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Environment and Communications References Committee
02/08/2021
Oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin

FITZPATRICK, Mr Nicholas, Private capacity [by audio link]

GREEN, Mr Jack, Private capacity [by audio link]

HOOSAN, Mr Gadrian, Private capacity [by audio link]

KING, Mr Bruce, Private capacity [by audio link]

RORY, Mr Asman, Private capacity [by audio link]

WILSON, Ms Joni, Private capacity [by audio link]

Committee met at 10:04

CHAIR ( Senator Hanson-Young ): I declare open this hearing of the Senate Environment Communications References Committee inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet here in the ACT, in the Northern Territory and elsewhere that senators and witnesses are participating from for this inquiry.

On behalf of the committee, I would like to welcome you all here today and thank you in particular for agreeing to speak with us at such short notice. I know that we have put this hearing on to try to get as many views and ideas as possible, so thank you at this short notice. Today the committee will conduct its hearing in person and via videoconference. Thank you in advance for your patience with any technical issues we may encounter along the way. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. The hearing is also being broadcast via the Australian Parliament House website.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be considered as a contempt by the Senate. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. The committee generally prefers evidence to be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground on which it is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, be made at any other time.

I thought we had our first lot of witnesses from the Northern Territory on the line but I can't see them anymore—are you still there? Can you hear me, Nicholas? No? We might just pause briefly and see if we can re-establish a connection. Of course this is an issue in doing everything remotely and doing them from a very remote area.

Mr Fitzpatrick : We can hear you now.

CHAIR: Great. We can't see you, and that's fine, because we want to hear what you have to say and what the traditional owners who you are with today have to say. I think we'll move ahead just with audio. Do the witnesses have any comment to make on the capacity in which they appear today?

Mr Hoosan : I'm here to represent all the Gudanji people and the four language groups of Borroloola.

CHAIR: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I invite you to give us an opening statement. Tell us how you feel about the issues that this inquiry is looking into in relation to the oil and gas exploration in the Beetaloo Basin.

Mr Hoosan : One of the biggest issues that we are facing is the money side and all that sort of stuff. The government are putting money towards all these big companies. The $50 million we are hearing about should be spent here locally, around the local community in the Gulf region—and not only here but around other parts of the Northern Territory as well.

Mr Fitzpatrick : We've been doing this work for a long time.

Mr Hoosan : Yes, we've been doing this work for a long time now. I live in Borroloola. To be honest with you, I'm not part of all that Beetaloo area, but I am part of the McArthur Basin, where Empire Energy is, over here on Gudanji country. We're a bit worried that it's going to affect us over here in the Gulf region as well, through the McArthur Basin that we live on and our drinking water.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator McCarthy, do you have any questions specifically for Mr Hoosan? Then we'll go to the other witnesses.

Senator McCARTHY: Yes, I do. I'd like to acknowledge that I'm on Larrakia country and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging here. I would like to say good morning to all senators present on the inquiry and also to Mamam Nicholas and Mamam Gadrian. It's good to hear you here today. We've obviously been listening to a lot of evidence in our inquiry in the last week. Mamam Gadrian, would you like to tell us a little bit more about consultation? Is that something that the four clan groups who you're representing have had around what's going on in the Beetaloo area just as something that clan groups there should be aware of? Do you want to inform the inquiry as to what consultation may or may not have occurred?

Mr Fitzpatrick : I want to present to this inquiry, and they can answer that question as well. I don't know; do we do an opening statement from each of them, or do we just start off with what we've gone with?

Senator McCARTHY: Chair, I'm just wondering if there's a problem with the microphone situation?

CHAIR: No, there isn't. We were asked to allow Mr Hoosan to speak separately, so that's what I was allowing to happen. But if no-one else has any questions specifically for him, we can give other panel members the opportunity to give their statements.

Senator McMAHON: I do have questions specifically for him.

CHAIR: Nick, are you there and can you hear me?

Mr Fitzpatrick : Yes. We're all listening.

CHAIR: Nick, is that a suitable way forward? Could you just get an indication from the panellists there.

Mr Fitzpatrick : Yes. We'll go with Gadrian and then work with the rest.

Senator McMAHON: Mr Hoosan, I think you said you're not from the Beetaloo region and you're not representing the people of that region. Is that correct?

Mr Hoosan : Yes, that's correct. But we all support each other because we all come together when we all get together. We meet up with a lot of the Alawa people on the Hodgson Downs side and we meet up with Jingulu and Mudburra people from down Elliot and Malanja. We all get together and we all talk about all the issues together.

Senator McMAHON: Have you been contacted or consulted at all by the Northern Land Council with respect to the oil and gas exploration in the Beetaloo?

Mr Hoosan : No. We don't have any more interest with the Northern Land Council. We're just the people who are pulling together ourselves to stand up. They left us a long time ago, and we've had enough of the Northern Land Council. All the TOs right across the Territory are pulling together now as one and trying to fight against all these companies that are trying to destroy our basins and that that connect it.

Senator McMAHON: Is it the case that you haven't been consulted by the Northern Land Council or by the oil and gas companies in the Beetaloo because you're not actually a traditional owner from that area?

Mr Hoosan : Exactly. Northern Land Council haven't come to me and consulted, but I know for a fact that a lot of those TOs around the Beetaloo area don't agree to agree fracking and all that sort of stuff. I do understand, and I do know that.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you.

Mr Hoosan : We're all connected, though, together.

CHAIR: Senator Sterle, do you have any questions specifically for Mr Hoosan?

Senator STERLE: No, Chair. Senator McCarthy has the lead, of course. I am keen to hear also from all the other witnesses. My questions will go along the line of whether the traditional owners been consulted, but I would urge for Senator McCarthy because it is her country and her state, and I will follow on if I have any others.

Mr Hoosan : Can I say something again? Because I need to get back and answer my niece, Malarndirri McCarthy. For that consultation you were talking about, we had a fracking inquiry that came down a couple of years ago and talked about all these things about fracking in the whole gulf region and through the Beetaloo Basin and the McArthur Basin, but everyone here in the community—not only here but right across, down to the Beetaloo Basin—all those people from the Jingulu and Mudburra side all said no to the fracking inquiry that came here a couple of years ago, but they still went ahead with those, I don't know, 100-and-something recommendations that they had in the book. Thousands of people right across all these traditional owners right across the gulf and through the Barkly region said no to the fracking inquiry, and they still went ahead.

Senator McCARTHY: We had the member for Mulka, Mr Guyula, give evidence last week, and he spoke about songlines and the importance of the cultural links. Do you want to explain to the inquiry the cultural links with the Mudburra and Jingulu mob around that area in terms of the kudjika, the songline?

Mr Hoosan : I don't really want to bring too much of it out, but our songlines do connect right across a lot of country, not only from here but from right in from the Rembarrnga country, from Gudanji country right across here to Yanyuwa country and Garrwa country and even right across to Marra county. All the songlines criss-cross all over this country.

Senator McCARTHY: Can you explain to the committee why kudjika is important from a cultural perspective—what it is that you can speak about publicly?

Mr Hoosan : Kudjika is like a title deed. It's like when you have a piece of paper in your hand in the Western system of law. If you have a piece of paper in your hand, it tells you that you have the proof of ownership of land. But in our law the kudjika is the proof of ownership of land.

Senator McCARTHY: And how do you know the kudjika? If it's not on a piece of paper, can you explain to the inquiry—

Mr Hoosan : It's in our heads. It's been passed down from our grandfathers from their grandfathers. It's knowledge—it's a map that sits in my head today and is still sitting there. It came from my grandfather, from his father—from my great-grandfather. You can't even trace it right back.

Senator McCARTHY: How did he give it to you—through song?

Mr Hoosan : Yes. They put me through an initiation ceremony to learn this—to learn about my mother and father country. The knowledge from that land stays in my head and it is still in my head today. I will never forget that.

CHAIR: Senator McCarthy, we might ask the other panel members to introduce themselves now, if that's okay?

Senator McCARTHY: Sure, Chair.

CHAIR: Then we can continue with questions. Nick, if you can still hear me, would you be able to get Ms Wilson, Mr Rory, Mr Green and Mr King to introduce themselves?

Mr Fitzpatrick : Yes.

CHAIR: I need each of you to say your full name, the reason you're here and who you're representing today.

Mr Green : My full name is Jack Green. I'm one of the senior elders of Borroloola. I have connections with four clan groups.

Mr Rory : My name is Asman Rory. I'm a Gudanji and Garawa man. I'm here to represent the four clan groups through the Beetaloo and McArthur basin.

Mr King : My name is Bruce King. I'm a Yanyuwa Garawa man, with a bit of Gudanji as well on my grandfather's side. I'm representing all four clan groups.

Ms Wilson : My name is Joni Wilson. I'm a Yanyuwa Garawa woman from Borroloola. I'm also a Garawa woman connected through my father. I'm here representing my people and my country here that I'm standing on today.

Mr Fitzpatrick : And my name is Nicholas Fitzpatrick. I'm a Yanyuwa and Garawa man and I'm here representing my people—the four clan groups.

CHAIR: Okay, wonderful—thank you all. Would any of you like to give us a short summary of the concerns that you have and the issues that you want this committee to consider?

Mr King : The concern is for country, mainly, and what's on it. It's important for us to protect it as much as we can, because we don't have any other home.

CHAIR: Ms Wilson, do you have something—a short comment—you'd like to add?

Ms Wilson : Country is important to me because it's my life; it is a part of my body, my soul and my spirit. It provides food, medicine, water and healing. It's important for my cultural connection to the land and my language, and the identity of who I am through my skin name. My skin determines how I fit into my clan. Country is important because I live off the land, like my ancestors did. It's my responsibility as a jungai, protector for country, as a traditional owner, to protect it with my people for the next generation to come. I want my kids to be able to practise, teach and learn on country, like I did and like my people did before me. Without our land and water, we are nothing and we are nobody.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr Rory : Good morning. I am a Gudanji man and a representative for all the groups right across the Borroloola-Barkly region. I've become a leader and member for this region. The devastation of mining in this region for such a long time has destroyed our people. They have perished because of the inadequate essential services provided to this region for our people for so long. We've had mining in this country for such a long time without even acknowledging the rightful owners and getting proper consent on the country where we belong and where we come from and without even take into consideration our concerns, our way of life, our future generations—our kids—or our elders who have passed and are present with us today. We are trying to keep, manage and control our land and our water the way that we are here to do, as well moving forward. This fracking in the Borroloola-Barkly region is going to destroy, as it has destroyed, families and lives in this region for such a long time.

The federal and the Northern Territory governments have the audacity to give away $50 million to the fracking companies when we have a crisis in the lives that are involved in this region. This $50 million could especially benefit housing, families, health, education, culture, language, stories, our way of life, our history, our water, our songlines, our practices. It's going to be taken from us, as has been going on for so long. It is my responsibility in this region, as a custodian and a jungai for the country of my grandmother, my mother and my father, because I am connected to the Beetaloo-McArthur basin. I grew up on that country and I'm still taking my children through the process that I was taught by my people in this Borroloola-Barkly region, because that's how much it matters to us mob.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Rory. I think you made some compelling points. You went to some of the questions that I had. Mr Green, do you have a statement you'd like to give us?

Mr Green : I'm speaking here today as myself and for my people. We're really worried about the fracking. It's important because the water that lies under the land is connected to Aboriginal people. Our law and our culture fits into the ground and also on top, on the mainland, because, under Aboriginal law, we have a name for water. That goes through songlines and things like that. It's very important. It feeds all Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. We should realise properly—the government should realise that water and land are very important to all Aboriginal people. We are connected to our tree, connected to that area. It doesn't matter where you go; it all ties into our songlines and things like that, so it's very important to Aboriginal people.

CHAIR: Thank you. Could I ask any of you who would like to answer this question. It was Mr Rory who said that the $50 million to the fracking company could be spent elsewhere. I'd just like to know what level of consultation you have had in relation to these projects. Do you feel like you've had a voice? Have you been given the right information? Have you been given an opportunity to provide proper and informed consent?

Mr Rory : I can tell you now—

CHAIR: I just need you to say who you are, first, so that we can keep track.

Mr Rory : Asman Rory speaking on Rrumburriya countryfor the Yanyuwa tribe. The $50 million and the consultation and so forth—it hasn't been provided accurately.

CHAIR: What do you mean by that? What do you mean it hasn't been provided accurately?

Mr Rory : Joni Wilson is going to speak.

CHAIR: Yes.

Ms Wilson : Hello, my name is Joni Wilson What do we mean by 'accurate'? We have not been given any information on this fracking thing. We have not given anybody permission for fracking. No one has come to us and asked us: 'Here's the paper. We want to do this on our land.. No one has done this to us. If they did do it to my grandparents or great grandparents, they didn't know what the bloody hell they were signing. They didn't understand. If someone in plain English would say, 'Hey, here's a piece of paper to frack or to destroy your country,' I don't think my grandparents would have done anything. So, no, we didn't give permission. We didn't get any information—none of that. We just read it from news or Facebook. We get information from there. We never have people come to our place and give us information—nothing. No.

CHAIR: Senator McCarthy, do you have some questions?

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you, Chair. Joni, do you want to just explain to the inquiry about the cultural links for you on your father's side?

Ms Wilson : The cultural links on my father's side are very strong. They spread across to the Beetaloo Basin. I was one of the people that was there for the meeting in Elliott, alongside my father. I was there for the meeting. We didn't get people come there and say: 'This is what we're going to do. This is what we want to do. This is fracking. We're going do this and this and this.' Hang on a minute. You going to go and destroy our water here! I wasn't talking. This is the old people from Elliott, all the main traditional owners, talking, saying: 'No, no. Go away. We don't even want to talk to you.' It was that rude. I felt such shame at what those old people did to the fracking people, telling them to F off from their country. 'We don't want them here.' And this is in Elliott. This is the main Beetaloo Basin. I was there, and there was no permission given there. And I'm one of the djungais for that country, on behalf of my father's side. So I've got a big deal to look after my country. I'm a djungai right across, from the coast to the Beetaloo Basin, from my father's side and my mother's side. So I have this big responsibility to protect my country. That is my duty as a Yanyuwa Garrwa Gudanji woman.

Senator McCARTHY: Do you want to give us the date? Do you remember when that meeting in Elliott took place?

Ms Wilson : It is about two or three years ago. It took place in Elliott, and I was there. These fracking people from Origin Energy came and told us that it's not going to hurt our country, we've just got to do this. They showed us the stone. It was really shameful because the old people actually told them to f-off. They said, 'We don't want you mob here. We don't want you mob putting poison on our land and in our water.' At the same time I had to stand up because I'm part of this side of the country—that big land and that big water that starts from Elliott. When it rains here, it floods. When it floods up there, where they're destroying that main Beetaloo Basin, all that poison is going to come right down to us here. Do you mob understand that?

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you, kujaka. I know we asked about consultation. You've said there has been no consultation with any of you. I think that's really been covered in the evidence that you've given. Chair, I'm happy with the responses that we've received so far in relation to the cultural links to country.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator McCarthy. Senator McMahon, do you have any follow-up questions for this group of traditional owners?

Senator McMAHON: Yes, mainly for Ms Wilson. You gave evidence that you were at a meeting with Origin in Elliott two or three years ago. Was it your evidence that everyone at that meeting said no to oil and gas exploration on their country? Was that what you were saying?

Ms Wilson : Yes. Everyone said no, every old traditional owner from that piece of the country. I'm also one of the traditional owners from that country, and I said no.

Senator McMAHON: Is that country where the oil and gas exploration is taking place?

Ms Wilson : Yes, right where the oil and gas is taking place. I'm TO for that place.

Senator McMAHON: You also gave evidence that all the poison is going to come down. Can you detail what poison you're referring to exactly?

Ms Wilson : Whatever poison there is in that poison gas they're digging up there.

Senator McMAHON: What evidence are you relying upon to say that anything is a poison?

Ms Wilson : It's just common sense. I've been to school and there are places where I've been as a kid—for example, the McArthur River mine there, one of the big mining companies that we have here for zinc and lead. I used to go and collect bush tucker there with my grandparents. It was one of the best places where we got bush tucker from. Now we can't even go there. It's all destroyed. I can't go back there and collect bush tucker for my children; it's destroyed. What I'm saying is that, when it rains up in the Beetaloo area and the waters all connect through the waterways, whatever poison they pick up at Beetaloo is all going to spread. When it rains, all that water runs all the way down and connects through to Elliott and over to Daly Waters. It connects right through to Mataranka. It connects all the way through to the Gulf country and goes back into our ocean.

Senator McMAHON: Do you have any actual evidence—any proof or any scientific evidence—that any of this oil and gas activity is actually going to produce any poison or that any kind of poison is going to spread through the land or the water?

Ms Wilson : It's just common sense to know that this industry has a lot of risk factors. With chemicals, it's just common sense. Science, chemicals, water—we don't want chemicals with water; it's just common sense. You don't have to go to school for that.

CHAIR: Ms Wilson, you can take questions on notice. If you prefer to answer that question in writing, so that you can understand what Senator McMahon is clearly asking for, you have every right to do that.

Senator McMAHON: Yes, Ms Wilson. With all due respect, we're not talking about common sense; we're actually talking about scientific evidence. I'm asking you if you are relying on scientific evidence or not. If you do have proof and evidence, would you be prepared to provide that?

Ms Wilson : I could give proof and evidence. Yes, I can provide it if you mob are asking for that.

Senator McMAHON: Yes, please.

Ms Wilson : Not a problem. Later on, in the future, I can give you that.

CHAIR: Thank you, Ms Wilson. We will get someone to get the question to you so that you can answer that as you see fit. Any other questions, Senator McMahon?

Senator McMAHON: No.

CHAIR: Senator Sterle, have you got anything left for this group of witnesses?

Senator STERLE: Just a quick one. I am listening intently here. I pay my respects to the Whadjuk Noongar nation, whose land I'm sitting on today, and to their elders, past, present and emerging. Fracking is a very divisive issue. We have seen so much of it over the years, and we held a Senate inquiry up in Queensland some 10 years ago, because of the fear of poisoning the water, which we've seen in America. There've been some terrible practices in the past of mining in oil/gas industries in our nation, and some of them are quite shameful. I know a lot of them have been dragged kicking and screaming into lifting their game. And just when we thought things had improved over here in Western Australia, we saw the shocking behaviour of Rio Tinto, the disgraceful behaviour of Rio Tinto, with the Juukan Gorge, when they destroyed 60,000 years of history and the stories. Sadly, these things still slip off. What I'm asking the Borroloola TOs is whether the oil and gas companies who came and had a meeting in Elliott tried to explain what they wanted to do? Or was it a case of 'This is what we're doing. We just hope you come with us'?

Ms Wilson : They really just sort of said this was what they were going to do.

Senator STERLE: Right, because it's been, as I said, a very vexed issue. We've seen the chemicals that were once used are no longer used. I am not for one minute discounting the songlines and the fears that fracking over the years has proven to destroy. It's the fear of gas leaking into the waterways which you've made very clearly. It annoys me that, on the evidence that we're taking, the companies haven't come in, sat in the dirt with the TOs in your environment—actually sat with you and with all the elders and the community—to have these conversations. Would that have gone a long way to, maybe, opening the door to more conversation, rather than calling a meeting to get out to the lands where they want to engage. Would that have helped better?

Mr Fitzpatrick : It would definitely help better if they came out on the ground and spoke with people all together, but also to have a big meeting, bringing everybody together. There is scientific evidence of the flood flow, the water movement, the catchment areas in the whole Barkly area, and also that water that travels down into the rivers that are in the gulf and that most of that water is fifty-fifty. Some of it comes this way; some of it goes into the lake at Elliott. That's on the surface, and there's scientific evidence all over the internet—geographical data. We've got scientific evidence as Indigenous people that all of the underground movements of water have got songlines connected and water lines connected with it, but that's not accepted by Western ways. So if you're saying scientifically prove that the water is not connected, well, I want to see scientific evidence telling me that the water is not connected because I know that scientific data is just not there. It is common sense to know water runs downhill; it doesn't run uphill.

Senator STERLE: I appreciate that. I'm not for one minute suggesting that the water isn't connected, not at all. I understand that. But when I work extensively in the Kimberley region with our traditional owners and our First Nations people, the No. 1 thing I do whenever I go to the community is contact the chairperson or the deputy chairperson to let them know I'm coming, and then I meet on their terms. I sit in the community with them to hear their story, to hear their concerns so I can relay that back. All I'm just trying to suggest, Nicholas, is that I am gobsmacked that we are giving $50 million to an energy company when I know the disparity in the Closing the Gap measures in the Kimberley alone and what we could do with $50 million up there, let alone in your part of the world. The government and the industry can correct me if I'm wrong if they have said that they've tried to sit cross-legged out on your lands, then they need to come back and say that. I understand where you are going, I just think that it would have been nice if the whole story could be put out. The No. 1 word for me when I'm dealing with traditional owners and First Nations people is respect. I will leave it at that. Thank you, Chair.

Mr Fitzpatrick : Can I just reply to that? I just want to say, yes. On the consultation process, I'm 30 years old and I came back working in my community straight out of high school when I was 17, and I sat at a lot of these meetings about gas and oil exploration. It was all very one-sided. It was, like, set up for my people to just agree. There was no information explaining exactly the risks of this industry. There was no real explaining what they were actually going to do on country and what it meant for us. All they were talking about was royalty, royalty, royalty. They were tricking my people into coming to a meeting, knowing that they were going to get some bit of money, and then presenting everybody with this exploration and almost like blackmailing people to sign something just to get this bit of money. It's been done wrongly for a very long time, and I'm very sick of seeing this stuff happen. If the Northern Land Council or any mining companies want to consult with Indigenous people out on country, who have land rights, they need to do it properly. They need to talk to everybody properly, they need to have people who are against fracking and they need to have science people there explaining the stories of all the risks and all the damage that's happened already in the past in this industry in the USA and other places around the world. People need to know why this industry is banned in places around the world. We are very concerned about our water. We are the driest continent. So all the consultation, I wish the federal government would put in a court case into all of this stuff, because it hasn't been done for a very long time. All we want is to be consulted properly and for everyone who is coming to talk to us to bring interpreters with them.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Fitzpatrick. I wonder whether you would agree with the description—you said it almost felt like blackmail, but I wonder whether the description is 'coercive consent' or 'coercive consultation'. Do you feel that that's what happened in the past?

Mr Fitzpatrick : Can you give the description of that word?

CHAIR: That you don't really have another option. You're not being given all of the information. It's take it or leave it.

Mr Fitzpatrick : Yes, that's very correct. There are always companies coming out here and hitting us with mining, mining, mining opportunities. Even when we tell them we want to start business, we want to boost our economy with cultural education and stuff like that around our community, nobody is offering us any other viable opportunity to build our town and growth in a very positive way for all of us. It's always just being pushed on with mining.

CHAIR: Thank you. I'm hoping the rest of the panel members can hear us. Thank you so much for your time today and your evidence and your forthrightness in telling us as a parliamentary committee how you feel about this situation. I appreciate your time this morning, as we all do.

Mr Fitzpatrick : Does anyone else want to say anything before we close it?

Mr King : I have a question. When we say no for our country, can youse accept that?

CHAIR: That's a good question, Mr King.

Mr King : Yes, it is. When we say no, that's a simple word, you know? Can youse accept that?

CHAIR: I think that's a very legitimate question. I don't have the answer for you today. I wish I did. But this committee is going to be looking into this issue for quite some time. We're going to work hard on this and, once state borders allow, we would like to come to the Northern Territory and speak to the traditional owners directly and, as Senator Sterle says, sit down in the dirt and actually have a conversation with you, so, if we can do that, we will. I'm hoping we can keep the communication open. Thank you, everybody, for your time.