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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2922

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:00): I begin my contribution on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013 by reflecting on the fact that in my community of Gippsland the issue of coal seam gas has become somewhat controversial, as it has in other parts of regional Australia—I think of Queensland, but more particularly throughout New South Wales. I do make the point from the outset that we need to be reasonable, responsible and balanced in the way we approach this issue in our communities. That is not the case when it comes to the Australian Labor Party.

The CSG industry has the potential to secure Australia's energy self-sufficiency. It can certainly boost the national economy; it can create thousands of jobs, and most of those jobs will be in regional Australia. For those opposite—who come in here and pretend to care about the environment, who lecture us on a daily basis about the need to reduce emissions—to turn their back on coal seam gas, which has emissions in the order of 70 per cent lower than coal, is foolhardy, and I suggest it is purely political opportunism that has driven them to their position.

This is an issue that members of the National Party have been very familiar with and have engaged with our communities on for many years. If I were to describe my own position in relation to CSG, I would say I was somewhat of an agnostic. I certainly want environmental safeguards in place, as every member does, but I also want the jobs, the economic prosperity, that the industry can deliver for regional communities. It has already managed to deliver that in Queensland, for in the order of 10 or 15 years.

It is amazing that members have come into this place and basically had the revelation that there is coal seam gas in regional Australia. It is only when it has been of interest to their own communities that they have realised that regional Australia has been discussing these issues for many years. I note the presence of the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government in the chamber, and he is one who has been responsible and reasonable in this debate. Some of his colleagues could certainly learn from the minister in the way they approach this issue.

I urge those opposite to be very careful with their rhetoric. They come into this place and sprout emotional rhetoric that does not stand scrutiny, and certainly it jeopardises the potential for future development in regional communities. That is why there was bipartisan support when the minister introduced his plan to develop a scientific panel. There is concern in the community about issues associated with coal seam gas. The member for Parkes was quite right in his commentary yesterday when he said that this was an issue which needed greater engagement within our communities—it does not need invective, hyperbole and the emotional rhetoric which we have seen from some interest groups right throughout regional Australia in recent months.

In my electorate of Gippsland I have met with anyone who wants to talk about this issue. I have met with people who are opposed to coal seam gas and I have met with industry representative who have plans for exploration across the Gippsland Basin. I have told the industry very bluntly that they have a challenge—a challenge to earn the social licence to continue with these proposals. They need to consult with my community; they need to consult with other parts of regional Australia. They need to provide full disclosure on the environmental issues and provide factual information to our communities to reassure them that they can continue with this work in a responsible manner. My concern is that the bill to amend the EPBC Act has nothing to do with practically engaging with the community; it has nothing to do with improvements to environment safeguards. Frankly, it is all about politics. I fear that this government is not dealing fairly with the industry based on the merits of the issue.

In the speech of the member for Richmond yesterday there was no acknowledgement—not a single mention—of who put the permits in place in her electorate in the first place. There was not a mention of the New South Wales Labor government, which put those exploration permits in place in the first place. There was not a mention that it was the New South Wales Labor Party that created the mess that she referred to and which has been left to the coalition in New South Wales to clean up. There was also no mention that this is primarily a state issue. It is primarily the responsibility of state governments. If we are going to continually override state governments and continue to strip them of their responsibilities, and add layer upon layer of bureaucracy and duplication, how can we reasonably expect industry to invest with any confidence.

There has been a hysterical reaction whipped up by the member for Richmond in her own electorate for her own base political purposes. I believe it is irresponsible for members to be whipping up this campaign in their communities, scaring their communities, for the sole purpose of winning their seat at the next election. The member for Richmond yesterday referred to the Nationals' five-point plan to roll out coal seam gas. She has used it as an attack point for her opposition in the seat of Richmond. She has tried to discredit the Nationals' candidate, Matthew Fraser, who is being very responsible—

Mr McCormack: A shame.

Mr CHESTER: It is a shame—a shame that we have a candidate out there being very responsible and trying to engage with the community in a responsible manner, and we have the incumbent member, paranoid, terrified about losing her seat, attacking the Nationals' candidate. She referred to that five-point plan as though it were something new. As I said earlier, the Nationals have been engaged in this issue for months and months and months, if not years. In November 2011 the Nationals were the first party to lay down a clear path for dealing with this issue. We took a position on CSG in November 2011, after we met as a party, and our leader Warren Truss said at that time that the coal seam gas industry had the potential to generate an economic boom but if it was poorly managed it could become an environmental and social disaster. We put on the record then that we wanted steps taken to deliver that boom to provide those opportunities for our young people in regional Australia but to avoid potential disaster.

The member for Richmond likes to talk about the five-point plan as if she has discovered some cunning proposal by the Nationals to indulge in deals with industry. As far as I am aware, there has only been one party in New South Wales to indulge in deals with industry and that was the Australian Labor Party. She is promoting this five-point plan as if there is some great scandal. The five-point plan has been out there for 18 months. I do not think there is any member here that disagrees with our five-point plan because the points have been adopted by the Australian Labor Party and by the Liberal Party anyway.

The policy position that we took in November 2011 was quite simply this: we said that no CSG development should proceed where its poses a significant risk to the quality of groundwater or surface water systems or the environment more generally. Funnily enough, that is what we are talking about here today. In November 2011 that was the first point in our five-point plan. It also said: strategic agricultural land must be protected from activities that destroy its capacity to deliver food security. Well, every member in this place has agreed with that position as well. We have made the point for months that we should be taking steps to protect our prime agricultural land.

We also said in November 2011 that landholders are entitled to an appropriate return from the CSG projects in return for access to their land. The issue of access is a fundamental point in this debate. It staggers me that members opposite have only just realised that. We have been saying for months and months that landholders deserve a fair return for providing access to their properties.

We also said 18 months ago that regions deserve a fair share of revenues generated from coal seam gas generated in their communities. Hello, that is the exact policy that the Western Australian Nationals took to the people of Western Australia four years ago. They developed their Royalties for Regions program, which has been universally supported since then. In fact, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party in Western Australia election campaign actually advocated for the Royalties for Regions program. They are all claiming it as their own. Suddenly there is a recognition that returning a fair return of royalties from revenue which has been derived from regional communities is a good deal. Again, that is four points of the nationals plan—this cunning plan the member for Richmond thinks she has revealed—which have been supported by members on both sides of the House.

The last point on our five-point plan from November 2011 was this: coal seam gas development should not occur close to existing residential areas. What is the cunning five-point plan the member for Richmond is talking about? If that is the five-point plan she is talking about, her party agrees with it. These are reasonable, rational points we have made that have been supported by the Minister for the Environment, by the minister for industry and, I would imagine, the minister for regional affairs, who is here with me today, would probably agree as well. We believe that regional communities need to get a fair return and be treated with respect by the industry.

It staggers me that we have had this hysteria by the member for Richmond because it is an honour and a privilege to come to this place and represent our communities. But having that honour and having that privilege also carries a very heavy responsibility. We have to act with integrity in our communities. We have to be reasonable and balanced about issues. This member, the member for Richmond, has done a huge disservice to her community with the way she has inflamed tensions for her own base political motives. This is all about the member for Richmond winning her own seat and nothing about the interests of the people of regional Australia.

In her address yesterday, the member for Richmond described the Nationals as environment vandals. I would urge the member for Richmond to refer to the record of her own minister for the environment when he was the minister for agriculture, because the minister for agriculture at that time, Tony Burke, ripped $11 million out of the forward estimates for Landcare. If you want to talk to me about environmental vandalism, it is taking $11 million out of Landcare, the great practical environmentalist in our nation, because you have struck a bit of budget hard times.

I caution people listening to this debate that the Labor-Greens alliance, which is presenting itself in regional areas as being the friends of farmers and friends of regional communities are not their friends at all. Many of these people are not campaigning against coal seam gas, per se. They are campaigning against fossil fuels. They hate all fossil fuels. This has got nothing to do with coal seam gas for many of these people. It is just another campaign of misinformation and false claims which are designed to destroy any form of fossil fuel development in our nation.

Having said all that, I believe there are legitimate concerns hence I support the Nationals' five-point plan. I think it is reasonable for members in this place to raise their concerns and try to deal with them by working closely with their communities. I think it is essential we have strict environmental protocols in how we develop this industry and I think it is essential that the scientific panel established by the minister for the environment has the support of both sides of the House and they were good moves. But I fear the amendment we are talking about today is just another layer of bureaucracy and duplication. Really, we are talking about an issue which is still primarily a state issue. It is an appalling message to the gas and the mining sectors that we simply do not want your investment. We have created another level of insecurity on development in our regions at a time when the regional economies are already struggling.

I believe this has been more about the members opposite drumming up a scare campaign to distract their constituents from the monumental stuff-ups of the Rudd and Gillard governments. They are saying: look over there at coal seam gas; do not look at the home insulation debacle; look over there at coal seam gas; do not look at our failure to control the borders; look at that coal seam gas; do not look at the carbon tax promise that I will never deliver a carbon tax under a government I lead; do not look at the mining tax farce; do not look at the billions of dollars that were wasted on overpriced school halls.

This is a campaign of distraction to say: look anywhere else but do not look at our record. Members in those seats cannot stand on their records because their records have been appalling. By supporting the Rudd and Gillard governments through the monumental stuff-ups, these members are simply saying: we cannot stand on our record so we will distract you with a scare campaign about coal seam gas; do not look at us fighting amongst ourselves; do not look at us having meetings in the back rooms of parliament all this week talking about whether Kevin should come back, whether Simon should come back or whether Julia should stay until after the budget. Sid Sidebottom, the member for Braddon, would be a tremendous Prime Minister. I think it should be Sid. Certainly the member for Hotham has equal claims to it as the member for Griffith. They are saying: do not look at us; look at some distraction over here; look at the coal seam gas issue and we will try and muddle our way through and get elected in September this year.

The people of the Tweed region deserve better. The people of the Richmond electorate are smarter than their local MP. They will see through this hoax. They will see through this effort to distract them, this smoke and mirrors from the member for Richmond. The people of the electorate of Richmond deserve better than they are getting right now.

Matthew Fraser, the candidate who is being so unfairly vilified by the member for Richmond in her newspaper attacks, is an outstanding candidate. He is a young man who is passionate; he is determined and he wants to make a difference in his community. The great thing about this young man is that he actually has a background in business. Fancy that! Fancy having a candidate with a background in business! There is not one member of the government's cabinet who has a background in business or who actually lives in regional Australia—not one minister lives in regional Australia. How can we expect the Gillard and Rudd cabinets, or maybe a future Crean cabinet, or a Sidebottom cabinet, to represent regional Australia when not one of them actually lives in regional Australia?

The people of Richmond deserve better than they are getting right now. They deserve a strong Nationals candidate. I will be endorsing Matthew Fraser, and I am happy to campaign with him in the interests of his entire community. (Time expired)