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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 2930

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:17): On 18 September 2010 following the last federal election the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, said:

The parliamentary reforms for the new parliament will change our political processes and the way we conduct our democracy, bringing new levels of openness and accountability into our democratic processes, with the hope that each of us in parliament can be judged on the contribution we make, not the points that we score.

Further, around that time, the Prime Minister said:

I believe Australians want greater scrutiny of their government and greater accountability to parliament.

The Prime Minister further said: 'Obviously I am a big believer in transparency, and understanding and unveiling the facts'. What a shame it is, yet again, that we see those words of Prime Minister Gillard ring so hollow around this building. We are, of course, here to consider questions associated with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill, and they can be best referred to as the development of a water trigger.

It is my situation, and I am sure it is that of my colleagues in the coalition, when we definitely say that coal seam gas requires a comprehensive policy approach to address the environmental, community and economic impacts—all three. The principles underpinning the position that we take, of course, is the capacity for a measured, rational and balanced assessment of mining and its management. Time does not permit me to comment on the observations made by Senator Ludlam in his contribution a few moments ago except to say that, as a Western Australian senator, I place on record my disagreement with Senator Ludlam's pessimistic reflection on the controls in place in our state.

I believe these are the elements that need to be addressed. First of all, managed properly, coal seam gas does have the potential to revitalise parts of regional Australia and develop, at a time of increasing pessimism around the world, a new economic boon particularly in those states in the east and the north-east of this country. I acknowledge of course, as does any reasonable minded person, that, poorly managed, this could produce serious environmental and social problems, which nobody in this place wants to see. I certainly believe that there should be no coal seam gas development in areas where we know that the impact on the quality of ground water or surface water would be negative. Once again, we must ensure a circumstance in which we can predict that and prevent it. It must also be clear that it must be safe for the environment before any coal seam gas exploration or extraction could occur.

Secondly, prime agricultural land is increasingly important and we are losing it in this country at a great rate as we all know. Urban expansion and the salinisation of ground water on the land in Western Australia and in the other states certainly does focus on the need for us to preserve prime agricultural land and ensure it is not placed at harm by any sort of extractive activity such as that associated with coal seam gas, should it be that circumstance. I also remind the chamber and those who are listening that we have both a tremendous opportunity and an obligation to be able to contribute to the feeding of the ever-increasing number of people on this earth and indeed those who are not yet satiated in terms of their hunger.

Thirdly, coal seam gas should not occur close to existing residential areas. It is obviously the case. A person's home is their castle, and they should have a reasonable expectation that it should not be the subject of any deleterious activity as a result of extraction of, for example, coal seam gas. Landowners in this country are entitled to appropriate remuneration or compensation for access to their land, particularly where it interferes with their legal activities on that land, especially should it be associated with agriculture. It should not just be compensation; it should be a reward for the inconvenience suffered. And those regions that develop so much of the wealth from coal seam gas developments do expect and should receive some fair return to their communities.

Those are the principles upon which we should be examining this legislation. The bill and its objectives are to add yet another national environmental item of significance to the EPBC Act, an act which I remind you was introduced by the coalition under Prime Minister Howard and the then Minister for the Environment Senator Robert Hill. What this will do is create a new subdivision within the act, which, if passed, would require environmental impact assessments in those areas involving coal seam gas and would create civil penalties and offences for those who fail to comply with the provisions of the act.

But there are negatives, of course, and one of them goes immediately to the point of the Constitution—a matter which will be the subject of further debate in this place later this week when we come to look at questions associated with the arguments for or against a referendum to change the Constitution. It goes the fact that in this country, under the Constitution as it exists, so many of these matters are the province of the states and the territories. It is critically important that we avoid wherever possible the cost, the time and the lost energy associated with duplication. Indeed, the proposed legislation simply introduces a new layer of bureaucratic red tape which industry can ill afford. Communities do not wish to see the related confusion and it is not good for the parliamentary process. I go back to the comments with which I introduced my contribution, which were the Prime Minister's remarks associated with transparency.

We have a circumstance, then, where protection of water and water tables is already covered, firstly, by state legislation and, secondly, by the impositions of an expert panel. The opposition supported the development by the government last year of an independent expert panel to advise parliament, government and communities. So the question must be asked: why, indeed, are we now introducing a new element? It smells like a quick political fix, simply because it is only in the early part of this year that the government itself rejected many of the proposals similar to those that are now contained in this legislation, which were essentially to establish, as Senator Birmingham said in his contribution earlier, a water trigger in the EPBC Act, to be added to the range of triggers on matters of national environmental importance which exist in the act as it is now.

So we must ask the question: why are we considering it at all? Needless to say, as has been the case so often with this government and that that preceded it between 2007 and 2010, politics always takes precedence over good policy. In this particular case, of course, it was the member for New England, Mr Windsor, who came along and imposed on the government his will, at which time it did a complete change-about and has now introduced these amendments.

What have the stakeholders said in all of this? I will come back in a few moments to some of those stakeholders who were not ever in fact consulted when this amendment was first proposed. Let me demonstrate, if I can, the disappointment when, as part of this rushed and ill-considered move by the government in introducing this amendment, it completely and utterly overlooked the regulatory impact statement. The Prime Minister exempted this from a regulatory impact statement. I can only ask you: where does that fit in? In something as important as we all agree are matters associated with environmental concerns, particularly in those states of Queensland and New South Wales, which are so heavily impacted, I ask where that sits with the Prime Minister's statement on 31 August 2010, in which she said:

I believe Australians want greater scrutiny of their government and greater accountability to parliament.

You cannot just say these things as a political leader or as the Prime Minister of this country and then fail to implement them and see them through. The words are as hollow as the meaning.

In this particular case, in addressing this issue, a group that was not consulted, the Minerals Council of Australia, said that the legislation:

… shows that the Federal Government is more focused on increasing the bureaucratic constraints on the coal sector rather than creating the right regulatory environment to expand the industry; creating more jobs and national income.

They say:

The proposed changes will do nothing to enhance Australia's reputation as an investment destination. Project approval times in Australia are already well in excess of the international average and the plan put forward today will simply add to those delays for no environmental gain.

I mentioned earlier the dual role of the states in this. I go to the New South Wales Minerals Council CEO, Mr Galilee. His recommendation to the federal government was to reconsider its backward decision on this legislation, and he said:

It's extremely disappointing that in an election year the Federal Government and Tony Windsor are seeking to create the impression that the State based assessment process isn't good enough. This is completely wrong. Water is already a fundamental aspect of the assessment process for mining projects in New South Wales.

The National Farmers Federation equally expressed its concern over the possibility of the targeting of one industry, in this case the extractive industry of coal seam gas, and the prospect of it then being redirected to agriculture and what the implications might be.

The National Farmers Federation made this observation:

Water is a critical factor for our farmers and our strong concern is that this bill could actually have a perverse negative outcome for our agricultural sector. What may on first glance look like a win for farmers in the short term could actually have long-term unintended consequences for our current and future farmers.

I and many others stand up in this place and talk about the pressures on agricultural production and on agribusiness in this country at this time and it does not need the further burden of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. The Business Council of Australia warned that the legislation would duplicate state and territory processes while adding costs and increasing uncertainty in the sector. They said that it flies in the face of what makes sense for jobs and the economy while offering no tangible benefit to the environment. How often do we have to hear this message coming through?

Let me go to the Labor government to see where they have stood on this before they wobbled and shifted. The ALP have made very sympathetic noises to business and industry. They pretended to be also concerned about the risks of investment not coming into this country and about the risks of investment leaving this country, and about jobs and regional Australia. It was only about six to nine months ago now that Minister Burke rejected an amendment to regulate coal seam gas, claiming that the Commonwealth had no constitutional powers to make such laws.

Ms Gillard, at COAG, no less, in April of last year said: 'What we want to work towards here is a streamlined system so that projects do not go through two layers of assessment for no real gain.' Those are the words of the Prime Minister. She then said:

And so the classic examples that are brought by business is where people have gone through sequential assessments, so it’s double the time, things that have been required for the first assessment are required in a slightly modified form for the second assessment ...

How true that has been with this Labor government in an unrelated area. In fact, it was Minister Burke. A circumstance in Western Australia was brought to me. It was about a tourism development in the south-west of the state. Eventually, after nine years, that development successfully went through an assessment at state level. It was required to go to federal assessment. The previous federal minister was about to sign it when Minister Burke came in as the minister. He said: 'No, no, no; I'm putting a halt to all that. I want a complete environmental reassessment.' Prime Minister Gillard knows where the problems are. She knows how to espouse the solutions. What she is unable to do is to effect them. She said, 'So clearly that is an inefficient system.' Having said that, she then said 'Australians do want to see good environmental protection and good environmental outcomes'. Of course they do; we all do. Then she went on to say:

So taking those two things—how can we best design a system that works, works in a streamlined fashion, works quickly, so people don’t have these sequential assessments, but is still rigorous enough to ensure that we meet environmental standards.

I return to Minister Burke, who on 2 November last year said:

This is about lifting the States up to the level of environmental protection provided by the Commonwealth, not letting Commonwealth standards drop. We can keep stringent environmental standards while simplifying an overly complex process—and we are.

Minister Burke, no, you are not. Therein lies the challenge.

We have seen the establishment of the independent expert scientific committee. That is the appropriate place for this. The best scientific minds should be brought to bear on the situation to examine it and then come back and advise. They should go to the community and to business and to industry—to all the stakeholders—to seek their input. They should come to parliamentarians: 'We want your views. We will now apply the rigour of good science and come up with advice and recommendations.' The coalition supported that process when it was first put into place. But at the first hurdle—the first time that the committee was asked to address itself to an issue like this—the government has simply sidelined it.

Then there was the Hawke review of the act that was initiated by the Labor government. Most of the recommendations of the Hawke review were simply put to one side and ignored or cherry picked. Those particularly applying to this area have been ignored.

We have a circumstance in which two states, Queensland and New South Wales, would appear to be the targets. The question then becomes: are the regulatory processes in those two states rigorous enough? Is it necessary for all six states and the two territories to be the subject of what many would claim is unnecessary interference, simply to give effect to this?

It is interesting that at the Senate committee that met on this and reported to the Senate the Australian Network of Environmental Defenders Offices' Ms Walmsley, said in evidence:

I think the clear example of an ideal process would be the Hawke review.

…   …   …

So, no, I do not think it is ideal that the EPBC Act is being amended by piecemeal bills. I think we should embrace the opportunity to follow the Hawke review and actually do a proper amendment of the act itself to strengthen the Commonwealth role. The problem with that is that the government response cherry-picked aspects of the Hawke review and did not support some of the more important reforms that were recommended.

So we have a circumstance in which major stakeholders were not consulted. We have a circumstance in which the scientific committee put forward for the purpose of evaluating these sort of activities has been largely ignored. We have a circumstance now in which there is expensive time-wasting duplication of state and territory processes. And should the people of Australia on 14 September accord the privilege to the coalition of governing this country beyond that date, it is certainly an area in which our leader, Mr Abbott, has said we will address this unnecessary duplication.

I go to the fact that something as apparently as important as this was exempted from a regulatory impact statement. I go to the broken promises of the government as a result of that circumstance. And of course the end result is a complete lack of confidence by the community, by the states, by business and industry, by investors and, largely, by parliamentarians in the ability of this government to even elect and undertake its own processes with regard to these amendments.