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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2929

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (11:30): It is always good to replace the soon to be replaced member for Dobell. He railed against my colleague the member for Gippsland for being far too political in his speech, and yet I have just listened to him for his full 15 minutes and his whole speech was entirely political, entirely anti the coalition. The coalition does have a plan for coal-seam gas, and I have to say that that follows on from the ideas put forward by the National Party way back in 2011. This is important legislation, and I certainly agree with the member for Dobell there. But to go picking on the coalition for its stance and to absolutely rail against the member for Gippsland and say that all of his speech was entirely political, and then to do the same himself, was hypocrisy in the extreme.

Farmers are the original environmentalists. I find it also hypocritical that so many people are talking about the importance of water, yet, when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was being discussed, very few people were even recognising the fact that water is our most precious resource. Mining is important, but water cannot be replaced. Water is our most precious resource. I take note that the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government is in the chamber. He charged the member for New England with the responsibility of chairing the Regional Australia Committee. The member for New England led an inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That committee brought down 21 very good, very solid recommendations that would have helped re-plumb the Murray-Darling Basin. If all of them had been adopted—and I am sure the member for New England will agree with me that they have not at this stage all been adopted—it would have been a saviour for many of the irrigators, who still face an uncertain future because of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I must say that I tried to disallow it in the last sitting week of last year. I note that so many people are now prepared to talk about water but were not prepared to talk about it when that discussion was taking place.

No-one understands more than a farmer the need to protect the environment and to use the land in a manner that safeguards it for the following year's harvest and for future generations. It is because of this that I feel the need to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013.

At the outset, let me say that the coalition does not oppose the bill. This bill seeks to amend the existing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to add a ninth matter of national environmental significance. This additional matter of national environmental significance pertains to the exploration and extraction of coal-seam gas, and the impact such activity has on our valuable and irreplaceable water sources. The Liberals and Nationals understand and recognise the significant community concerns surrounding coal-seam gas and large coal mining on water resources. Why else would the Country Women's Association members from Wagga Wagga have rallied about this very matter in Macquarie Street in front of the New South Wales parliament in what was seen as an extraordinary move by that wonderful organisation?

As the representative for the electorate of Riverina, a community built around water, I recognise and appreciate that water is our most precious national and natural resource. This point is particularly poignant today, as the adjournment of the parliament the night before last saw the controversial Murray-Darling Basin Plan signed into law.

The bill we are debating today is the focal point of legislation for the protection of the environment we have in place federally in Australia to date. The bill seeks to add developments surrounding coal-seam gas and large-scale coal mining to the existing eight matters of national significant to the environment, which are as follows: world heritage sites; national heritage sites; wetlands of international importance; nationally threatened species and ecological communities; migratory species; Commonwealth marine areas; the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and nuclear actions.

At present the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act comes into play when a proposal for development has the potential to have a significant impact upon one of the eight matters of national environmental significance I have just mentioned. If passed, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill will make two main changes to the current process. First, it will require an environment impact assessment to take place when actions involving the exploration or extraction of coal-seam gas or of large-scale coal mining development are set to occur and are likely to have a significant impact upon water resources. Secondly, it creates provisions for civil penalties and offences for such development, exploration or extraction, without first obtaining approval.

While in theory these are good measures, this bill seeks to duplicate the existing powers held by the states. I wonder if the members for Richmond and Page would have been so vocal in their protestations about this bill last night in the parliament if they were not in such trouble in their electorates, with good Nationals candidates running against them.

The coalition is concerned that this bill will create a further layer of bureaucracy and red tape—or perhaps I should say green tape, because everything this government does has a green bent to it. As we know from other bureaucratic initiatives of federal Labor, such a move will increase approval times and make Australia less desirable for investment. The coalition, particularly the Nationals, hear and understand the concerns of people about coal-seam gas exploration and extraction, and this is why we are not opposing the bill.

Mind you, I must say that the member for Maranoa gave an excellent speech last night when he talked about the benefits that coal-seam gas had provided to his Maranoa electorate and, indeed, the investment in coal-seam gas in his electorate has been going on for more than 15 years and has seen a resurgence in some of the towns which would otherwise be ghost towns. We also heard the member for Gippsland say that coal-seam gas actually provided 70 per cent lower emissions than coal itself. So we must take all of these things into consideration. But we know that this government—which is drawn by the nose by the Greens, despite the recent divorce—is anti fossil-fuel development. We know that.

The Nationals have written our own policy document and it was formulated at a meeting at Cooma on 3 November 2011. In that document we have five central tenets of what our policy is and what our beliefs are on this particular issue. I will run through them. The first is that no coal-seam gas development should proceed where it poses a significant impact to the quality of groundwater or surface-water systems. It must be absolutely clear that no coal seam gas development should occur unless it is proven safe for the environment. I do not think anybody in this parliament would disagree with that. Secondly, prime agricultural land is an increasingly important natural asset. It must be protected from activities which destroy its capacity to deliver food security, not only for our nation but for a hungrier world, for generations to come. I do not think anybody in this parliament would disagree with that, either.

Thirdly, coal-seam gas development must not occur close to existing residential areas. People who have bought a home with a reasonable expectation of being away from mining operations must not be thrown into turmoil by coal-seam gas operations springing up on their doorstep. I would like to see if anybody opposed that particular policy initiative. Fourthly, landowners are entitled to appropriate pecuniary returns sourced by reason of access to their land. Remuneration for landowners should not be limited to compensation. Again, I think everybody would be in furious agreement with us on that. Lastly, the regions which deliver much of the wealth from coal-seam gas developments deserve to see a fair share of generated revenues reinvested in their communities. This is an opportunity to grow our nation and encourage a lasting legacy from coal-seam gas developments.

Again, I think that getting the regions to recoup some of the investment that is made in their regions and putting some of the money back into where it came from is a good policy initiative. We have seen Brendon Grylls in Western Australia really push that 'royalties for regions' initiative in Western Australia and how much difference it has made to those country communities in that state.

While this is a policy of the Nationals about which we are very serious, we also understand that the protection of water and water tables is already covered by legislation enacted by the states. So often in this place in recent times we have heard so much from those in federal Labor—who are absolutely bereft of their own policy ideas for doing anything that actually has meaning for and is in the good interests of the nation, and who just want to keep their own seats and keep their government in place—attacking the coalition states, particularly the eastern states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, which, let me tell you, inherited absolute basket cases from their state Labor predecessors.

It is not the wish of the coalition to come into this place and duplicate the laws enacted by our state colleagues simply for the sake of doing so. We are interested in ensuring this policy is done correctly—that it consults appropriately with stakeholders—all stakeholders—and ensures the protection and viability of our precious water assets. In saying that, there are a number of key stakeholders who are concerned about this particular bill.

I speak, for instance, of the National Farmers Federation, an organisation which represents many of my Riverina constituents. It has expressed concern that the provisions spelled out in this bill can be extended to agriculture.

Mr Windsor interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: I hear the member for New England calling out—no doubt he fully endorses what I am saying! But I quote from the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association annual report of 2011-12, where the NFF, through Roy Chisholm, its representative, has this to say under the subtitle 'Submissions to government': 'The NFF has released its 2012-13 budget submissions to the federal government for continued investment in agriculture and has identified 10 key areas for this investment.' The first they have listed is coal-seam gas. 'The NFF has called for a budget commitment to the Independent Scientific Expert Committee to conduct research into the impacts of mining and coal seam gas extraction on agricultural and environmental resources. Funding is being sought for the development of guidelines for recompense for landholders for land access under coal-seam projects.' That is important.

Land access is hugely important for farmers; we all know that. And, as I say, farmers are the best environmentalists that this nation has. I should know that—I come from a farm. My father employed good environmental practices for all the years of his life, which is why he ran such a successful farm. The NFF's concerns are concerns I also share.

I mentioned at the outset the fact that farmers are the original environmentalists, and farming itself is an exercise in caring for the land in a way which ensures that farming can continue into the future. They have a big stake in it. Farmers realise they are only custodians of the land and that they must hand that land on to somebody else who is also going to be able to produce food to feed our nation and others.

The NFF continues, to say that, while the provisions expressed within this bill may, 'at first glance look like a win for farmers in the short term, it could actually have long-term unintended consequences for current and future farmers,' and it is hard to disagree with that. The National Farmers Federation, as usual, is dead right.

Mr Windsor interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: Again I hear the member for New England in furious agreement with what I am saying! I am sure he is saying, 'Hear, hear'! As with everything the Labor government puts up in place, we must consider what the long-term impact of it can be. Because farming is important now, its longevity and viability in the future is absolutely critical. The Labor Party's own statements on Australia becoming the food bowl of Asia during this Asian century are testament to that, and I give credit to the Prime Minister for her May statement last year when she said that we must be in a position to be the food bowl of Asia. And we must strengthen irrigation to enable that to be so.

We also need to ensure policy coming out of this place makes it easier, not harder, for farmers to produce the food. Labor, as it is great at doing, has given a sympathetic ear to industry and farmers when it comes to reducing red and green tape but, as usually al, these claims are devoid of substance. This legislation we are debating, which seeks to amend the Commonwealth's power to regulate around the exploration and extraction of coal-seam gas, comes after the water minister just six months ago rejected an amendment to do just that. The minister claimed the Commonwealth had no constitutional power to make those changes. It is only through pressure from perhaps the members for Page and Richmond, who are up against very good Nationals candidates, that he has changed his tune.

Mr Crean: What about New England?

Mr Windsor: What about New England?

Mr McCORMACK: New England? Absolutely. And, with Senator Barnaby Joyce putting his hand up, I know that the member for New England will be very worried, as he should be. This bill adds further regulation on top of that.

Mr Windsor interjecting

Mr McCORMACK: I have named him: Barnaby Joyce, the next member for New England. We do not disagree with the entire tenor of this bill but coal-seam gas is an important issue and it is good that it is being discussed in this chamber today. (Time expired)