerns that are raised with them, and they also have their own experts within the department that look at it as well and make sure that it is correct.

Mrs Julien : Yes, but then we end up with the situation where mining still continues. You have the loophole of offsets which allows land to be put aside elsewhere so that development can proceed. I have a lot of criticism of the offsets. I can give you a whole research paper on offsets. The problem is that the offsets have a limited life span and, from what I have seen from the Galilee Basin area state development proposal, the offsets would be used maybe more than once. It does not specifically state that, but the implication is there that they might be used more than once. If they are, you have a situation of double-dipping and that means a net loss of the value of the habitat, a net loss of the area of the habitat, so you have a net loss in biodiversity.

My burning, driving force is that we maintain and keep what we have and, if possible, expand on it. I have done many EISs. I see the same species again and again and again being affected. Many of them—for example the squatter pigeon—appear again and again. Other species of conservation significance at the regional level—Bimblebox had just about 95 to 100 per cent for each regional ecosystem on that property—they were there but that property is still going to be completely mined. Those values are going to be lost.

The offset that has been offered, we have not had details on. This is another problem with communities trying to put information on EISs; they lack information on those offsets so that we can review them and see them and have trust and faith in the process. I think communities and the conservation groups have lost trust and faith in the EIS process.

The other thing is that, when I first started out doing these submissions, usually there would be a drive-by by the local ecologist. You do not have to have any formal credentials in the sense of being acknowledged as an expert to undertake these surveys, so we would get a mixed bunch of quality of the people who undertake surveys. They were often just drive-bys; they were looking out the window and they would get a few species there. We did some follow-ups on a couple of them ourselves, and we found a lot more species that were there. So that is a problem.

When I put in the EISs—and this is where participating in the process helps a bit—I would point out the need for, at first, night-time surveys, because in the semi-arid areas a lot of species are out at night, and then they started to do night-time surveys and I said, 'You need seasonal surveys,' so they would do a wet and a dry seasonal survey. But then I pointed out that for the semi-arid areas out there, because there had been so little survey work done—in some places none has been done at all—they really should do what eminent ecologist Hugh Possingham had said. Ten years of seasonal surveys is recommended; that is 40 surveys. Very few places in Queensland have had one survey, let alone 40 surveys. So we have to think about a process—and this is what I recommended in my submission—for understanding what environmental values we really have out there. There is some information from the Queensland Herbarium and other sources, but what we really need is a database that even the landowner can use to key out identification of the species that he has on his property.

I am told by some people at the Queensland Herbarium that for $200,000 we could start that off, because most of the plant species that are in Queensland are found in the desert uplands, where the Galilee Basin, so if we had a key for there and we started it off then we would be on the road to getting community involvement, which is really important and which we do not see much of because they do not have ownership of a lot of these things that are happening. They do not have a lot of say in what is going to happen to them. They have very little time to comment on the EISs and the terms of reference. So we need to change and improve what we are doing and to have things that show the community that these decisions are being made in the public interest.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Could I just ask a couple of extra questions to clarify some things—and it is just to clarify. Regarding the offsets issue—correct me if I am wrong—I take it that Mackay Conservation Group does not agree with the concept of offsets—or do you agree with them as long as they are long-lasting, they are only used once and they do the job that they are supposed to do? Which is it?

Mrs Julien : One of the requirements—and this is in the recommendations of the report that the ICMM, the International Council for Mining and Metals, did a couple of years ago in conjunction with IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature—is that it be permanent. Otherwise you have a net loss. All we have now is an offset that lasts as long as the agreement that was made for the offset, so that could be as long as the life of the mine.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: So, if there were an offset that was permanent, Mackay Conservation Group would be comfortable with that?

Mrs Julien : We would be much more agreeable to that, yes. The Productivity Commission did a report for COAG in November last year—a big, long thing; I spent most of Christmas reading it—and in it they have recommendations for offsets. This is for major projects to be more efficient, and they have a long recommendation. They say there should be a review of offsets by the end of the year, because they are being used willy-nilly and we have a problem with them; they are not being used properly. The other thing on offsets is that they be able to be enforced or used and governed. They have to be workable, and this is a problem we are having, as you probably know, with the one that has been suggested for Abbot Point and the dredge spoil dumping.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: Let me pose a hypothetical to you. If the Mackay Conservation Group idea was in operation and we had a public interest test with all the parameters that you outlined in your submission, and a project like the Abbot Point expansion with the associated dredging and disposal work went through that test and got the green light at the end of it, based on the information they had provided and the permanent offsets that they might be able to put in place, would Mackay Conservation Group support a project like that?

Mrs Julien : Probably not. The problem is that we favour the concept by Dr John Brodie of James Cook University, which is that it be disposed of safely on land. That is probably our position on that, because we do not want the impacts on the reef building. One major objection I have to the proposal is that it is outside the borders of the port. As long as we allow that to continue and allow dumping in the waters of the reef itself we set a precedent for an ongoing process that is not going to be favourable to the reef. I have more information on that situation, which I heard the other night, that has not been mentioned in the press yet.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: In your report you have referred to the concerns that you see for potential development in Northern Australia. Does the Mackay Conservation Group have any views on what areas, projects or industries could potentially be developed sustainably that the group would agree with?

Mrs Julien : It was recommended in one of the CSIRO reports that niche products that actually have a market—you absolutely have to have a market for what you are going to produce, of course; that goes without saying. Water is the big issue in the north. I grew up in the north. I saw the rice crops fail. I the project after project fail. I saw the magpie geese come and eat up the rice in one far northern project. I grew up in Ayr, where you are from Senator Macdonald. I know that if you do not plan carefully, if you do not do some pilot studies, if you do not do your homework, if you do not take notice of what the scientists are telling you you can waste an awful lot of money. That is a big consideration that we all have.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is good to be talking to a fellow Burdekinite.

Mrs Julien : You were a couple of years higher than me in high school.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You look much younger than that!

Mrs Julien : Thanks!

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You have a concern with any impact on biodiversity, which is creditable. One of the problems that you may be able to help me with that is how you do anything in Australia where you do not impact on biodiversity? From the time that Europeans first came here in 1770 everything we have done has had an impact.

Mrs Julien : I understand that it is never going to be frozen in time, but we do have areas of high conservation significance. As a case in point I come back to the Galilee Basin State Development Area. They have three areas of high conservation significance within the state development area. The definition of a state development area is for economic and social infrastructure that is in the public interest. Why are these proposed rail corridors going through these areas of high conservation significance? That is our attitude. You may feel pragmatic about it, but we simply do not want a net loss of the biodiversity, so that requires careful planning and not always putting the environment last, which often happens.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It does not matter what you do, you are going to impact upon local biodiversity somewhere. If you dump the spoil from Abbot Point onto the land you are going to have some impact.

Mrs Julien : But it is the level of impact that you have and the quality of the environment that is left after that happens. That has to be very carefully considered. It cannot be development at any cost; it has to be department that is appropriate. We only ever comment or put submissions on development proposals that are inappropriate from our point of view, looking at the policies, legislation and whatever.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You referred to dumping the spoil in Barrier Reef waters. You, of course, mean the marine park, not—

Mrs Julien : I mean the marine park waters, yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Not the Barrier Reef itself, the actual coral reef. I notice that when Hay Point was dredged there were 8.6 million cubic metres placed outside, and there was some very stringent scientific monitoring that showed no significant effects on the ecosystem. The Abbot Point decision, I understand, is three million cubic metres, about half or almost a third of what was dumped from Hay Point, and it was scientifically said that there was no problem at Hay Point. Do you still maintain your concern about the sea dumping of, what is it, three million—

Mrs Julien : That was not outside their borders. Hay Point was not outside their borders. It was within their borders, within the port's borders, so they had the right to do that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I know they had the right to but—

Mrs Julien : Also, the monitoring there was not long term. The monitoring, while they were doing the dumping, existed but there was not a long-term program for looking at impacts over many years. Without that information—also the kinds of monitoring that were done; there is a lot more that could be done that has not been done, especially with Hay Point.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am simply quoting the authority on the Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is their report that says 'Scientific monitoring showed no significant effects on the ecosystem.'

Mrs Julien : But if you look at the conditions Greg Hunt put on the monitoring of the reef, because of the concerns that GBRMPA had that have come to light in the FOI documents, Hunt put a requirement for five years post-dredge-dumping monitoring. The head of the environment program for the ports indicated to me, in a conversation, that we need all heavy contributors to silt run-off into the reef contributing to an integrated program for monitoring all along the reef—past the Whitsundays—where you get those heavy impacts, to understand what those impacts are.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you are happy with the condition of five-year monitoring on the Abbot Point—

Mrs Julien : I think it is a start but I really do not agree with dumping outside the borders of the ports. There has to be a capacity somewhere, and that should be the limit.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you suggesting that in Abbot Point it should dumped close to the coast, within the port boundaries?

Mrs Julien : They do not want to do that because then they are going to get too many impacts close to the coast, and they do not want to do that. They are in trouble already with the impacts they have. It really points to dumping on land. It really comes back to that. I am told that it can be done, that it is possible; it is just a matter of the costs. Again, we come up with the mining industry. Whenever there is going to be a cost impost they will back away; if it is going to affect the environment they will back away. We cannot have that on our agriculture and we cannot have that on our environment. They must be prepared to pay some costs for these things, especially when we have something as precious as the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Sure, and I do not think anybody would disagree with you on the need to be forever vigilant and careful. I am not a scientist, as I keep saying and keep getting quoted, but I do rely on the scientists who do the studies and say that you can place the spoil between the coast and the reef without any impact on water quality or on the ecosystem—very little impact on the ecosystem.

Mrs Julien : With respect, that is not what GBRMPA was saying. In those FOI documents they were quite worried about those long-term impacts on the reef. That was an FOI for GBRMPA documents that was done by Greenpeace and—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: This is the work done by a junior person in GBRMPA who did not even get to the decision maker, do you mean?

Mrs Julien : I sat on the TAC committee and saw the GBRMPA representatives come in—that was for the dredging—and they were very uncomfortable and very unhappy. There were a lot of words said back and forth. So I think it is a bit more than a junior researcher—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: My understanding is that it was a draft report that, for some internal reason, never even got to the decision maker. 'There was quite a lot of work done by GBRMPA'—and I am quoting from an article by Dr Reichelt in the Conversation of March, who goes through this with—

Mrs Julien : Dr Reichelt has a certain position.

Mr CHRISTENSEN: It is GBRMPA. That is the position.

Mrs Julien : Yes, I understand what his position is. We are facing 8.3 million tonnes—and we will be facing more of it with more projects coming through the pipeline if the demand for coal picks up. Coal has one of the heaviest impacts on our coast in terms of its ports. It has air emissions; it has water emissions. In the last couple of years at Dalrymple Bay, they have exceeded their water quality standards with run-off into the reef, with a kill of lobsters that had them washing up on the beach for weeks after. There are those sorts of things. Then they have got the issue of sediment. Even GBRMPA in its report said that at the local level there is a high impact on the reef waters. We have that situation and they have a responsibility to keep those impacts as minimal as possible. If there is a viable option to dump on land, even though it may cost a little more, then that should be pursued and looked at far more diligently than it has to date. That is our position.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Are you conscious of this very prominent campaign to stop the coal industry in Queensland? It has lots of glossy brochures and DVDs. You would be aware of that.

Mrs Julien : Of course I am aware of it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is your group part of that?

Mrs Julien : At a minor level because of where it fits in with our concern about the emissions from the mines. With those 10 mines in the Galilee Basin, there is an estimate of a six per cent contribution to greenhouse gases globally. That is quite significant and it ought to be considered. Our part in that should be considered. There are also hundreds of thousands of hectares of beautiful woodlands. I do not know if you have been out through that country, but they are very beautiful.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have.

Mrs Julien : There are a lot of arboreal species, snakes and koalas. A lot woodland birds that have disappeared down in south-eastern Australia are still up there. So we need to do what we can to make sure that they are still viable.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you know who is funding that campaign?

Mrs Julien : Sunrise.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who is Sunrise?

Mrs Julien : They have a website, so you can check it there.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: My final question is a very personal one. Is 'Julien' your maiden name?

Mrs Julien : No, it is Ferguson.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay.

Mrs Julien : From Brandon.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am just trying to place you.

Mrs Julien : There are a lot of Fergusons in this area—Italian or Scottish. That is probably what they are, if they come from the Burdekin.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We may even be related!

CHAIR: I notice on page 5 of your submission you say:

… focusing on export commodities such as agriculture and mining will continue the growth of our boom bust economy.

You suggest alternatives. I was interested in a couple of things there. You said that tourism is unreliable for evening up that economic cycle.

Mrs Julien : It is not enough.

CHAIR: I am interested in your view on that.

Mrs Julien : It is not so much 'unreliable' in that sense but more that there would probably not be enough money in it. When the boom period is over in coal, tourism will try and gear up again, and it is gearing up again now. But it probably would not make as much money short term as coal would but—

CHAIR: Agriculture might.

Mrs Julien : Agriculture does. In the downturn, agriculture makes as much money as mining. If you look at the long-term view—another of my concerns is that we always look at the short term, which is understandable but we must also include the long term—agriculture produces a lot more money for Queensland than coal does, which is why we do not want great voids left on the landscape.

CHAIR: But you make the following reference:

… export commodities such as agriculture and mining will continue the growth of our boom bust economy.

You say there that you are looking for alternatives other than agriculture and mining. Then you go on to say that tourism is unreliable. If you are talking about niche markets and what have you, surely they would be in either tourism or agriculture.

Mrs Julien : Yes. I am not against niche markets. I think it is what you probably need, and you would need to understand the market and keep up with current trends and that sort of thing. Tourism is very, very fashionable. For example, you have to have the flavour of the month to attract tourists and you have to have the infrastructure to support the tourists to come in.

CHAIR: Your organisation would support that.

Mrs Julien : We support ecotourism if it is done properly. Yes, we support that. But, again, it comes back to not destroying the thing you love, not overdoing it and not putting too much pressure on a resource. This is where the science comes back into it—the monitoring, the reporting and that sort of thing. You do not get that kind of thing coming out of tourism now in the sense of: what impacts were there on the platypus at Eungella from tourism in the last decade? Has there been an impact? What is the sustainable capacity of ecotourism on the platypus? You do not get that sort of reporting coming out of the tourism industry. That is what I am really getting at with the science: you need that follow up; you need that work being done intelligently and smartly.

CHAIR: You made a comment about independent, realistic assessments on infrastructure costs. For a project to occur, it has to be done in a commercially expedient time frame, otherwise it becomes unviable and cannot happen. I am curious to know who would carry out these independent assessments.

Mrs Julien : A few years ago, I noticed that CSIRO had a very nice report on how to go about that—cost-benefit analyses. It is probably buried somewhere. I did put my submission that it would be great to follow that, instead of just the input-output data on economic modelling that they are doing now, which really does not give you an idea, for example, of the value of agriculture to the region. It is just too simplistic. You have to have something. With a proper cost-benefit analysis, you get that sort of balanced weighing of all of the values of what you have got there. I would like to see us move to that kind of approach with our projects. The thing with mining is that sometimes these mines can take from four to six to 10 years to get up. There is plenty of time to do their surveys and studies and to get it all right. There is plenty of time in there. And it is not that big a cost for a mining company to do those things. But we are often faced with having mining decisions delayed because they have not taken account of something like the black-throated finch, as in the case of the Alpha mine. You have to have someone in charge of these things who can say, 'This is how it is going to be done; it is going to be done properly.'

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed for coming to assist us here today. If we have any further questions we will submit them in writing through the secretariat.

Mrs Julien : I will just table some maps and the report that just came out today from Lock the Gate.

CHAIR: Thank you for tabling them.

Proceedings suspended from 12 : 24 to 13:14