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Friday, 16 March 2012
Page: 2001

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (10:10): I rise to contribute the debate on the Minerals Resource Rent Tax Bill 2011 and associated bills. I want to speak particularly of the real cost of this mining boom, especially in my home state of Queensland. At the heart of the mining tax debate is: how much should Australia be getting in return for our non-renewable resources? In order to answer that question, we need to get to the heart of what we are trading off. What is the cost of this boom to our environment, our rural and urban communities, our agricult­ural production and to other vital sectors of the economy like tourism, education and manufacturing? What are those impacts? How are they suffering from the impacts of this boom? The fact is that the mining boom has led to a huge appreciation of the Australian dollar. It has pushed up interest rates and it has led to significant labour shortages both in certain regions and of certain skills. Those impacts are resulting in really tough times for a number of key industries and quite a lot of Queensland communities.

On tourism, some recent analysis by the Australia Institute showed that in gorgeous Far North Queensland international tourist numbers slumped from 868,303 down to 648,959 in the past five years. That is a 25 per cent drop and is a huge blow to the many small family owned businesses in my home state. There are several reasons for that, but one strong influence is the high dollar. On manufacturing, the Australia Institute's research also found that Queensland's manufacturing sector is really suffering with the number of people employed in that sector falling by 6½ per cent last year. The Queensland government Office of Economic and Statistical Research has itself had to conclude that the mining boom is far from good news for everyone. It said:

Weak employment growth may be experienced in occupations in trade exposed manufacturing industries.

In statements during Senate estimates just a few weeks ago, Treasury officials admitted that, in this economic and employment climate, mining was not creating jobs but was actually sucking jobs from other industries. On a recent trip to Gladstone, the taxi driver told me that not only could his company not get enough taxi drivers but they could not get enough mechanics to service their vehicles. This is clearly affecting the fabric of the community as well as weakening its economic robustness through narrowing the economic base—I am going to talk more about the social impacts in a moment. I want to cite one particularly apposite example. The economic impact statement commissioned by Clive Palmer's Waratah Coal for its proposed China First mine in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland said, using its own figures, that the consequence of approving that massive mine, a 40 megaton-a-year coalmine, would be that 3,000 jobs would be lost across Queensland and Australia in manufacturing, agriculture and tourism—this is from the company's own economic impact statement. That is the equivalent of about $1.25 billion of manufacturing activity. Of course, it is not just that mine proposed in the Galilee, but more on that later.

The impacts on our international educa­tion sector are also pronounced. International education is our biggest export service sector and is taking a hit with significant drops in student numbers, which are at least in part due to the very high dollar. A number of our great education institutions in Queensland are facing real financial hardship as a result. Let us be clear here: while the mining industry is currently a relatively small but important sector, its contribution is all too often overstated and its costs are frequently overlooked.

I want to touch briefly on the social impacts of the boom as it rolls out across Queensland before I come to the huge environmental impacts of this industry. The example that most Queenslanders are experiencing is a huge rise in housing costs. In evidence given to the House of Representatives fly-in fly-out inquiry last month, the Isaac Regional Council advised that in Moranbah police staff, medical staff and even council staff are now likely to be fly-in fly-out employees. Even McDonald's was considering fly-in fly-out staff. The local medical centre had been forced to use sixth year medical students to stand in for doctors because of the inability to recruit in a region where the rents had hit $3,000 a week. I am sure the houses are not really that nice.

On a flight to Gladstone, I was chatting with the fellow next to me whose brother was one of the local policemen in Gladstone. He said his brother was having to sleep on the floor in somebody else's one-bedroom apartment because he could not afford the rent anymore in Gladstone. Chatting with the hotelier in Gladstone, I found the mining companies have booked out all the hotels, so there is actually nowhere for tourists to stay—I only got a room because there was a cancellation—even if they are not scared off by the high dollar or the huge ecological crisis in the harbour, which I will come back to. Likewise in Mackay, hotel prices are through the roof and that is impacting on tourism. So it is great for the hoteliers, not so great for the other industries, and not so great for the folk who want to live in those communities and are finding it desperately unaffordable, which many young families are.

It is incredible. The median house price in the Isaac Regional Council area is $80,000 higher than prices in Brisbane, and Brisbane's prices are fairly unaffordable anyway. So the mining boom creates huge cost-of-living issues for communities across the state. It is pushing up house prices. It is sucking workers out of basic services and hence it is really degrading the amenity and the economic diversity of the community.

I come to an issue very close to my heart. That is the huge environmental impacts of the mining boom. I took a flight over the Galilee Basin just a few weeks ago with Senator Bob Brown and saw the sites of those proposed mega coalmines. They will be the biggest coalmines on the planet if they are approved. I thought it was particularly depressing that, if those mines are approved in the Galilee Basin, their carbon emissions will wipe out the benefits of the carbon price three times over. It is absolutely shocking. One particularly beautiful spot that we flew over was Bimblebox Nature Refuge, an 8,000 hectare privately owned conservation estate which has massive biodiversity values and was recognised as such through funds from the federal government contributed to its purchase a few years ago. Clive Palmer wants to turn half of Bimblebox Nature Refuge into an open-cut coalmine and the other half into a longwall coalmine. This is the last remaining wilderness in that area and it is soon to become a coalmine.

On that same trip Senator Brown and I also flew over the Great Barrier Reef. You can really see not just how beautiful the reef is—as we all know—but also the water quality impact of all of those huge dredging programs for new ports. Those new ports are predominantly for coal seam gas but they are also for coal. It is not just in Gladstone Harbour, where we spent a lot of our time, but also in ports up and down the coast. Huge destruction has been wrought on our reef from dredging for new ports to export coal and coal seam gas. We have seen the largest ever dredging programs slated for this World Heritage area, bigger than it has ever faced before—112 million cubic metres of dredging is either approved or planned for the Great Barrier Reef. That is 65 Melbourne Cricket Ground's worth. That is an awful lot of seabed to be dug out of a World Heritage area. Also concerning is that much of that dredge spoil will then be dumped back into the World Heritage area in offshore dumping sites. I found it a little ironic, and it certainly left a very bad taste in my mouth, that the environment minister is proposing to levy a fund for companies to dump that dredge spoil back onto the World Heritage area and yet the government has squibbed on a decent mining tax. It is very wrong that we are now seeking to make money off turning the reef into a rubbish dump and yet the government did not hold firm on the original RSPT.

There are the shipping impacts that will come from this huge export boom of our fossil fuel industries, not to mention the huge climate impacts. On average we have had a shipping incident every year in the Great Barrier Reef. If we have a quadrupling or even a six times increase in shipping—as some projections forecast, depending on what gets approved and what does not—we could see huge increases in shipping accidents. They will not all be near misses. We are not as well prepared for those shipping incidents as we need to be and they are completely avoidable.

Those are the huge marine impacts of this mining boom, but there are massive land impacts as well. In my home state of Queensland, where we have precious little good-quality agricultural land, some of our best food producing land is in the Darling Downs and it is currently being eaten up by massive coalmine proposals and by the rash of coal seam gas wells rolling out across the state, with the sanction of both the state and federal governments on both sides of politics. This is a serious concern when you cannot eat coal and you cannot drink gas: we have alternatives for energy but no alternatives for food and water, not to mention the social impacts. I have been spending quite a lot of time with those rural communities who are really scared about the environmental impacts of these industries and really worried that this will be the death of their communities, that their kids will not have the opportunities that they have had to nurture and grow food on that land and love it and pass it on to their kids.

We have seen an absolute rash of coal and coal seam gas in the last five to 10 years in Queensland. Of course, coal seam gas is going to roll out across the whole country. We have the environmental impacts, which I have outlined, huge impacts on our long-term water supplies. The CSIRO and the National Water Commission are both saying we do not understand the long-term impacts on aquifers from coal seam gas, so why on earth we are rushing down the path without having full information is beyond me. We have those huge environmental impacts, we have the massive social upheaval that that it is bringing to our regional communities and we have the impacts of the multispeed economy. So the Greens are supporting the minerals resource rent tax. We believe that, with those massive impacts of the boom, if the government is going to continue to sanction that boom then we must at least get something back for the community whose resources they are. I think it is a great shame that most of the profits from the boom go offshore; about 80 per cent of our mining companies are foreign owned. So it is about time the Australian public got some money back for having to suffer all of those adverse impacts that I have just spoken of.

The Greens are, of course, backing the original resource super profits tax. We think that would have returned a much fairer share of the proceeds of this boom to the Australian public. In fact, on Treasury figures it would have returned an extra $100 billion over 10 years. Just think of what that money could fund. That could fund vastly improved healthcare services. It could fund the rollout of Denticare, bringing dental care into Medicare so that that most expensive medical item, which drops off many people's budgets—it certainly used to drop off mine, although I am now in a more fortunate position—is more accessible to everyone, because if we do not fix up dental care then of course our general health degrades. In education, that could be a real kick start to the $5 billion recommended by the Gonski review. And, of course, there is NDIS. We need to start properly addressing the needs of disabled folk in Australia. Last but not least, we would like to see high-speed rail rolled out all the way up to Brisbane, connecting it to Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and to fund the future infrastructure that will see more accessible public transport and better climate outcomes.

So we would have loved to see that original RSPT. Of course, we do not have the opportunity to vote on that here in this chamber, but we have the package that we have and we will be supporting it. We would like to see gold and uranium included, though, along with other rare earths and minerals. We need to get the most out of this boom and we need to make sure that our future generations can benefit from it as well, which is of course why the Greens have proposed a sovereign wealth fund to spread that equity over future generations.

One last point I would like to make is the sheer ridiculousness of the Commonwealth agreeing to provide a rebate for companies when the states increase royalties. That just seems to me to be a money-go-round and to undermine the whole point of the tax. Lastly, of course, we are supporting the tax cuts for small business. We think that is long overdue and we are really proud to be the champions of small business. In fact, we would like a five per cent tax cut for small business, not just a one per cent cut, and we are open to changing the definition of 'small business' to cover more businesses. But we just do not think that the one per cent tax cut is needed for big business—for the big banks and mining companies. Ironically, that one per cent tax cut would save the big miners like Rio and BHP hundreds of millions of dollars per year, which would likely offset the impacts of the MRRT in the first place. It does not make much sense to me.

So we will be supporting the mining tax. We would like to see it improved. It is important that the benefits of the boom are shared more equitably to try to overcome some of those huge costs that we are facing. As a Queensland senator, coming from a state where much of this mining boom is happening and where much of the environmental and social damage is happening, I say that it is important that we get as much benefit flowing from this industry as we can. But I really strongly believe that Australians need to understand more the costs of this boom. We talk a lot about the benefits. It is important that we start to talk about the costs as well—the costs to other industries, to our environment and to communities—so that we can make better decisions about these resources. These minerals are only dug up once. Let us make sure that our children respect the choices of this generation and this parliament.