Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012

Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (14:22): I commend the previous speakers, my colleagues Senator Macdonald and Senator Heffernan: Senator Heffernan for highlighting—and of course Senator McKenzie; my apologies for that, thank you, Senator Macdonald—the importance of the protection of the long-term environment. Being in this place is all about managing our nation for future generations. I say that when I look back on what our previous generations did in this country: establishing the land; establishing our exports; the shearers getting our first industry off the ground for our first exports; and what our predecessors did to preserve Australia for us. It is our obligation to see that we preserve Australia for future generations, not just for 20, 30 or 40 years; let us look down the road at 400 or 500 years time and how we are going to see Australia. This is what we need to protect.

The coalition will not be opposing this legislation. I was quite alarmed at a public meeting in Gloucester several months ago where the member for Lyne, Mr Oakeshott, said, 'This legislation will overrule the state's legislation.' That is wrong. We know that is not going to be the case, and Mr Oakeshott perhaps should not tell porky pies at public meetings like that or anywhere else. But to say that this would overrule the state legislation is simply wrong. We know the Constitution. We know who is responsible for land. Of course it is the Crown, the state. We also know that, until 1981, oil, coal seam gas and coal under the ground was the right of the property owner in New South Wales. But, of course, the then Neville Wran Labor government took those rights off the farmers. Back in 1915 in Queensland and I think in 1971 in South Australia those property rights were removed from the farmers.

There is no question that we live in a world of energy. We are not going to see farmers go back to the Clydesdale horse or the single-furrow mouldboard plough and go out and farm their couple of acres. The world would not be fed if we went back to those days. We need energy, but we need to make sure that we protect our land. I believe that the greatest asset Australia has is the topsoil, the farm soil, the important six inches of soil on top of our farming land that has to grow our nation's food—not only for us but also for the millions of people around the world who rely on Australia to feed them. As Senator Heffernan said, with a projection of more than nine billion people on this planet by 2050, more and more the world will rely on Australia to feed those people. If we do not, people will starve—and desperate people lead to desperate situations.

I just want to comment on a point that Senator Macdonald made in relation to Queensland looking for royalties et cetera. I was thinking only the other night that back in 1996, when Mr Howard and his team were elected to government in Australia, we had a population of around 19 million and the debt was $96 billion. We are now seeing Queensland with a debt of around $70 billion—going to $85 billion by 2015 or 2016 and talking $100 billion before 2020. That is not 19 million people; that is about 4½ million people. Queensland is effectively bankrupt. It has had its credit rating downgraded, as Senator Macdonald said, and it is paying high interest rates. Now, of course, the Newman government has to make hard and unpopular decisions to try to save Queensland from going bankrupt. But that is typical once you have had years of a Labor government; everyone knows that the cheque account is left empty—not only empty but way, way down into the red.

After many decades of balanced budgets and being debt free, Queensland grew into a great state—with tourism, primary industries, the expansion of rural power right out to the western areas of the state and the bitumen roads. A great state was built during the sixties, seventies and eighties, but sadly we now see the financial mess that Queensland is in now. And, hence, we come back to this very important legislation that we are talking about. Senator Heffernan made the point that we cannot rush this and spoke about Premier Barry O'Farrell in New South Wales saying, 'When in a fog put your headlights on.' What a good analogy! If we rush this and we destroy our environment for future generations, they will look back at us and say, 'Why did you pollute our underground water? Why did you bring all that salt out and why is it being washed around the place now?'

I want to refer to New South Wales, being a senator from New South Wales. It was a New South Wales Labor government that went out willy-nilly issuing exploration licenses, huge licenses everywhere. For example, we had Shenhua in the Liverpool Plains—that magnificent farming country where the country there is so flat. Mother Nature has built it so flat that if one of the large dams there is full of water and there is some wind, it will go for hundreds of metres along the farmland. That is how flat the land is. There are huge supplies of water under that ground. If you planted the Liverpool Plains country down into vegetables—and Senator Nash would have more idea than I would, having been on a committee—you would be able to feed millions and millions of people. It is great country, with great soil, and a lot of the area has a tremendous amount of water underneath it. That cannot be damaged. There is no point going into 20 or 30 years of extracting energy to destroy farming country for thousands of years. Remember when I started this speech I said it is about the future—not just 20 or 30 years, but hundreds of years to come. That is what we need to protect.

I pay credit to the New South Wales government, who have not issued an exploration licence or a mining licence and have banned many of the chemicals in the fracking process that can cause damage. I will quote from one of Minister Chris Hartcher's media releases, which says:

Minister for Resources and Energy, Chris Hartcher today released a draft Code of Practice for CSG explorers and new Community Consultation Guidelines as part of a suite of tough controls regulating the industry under the NSW Government’s Strategic Lands package.

It is still coming out; it has been put on ice. They have slowed down because they realise the dangers this could cause to farmland and the danger for future generations. The media release further says:

The draft Code will be released for public comment for a period of eight weeks to allow the community and stakeholders to have a say.

I notice that the President of the NSW Farmers Association, Ms Fiona Simson, says that the NSW Farmers Association are not against mining but they are adamant about protecting their farmland, and so they should be. I often think that in this country we take the supply of food for granted. I remember back in 1995—and I remember the time well because that is when my father passed away—when a parish priest, Father Joe Adriano, came to Inverell and one night we sat next to a creek fishing. He is from the Philippines. He said to me, 'John, you are so lucky in Australia.' I said, 'Why is that, Father Joe? He said, 'You walk into your supermarkets and your supermarket shelves are full of food. You walk into the butcher shop and there is meat everywhere. In the Philippines many of the shelves are empty; they simply do not stock the food.' That is what this legislation is about: a scientific study, $150 million, I believe, to see that we do not mess this up, so that our supermarket shelves, our butcher shops and our fruit and vegetable shops are full of food, that we do not leave our country in a desperate state.

Senator Heffernan and his committee have done an enormous amount of work on this, and their inquiry is continuing. I am very pleased that it is in the hands of Senator Heffernan. He has a huge amount of knowledge of this issue. It is about protecting the environment for the long term, not destroying it for short-term gain. It must be protected for thousands of years to come. The legislation establishes an independent expert scientific committee on coal seam gas and large coalmining development. It will advise on research priorities and bioregional assessments in areas of high potential impact from coal seam gas and/or large coalmining developments, and provide the environment minister and state and territory ministers with expert scientific advice on developments that have a significant impact on water resources. States only have to take into account the advice; they do not need to act. It will not change existing exploration or extraction licences; indeed nothing will change due to this legislation.

We need to protect prime agricultural land. We need to provide farmers with a real return not just compensation and we need to make real investments in regional Australia. The Independents have received no assurance on any of these matters when doing this deal with the Gillard-Green-Independent alliance government that is supposedly running this country.

This matter of course has been debated strongly at National Party gatherings. At our federal council in August last year, the Nationals adopted a coal seam gas policy. We are saying that, if properly managed, coal seam gas has the potential to revitalise parts of regional Australia, delivering a new economic boom; if poorly managed, it could become an environmental and social disaster. That is what the balance of this is, and I think Senator Heffernan made it quite clear: poorly managed it could become an environmental and social disaster.

I have seen the economic benefits of this. In July last year, I took my wife away for a week's holiday to Queensland. We got advice from Senator Macdonald: 'Because of the floods et cetera, we need to get behind Queensland. If you are going on a holiday, go to Queensland.' We had seven days off—two days driving up to Airlie Beach, three days at Airlie Beach and two days driving home. In seven days off, we had four days on the road, which was good because my wife and I have always lived in rural Australia and we wanted to look at the cattle, the pasture feed and the crops et cetera. When got to Injune, it was dark and there were kangaroos about so we thought we would check into a motel for the night. Senator Macdonald is laughing and I know why. We could not get a motel room in Injune. Luckily, they work closely with the motels in Roma and there was one motel room left there. So we went down and stayed the night at the Budget Motel in Roma, where there are great proprietors and we had a lovely meal at the restaurant. I said to the manager, 'Are you full all the time?' He said, 'Basically.' It is a boom for hotels, motels and restaurants. This is the wealth it is bringing into some of these regional communities. When you go to other towns that do not have a big industry like that you wonder how the businesses are surviving. Retail sales are down and retailers are doing it really tough.

So it does bring economic benefits, but I come back to the point about managing the environment. That is the critical issue here. This scientific committee will, hopefully, have a huge input into the protection of our farmland and the balance needed. There is worry about what is being proposed. There have been huge protests and outbursts, and certainly people have stated their side of the argument on the Liverpool Plains, that magnificent part of the country. I have visited areas in Queensland where these measures have also been proposed. Landowners are very concerned and so they should be. We are lucky enough to live in this country. Regardless of how long we live, the land will stay afterwards. When we pass away the land will not disappear; it will be here for good, hopefully. Managing that land is of vital importance.

I want to discuss the five points that emerged from the National Party Federal Council last August. First, no coal seam gas development can be granted if it damages aquifers or water quality. That is absolutely essential. As Senator Heffernan has pointed out, if we destroy that aquifer we can destroy the irrigation ability of that productive land for thousands of years to come—not only hundreds but thousands of years. Second, coal seam gas development must not compromise prime agricultural land. We must protect our ability to deliver food security, not only for our nation but, as I said earlier, for a hungrier world for generations to come. Third, coal seam gas development should not occur close to residential areas. Those who have reasonable expectation of a quiet life around their homes should be able to enjoy it. Fourth, payments to landowners should not be limited to compensation. They deserve a proper return on the development of resources that occurs on their land. Fifth, the regions that deliver much of the wealth from coal seam gas deserve a fair share of the revenues to be reinvested in their communities. In other words, if wealth is created in a regional area, some of the tax collected by this place should go back there to help their infrastructure and give them a fair share. That is where the wealth cake of this nation is produced, basically: in rural and regional areas, whether it be agriculture, mining or whatever. Of course, there is also a lot of regional tourism and, in many areas, education.

The big concern to me is the damage to underground aquifers and the pollution caused when fluids are drawn from the ground to get the gas running. They are the two big concerns and we have to consider how we deal with them. As I said, if we destroy our environment, generations and generations to come will say: 'What did they do back then in those early years of the 21st century? Why didn't they care about the future? Why did they leave us in this mess?' That is what we cannot allow to happen. It is about protecting our environment for future generations, especially our farmlands.

The New South Wales farmers have played a vital role communicating with the New South Wales government. It is essentially a state issue under the Constitution. This scientific committee may be of great assistance. Before we do anything wrong, let us make sure we get this right and learn more about the difficult issues that will emerge. No doubt the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee will learn as they go along in this inquiry towards delivering their recommendations, because this will be an ongoing issue. One inquiry may conclude; then another will start up when another problem comes along. This is about getting the management right. As I said, future generations will be unforgiving if we make a mess of this. We hope the legislation coming through, along with scientific knowledge, research and learning, will assist in ensuring that process is done properly. But it is going to be a tough ask. As I said, it was quite amazing when the member for Lyne stated that this scientific committee can overrule the states. That is wrong; that is not correct. The states have control and we need to support them in every way we can. We need to ensure that the states do their job correctly through all sorts of state bodies to see that the environment, especially our farms, is protected for many generations to come.