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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 6795

Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (11:12): There are so many things that the previous speaker, Senator Bishop, said on the Landholders' Right To Refuse (Coal Seam Gas) Bill that I would like to deal with—I could spend the rest of my time on them—but let me start with the Greens. The Greens, who apparently want to put themselves up as the champions of coal seam gas by reason of the protection of property rights, are the same Greens who were quite at one with divesting the landholder of their rights for the ownership of the trees and the vegetation on their place. They never put up a bill to hand that property right back to the farmers. They never cared about that—shutting down the land by basically divesting the person of their vegetation rights. They are also the same Greens that want to take 7,600 gigalitres out of the Murray-Darling Basin to shut it down. They never put up a bill saying they do not believe in shutting down the Murray-Darling Basin. They are quite happy to do that. So they will take the vegetation rights off you, they will take irrigation rights off you, they will absolutely tie you up like Franz Kafka in red tape up and down the Great Barrier Reef with environmental regulations, and then we are supposed to believe them when they come in here to talk about their views on coal seam gas and the property rights of farmers. We know exactly what they are doing: they are creating a wedge. That is their right, but they should be upfront about it.

There are so many people back where I live who would love the opportunity to speak in this chamber about something that is so pertinent to their lives. Yes, their issues must be addressed, but let us start at the beginning. We have an inquiry that is afoot. The extension of the terms of that inquiry—my name was put to it on the website because you were attacking the National Party—were put up by the National Party. You now sit on that inquiry with the National Party to try to bring about a resolution. That committee will report in mid-November. Senator Heffernan, who is in here; is chairing it. We in the National Party have been driving this agenda. We are happy that we have taken it. But we will want to collect the votes around this chamber to come up with a constructive outcome. There are four issues that need to be dealt with. First and foremost, we must make sure that the aquifers are protected and not destroyed. We acknowledge that there are serious questions as to whether anyone knows what is going on. Prime agricultural land must be protected. Tony Abbott has stated that, and I am happy he has done so. That is movement we have never got from Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or anybody else, but now we have—from Tony Abbott. We have moved the agenda for the protection of prime agri¬≠cultural land, and it was essential we did so. I would say that the people east of the Condamine are precisely on prime agri¬≠cultural land. Anna Bligh moved for the buffer zone around residential areas, yes, but wasn't it funny that that happened after we got this inquiry afoot? We do not want people's quiet enjoyment being disturbed by the intrusion into their lives of a problem that they did not buy when they bought their house. That issue has to be addressed. If you tick the boxes—not destroying the aquifers, not destroying prime agricultural land, not destroying the quiet enjoyment of a residential estate—then there must be a proper pecuniary return delivered to the farmer. Currently they are getting less then 75c for every $1,000 that is earned by the miner.

It is very important to go through the history here, because some of the things that were said by Senator Bishop, although well meaning, were just not correct. He went right back and talked about what happened in 1200. Magna Carta was actually 1215, without trying to sound too eccentric. If we go right back to that, we find that the Latin maxim at that point in time was cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos: you owned from the heavens above to the infernal regions. In the 16th century, that was changed—the crown took from them gold and silver, fair enough. But there is still the contention that these rights have been displaced for hundreds of years; Bill Shorten, Craig Emerson and other people have said it, but they are just incorrect. Certainly the Crown in Australia had prospecting rights—it still does, and it should—but it did not have extracting rights; those had to be negotiated with the landholder. Over time, by reason of national crises, those rights have been taken from the farmer. A very good dissertation on that was given by Neville Wran in his second reading speech on the New South Wales Coal Acquisition Bill of 1981. Queensland's Petroleum Act of 1915 says:

… it is hereby declared that petroleum on or below the surface of all land in Queensland, whether alienated in fee simple or not so alienated from the Crown, and if so alienated whensoever alienated, is and always has been the property of the Crown.

This is where in 1915 the Queensland government took those assets, the coal and the oil, from the farmer by reason of the First World War. It could see the calamity unfolding in Europe and wanted to ensure the security of their hydrocarbon material. The war finished, but the asset was never handed back. That legislation is obviously imbalanced, because all the rights—the presumption of ownership rights—that were held by the farmer were taken from the farmer, but there was no legislation to compensate in any way or to give any form of security right to the farmer. In South Australia, similar legislation was introduced in 1971. In the territories it was 1953. There were other, related, acts during the 1930s—I think 1935 or 1938, although 1938 may have been New Zealand. In New South Wales the final removal of this asset that was owned by the farmer happened in 1981. So it is not correct to say that farmers never had this asset; they did. It is an asset which historically they owned and that was extracted from their land. That is why frustration and absolute anger are permeating through farmers. They are finding that someone has a superior right of ownership because of a transaction they have never been a party to, involving people they have never met, in a room they have never been to. In Western Australia—Colin Barnett stated this the other day—people still have the right of veto on freehold land. I note that the majority of Western Australia is leasehold land, but this is where you see the imbalance.

The other problem is that the states are compromised. The states are the second-biggest beneficiary from mining, after the miners. The landholder sits there with no parity in the bargaining process. This is why we are conducting the inquiry. We need to be able to collect the numbers in such a way as to bring some sort of outcome. The Greens jump in with a little wedge bill once other people have done the hard work—they always do it. They put it in the middle of the process and then say, 'We provided a solution but you wouldn't take it.' No, because you have to go through the process. We are taking this extremely seriously. I think Senator Heffernan is taking it very seriously, Senator Shaun Edwards is taking it very seriously and no doubt the Greens are taking it very seriously. But, if you are serious on this, there has to be consistency on other things such as handing back to farmers their vegetation rights, making sure you do not compromise the irrigation rights of farmers, making sure you do not tie up farmers with environmental laws that completely ipso facto remove their sovereign right of ownership. You have to be consistent on this, and we will hold the Greens to it.

This is absolutely a core issue. The core of my involvement in the National Party is property rights—it is one of the key issues. What is the point of going to work and working for something if you find out later on that you do not actually own it? What is the point of going through the privations, of going without, if someone has a superior right of ownership to you? I have to declare my interest. I bought a place when I came into parliament. I sold my accountancy practice, got a little bit of money and jammed it into a property. I grew up on the land and I like the land. I will be going down there next week to do the cattle work. About six months ago my neighbour Bruce McConaghy rang up and said, 'Eastern Star Gas is here, and they're going to do exploratory work on your place.' So there it is: I declare my interest. But it is like saying that someone who is thrown in the sea has an interest in swimming. I have an interest in making sure we get this right, and I think the people who live around me are absolutely focused on making sure there is a bit of mustard on my tail, because it makes me work very hard for a just outcome.

There is this idea that people can go to court over this. That is a load of rubbish. This is how it works: if a person comes on to my place in Queensland, he has to negotiate an access agreement with me. He has 50 days to do that. If, after 50 days, we have not negotiated an access agreement, he might just say, 'I like to go where I want, whenever I want, and I want to put a gravel road in to get there, and I want bore heads here, here and here.' If we cannot come to an agreement within 50 days because I say, 'Mate, I think you're absolutely destroying the whole complexion of my place,' then we go to the land court. However, once we go to the land court he is right; he can start work. And he gives me—the farmer—maybe $400 or $500 to deal with that. That is all I would get to try to deal with a mining company that has multiple billions of dollars worth of backing.

The disparity in the bargaining positions of the landowners and the companies is absurd. This is something that people from the Labor Party, who understand Work Choices, should understand. The disparity in the bargaining positions is outrageous. We have to try to make sure we help those who are weak against those who are strong and get a sense of equivalence. I know you people agree with that. So this is absurd.

The next part, of course, is that he—and I say 'he' because they are generally blokes—can pay what he wants. The companies can pay you what they want. You might say: 'You've completely compromised my asset here. I can't get on to my cultivation. Basically the place I purchased is not my own anymore, and nobody wants to buy it off me.' It is a case of 'Is that a drilling rig on your place, or are you just happy to see me?' Nobody wants your place once they see that you have a coal seam gas factory, basically, situated on the area where years ago you had your barley crop or your wheat crop.

They can pay you anything they want. In some instances we have heard of people getting a slab of beer as payment. Some of these wells are earning $1 million a day. And the company says: 'But we gave you $1,500 a year. You're so much better off now.' Then they put a confidentiality agreement on it so you cannot talk to anybody. You cannot talk to your fellow workers and find out what they are being paid. No, you are not allowed to do that.

I know that in the Labor Party there will be some essence—some little seed down in your soul—that would say: 'I don't think I agree with that sort of concept of how you bargain. I think there should be transparency in collective bargaining against a stronger party.' You have to be philosophically consistent and work out how you are going to deal with this issue. The committee is afoot, and we will want to see exactly how you participate in that process.

And then there is this argument that somehow private ownership is anathema to the progression of commerce. I did not think it was. I thought private ownership was something we actually believed in. I thought we believed in the right of the individual to be commensurate with their capacity not only to improve their own position but to improve the position of the community around them. Not only do I think that, but apparently so does Henry Ergas, who said, in relation to coal seam gas, in his Catallaxy Files:

Shifting the rights to farmers will not affect the extent of development; rather, it will affect who gains the rents from development.

I do not think they have had any problems in Texas, as far as development goes. They might have had problems environmentally; I acknowledge the visual interjections of other senators. But you cannot say Texas has stayed behind as far as mineral development goes. It is privately owned. They are doing all right. I do not want Texas in Baradine.

Senator Heffernan: The Wild West!

Senator JOYCE: I do not want that. But we have to debunk the argument that we can believe in private ownership and commerce but not believe in the rights of farmers to be greater masters of their destiny. We acknowledge the financial predicament Australia has got itself into with debt—both the debt of the states, who are going to be $250 billion in gross debt by 2014-15, and the position we are in federally, with $205 billion in gross debt. We know that means that if we do not have mining we do not have money, and if we do not have money we have a big, big problem. But this cannot come at the expense of the fundamental injustice we are now seeing in so many areas. If we ignore this issue, it will not go away.

The Armstrongs and the Brimblecombes, the people around Cecil Plains and the multigenerational farmers from down in the Lockyer, up into the Downs and out west are an extremely collegiate group. They are and will continue to be on the phone to one another, surveying the horizon and saying, 'Are we going to get a form of justice, and who is going to give us that justice?' They will be having discussions with people in northern New South Wales—with whom, as I have explained, I have some involvement. These people will then be talking to the people on the coast and to people everywhere else. They are our shareholders. The voters are our shareholders. They are the most important people to us. They are the people we are here to serve. We are their servants first and foremost, before allegiances to any other group, party, body or corporation. So there is that expectation. There is a Senate inquiry on foot. My belief is that that Senate inquiry will report and, from that, we will have the capacity to try and start to move this agenda. We must acknowledge that for the vast majority of this issue you must follow the money: who makes the money out of the royalties? It is the states. So the vast majority of the ownership of this problem rests with the states. That is not saying for one moment that we do not also have a role in this, because as far as the shareholder—the individual, the Australian citizen, the farmer—goes we are the closest thing they are ever going to get to an independent party, because the states are the second-biggest earners after the mining companies. But we cannot just quietly walk away from this. Likewise, we cannot have these sundry pieces of legislation that are slipped in prior to the conclusion of a process that is on foot, which is to bring about some sort of resolution, which has moved the agenda from the middle pages to the front pages and which has been at the forefront of keeping pressure on state Labor governments, such as in Queensland, to now bring about a two-kilometre buffer. These are the issues which have been brought about by the actions thus far, but it has not yet finished.

First of all, this issue has been brought up by Senator Waters. I have to say she is doing most of the work on this, although she is not going to get a chance to speak today. If they are consistent, we will see them working in an effective manner towards resolutions at the end of the inquiry. We will also see, in later times, when we bring up other things that may happen—when we reinstall the vegetation rights and so hand back farmers another asset that was stolen from them in the middle of the night without any compensation—we will get the same sort of emphatic support that they apparently have for the coal seam gas issue. And, when they later on tell us that we are going to lose 7,600 gigs from the Murray-Darling Basin, obviously that will change now—because they are worried about farmers now, so they will obviously change their views on that as well; otherwise, someone might just get a sniff of hypocrisy from a party that believes in stealing your trees, shutting down the Murray-Darling Basin, shutting down the live cattle trade, tying up legislation in caveats and imposts—but apparently does believe in coal-seam gas— (Time expired)