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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 6021

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (21:34): If I can go through the questions in order, first of all the shadow minister referred to the Home Insulation Program and disciplinary action, past or present. In response to that I inform the House that, while the Home Insulation Program and the entire governance of that were contained in what back then was called the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, that is not the department that I now administer. Those sections of the department some time ago were transferred to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Since that time the arts section has also left my department, a number of housing functions have come in and the sustainable population unit was transferred from Treasury to my department. So, while the question may be pertinent, it is not one where there is any direct carriage within this portfolio, and that one should appropriately be directed to Minister Combet.

In terms of marine wildlife, I remain deeply concerned about the protection of all listed species, and I think it is fair to say that for dugongs, sea turtles and dolphins there is a particular attachment that all Australians feel; they are deeply concerned. We need to be mindful of what the actual challenges to those populations are. The claims made by the people referred to by the shadow minister in his question are not claims that I necessarily agree with. I do not accept that the principal thing that you need to do in order to protect these species is to change the exemption of the Native Title Act. This is not an argument that was made by the shadow minister—I want to make that clear; I do not want to be seen to be verballing him—but he named a couple of people in his question, and they do run an argument that one of the principal problems for dugong populations in particular and for sea turtles is that the environmental legislation does not apply in instances of harvesting for the purposes of native title. That is not an exemption the government seeks to change. I think it is a fair argument from traditional owners that, of all the different groups in the community that might be responsible for the numbers of a species starting to deplete, it is not them.

There is a separate argument about culling where it has been done by people who are not in fact the traditional owners of the particular area and an argument that there is a rogue element which is involved in culling not for local or traditional use but, in fact, for trade. This is something which the state minister and I have been working on. I have a firm view that the way to deal with this is through finding mechanisms that work with Indigenous leadership. I have spoken to different groups. Everyone who knows Cape York knows there are very different groups across Cape York, and I have spoken separately with each of them. I think that, if we want to find a solution to the rogue element which does exist in that part of our country with respect to dugongs and sea turtles in particular, we have to acknowledge that it will never be able to be fully patrolled. The only way to be able to fix what is a problem—it is not the principal cause of problems for these populations, but it is real—is to have mechanisms that allow for Aboriginal leadership to come forward and play a direct role.

The state minister and I are working on that. We are very close to having a resolution, but part of having a resolution of this nature work and work properly is to make sure that it is not yet another case of governments telling traditional owners that this is how it must be, because if you do that then, in the same instance, you very likely take away the opportunity for leadership that may actually be able to break some of the elements which are currently causing concern. Traditional owners will themselves talk about the concern that is there with the rogue element. They would like to be part of the solution, and I have to say I think the options that are put forward by the people named by the shadow minister would completely crush the opportunity for Aboriginal leadership to form a big part of the solution on that issue. (Extension of time granted)

The shadow minister also asked with respect to the issue of the koala: 'Will there be consideration of a regional listing process?' Yes, and that is something that I have already sought some advice from my department on. It is something which obviously I would want to take advice on from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. It can be the case that regional listing can be done and with respect to the koala that is something that I am open to. I have made a decision and have said previously publicly that there is a parliamentary inquiry in place on this issue and I wanted to be able to work through its recommendations before I dealt with that further.

The government's commitment to heritage remains. The staffing changes referred to by the shadow minister are in the context of two expiring programs. One of them, importantly, was attached to the stimulus program, and I think it would be reasonable for people to accept that, as part of the stimulus program, once it is exhausted it would not get renewed nor is it prudent to have public servants attached to a program which no longer exists. So, yes, when programs expire that does mean you end up with fewer people in a particular section of the department. I think in those circumstance it is an appropriate way to deal with expiring programs. There is new heritage money in the budget through the Community Heritage Program, and the government does reserve the right to deal with these issues in different ways through different programs. That makes no difference to our capacity to deal with approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. That capacity remains.

The member for Gippsland then asked about a 2007 election promise—$3 million which dealt with water flowing into Gippsland Lakes. I know the promise well. I was responsible for implementing it after we came to office. When the Gippsland Lakes commitment was made, there was no such program as Caring for our Country. We now have Caring for our Country. The Gippsland Lakes program in its initial form was an election promise in advance of Caring for our Country coming into existence and further funds for programs of that type continue to find eligibility through Caring for our Country when the rounds for that program take place.

The member for Maranoa then asked about the Surat Basin—and I do acknowledge that from the moment I took on the Environment portfolio there has been engagement from the member for Maranoa, who does have strong views which in large part reflect many of the farmers in the area that he represents with concerns about what coal-seam gas would mean for their properties and for their water supply. My obligations are very strictly aligned to matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act. With that in mind, there are some issues which sometimes people would want me to take into account which do not fall into consideration of the act. The specific international examples that were quoted by the member I know something about. There were some elements of detail that he raised tonight which went beyond some of the information that I had, and I thank him for providing that information to the House.

The principal issue which did fall as a matter of national environmental significance was the impact that coal-seam gas operations could have on the Great Artesian Basin. Effectively there are two different views of the science here and they go to whether the coal seams are watertight or whether they are porous. It is probable that there are some coal seams which represent one and some represent the other—probably both theories in different examples are right. The fear is that, if they are porous, when water is removed following the fracking process you will get the water from the rest of the Great Artesian Basin essentially seeping backwards and refilling the coal seams. If they are watertight, that is not a risk. The conditions that I put in place when I provided the approvals which affect the electorate demanded that individual testing happen seam by seam. If they are watertight then the problems for the Great Artesian Basin do not come about. If they are in fact porous then in those situations, whether it be re-pressurisation or whether it be reinjection, the company has an obligation to work in either way. The questioner then went on to ask: how does ongoing research play a role here? One of the conditions that I put in place for that region was the ongoing oversight of a scientific committee. With any environmental conditions that are put in place it is generally important to have—but I think that with coal seam gas, when we are dealing with a new technology, it is really important to be able to have—an adaptive management process. I think you need to have a situation where, as new information comes to light, the rules can work with that. So if something that we had thought might have been a problem turns out to have been too precautionary then a company will have a valid argument to say they want to see something revisited. If something is subsequently seen as having been not precautionary enough then you want to get on to it early, and have a science based process that allows something to be revisited. I think the role of the scientific committee meets the ongoing research requests that were made by the member for Maranoa.

The member for Riverina, in providing both speech and high points of rhetoric for this room, in a good and passionate contribution referred to the recommendation of the Windsor inquiry calling for an immediate cessation of non-strategic buyback. The member for Riverina then drew attention to the fact that there were some tenders which then went ahead on the Monday following the release of that report. I want to make clear that those tenders had already been advertised before the Windsor inquiry came out with its recommendation in good faith, and I think it is a tribute to the privilege of parliamentary process. I did not know that recommendation was coming until I sat in the parliament and heard the member for New England let me know that that was a unanimous recommendation from the committee.

When a tender is advertised, people begin to organise around that tender coming forward. They organise their finances and they change their behaviour, because they know the tender is coming forward. I believe it would have caused real uncertainty, and would simply have been the wrong thing to do, to view the tenders that were formally opened on the Monday as being anything other than already in train, given that the ads not only had been already placed but also had run publicly in many places throughout the basin. There was a strong view from the irrigation sector that there had been a long-term expectation—and some of these had been advertised a long time in advance. Ads had been placed, they had started to run, and we decided that it was too late to stop those particular tenders.

The rolling tenders, following these two, reached a conclusion of everything that had been announced. Future decisions on how we proceed with buyback will be made after the draft report has been released. I suspect we are not too far away. I still suspect we have quite a few weeks to go. But there will be a little bit of time before that happens.

Finally, we heard from the member for Riverina on the issue of infrastructure money versus buyback money. Make no mistake: buyback is an essential part of water reform. It is. There is a call from the committee to do it in as strategic a way as possible, and we are following the draft report. We will be able to announce our pathway of doing that. On infrastructure money, as the member for Riverina knows, there is work now being done with the states to try to make sure we can find a constructive way of getting the money that has been earmarked for infrastructure spent on infrastructure.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Infrastructure and Transport Portfolio

Proposed expenditure, $704,974,000