Mr COULTON (Parkes–The Nationals Chief Whip) (18:11): I rise tonight to speak about the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013. I do not think that I have ever, in my five years in this place, felt more inclined to speak on a bill than I do here tonight. Those people from the North Coast of New South Wales that are listening to this broadcast might be wondering, after the previous member’s contribution, how this bill is going to solve the problems that they might have with the coal seam gas industry, because the member for Richmond did not touch on that at all.
Far be it from me to bring facts into this debate, but I will just raise one: the licences-the PELs-that were given to the gas companies on the North Coast of New South Wales were all given by the Labor Party in New South Wales. That is fact 1. Fact 2 is that the only regulation that has ever been put in place to protect the farmers and the environment of New South Wales, including the North Coast, was put in by the New South Wales coalition government.
This bill is all about politics and less about the environment. If you ever wanted an indication of what this is all about, we just saw it from the member for Richmond. The member for Richmond quoted the environmental groups on the North Coast that were concerned about this and were driving this. As she scurries from the chamber, she might like to explain this advertisement from the Byron Shire Echo, issue 27.39, on 12 March 2013: ‘Authorised by J Elliot, Tweed Heads’. So I ask: was this paid for by entitlements? Was this paid for by the Australian taxpayers? In it she said:
Nationals Candidate supports harmful Coal Seam Gas Mining … Matthew Fraser just doesn’t get it … We can’t risk Matthew Fraser and his Pro-CSG fracking, drilling and blasting agenda.
This was paid for by the Australian taxpayers. The member for Richmond is not responding to community action; she is driving it. The reason she is driving this is so that the people of Richmond are not talking about the national economy, about BER or about pink batts in roofs: ‘So let’s distract them. Let the member for Richmond and the member for Page get together, and we’ll have a distraction. We’ll scare the pants off the people of the North Coast and tell them that these evil gas companies are coming to get them.’ This is a scandal. We are supposed to be in this place representing, supporting, encouraging and helping our constituents so that they can get through these issues. We are not put here to scare the living daylights out of them and create an issue so we can be perceived to solve it.
I might just make one observation. One thing you can say about the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities-and it was the same when he was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry-is that, when he introduces a bill, mostly he sits at the table and watches the debate. That is one thing I give him great credit for. Where is he today? Is he a tad embarrassed about the scant nature of this legislation?
I am not pro coal seam gas and I am not opposed to it. I support the people of New South Wales, the people of my electorate, being protected. We saw that in a bipartisan way with the environment minister’s proposal for an independent scientific committee to look at large-scale mining and coal seam gas projects and look at the issues. I agreed with that. We need to make sure that we get the science right. But this bill does not change anything. Did the member for Richmond explain how this bill is going to protect the people of the North Coast? Did the member for Richmond explain to the people of the North Coast how it is going to help with their access issues and compensation issues? No, she did not. She made a blatantly political speech.
I am on the record about my support for farmers and my support for the environment. I have said time and time again that the farmers in my electorate will be feeding the world in 1,000 or 2,000 years time. They farm soil as fertile as that around the Nile and the Ganges, and they have the methods, the technology and the skills to maintain and improve that soil. We do not want to introduce an industry that is going to destroy that. But we have an issue with coal seam gas and coalmining versus farming. It is an issue that is going to take a great amount of responsible action to deal with.
The Nationals have a position on this. We believe that our water is sacrosanct. We believe that water is the lifeblood of Australia. We believe we need to get the science right. But, unfortunately, the member for Richmond has belled the cat on this, as I suspect the member for Page is about to. The member for New England is involved in this as well. The fact that the NFF, who support farmers at a peak level, have come out and said that this bill is not adequate and does not really change anything is a clear indication of what we are seeing here. The scientific committee already has the ability to look at this. I am not saying that this bill is necessarily going to harm our farmers or people on the coast. It is just not going to help them. It is interesting that this taxpayer-paid advertisement in the Byron Shire Echo is going into an area where there is no CSG industry at this moment. This is an appalling situation.
In the Parkes electorate, we have large areas under exploration licence. It is a concern for the farmers that live in those areas. But I say to those farmers: putting your hands over your ears and shouting at whoever comes nearby and sending emails personally insulting your local member over this will not solve the issue. This is one that needs engagement. If you do not engage with this issue and glean the facts, you will end up with an industry in your neighbourhood over which you have had no say. We need to get this right.
In my electorate, I have some of the best grain-growing areas anywhere in the world. The idea that there would be a grid pattern of coal seam gas wells all across this cultivation land-which is farmed by satellite control; it is precision agriculture, where the best of science is used-is abhorrent to me. I would fight to my last breath to protect the productivity of this land. But not all land in my electorate is of this nature, and not all farmers in my electorate are strongly opposed. They are prepared to look at this.
I do not just come to this place making political points on this. I have spent quite some time studying this industry. I went to Queensland. I went to the seat of my colleague the member for Maranoa. I went to Roma, and I saw where the industry is working side by side with farmers, without conflict, where there was benefit not only to the farmers involved but also to the communities. The wealth in Western Queensland, in towns that were dying 10 years ago, is good to see.
I also went to the Darling Downs, the Cecil Plains and Dalby, and I saw areas there that were under licence where it would be an absolute crime to develop anything but agriculture, an area where the aquifers and the coal seams were close together. But in places like the Pilliga forest and areas around Narrabri there are 700 or 800 metres of impervious rock between the water aquifer that sustains those areas and the aquifer with coal seam gas in it. To not look at that and to not look at the possibilities of exploiting that resource while protecting the farmland would be, I believe, a nonsense.
The farmers in my electorate rely on having a clean, healthy environment. They also rely on energy. They rely on energy for irrigation. They rely on energy for running tractors. They rely on energy to produce nitrogenous fertiliser and farm chemicals. Farming is the industry that is most subject to the cost of energy.
The week before last, the Lock the Gate Alliance and local farmers sticky-taped a list of eight demands to my office window. They picked a time when they knew I was not going to be there. The fact that people had to stand outside my office I found an insult-no-one stands outside my office; no-one gets refused an invitation to come in and talk about whatever issue they want. But they chose to pick a time when I was not there and sticky-tape these eight demands to my window. Some of them I could agree with, but some of them were straight out of the Greens’ playbook. The headline was fair enough: ‘Mining companies should pay their fair share of tax’. But when you go into the Lock the Gate Alliance website, you find that that means the diesel fuel rebate needs to be removed. That is what they want.
The diesel fuel rebate is worth a lot to the mining industry. But I can tell you what: potentially, and percentage-wise, it is worth a lot more to the farmers. As to those people who are supporting the Lock the Gate Alliance, are they telling their neighbours that they are campaigning to do away with the diesel fuel rebate? One of their demands is that we build no more large-scale ports-are they saying that to the farmers who are looking for diversity in their grain market by getting a second grain terminal in Newcastle? Do they realise that one of the demands of the Lock the Gate Alliance is that there be no more ports? No more government funding to go into railway lines-that is another demand. That is going to be nice, as we try to make sure that we are going to build the railway line from Melbourne to Brisbane to give access to our farmers to greater markets and to ports?
A warning to the people who are driving this issue: this is a serious issue. This needs engagement. We do not need window-dressing. We do not need to be saying, like the member for New England says: ‘At least I’m doing something.’ ‘At least I’m doing something’-that is the defence of the fool who is pouring petrol on a fire. We need to make sure that we get the science right. We need to make sure that we protect our agricultural land. We need to make sure that if this industry is going to develop it does so in a sustainable, sensible fashion. And we need to do it in a common-sense way. We do not need to see stunts like we saw from the member for Richmond where you scare the pants off the people you are supposed to be representing, create an issue, talk to the environment minister, get him to put up a mickey mouse piece of legislation that does not really change anything, and then say, ‘Guess what: I fixed your problem.’ This does not fix the problem.
To the people of the North Coast: you still have problems with access that you need to deal with and compensation that you need to deal with. This does not do any of that. I give credit to my state colleagues. It has been a very, very difficult issue-a difficult issue that had been left to them by the state government who handed out these things willy-nilly for backhanded payments to corrupt upper house MPs across the state, and now my colleagues in New South Wales are trying to sort this out, and I give them great credit for that. I tell you: in this place we take it seriously.