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Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Page: 2832

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (17:46): I rise today to speak to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. I am very, very concerned about this bill. I am concerned because in this parliament on 28 May last year I spoke to the need and supported the need to establish an expert scientific group to provide advice to the government. What we are seeing with the introduction of this amendment is a knee-jerk political reaction to save the seats of a few.

This minister is reactionary and is being political. In fact, if he had understood what he was doing, he would have moved this as part of that amendment then rather than now, some 10 months on. I say this to the minister: why now? Now that you have actually approved all of the coal seam gas wells up through the Gloucester region, the people there have no recourse for their concerns about subcutaneous water. It will not save these people. I do note that in the speech by the minister he praised the member for Lyne, who happened to be in the chair at the time, for being a very, very strong advocate on this issue—obviously not a strong enough advocate, because the gas wells in his electorate were approved by this minister only months ago. If this minister had had a thought about making sure that water quality was one of the key tenements to approval, why did he rush in and approve those wells and not listen to the advice of the member for Lyne? Why didn't he hold it up until this legislation had been approved?

On 28 May, I raised my concerns. I talked about the establishment of the expert panel and my concerns about the water aquifers and the damage to downstream water. I pointed out at that time that I was very concerned because I, pretty much like every member in this parliament, am not a geologist or a hydrologist who truly understands the issue. In fact, so many throughout the community do not actually understand the issue of the subcutaneous water of this nation.

This would be a step in the right direction if it were not for the fact that it should be the state governments that are determining this as a response. It is the state governments that control the water in this nation. This provides another trigger with which the federal government can reject an application. If the advice was provided by the expert panel, which should be appointed by now given that the bill went through in May last year, to the minister rather than there being just a social pressure campaign based on emotion rather than fact, then it would be a good idea.

We remember well the amendments to the legislation in relation to the supertrawler. One of those amendments provided that the minister could shut down a fishery based on social concern. To make sure that we do not increase sovereign risk in this nation, things should be based on sound scientific principles and be developed and explored with experts in the field. I get the feeling from this government that it is more a matter of political reaction than sound actions based on science.

I am very concerned for all those people in my electorate, in the adjoining electorate of the member for Lyne and in the area that I represented up until the last parliament around Gloucester, because the number of gas wells approved by the previous state Labor government, in the dying months of that government, has left a terrible legacy upon the community. Not only are these wells going in close to towns, close to houses, but they have also now been signed off by this Labor government. If this Labor government had considered what it was doing back in May, it would have thought about making water part of the amendment then.

How many wells have been processed and approved by this Labor government under the EPBC Act in the intervening time? That is what concerns me. Do I support legislation that wants to further examine any potential damage to our aquifers and rivers? Of course I do. I said so in my speech of 28 May. I watched a lot of documentaries when chemical fracking was the go, and I saw the damage that was doing to the dams and the subcutaneous waters travelling through our nation. It was absolutely terrible. As previous speakers have said, water is one of the most valuable assets we have in this nation. This is a dry nation, which we tend to farm as though it was a wet nation. Perhaps we need to adapt our farming practices and principles to better reflect the geography of this nation. There is not an endless supply of water; it is not a resource that will never run out. We need to manage it properly. I recognise the work my colleague the member for Wentworth did as the minister for the environment, with his drive and his concern about water issues particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin.

When the minister sums up, will he apologise to all those people in the Gloucester region who have suffered because of the stroke of his pen? Can those people in Gloucester, around Stratford, around Allworth, around Stroud, Limeburners Creek and Craven—the whole stretch—seek any recompense now? They felt their local member, the member for Lyne, was advocating in their interests. The minister, in his introduction for this bill, singled out the member for Lyne for his advocacy. I am afraid that advocacy has come too late, because the damage has been done.

Earlier this month—I do not have a date but I received an email on 7 March—a group called the Lock the Gate Alliance fronted up to my office with a petition. I was happy to receive the petition but they rocked up to the doorstep and demanded to see me—the only problem was, being a local member with a rather large electorate and without any forewarning, I was in Forster, over 100 kilometres away, working with my constituents there. I understand their concern. I understand the need for action. I know that they represented a coalition of local groups—the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group, the Fullerton Cove and Medowie coal seam gas free communities, and EcoNetwork Port Stephens. Like many Australians, they have concerns—they have concerns because the previous state Labor government in New South Wales rushed through applications and approvals for mining leases.

So where do we go from here? I would hate to see this minister make decisions purely on political emotion. All decisions should be made on the basis of sound science. After all, it is this government that has continually pushed the line that climate change is based on sound science, that there is no reason to doubt it or question it, and that everyone who does not believe in climate change and the expert panel of scientists is wrong. Well, that is another debate. But in this case if the minister is not going to rely solely on expert advice, sound science, he is going to apply pure emotion for political purposes. There are a number of members on his side who have kicked up a stink, somewhat belatedly. We are five years into this Labor government. Why was this not done if it was a concern in your electorates five years ago? All of a sudden, with an election approaching, we are seeing this call to arms, this rapid action. This is not a new issue. It is an issue that has been revolving around in our community many times over. But, under the threat of political disposal through lack of action, this has been a call to arms.

I am severely disappointed that this measure was not put into place in May last year when the debate on coal seam gas came to this House and there were measures put in place to make sure that the federal government was well informed and well armed with expert advice. As I say, I feel sorry for and pity those in the Gloucester region who, through the lacklustre efforts of their local member, the member for Lyne, and the belated actions of this minister, will now suffer the consequences of a government who are reactionary rather than proactive in their measures.