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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 6782

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (10:11): It is not a great surprise that, when we look at an area where there has been some concern expressed, particularly in rural and regional areas of Australia, about 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, the Australian Greens are there to rush forward with a solution. The 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. The question of being able to address an issue as complex as this with a simple solution, I might say a simplistic solution, is one that the Senate deserves to give closer attention to than is presented by the opportunity of this bill.

This bill represents far too ready a solution to a problem which is, in fact, a complex one, which deserves case-by-case consideration in many instances and is one which state governments are generally grappling with with varying degrees of success. We need to remind ourselves that this is, indeed, a state responsibility. The use of land is a primary responsibility of our states and territories, and for the Greens to enter into this space in this way 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 a few weeks ago 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 the 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, Tony Abbott, has 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 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 agricultural and resource industry activities is not only possible but is also, in fact, the norm. Both 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.

I had the opportunity a few months ago to visit the electorate of Flynn in Central Queensland—the electorate of Mr Ken O'Dowd, the LNP member, who is fully apprised of the concerns of local landowners about how their land is used and how prime agricultural land may be at risk. It is through representations such as his that the LNP in Queensland has come to address this issue directly. I will speak about that in a moment. 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 we either exploit the resources or we 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 very 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 blanket decisions being imposed on parties by legislation introduced in the federal parliament.

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.

Senator Waters: Not anymore.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You will have your opportunity, Senator, to put an alternative point of view. We know how well embedded the Greens are in rural Australia, how popular they are there and how many people vote for them in those parts of Australia. I am sure you have very good connections that tell you what is going on there—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): Senator Humphries, please address your remarks through the chair.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. 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 level and the state and territory level to solve these 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 or another.

As I said, there are numerous examples of farmers and mining companies working cooperatively and negotiating mutually beneficial outcomes. The development of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland 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 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 mining industry. Coal seam gas companies operating in Queensland, and I include among those Queensland Gas Co. and Santos, have in fact 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 Co.'s work on private properties in Queensland 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. In fact, Queensland Gas Co. prefers voluntary agreements and now has more than 800 agreements following negotiations on land access with about 1,000 landholders across the state.

The coalition believe that there are some sections of productive land that are of such significance that they should be given additional safeguards. We acknowledge that 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, not just in Queensland but also in New South Wales, that state governments are apprised of the need to take steps that make it clearer what are the respective responsibilities and rights of parties on both sides of this debate. The O'Farrell government in New South Wales have certainly taken steps to balance the needs of mining and agriculture in that state. The government there have 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, ensure a sustainable and healthy mining industry and 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 before the Senate today. I might also add that the O'Farrell government are developing at the present time a system of stringent groundwater regulation. They are reviewing fracking standards and they are reviewing access arrangements. So this is very much a matter under close consideration by governments such as that.

I mentioned before that the Liberal National Party in Queensland had 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 but does raise 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. I think that, with steps such as that, the LNP is well placed to provide for the people of Queensland a much better, more balanced approach than has been achieved by the knee-jerk reaction of the Bligh government to this problem.

It is also necessary to put on the record that the Senate itself has a committee that is currently looking at the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, including the impact of mining coal seam gas. The Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee, chaired by Senator Heffernan, will report on 30 November. Waiting might not be in the genes of the Greens, but it would be a good idea in this case to do so. I note that committee will examine:

The economic, social and environmental impacts of mining coal seam gas on:

the sustainability of water aquifers and future water licensing arrangements;

the property rights and values of landholders;

the sustainability of prime agricultural land and Australia’s food task;

the social and economic benefits or otherwise for regional towns and the effective management of relationships between mining and other interests; and

other related matters including health impacts.

I have been in this place long enough to be lectured plenty of times by the Greens about the need to pay close attention to what committees in this place do and to listen to what the committees are saying before making decisions, yet on this occasion it does not appear as if the Greens are prepared to follow their own advice.

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 dirty energy, when in fact coal seam gas is significantly cleaner in terms of greenhouse emissions than many other alternative fossil fuels. I note Senator Furner referred to it being 70 per cent less productive of emissions than other forms of fossil fuels and I have no reason to doubt that is the case.

With this legislation the Greens portray themselves once again as a beast that is strangely torn between adhering to the best science and being the 21st century's version of the Luddites. On areas such as global warming, they are prepared to trot out scientists ad nauseam to tell us how we need to change our ways and to improve our performance as a carbon-producing society. In areas like exploitation of natural resources and genetic modification of food the Greens seem to shy away from the best application of science. They seem to think that it is their preserve to pick and choose what science they believe and what science they do not. It is possible to use technology to exploit coal seam gas in this country in a way which balances the needs of both mining and farming users of that land. For the Greens to characterise this in other ways is just dishonest.

I also cannot help but mention that once again we see the Greens shifting and changing on the question of the rights of states and territories. I think the last piece of legislation the Greens presented to this Senate, only a few weeks ago, was legislation to prevent federal governments from disallowing the laws of territory parliaments. Today, we have been presented with legislation which effectively tells state and territory governments how they deal with their most important single area of responsibility—the use of their land. State and territory governments probably have no more important responsibility than managing the land mass of those states and territories. That is their responsibility and they have a longstanding constitutional responsibility for dealing with mining leases and with agricultural issues. Everything contained in this bill effectively cuts across respon­sibilities of state and territory governments.

But that does not bother the Greens because the Greens do not have those sorts of concerns about being a supporter of one group one day and being a supporter of the enemies of that group the next day. They are perfectly capable of doing that. Senator, as you spend more time in this place, I think you will need to develop a better sense of what a mish-mash the Greens are with their policies and their causes. The fact is that the Greens are, above all, a populist party. They detect some concern about this issue and so they decide that they have a solution. They rush forward into the Senate with a solution to issues which are complex and which deserve careful, sober consideration almost on a case-by-case basis. The Senate therefore should soundly reject this half-baked proposal from the Greens today and allow other processes to deal with these complex but important issues.