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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 6773

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (09:31): I rise to support the Landholders' Right to Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill 2011. This is a bill which has been brought forward by Senator Larissa Waters on behalf of the Greens and I am delighted to stand here today supporting it. It is a bill which requires coal seam gas corporations to gain the written authorisation of farmers to enter their land to conduct coal seam gas activities. It provides that authorisation must contain independent advice about all the risks to food security and groundwater and also makes it clear that the farmer can refuse to sign. It provides that any corporation entering land without the permission of the farmer would incur a daily $55,000 fine, risk prosecution and be subject to the farmer's right to seek an injunction from the Federal Court which the corporation must pay for.

The bill applies to all land that has produced food at any time in the 10 years prior to the first proposed coal seam gas activity on the land, from commercial primary production through to urban vegetable gardens. The bill does not alter the ownership of the minerals and gas which remain vested in the states. The bill does not affect the ability of the federal and state governments to compulsorily acquire the land in order to access the resources, with appropriate compensation.

This goes absolutely to the heart of one of the most significant debates of this century: the issue of food security. The Greens have been very clear about this for some time. We are facing a global food insecurity crisis. With climate change accelerating, we are seeing extreme weather events around the world occurring with such frequency that the loss of agricultural production is impacting on the ability of countries to feed their own populations and to engage in trade. For example, we have had extreme weather events in Australia, Russia and the United States at similar times affecting the global grain harvest. Mr Putin banned the export of grain from Russia. That led to massive increases in the price of bread in the Middle East, and that was one of the main triggers of the riots in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring.

We are going to be facing this issue throughout this century and one of the critical things we as a parliament must do is protect agricultural land for agriculture. It is essential that we do that because Australia needs to maximise the amount of food it grows not only for itself but also for global circulation because that is going to be a major contribution not only to keeping people alive but also to global security. Where you have food scarcity leading to famine, it leads to displacement of people and riots like we had through the Middle East and as we currently have in Africa. It is essential that we move in now and say that Australia must protect its food-producing land for food production.

The Greens have a very long history on this. In particular, this is how I began my political career, because I worked on behalf of the farmers in the Wesley Vale district, where my parents had a dairy farm, to oppose the North Broken Hill pulp mill proposal for a massive industrial develop­ment in the heart of first-class agricultural land in north-west Tasmania. It would have polluted Bass Strait to the detriment of the fisheries and it would have spread a toxic cloud around the farmlands which form best front country on the north-west coast with early seasonal crops. The farmers stood very strongly. The first sticker I ever produced said 'Save our soil, sea and sand, protect the land'. That is still a heartfelt responsibility I and the Greens have for the production of food. If you are going to maintain food security, both maximising food production in Australia and for export, you have to enable farmers to stay on the land. There are two sets of issues. One is the sustainability of food production and maintaining sustainable systems for food production and the other is a set of policies that will enable farmers to stay on the land. What we have here is absolutely at the heart of this: the conflict between what the mining and the gas companies want. They do not care about whether farmers stay on the land. All they care about is maximising their profits from the extraction of coal seam gas. That is all they care about. We now have the most appalling situation where 40,000 coal seam gas wells are expected to be rolled out across Queensland in the next few years and there is rapid expansion planned for New South Wales and Victoria as well. So now is the time for robust protection for our landholders and of course for the environment.

One of the very big unknowns with coal seam gas is the long-term consequences for our aquifers and our river systems. Already, a very substantial petition from the Myall Lakes has been submitted to the hearings and in that submission they say: 'It is a Ramsar ecosystem. It is protected for its signifi­cance.' Yet there is no protection if coal seam gas gets its way. There will be contamination of the river system that flows into those lakes and that will undermine the capacity for long-term sustainability. And we know full well that there has been no assessment of the impact of this kind of activity on the Great Artesian Basin. Nobody knows, not even the Coordinator-General in Queensland, who is the person in that state with the authority to approve and condition these particular licences for coal seam gas. So if the Queens­land government and Queensland's own Coordinator-General cannot tell people what the long-term impacts are, how can a farmer have any confidence that at the end of the day they are not going to have their groundwater contaminated and the groundwater lowered because of the huge volumes of water required for this activity, or about the long-term impact on the Great Artesian Basin?

This is a reckless experiment by coal and gas companies to maximise their profits at the expense of farmers. Can the Wentworth Group answer the question: what will the impact be on the Great Artesian Basin? No, they cannot. Can the CSIRO? In their most recent report, they said they had serious concerns about long-term impacts. The National Water Commission have said that they are very concerned about long-term impacts. So that is what has been said by those bodies who look after water and the serious environmental issues in our desert continent.

If you are going to have food security and food production, if you are going to maintain ecosystems into the future, you have to protect your river systems. You have to protect your groundwater. You have to protect the Great Artesian Basin. None of those things are protected. There is no precautionary principle being engaged here. Governments are simply turning a blind eye. What is this parliament going to do? When it was put to the Leader of the Opposition on radio that landholders must have the last word surely on when anyone can enter their property, Mr Abbott, said:

... there is an old saying—an Englishman's home is his castle.

He went on to say:

... the thing is if, if you don't want something to happen on your land, you ought to have a right to say no.

I agree with Mr Abbott: you ought to have the right to say no. He went on:

... okay, under certain circumstances the Government ought to be able to resume your land but it has to be done at a fair price.

Yes, and that is about compulsory acquisition and this bill has nothing to do with compulsorily acquiring land. This bill says that a farmer has the right to say no, that they do not want coal seam gas activities on their property.

I have heard the government say, 'We've always had the situation where the minerals underneath the ground are collectively owned by the people and therefore not the preserve of the farmer at the surface.' This is an entirely different industry to all the things that have gone before in terms of extraction. This is a situation where not only are they coming on the land and disrupting the activities on the land, and adversely impacting the person carrying on agricultural activities but they are jeopardising the long-term capacity of the land to produce food because of the contamination of ground­water, the lowering of the groundwater, and the potential long-term impacts on the Great Artesian Basin. So if ever there was an argument for a farmer to say no, it is now.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition. So what happened? I think he must not have remembered to write it down, because within days the opposition spokesperson was manoeuvring to clarify what his leader said. Mr Macfarlane had to clarify this issue and back off absolutely. Where are the Nationals on this? The National Party tell farmers they are out there protecting their interests. But all they are doing is talking to farmers about getting fair compensation. Compensation is fair if a farmer says, 'Okay, I am prepared to have coal seam gas.' It is appropriate then that there are appropriate levels of compensation. But that is a cop-out from the fundamental point: should a landholder have a right to say, 'No, you cannot come onto my property and you may not drill wells on my property for coal seam gas'? That is the point of this legislation and that is the challenge for the parliament here. It is very straightforward. Anyone who goes out to rural Queensland will be able to see the adverse impacts. Talk to the community groups—and I have cited the one from the Myall Lakes in New South Wales—and you will find people are putting in submissions all over the place. There is ample evidence of the adverse impacts.

It is now time to make decisions. It is no longer appropriate for people to say: 'It is not obvious yet. We are not sure about the long-term impacts. We'll just proceed regardless.' We should not be proceeding regardless because the question is: are you putting the profits of mining and gas companies ahead of the capacity of farmers to stay on the land and produce food, and to stay on the land and produce food sustainably by maintaining access to uncontaminated water?

We all know that water becomes contaminated where there is fracking involved. Of the chemicals used in fracking, only six of around 60 chemicals that are used have even been assessed, so nobody actually knows what the long-term impact of these activities is going to be.

Yes, the New South Wales government panicked in the face of community uproar, especially as this has reached the suburbs of Sydney. I understand St Peters has become an area of exploration and people in the suburbs are now saying: 'For goodness sake! What is going on here? You are giving these companies the right to dig up suburbia as well as to dig all over the rural and regional areas.' But in New South Wales the moratorium is only against fracking; it is not against the ongoing rolling out of coal seam gas across New South Wales.

If the coalition and the government have a vision for Australia as being a quarry for miners—dig it up, cut it down, ship it away; dig it up, cut it down, pump out the gas as well—then let me put on the record that that means we will seriously reduce the capacity of this country to produce food and, furthermore, we will see more farmers driven off their land.

I note the submission from Doctors for the Environment Australia to the inquiry of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. They made a strong case that we are already seeing high rates of mental illness in rural and regional Australia because of the stresses associated with trying to stay on the land, with collapsing commodity prices and with the high dollar acting against them. Farmers are already under pressure as a result of extreme weather events like the drought we suffered through the Murray-Darling Basin and of course the floods that occurred more recently.

People in rural and regional Australia want to get on with the job of producing food and do not want to be harassed by companies they do not want on their land. That is the question here: when are we going to stand up and say, 'We are going to support farmers because we prioritise food security, ecologically sustainable agriculture and the right of farmers and farming communities to influence their own destiny'? Or are we going to say that the destiny of rural and regional Australia is in the hands of mining and gas companies—many of which are owned outside Australia and many of whose profits leave Australia—and leave rural communities absolutely devastated and destroyed by this industry. That is what we are actually seeing right now.

I am very interested in what the coalition is going to say, because in spite of Mr Macfarlane trying to reposition the coalition there is nothing clearer than what the Leader of the Opposition had to say originally—before he wrote it down. I do not know whether he has written down his backdown on this particular issue, but it is clear that the opposition no longer supports the right of a farmer in Australia to say no to coal seam gas exploration and drilling wells on their land. Well, the Greens do say no and the Greens are putting it to this parliament and inviting everyone in the parliament to either join us and say no or go out and tell people in rural and regional Australia why they should not have the right to say no.

I will conclude my remarks with a discussion of climate change. People are arguing you need coal seam gas in order to attack the accelerating impact of climate change. Let me get this straight: there is a lot of emerging evidence to say that coal seam gas, because it is methane, has a much, much greater impact on global warming in the short term than carbon dioxide has. What you are going to do if you accelerate the mining of coal seam gas is put a blast of methane to the atmosphere in the short term and actually make the situation worse in the short term than it otherwise would have been. The short term matters, because global emissions have to peak and come down. The scientists agree that the date for that should have been 2015 but, because we are not going to meet 2015, they have now said it should be at least by 2020. We are not going to get global emissions to peak and come down by 2020 if we engage in this massive expansion of coal seam gas across the planet. We are seeing an acceleration of climate change, as I pointed out in here only a week ago, with record loss of Arctic ice. Once you lose that, of course, you get massive emissions to the atmosphere after the ice has melted, with impacts on the tundra et cetera.

This is something Australia needs to take seriously. We need to have a strategic plan for food production in Australia in light of these issues, and that is why I am co-hosting a bill this afternoon, with Senator Xenophon, about protecting agricultural land in relation to foreign ownership. Not only are we seeing the loss of food production through extreme weather events; we are now seeing other countries moving in and buying up large tracts of agricultural land around the world to feed their own people—not to put into the trade but to feed their own people when other countries opt not to export. There has been a massive land grab around the world and it is happening with agricultural land in this country as well. Already 30 per cent of water licences in Western Australia are foreign owned or partially foreign owned, and 40 per cent of the Northern Territory's land area is already partially or fully foreign owned. Those things should be a matter of concern to this parliament.

If you are serious about sustainability, if you are serious about food security, if you are serious about keeping farmers on the land and taking the pressure and stress away from them then you will support this bill giving them the right to say no, they do not want coal seam gas explorers and their wells on their properties. There should be a very firm commitment from this parliament on push-back, or else this parliament will be giving a wink and a nod to this generation of profiteers to jeopardise the Great Artesian Basin. (Time expired)