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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10457

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (19:50): It went under the radar because of the announcement of $1.7 billion of cuts in education, but yesterday the New South Wales government also released their strategic regional land use policy, which in its development has been highly contentious—so much so that the Country Women's Association, for the first time in their history, stood outside the New South Wales parliament to protest against some aspects of the strategic land use proposals under consideration. This land use policy was finally released yesterday, and sadly it seems to have only impressed its authors, the New South Wales government. Those who have been let down by the policy include the state's 38,000 farmers and many thousands of other residents concerned about the long-term impact of inappropriate coal seam gas extraction on aquifers, groundwater and farmlands. The state's peak body representing farmers, the New South Wales Farmers Association, are critical of the policy, describing it as a green light for exploration and mining right across the state. They have described it as a cave-in of policy.

The policy fails to protect water and productive farmlands from the enthusiasm of the moment around coal seam gas, because it fails to quarantine any part of New South Wales, regardless of its agricultural or environmental value, from drilling and coalmining. The most lucrative deposits occur in the same regions that are the most productive in terms of agriculture and tourism, and this has failed to be recognised in the planning policy.

The decision was hopefully not made because of the prospect of increased mining royalties, which rose by 25 per cent in 2010-11 to $1.24 billion and, according to the New South Wales Treasury, are expected to reach $8.5 billion over the next four years, which is an extraordinary increase over the forward estimates.

Either way, the legitimate concerns of many thousands of New South Wales residents about the potential impacts of fracking on groundwater supplies, the potential impact of extraction on productive lands and on surface water have in many ways been ignored. Even the moratorium on the controversial fracking process used to extract coal seam gas has been lifted. New South Wales has now moved to renew 22 drilling licences covering five million hectares, including one in the Pilliga Forest, despite it being under investigation already for environmental damage and soil and water contamination.

The regional land use policy released yesterday amounts to a broken promise by the National Party and the Liberal National Party, who stood on a platform to stop mining in prime agricultural regions. After 18 months of policy development, farmers have every right to be angry. Their interests, and the interests of those who consume their produce, have taken a back seat to the might of the mining sector and the eightfold increase expected in mining royalties over the next four years.

The state government's accompanying Aquifer Interference Policy fares no better. The New South Wales Irrigators' Council says it is 'profoundly disappointed' with the policy, which was released at the same time. It says that the rules proposed in the draft policy were inadequate because too many exemptions could be applied, but the final policy is far worse because now we do not have any rules, just 'guidelines'.

In Australia groundwater accounts for about 20 per cent of the country's total water use, and the majority of it is used for agricultural purposes, such as crop irrigation. More than 40 per cent of the New South Wales population either fully or partially relies on groundwater, including about 200 towns that use groundwater as their principal water supply.

If New South Wales gets this policy wrong, the potential cost to the community will not just be measured in terms of lost agricultural opportunities. While there are improvements in the final policies over the draft documents, they are few and far between. I certainly acknowledge a Land and Water Commissioner being established and the claims that it will 'restore community confidence' in the oversight of exploration. I hope that occurs. The limited value of the commissioner will be to supervise land access deals between owners and miners, although the office will only have limited powers to advise.

Miners will at least have to prepare an agricultural impact statement as part of the approvals process, and a code of conduct will be implemented for coal seam gas companies. Other small wins include that mining applications will be subject to early assessment of their impact on 'strategic' agricultural land, and there are several other smaller wins. Essentially, more work needs to be done. (Time expired)