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Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee
19/07/2011
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin system

BREMNER, Mr Kim, South-East Water Spokesman, AgForce Queensland

JOHNSTON, Ms Genevieve, Policy Adviser, AgForce Queensland

NEWTON, Mr Wayne, Mining Spokesman, AgForce Queensland

[15:08]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of AgForce Queensland. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Newton : As well as being the mining industry spokesman for AgForce, I am AgForce Grains President. I am also a grain producer and cotton producer, irrigated and dry land, in this area.

Mr Bremner : As well as being AgForce's water spokesman for southern Queensland, I am an irrigator and dryland farmer in the local area.

CHAIR: What, here?

Mr Bremner : Dalby, yes.

Ms Johnston : I am the AgForce policy adviser for water environment.

CHAIR: You have made a submission, No. 236. Do you wish to make any changes to it?

Mr Newton : Just one very minor spelling mistake in relation to my email address, although some people will probably think that 'bogpond' is right! That is about how it works sometimes!

CHAIR: Righto. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Newton : Yes, and we have a supplementary statement.

CHAIR: Thank you. That has been tabled. Away you go with your opening statement.

Mr Newton : Thank you for travelling to this area to listen to the concerns of the people. AgForce does not oppose mining and resource development per se, but our concern is that it must be carried out in an environmentally sustainable fashion. Accordingly, AgForce continues to seek from the Queensland government a moratorium on mining and resource development and exploration until the ramifications to not just the agricultural production systems on the land but also the environment in which they are situated are taken into account.

More specifically, AgForce believes that the initial approval phase for any coal seam gas development should be contingent on meeting the following three criteria: (1) that no damage should occur to the underground water aquifers and the protection of existing water supplies, both quality and quantity; (2) that the tens of millions of tonnes of salt and waste products that are produced as part of coal seam gas activities must be disposed of within appropriate time frames and with zero impact on farms and/or the environment, a comprehensive plan to management this waste should be a requirement of the initial project approval; and (3) gas production on any farm should generate value to that farm through producing income for the landholder, greater than or at least equal to offset the land devaluation and production impacts on that farm.

Our recommendations would be that there be greater federal oversight in relation to the long-term environmental protection of the Great Artesian Basin underground water resource; recognition of the Great Artesian Basin as a matter of national environmental significance; and undertake cumulative studies to determine a sustainable development level of this industry with regard to the environment they are operating within.

In Queensland now over 80 per cent of the state is under an exploration or production lease of some type, and there is a continued need for AgForce to be informed and to be involved in being an interface between Queensland's two great primary industries, mining and agriculture. There are many positives for regional communities when resource-rich deposits are discovered and developed, but it is AgForce's responsibility to balance that with policy discussion and decisions that are in the best interests of agriculture, the environment and food production for the future.

Senator STERLE: Mr Newton, has AgForce had any conversations with the Queensland branch of APPEA? If so, would you like to share them with us?

Mr Newton : We certainly have. In more recent times they have appointed a new coal seam gas director. He has been very proactive in talking quite regularly to us and a number of the other groups that are active in this area.

Senator STERLE: Just for the record, for those who do not know, APPEA is the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. Have you sat down with them in terms of how you can work together and how they can include you in conversations with their members who have an effect on your members? Can you go into that a bit further? Or, have you put out a newsletter where everyone behind you already knows this?

Mr Newton : We have certainly had conversations individually and at the AgForce officer level with APPEA. We have outlined a number of our concerns with that group. I think it probably also fair to say that in recent times they have started to listen more to those concerns. In the earlier days of the industry there was a very difficult attitude in that organisation and in the member companies of that organisation.

Senator STERLE: So have they sat down with you and had discussions about how they can involve you on a greater basis—you as the representative body of the farming community?

Mr Newton : They have, and they have also been involved in discussions with some of the other local groups as well. I might add that I am also a member of the Basin Sustainability Alliance executive committee. They have been very keen in recent times to try to get a greater understanding of our issues with their industry, as we have also in recent times again tried to explain to their organisation and to their member companies the types of interference and impediments that their business pose to our business. I think historically they have come along believing that they have a very insignificant effect on our business, and in fact are still running the argument in some quarters that their effect is proportional to those small, 20 square metre well sites.

CHAIR: That is right, then, on APPEA?

Mr Newton : Yes. We have gone over and over again trying to explain to APPEA that that is not the limit of their interference in our business. It has started already. Our lives have almost been put on hold while we negotiate so many of these issues with the companies. Once we have those well sites then we have all the other infrastructure, but we also have the fact that APPEA are there and that their personnel can be there at any time. If we are carrying out farming operations, pesticide applications and other things for which occupational workplace health and safety concerns are considerable, we have to know when their people are going to be there as well. They have had great difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that we are carrying on a business, we are very active managers of our land and we are doing a lot of mechanised operations; we are not just idle dwellers on this piece of agricultural land.

Senator STERLE: As someone who made their living off the back of mining in Western Australia, I would like to make clear the social imposts that come along too. Let me be very clear: I am not anti-mining; I believe if it is done properly there should be some great rewards for communities. Unfortunately, mining and gas in the early eighties in Western Australia did not leave a fantastic benefit. That is now being addressed, but we are a long, long way from catching up.

Do you also have the ability to sit down with APPEA and say that as much as there can be benefits there are some really blunt ends to having mining in rural communities in terms of the lack of labour, whether they are working for the schools, whether they are assisting you in trades training and in apprenticeships that go further than their industry. I want to dig a bit deeper. I understand they would not be coming out here shoulder to shoulder with you and having town hall meetings, but there are some active conversations in Brisbane which you have alluded to.

Mr Newton : There certainly are. For instance, at a recent meeting one of our representatives was approached by a coal seam gas company person who was rather indignant that we were making considerable noise about their industry taking a lot of our trained, experienced people off farm or at least competing for that labour resource. They said, 'But we're actually paying for eight places for people to be fully trained up.'

Mr Bremner : Eight?

Mr Newton : That's right. Their industry is absorbing thousands of people across our region. They are competing in the marketplace for these people. They have driven the cost of our labour on farm up two or three times. We can still offer some of our employees who are good enough to stay with us some of the conditions and working arrangements that we were able to offer, but their industry is still driving the market and they really do not appreciate that part of it at all. They have come along with an unlimited chequebook. If they need 10,000 people they just keep bidding until they get 10,000 people, or whatever they need. We do not have that same ability. Our commodities are often sold on international markets. We are price takers. We cannot just say, 'Our cost of production has gone up 20 per cent, so we will put the price of our wheat up 20 per cent.' We just do not have that privilege.

Senator STERLE: As an ex-truckie, I get that. There are not many truckies who want to drive trucks for trucking companies when the mining company is in town.

Senator EDWARDS: Are you the peak body running this argument or is there another body? Are you the ambassadors or the advocates for the people sitting behind you?

Mr Newton : We are certainly the peak organisation representing the three broadacre commodity groups in Queensland and we have quite a wide representation and quite a high proportional representation of agricultural producers in this state. We would probably have one of the highest proportionally across Australia.

Senator EDWARDS: So you would be the group most relied upon by the farmers in the regions to take this cause up with parliamentarians, with governments and with the mining companies and things like that?

Mr Newton : We certainly are, along with some of the other local action groups. Most of those people are members of our organisation as well.

Senator EDWARDS: In 1999, when you came into existence, did you envisage this level of advocacy on this issue? At what cost does that advocacy come at annually to the organisation?

Mr Newton : In 1999 we were an organisation that was formed from the merging of three previous groups. It was a merger of the Queensland Grain Growers Association, the Queensland Cattlemen's Union and the United Graziers Association. Each of those separate organisations represented those commodities. We came together to gain efficiency and scale. Most of the issues out here west of the Great Divide are broad common issues across all commodities; they are not necessarily of one. As to the cost, we would have probably 1½ to two full-time staff equivalents now working on this for the greatest proportion of their time. Mining has always been an area of advocacy for AgForce in Queensland; mining has always been part of the scene. But in recent times we have seen mining move from areas of much larger properties and lower population densities into the areas that are much more highly settled and much more intensively farmed, and it is disrupting the lives of many more people very quickly.

Senator EDWARDS: Are there other areas in Queensland where the coal seam gas is available that would have a minimal impact?

Mr Newton : Coal seam gas exploration is now occurring from the actual doorstep of Brisbane all the way to the far south-west corner. There is a combination of coal seam gas and shale gas, and it extends all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria. There are exploration leases and active participants in this business working just about right across this state.

Senator EDWARDS: So that is the sleeping giant.

Mr Newton : It is not sleeping and it is awakening quite quickly.

Senator JOYCE: There is actually an exploration licence under Sydney, and they are actually starting to drill.

Mr Newton : Yes, I've actually been thinking of taking one at a certain place in Brisbane where a certain lady lives.

CHAIR: Anyhow, as I often say, by 2050 what is in your fridge is going to be far more important than what is in your garage. Can you explain to me what the connection is with the NFF? In recent years—to a large extent; I don't want to be too harsh—the farm organisations seem, to me, to have lost critical mass, both financially and intellectually. The NFF seems to say, 'Oh, that's a commodity matter; go and talk to someone else.' Do they have a role to play in any of this?

Mr Newton : They certainly do. Over the last few months the NFF have appointed a mining taskforce, a committee that is working under NFF, and certainly one of the main items on their agenda is coal seam gas development and also the extensive open cut coal mining that we are seeing in a lot of prime farming lands across Australia.

Senator EDWARDS: Are you getting the support from them that you want?

Mr Newton : From AgForce, do you mean?

Senator EDWARDS: No, from the NFF?

Mr Newton : The NFF is just the state farming organisation. As the state farming organisations have realised, it is becoming an issue of national significance now. We and the NFF are the ones that are really driving it anyway. We are the members.

CHAIR: We will invite the NFF to give evidence. What troubles me is the mining industry so-called salesperson who says that none of this process really matters—in other words, 'Bugger off, food; we've got more money than the rest of you.' I just think we have to make it a federal issue and I think part of making it a federal issue is giving the NFF a bit of a jab to stir them up.

Mr Bremner : Could I make a comment about that? I am aware that the vice president of the NFF has been up here a number of times to look at the mining situation. He is from New South Wales, so they are certainly well aware of—

CHAIR: Who are we talking about?

Mr Bremner : Duncan Fraser has been up here a number of times to work on this issue. They are not behind in the issue at all.

CHAIR: They have not talked to us.

Mr Bremner : Not everything is public.

CHAIR: Anyhow, you can help send the message.

Mr Bremner : We certainly do.

Mr Newton : I suppose one of the interesting pieces of information in news that has just come to hand in relation to all of that is that New South Wales Farmers have just appointed a new president. Charlie Armstrong has been deposed and Fiona Simson is now chair.

CHAIR: She punches well above her weight.

Mr Newton : Probably one of the reasons for that happening is the mining issue. The mining issue has become just as active in New South Wales, certainly northern New South Wales, as it is here in Queensland.

Senator JOYCE: I am looking through these recommendations and I am starting to see parallels between where you want to go and where the Water Act currently is. I am fighting the Water Act tooth and nail because they are trying to shut you out of using water. The environment is great but don't you think that we can just rely on your rights as people rather than having to premise them on frogs and fish? It says 'greater federal oversight in relation to the long-term environmental protection of the Great Artesian Basin'. What about greater oversight of the role in relation to the long-term social protection of the people of the Great Artesian Basin?

Mr Bremner : In terms of AgForce's water policy you would be well aware that we would argue that there should be no cuts in terms of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and in terms of the Great Artesian Basin we supported the Queensland water resource plan that they put in place for the Great Artesian Basin, and that limits the amount of water that is taken from that basin.

Senator JOYCE: Don't you see the problem I am going to have? I am trying to help you out here with coal seam gas. If it becomes an environmental issue we might not only be helping you out; they might say, 'Environmentally we should not have coal seam gas, nor should we have cotton farming, nor should we have irrigation, nor should we have a whole range of other things,' and we will say, 'What a wonderful solution that was.' We are back to hunters and gatherers on the forest floor.

Mr Bremner : From a water point of view we have always supported a sustainable take of water from the systems. When the Queensland government brought in the 2004 Water Act for the Condamine-Ballone they said that the water that was taken out of that system was sustainable. They met their own requirements under the act. Professor Peter Cullen said that the amount of water that was taken out of the Lower Ballone was okay. It needed a review, but he was happy with the amount of water that was taken out of that system.

CHAIR: That is a very selective quote in relation to Peter Cullen.

Senator JOYCE: This is the problem we are going to have. The problem we have got here is that the miners have a greater right over your land than basically you do. That is the problem. The problem is that in exploiting that right they are causing undue social damage. They are also causing economic damage. They are also causing incredible heartache and they are probably also causing environmental damage. They are doing all three. If we bring about a parity of the rights—actually, bugger the parity. What if we just let your rights be superior to their rights. That would seem the natural way the tenancy agreement was when it was first drawn up. It was only changed by a fluke of historical coincidence. Shouldn't that be the recommendation? The recommendation is the reinstatement of the rights of the landholder as first inspired by the tenancy arrangements prior to 1915. I always find people are so scared. In this game people are so scared to tell us what they really want to know. We go round and round the mulberry bush. In the end I always say to them, 'If you ran Canberra for a week what would you do?' and they say, 'I would have an inquiry.' I say, 'For God's sake don't do that.'

Mr Newton : I think one of the earlier speakers alluded to it. I like to ask: what would this whole scene look like—regardless of your point—if the resource companies did not have that Queensland-government-given legal right to access the resource but had to do it on a commercial basis?

If I want to build a wind tower, or a whole bunch of wind towers, there is no government protection for me. I do not have any right to just access somebody's land because it is on a particularly nice hill with a nice breeze.

Senator JOYCE: And you get up to $30,000 per tower if you do have them.

Mr Newton : Per annum.

Senator JOYCE: Per annum.

Mr Newton : What we are seeing in some areas is disaffected landholders who have missed out. We have people saying, 'I object to that,' but if you boil it down it is often because they are missing out on the $30,000 for the tower. If this were still a Queensland government/resource company resource, what would it look like if they did not have automatic access to it? What if they had to commercially negotiate with the landholder to gain access?

CHAIR: Let's do one better. They should have to acquire a water licence.

Mr Newton : That is extra. That is separate.

CHAIR: No, it is not extra. It ought to be mandatory. We had all this palaver from the CSIRO the other day. They based the figure on the extraction stock and domestic on 2001, before a lot of the capping and boring occurred—500 gigs. They said, 'This mob: 300 to 400 gigs for a life of 25 years'—no licences required. If it were licensed and if they had to pay for the licence then we would have some money and they could then make use of the water after they got it out and at least sell it to a farmer or whatever they do with it. There would be some commerciality which would then bring tension to the realisation that this is not just an endless commodity that you can just feed down the drain.

Mr Newton : I think that highlights one of the greatest points of angst or upset with a lot of people, which is that there is one set of laws for the resource companies and there is a whole different set of laws for all of the landholders. They should be working under the same set of laws.

Senator JOYCE: Why don't you say that in your recommendations? You are a peak industry body, and if you had said, 'Take my property rights back to what they were prior to 1915,' and let the cat in with the canaries and just let the debate happen, it would have started to bring in those tensions. What they want up in Dalby is 'greater federal oversight in relation to long-term environmental protection of the Great Artesian Basin'. It sounds great, but there is a whole range of greyness in that area. Everybody has their interpretation of what you mean and it suits their favour. The mining companies will turn up and say, 'Yes, we agree with you entirely and we'll define "environmental" for you.'

Mr Bremner : I will be upfront about what I have written down here while we were taking notes this morning. The idea is that the coal seam gas company should stay off the flood plain. There is four per cent of good land in Queensland; go and play in the other 96 per cent and stay off the good land.

CHAIR: By way of information, having chaired the Gunnedah Floodplain Management Committee, we got BHP not to say 'maybe' but to say 'never'. As good Australian citizens leading the way for some other people who do not understand our culture, we got them to say in writing, 'We will never mine under the flood plain.' The same applies.

Mr Bremner : I am happy with that.

Senator EDWARDS: Keep going.

CHAIR: What was your No. 2 point?

Mr Bremner : Just that there is 96 per cent of the land available for those coal seam gas companies and they should stay off the good land. There is four per cent of land that the government has identified—there is probably more, but that is the really good stuff that it has identified—that the companies should stay out of permanently; it should not be mined in any way whatsoever, whether it is coal seam gas or coal mining.

Senator JOYCE: If someone had said to me, 'Give me a summary; tell me what's wrong here,' I would say that: (1) there should be no coal seam gas that abuts residential areas, full stop—just none—and that includes a person's house on a property, so you cannot have it near the house; (2) there should be no coal seam gas or mining on prime agricultural land, full stop. If there is any detriment to the water aquifer, that is it—full stop, knockout, that's it. Then, with what we have left over, there must be a proper pecuniary return to the landholder which is comparable to the cash flow of what it is earning and to the commercial detriment it causes. If someone said that, I would say that it sounds like a pretty bloody good recommendation.

Mr Newton : Well, you certainly do have to cover all the costs. At the moment, the people who are wearing the cost of this industry are the landholders. They are losing through the capital value of their property. Mr Bremner has worked out some figures here.

Mr Bremner : Senator Joyce, in terms of what you have just said, that is exactly what our policy says, but it just says it in a different way.

Senator JOYCE: Well say it so that I can warble it!

CHAIR: In short syllables and plain language!

Mr Bremner : I will do that. I have done some rough figures while we were talking—

Senator JOYCE: I know you will find this hard to believe but, when we get back to Canberra, people are going to disagree with us. So the easier you make it for us the better it is.

Senator STERLE: I would not worry about it, Mr Bremner; we will disagree with each other before we even leave the room!

Mr Bremner : I was trying to work out some figures you were asking about. Let us assume that the average farm is about 1,000 hectares. That is a liveable area for a dryland farm in this area. It is probably worth about $5,000 a hectare, as one of the previous speakers said. So it is a $5 million property. The Department of Environment and Resource Management have recently said that any coal seam gas on a property devalues it by at least 20 per cent. That is official government stuff. So we are looking at a loss of $1 million per property. If we are talking about full development of the coal seam gas industry of 40,000 wells, we would paint an arbitrary guess of an average of 20 wells per property. So you are looking at a loss of $2 billion in the capital value of farmland in this area. So if the coal seam gas companies are going to go onto this good land, and I am still opposed to that myself, then we have to see a return on that devaluation to bring the properties back up to their pre-mining value.

Senator STERLE: Bearing in mind that we may not have any water left.

Mr Bremner : That is our policy. It has no effect on the aquifer stuff; they cannot prove that.

CHAIR: That is the farmers' interests, now what about Mother Earth?

Mr Bremner : I have not touched that. Senator Sterle asked about the valuation on the property.

CHAIR: Well, give some thought to Mother Earth because there are other generations following.

Mr Bremner : Well, I have got a 12-year-old son who will possibly go into farming. But he is not seeing too many positives at the moment. He is thinking that mining or IT may be a better place to go. So that is an issue we have to do with on a daily basis.

Senator WATERS: Thank you, AgForce. I have a couple of issues. I want to respond to Barnaby's comments. I think your recommendations are great and I think they are very appropriate for the federal arena that we are operating in here. Of course we want to change the state laws, Barnaby, and ban coal seam gas mining—

Senator STERLE: This is great. The Greens and the Nats love one another.

Senator WATERS: I know. It does not happen often. Watch this space! We would love to see good quality ag land protected from coal seam gas mining, and we would love to see those rights restored from 1915, but we cannot do that. That is a matter for the state government. As much as we would like that to happen we can only exert pressure on our colleagues. I do not yet have any Greens colleagues in the state parliament, but that is up to the voters. So I do not want your expectations to exceed what we can actually do here. In that context, your focus on what the feds can actually do is appropriate and I think your recommendations are fantastic.

Mr Newton : We very much realise that, and our submission was skewed in a direction that we felt you could work with.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. I want to pick up on some comments APPEA made about how fabulous they are for the economy, how many people they employ and how smiley we should all be about their very existence. And I am interested in the figures you have got in your report about the productivity of agriculture and what you guys do for us—how many jobs you provide and how much economic benefit you give back to Queenslanders that actually stays here rather than going offshore. Can you walk us you through those figures and do a bit of a comparison there?

Mr Newton : We said on page 8 of our original submission that Queensland farmers collectively produce $14 billion per year in production value, with multipliers, with one in eight jobs in Queensland being partially or entirely supported by agriculture—that is, in the whole supply chain. So, when you are talking about the people that drive the truck carting the cattle to the meatworks down near Brisbane or Rockhampton, the people that service the truck et cetera et cetera, there are many, many thousands of jobs in Queensland that are totally or very largely reliant on the agricultural production sector. As you have said, that money largely stays here and goes around and around in our economy.

Senator WATERS: Can you contrast that with coal seam gas figures if you have those to hand.

Mr Newton : We do not have those figures, but they certainly are largely foreign owned; we are well aware of that. So the profits that will flow from that business will flow offshore eventually.

Ms Johnston : There is also the issue to consider about where the actual energy resource is going. At the moment it is basically a tenure basis: the first tenure, the first train to Gladstone and the first boat out of Gladstone. In 50 years time, when we have energy criticality in the state, we will already have exported a large amount of our resource. So we are looking in terms of that industry being a short-term industry, whereas agriculture has the potential to produce food in perpetuity if these risks are appropriately dealt with under the regulations.

Mr Bremner : I will just point out too that, when they talk about jobs growth, they are actually talking about jobs transfer in that they are taking jobs from our people to fill their jobs. They are not actually creating new jobs; they are just making it harder for the rest of the economy to actually maintain its workforce.

Senator WATERS: Thank you; that is a very good point.

CHAIR: I will just ask a further question. Cape York Peninsula—just talking about the agricultural potential of Queensland—is 17½ million hectares. The average annual wildfire is five million; the biggest one they have had is 11 million. If you take out the coastal towns, there are 14,000 people, 12,000 of them Indigenous. There are 14 pastoral stations. There are an estimated 800,000 to a million feral pigs and about 20,000 to 30,000 feral cattle not tagged. The government has decided to lock up the commercial agricultural potential for the first kilometre of all the rivers all the way up so that there is the Indigenous opportunity—to get a photo taken with a spear on a rock for a tourist. Isn't that—against what we are talking about here, the potential of the food task—the greatest slap in the face to agriculture in Queensland given that Bangladesh is half the size of Cape York Peninsula and has 160 million people, with 54 of its 57 rivers coming out of India, and by 2050 they are going to have to move if the science is 50 per cent right? Why aren't we having a marching-in-the-streets episode to develop the limit of Queensland's agricultural potential?

Senator STERLE: We have raised this. Chair, with the greatest respect, as much as that is very, very important—

CHAIR: I just thought I would get it in.

Senator STERLE: it has nothing to do with this inquiry.

CHAIR: But it has, you see, because by coming to an agreement with the Wilderness Society the election before last to get inner city preferences—

Senator STERLE: It has nothing to do with this inquiry, Chair. You know that.

CHAIR: they have absolutely locked up the potential agricultural—

Ms Johnston : That is right.

Senator STERLE: Yes, it is very important.

CHAIR: It bloody well is.

Senator STERLE: But it is not part of the terms of reference.

CHAIR: We will not have a blue here today. Get off your backside and do something about it.

Mr Newton : We have been strongly opposing the wild rivers since 2005.

CHAIR: I just thought I would chuck it in to liven the argument up.

Mr Newton : We all know there is actually more fresh water going into the Gulf of Carpentaria from the rivers around the gulf than goes into the sea from all the rest of Australia put together.

Senator STERLE: With the greatest respect, it is very important but it has nothing to do with this inquiry.

CHAIR: Ninety-eight thousand gigs, to be precise, and 55 gigs of that are diverted.

Senator STERLE: Get on track or I'll talk about your escapades over the years.

CHAIR: Yes, I'll have a go.

Mr Bremner : Could I make one last point. AgForce is an apolitical organisation that works with all sides of government, and we do not take sides. Whoever is in power at the time, we will work with them.

CHAIR: You are purer than the driven snow. But can you imagine the ACTU saying what you have just said? That is garbage.

Senator EDWARDS: I just come back to you and your resources. I think I have established that you are the chief advocacy body of all the people that are around here. Is there a groundswell of people coming to you and putting pressure on your board to take this issue further, or are they going it alone and incurring a substantial amount of legal fees themselves? The second part of the question is: can you give me some idea of your interaction with state government in relation to this matter?

Mr Newton : Certainly both are true. Our members have strongly sent the signal to us that it is one of the biggest issues on our plate in this part of the state by an absolute country mile. There is no doubt about that. It has probably led to some change in leadership of our organisation as well from some of the previous people. However, people feel this is so significant to their businesses, to their investment, that they are also spending their own money coming together as groups of concerned landholders to action it as best they can themselves as well. This is such a serious issue across southern Queensland now that people will spare no effort to get change.

Mr Bremner : You do not see organisations like the Basin Sustainability Alliance and the Environment Protection Association just springing up and spending thousands of dollars of their own money to try and defend their own rights on their own property without good reason. Those people are spending thousands of dollars of their own money on legal fees, thousands in supporting the organisations, including our own. To join AgForce it can be several thousand dollars, so the people that support us obviously think that we can help with the job we are doing.

Senator EDWARDS: Aside from the live cattle export issue, is it the biggest single issue facing Queensland farmers?

Ms Johnston : From the feedback we receive from our members, I would say that it is the most feedback we get in terms of our branch process.

Senator EDWARDS: The single biggest issue facing Queensland.

Ms Johnston : The number one issue that comes back to us is on coal seam gas.

Senator EDWARDS: What interaction have you had relaying that to the Queensland government?

Ms Johnston : We have been working in this space for a number of years now. In 2007 we submitted a formal submission to government outlining our huge concerns over the management of coal seam gas water and the lack in regulatory regime around that.

Senator EDWARDS: Four years ago.

Ms Johnston : Four years ago. I can submit that submission to the committee if they so wish, but if you have a look through that submission the issues that we raised in that submission are by and large still the issues that we are talking about with government today. In terms of our interactions with government, we sit on probably all of the steering committees and so on and so forth they have set up. But when you are talking about resourcing, as Wayne mentioned, we have got the equivalent of maybe 1½ full-time staff on this issue and other issues as well. The latest figures for the Department of Environment and Resource Management it was the size of a small township. They have got about 5,600 staff in that one department. Granted all of those are not working on the CSG issue but a large proportion of them would be. You have also got the crossovers with the other departments. It is a huge interface that we are trying to cope with in terms of our relationships with government.

CHAIR: On that procedural matter, are you able to table your submission to the Queensland government to this committee?

Ms Johnston : Yes.

Senator EDWARDS: And any subsequently.

Ms Johnston : There have been quite a number of submissions post that 2007 date that I am hoping to submit too.

Mr Bremner : I point out that it is 1½ paid people. AgForce is made up of a lot of voluntary representative people like myself and Wayne. They are the people who drive the issues to the government. The policy people support us but we are the ones that drive it. An example of that was that in 2008 the coal seam gas companies were talking about putting evaporation ponds in to get rid of the saltwater. We did some estimates of 50,000 hectares of salt evaporation ponds across the 750,000 hectares here. We actually lobbied the government to have that changed so that that was not their first choice of disposing of that water. Queensland Gas have employed General Electric now to see how they can dispose of the saltwater. It is in the early stages. We are saying, 'You should have that fixed up before you start,' but at least now we have had that change at the Queensland government level and we have had a change in Queensland Gas's policy. Instead of evaporating the water, they are looking at a way of converting the salt into a saleable product.

Mr Newton : I might say that five or six years ago, when we first started on this road to coal seam gas, in a meeting I and several other growers had with the then EPA that organisation suggested that the amount of sulphur that was going to be produced would simply be able to be wrapped up in a plastic bag and buried in the corner of a farmer's paddock. On the back of an envelope we quickly did the calculation, and we were talking tens of millions of tonnes. The preferred disposal method is still secure landfill. And I can tell you that every farmer in this part of the world knows that salt is the most toxic substance to modern agriculture on this earth. We must absolutely and totally remove it from the landscape. It has been stored 300-plus metres underground for centuries. It is safe down there. The last thing we want is it on the surface.

It is a misnomer, actually, to even call this a coal seam gas industry. It is a water and salt industry. Coal seam gas happens to be their by-product. We are talking about two substances, one of which is absolutely essential to everyone who lives west of the Great Divide—water—and salt, the one thing that has ended many civilisations on this planet through poisoning of their food producing resources. If we are not careful, we are going to see that same history revisited. We must see a plan for the absolute disposal, the absolute clean-up, of this salt from the landscape, and it must happen almost as quickly as it is being produced.

CHAIR: Well, I can confirm that today we went out and had a look at a 1,500-meg storage. I am familiar with the fresh water evaporation of 2.4 metres per annum 300 kilometres west of you, and I am aware that you could use that water with desal commercially. The problem that we have got is that because there are no licences the water is considered by the coal seam industry as a disposal problem, a garbage product, instead of having to have a licence for it, whereby you turn it into an asset. The difficulty is that until they legalise marijuana—you could irrigate and grow marijuana and perhaps get a return on what it will cost you after it comes out of the desal—of what is left—which is probably 20 per cent; I think they said they might get it down to 10 per cent—you are dealing with salt. This is a serious problem and no-one—not a single, solitary soul—knows what the solution is.

Mr Newton : That is right.

CHAIR: Yet we are proceeding, regardless, with this industry post haste. We are already building that toxic waste. It is one of the greatest things that has to be solved before the industry can move forward, and it should be mandatory that a solution is found before the industry can move forward. Anyhow, I thank you for your submission and will just give you a tip: if we were to spend a couple of billion on thorium—one tonne of thorium equals 200 tonnes of uranium, which equals four million tonnes of coal—we would not have a problem.

Mr Bremner : That is right. I am aware of that one.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 15 : 53 to 16 : 04