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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2933

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (11:46): I am very interested to follow the member for Riverina and the contortionist act that he just performed in relation to the support for the legislative arrangements before the House. It is almost like listening to a three-legged donkey, in the sense that there are so many fences that the member for Riverina was trying to sit on then. I was also interested in his reflections in relation to the National Farmers Federation. He did, to his credit, spend quite a bit of time talking about the importance of water and soil to food production et cetera. He then made the point that he would be supporting the legislation. I assume that means the Liberals as well. The shadow minister in the chair might nod his head if that is the case. No, there is no nod. I was fascinated by the member for Riverina's view on food production and the importance of water and then he talked about the National Farmers Federation. The National Farmers Federation are opposed to this legislation. They have spoken against it. For the life of me, I cannot understand why a national group that is made up of various agricultural organisations, some of which are in favour of this piece of legislation, would argue against it.

The issue goes back quite some time and there are some make political machinations that have been carried out in the past, which I will mention in a moment. There are great concerns about some of the issues, particularly with the migration of extended mining activity, whether it be coal-seam gas or coalmining activity, to the eastern parts of Australia and particularly into areas where there are valuable water and soil resources. The coal-seam gas issue in particular has highlighted the lack of scientific understanding that we as a nation have of some of our groundwater systems and how they actually relate to surface water flows, river systems et cetera.

The member for Riverina was a member of the committee that he talked about, and the minister for regional development, who is in the chair, set up that committee to look at the Murray-Darling issues. One of the issues raised through that debate was the real lack of knowledge about the interconnectivity issues of groundwater and river systems. I note that the minister for the environment has now come to the table, and I welcome him to the debate. It was very clear that there was a severe lack of scientific knowledge. We are embarking on a Murray-Darling Basin Plan where there were going to be end-of-river flows, water quotas in a sense, that would be looked at for the sustainability of the whole system. And there are glaring gaps in terms of the relationship between groundwater and surface water systems.

What this bill does is go to the heart of those issues. The history of this is that last year there was an independent scientific committee set up at the Commonwealth level, and I congratulate the Prime Minister and the minister for doing that. There was $200 million in funding to be associated with that particular scientific committee. That committee has the power to undertake a whole range of scientific endeavours, but the shorthand of that is that they can carry out what are called bioregional assessments. Paralleling this, you have a state based process. I will refer to New South Wales, but essentially a state based process has been in place for many years in relation to these matters. The development application process, the environmental approval process et cetera are essentially based at a state level.

There have been real concerns and real issues about the lack of scientific knowledge and, in some cases, the lack of scientific rigour in terms of the state based approval process. Part of the agreement that I made with the minister was to look at this issue. The Prime Minister has done that and the minister has done that. There was an attempt last year by the minister, in good faith, to negotiate with the states to set up a national partnership agreement where these issues could be dealt with with some degree of Commonwealth involvement but under the auspices of the various state arrangements. That national partnership agreement was signed. New South Wales in particular was going through this odd process of revamping its approval laws after the previous New South Wales state Labor government had run into a whole range of issues in terms of these areas and a lot of licences. We are seeing it played out in the ICAC in New South Wales at the moment—some of the issues that revolve around that particular government.

The coalition government signed the national partnership agreement and had to deliver certain protocols back to the Commonwealth so that the money could be accessed and the agreement could be put in place. New South Wales essentially thumbed its nose at the Commonwealth, in my view, and did not adhere to the spirit of the national partnership agreement. Out of that process we move forward. The member for Riverina says that the minister would not do this six months ago, but there was a process relating to the states that was attempting to do a very similar thing to what this bill actually does. If the states start whingeing about this, they should remember that they had the solution at hand. They had 12 months to put the correct solution in place. New South Wales came in on the back of what was, as I have just said, a flawed state based process.

A lot of people are very concerned about the impact of coal-seam gas on the landscape. They have been very critical of the previous New South Wales Labor government, and rightly so. That government decided to embark on a process of new legislation. A range of things were put in place, one of which was called a gateway process. When you examine the gateway process, you see that the gate is wide open and has only one direction—a drafting gate with one yard, in a sense. It was not an improvement. The words are all right, but in practice it was not an improvement. A legislative arrangement was put in place for a groundwater aquifer that was really only about consumptive use of water, not about risk to water; there was no risk profile associated with it. And there were a number of other pieces of legislation—or pieces of policy, really—to essentially deal with these issues, but they have not. In my view, they have made it slightly worse than what the previous Labor government of New South Wales had in place.

The concern has not gone away—and I congratulate the minister and the Prime Minister on this particular legislation—and at that point it became very clear that if the concerns of many Australians were to be addressed then the Commonwealth, through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, should in fact have a greater role to play, particularly in relation to water and particularly on the back of the groundbreaking agreement that the same minister put in place whereby water across state boundaries was finally broken. This follows in somewhat of a sequence when we look at this water issue and its importance. The bill puts in place a water trigger that allows the Commonwealth to carry out certain activities in conjunction with the independent scientific committee that I mentioned earlier and allows appropriate bio-regional assessments and appropriate scientific work to be done for the Commonwealth minister to assess in relation to certain coal-seam-gas and coalmining projects. This does not destroy things with a backhoe or a dump truck. What it does is put in place a set of protocols that ensure that there is proper scientific rigour going into the processes that will lead to the approval or disapproval of some of these activities. Really, the only way you can do that—and this is why I am encouraged by the scientific committee—is by establishing a process whereby you actually carry out a bio-regional assessment of landscape in catchments so that you can get some idea of the capacity of the landscape to absorb the impacts of certain activities.

This bill goes a long way towards actually doing that. In fact, if you go back to 2007 or 2008, Melanie Stutsel of the Minerals Council of Australia made it plain to a Senate committee that a more appropriate way for the Commonwealth to be involved in these processes would be for a bio-regional assessment process of catchments to be put in place before exploration licences are even granted. There is good sense in that, because it establishes a protocol whereby mining companies do not waste money going into areas where they probably will not be able to mine. Mining does not take place in national parks, for instance—it is very simple. They do not apply for licences because they know they cannot get them because of certain environmental values et cetera. A lot of this is not that dissimilar. It is about putting in place some scientific rigour. The current processes are severely flawed. We need to address that.

I will also be moving an amendment that addresses the issue of the Commonwealth powers and the bilateral arrangements under the EPBC Act, and I am hopeful that there will be support for that. I am particularly encouraged that the National Party is suggesting that they are going to support the bill. I would hope that they would support the amendment as well, because I think it provides good policy for the future, based on scientific assessment and the risk profile of these various areas. People may well arrive at a point—and I hope this is the destination—that we do not stop all mining activity but we have some confidence in the process that allows it. And where there are high risks, or where a bio-regional assessment process identifies real concern, some of these activities will be disallowed. Regrettably, the state based process, over time, has shown that it is a one-way street. I think this process that the minister has introduced goes a long way to addressing some of those issues.

The other bit of history I want to mention in relation to the politics of this is that back in 2008 there was an attempt to amend the Water Act. That amendment actually got through the Senate one night, and this is where the hypocrisy of the National Party in relation to these water issues really kicks in. It got through on the votes of the National Party. The Minerals Council invaded the place at about two o'clock—Mitch Hooke and the boys. The next day—and I think it was the first time in our political history—when the Senate reconvened the National Party and the Liberal Party recanted their vote, after making these glorious speeches the night before about how they were going to save the Liverpool Plains and other very significant agricultural assets. So I think we have to try to overcome the doublespeak. What we need is a clear commitment from both sides of this House as to the future of scientific rigour in determining whether these projects are acceptable in terms of the landscape they are being proposed in. Water is very, very significant, as most speakers have said. Water that starts near Willow Tree in my electorate can actually end up at the Murray mouth. There are massive groundwater systems across the Liverpool Plains, for instance.

With time running out, I particularly recognise Tim Duddy for the work that he has done with the Caroona Coal Action Group and the whole raft of very concerned people in the farming community and the associated communities for their involvement in this. It is a victory for common sense and for scientific rigour and particularly a victory for those people who have expressed concern, not in a political sense of left and right or green and red but with real concern for where they live and reside and the detrimental impacts that some of these activities could deliver.

I recommend the bill and congratulate the minister. I also recommend that all members of the House support the amendment that has been circulated which I will be talking to in the consideration in detail stage.