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Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011
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Cormann, Sen Mathias
Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011
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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (16:41): I seek leave to continue my remarks on the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011.
Senator CORMANN: When we look at an area of public policy such as the use of prime agricultural land, with people expressing concerns about what is unfolding in some parts of our country, it is not a great surprise that the Greens are there to rush forward with an easy solution, a quick fix. Solutions are quick and easy in areas which have defied wiser, more sober heads. In those areas the Greens seem to be able to come up with solutions relatively quickly. Addressing an issue as complex as this with a simple solution—might I say a simplistic solution—is something that the Senate deserves to give close attention to, and that opportunity is presented by this bill.
This bill represents a far-too-ready solution to a problem which is in fact complex, which deserves case-by-case consideration in many instances and which is one that state governments are generally grappling with. As I said in the beginning of my contribution on 22 September 2011, when we last debated this bill, this is ultimately a matter for state governments. It is a state responsibility. Here in the Senate we are the states house and we should be standing up for the rights of the states to take proper control and responsibility for the affairs that are in their areas of constitutional responsibility. The use of land is a primary responsibility of our states and territories, and for the Greens to enter into this place with a simplistic solution again calls into question their commitment—a commitment that has been restated many times in this place—that they have a strong regard for the rights of states and territories to legislate within their own areas of responsibility. This was exhibited only recently in this very place—but I will come back to that issue in a moment.
The coalition does not see any merit in this bill. As I said, this is an issue for state governments, who have accountability to their electors to issue licences for exploration and subsequent exploitation of resources. The fact is that resource companies cannot enter a landowner's property to exploit the minerals and resources on that property without a negotiated or, in the worst case, a land court arbitrated agreement with that landowner. The coalition, and particularly the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, have made it perfectly clear that within that framework the federal opposition's view is that prime agricultural land must be protected. We will work with state governments to ensure that that objective is reached. There is clear evidence in Queensland, for example, that many landholders are able to come together sensibly to reach mutually satisfactory arrangements for the future use of their land and that the coexistence of agriculture and resource industry activities is not only possible but is also the norm. The Premier of New South Wales, Barry O'Farrell, and the man who I think is widely expected to be the next Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, have addressed this issue very directly. They are both fully seized of the importance of protecting prime agricultural land and have committed to the objective of ensuring that there is a strong and direct response to the concerns raised by landholders about their land being properly used and its present owners being properly consulted about the way in which that occurs.
At the federal level, the coalition supports the expansion of the coal seam gas industry where that is in harmony with the rights of landholders and the protection of prime agricultural land for food production. I emphasise again that we are not talking about a one-or-the-other response. We are not saying that we either exploit the resources or exploit the land for its food production capability. It is possible to deliver a balanced approach, acknowledging the importance of the mining industry to Australia's future economic sustainability while also acknowledging that Australia has a tremendous asset in its agricultural land. The quality of farm products in Australia is enormously important to Australia's reputation as an exporter and it is critical that we acknowledge and respect the rights of farmers.
The federal opposition supports the work of its state colleagues in delivering a more balanced approach than the approach offered by state Labor governments in recent years. In fact, it needs to be acknowledged directly that the characterisation of this debate as an all-out war between farmers and miners grossly understates the extent of cooperation which has been occurring for a long time in regional and rural Australia. Mining companies, by and large, are well apprised of the values of the communities in which they work. They seek to add value as much as possible to those communities. There are exceptions, of course, and it is important that the potential for agreement making in these areas be enhanced by creating opportunities for those agreements without imposing blanket decisions on parties by legislation introduced in the federal parliament. Canberra is a long way away from many of these communities. The mining industry and the farming community have worked together in Australia in many areas, and both sectors are prospering as a result. There are long-established systems in place which allow miners and farmers to negotiate land access, and there are very few cases where disagreements end up in court.
The Liberal Party and the National Party have a much better understanding of what goes on in rural and regional Australia. We have worked in those communities. We have represented those communities for decades. We understand the pressures they are under and we are working at both the federal and state levels to solve problems in a realistic fashion. I suspect there are many communities around Australia that will not thank the Greens for rushing forward to advise them on how they can solve their problems when the Greens have, as a party, very little connection with those parts of Australia—except when it comes to marching into the local forest to chain themselves to trees to prevent logging or to protest in some other way about activities going on in a rural industry of some sort of another. The Greens are always there to stop economic development, to stop economic opportunity and to stop people making a living but, quite frankly, they are never there when it comes to actually delivering sensible, realistic, sustainable solutions that provide a proper balance between taking a responsible approach to the environment while also pursuing legitimate and appropriate opportunities for economic development for the benefit of all.
As I said, there are numerous examples of farmers and mining companies working cooperatively and negotiating mutually beneficial outcomes. Development of the coal seam gas industry is not some kind of rampant, uncontrolled exercise which is resulting in the destruction of rural communities; it is a process which is highly regulated. In Queensland, for example, the industry is subject to more than 1,500 state and territory conditions. In fact, the coal seam gas industry is more regulated than the uranium industry. Coal seam gas companies operating in Queensland—and I include among those the Queensland Gas Company and Santos—have shown that they are willing to work with local communities and to carry out the process of exploring and exploiting mineral and gas deposits in good faith. By way of an example, all of the Queensland Gas Company's work on private properties has been done with the express permission of landholders. That might not be a fact that suits the case put forward by the Greens but it is true. It is a fact.
Senator Waters interjecting—
Senator CORMANN: I hear a bit of noise from the crossbenchers—because the Greens cannot handle the fact. In fact, Queensland Gas Company, for example, prefers voluntary agreements and now has more than 800 agreements following negotiations on land access with about 1,000 landholders across that particular state.
The coalition believes that there are some sections of productive land that are of such significance that they should be given additional safeguards. We acknowledge that it is sometimes a necessary step to take but we also acknowledge that, under our federal arrangements, state governments are responsible for both land use and mining. Therefore, we believe, it is a matter for each state government to determine which areas are considered prime agricultural land and for each state to put in place protective measures, where appropriate, in consultation with farmers, rural communities and resource companies. We urge those parties to deal effectively with the issue of the protection of prime agricultural land and to do so as a matter of urgency.
I think it is fair to say that this is an area in which activity is happening in the right direction. We can see it both in Queensland and in New South Wales. The state government in New South Wales is conscious of the need to take steps that make clearer the respective responsibilities and rights of parties on both sides of this debate. The O'Farrell government has certainly taken steps to balance the needs of mining and agriculture in that state. The government there has put in place a moratorium and there are strategic land-use plans to identify and protect productive farmland. Those plans involve communities in local decision making to ensure a sustainable and healthy mining industry and to encourage industry best practice. Obviously the O'Farrell government's arrangements have not been in place for very long, and I think it is quite unreasonable for the Greens to march forward and attempt to overturn the balance that has been struck there by virtue of the legislation that is here before the Senate today. I might also add that the O'Farrell government is developing at the present time a system of stringent groundwater regulation. They are reviewing fracking standards and they are reviewing access arrangements. This is very much a matter under close consideration by governments such as the New South Wales government and, I believe, after Saturday, the incoming Queensland government.
I mentioned before that the Liberal-National Party in Queensland has also taken steps to show that it is addressing this issue, even though it is not yet in government. It has published a discussion paper that notes the importance of gas to the Queensland economy and raises a number of issues that have not been addressed by the Bligh Labor government, including the depletion of underground water, the issue of land access, the location of coal seam gas infrastructure close to dwellings and the increasing pressure on inadequate existing regional infrastructure. With steps such as that the Liberal-National Party in Queensland is very well placed to provide the people of Queensland with a better and more balanced approach than that achieved by the knee-jerk reactions to this problem of the Bligh government.
I have been in this place for just five years but I have already heard many lectures in that short time from the Greens about the need to play close attention to what committees in this place do, and to listen to what the committees say before making decisions, yet on this occasion it does not appear that the Greens are prepared to follow their own advice. On 13 November last year, the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee issued an interim report on the impact of mining coal seam gas on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. It made 18 recommendations reflecting the deep complexity of the issues surrounding the extraction of coal seam gas. It also, very properly, recognised that the great majority of the issues are within the province of the states and, to the extent that national solutions may be indicated, the complexity of jurisdictional interests and responsibilities that will arise. There was no recommendation whatsoever for the hijacking of unilateral and, frankly, simpleminded legislation such as this bill proposed by the Greens.
I also take exception to the characterisation by the Greens of coal seam gas itself. At various stages some Greens have referred to it as a 'dirty energy' when, in fact, coal seam gas is significantly cleaner in terms of greenhouse emissions than many other alternative fossil fuels. Senator Furner in his contribution last year referred to it as being 70 per cent less productive of emissions than other forms of fossil fuels. I have no reason to doubt the statistics that he used in his contribution to the debate.
I am about to run out of time, but let me conclude by saying that the Senate should soundly reject this half-baked proposal from the Greens today and allow other processes to deal with these complex but important issues.