Senate debates

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Bills

Great Australian Bight Environment Protection Bill 2019; Second Reading

4:55 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It's always good to make a contribution on Thursday. I used to be able to get up on a Thursday afternoon, following former Senator Macdonald from Queensland, and throw my notes out, because he gave so much ammunition in his contribution that you didn't need any notes. Now I note that Senator Hanson-Young has taken up that mantle. Where do we start?

As I sat in the Deputy President position and listened to the contribution, I thought: were Senator Hanson-Young to repeat a number of these items outside the chamber, there would probably be a competent jurisdiction she could be brought to. I thought the contribution was completely over the top and demeaning of people who have a right to operate their business throughout the world. They shouldn't be brought to account—in a chamber where they have no recourse—inaccurately and unfairly.

By way of further preamble, my duty electorate for the last eight years has been the seat of Grey. The member for Grey, Rowan Ramsey, is a hardworking rural member. It's a huge electorate—85 per cent of South Australia. I try and make him work very hard by visiting as many places as I can so he's got to back that up. We talk to a lot of people, and there is clearly widely-held, deeply-felt concern right throughout the community. But it's not even. It's not one way. It's not 100 per cent. It's as normal. It's people thinking about their livelihood, their future, their operation and their particular circumstances and how this either opportunity or threat could affect their communities or themselves personally, their grandchildren and their opportunities.

So I accept there are widely held and deeply felt views about this. But what I don't accept is that we need to change a system that has worked for us. If you look at the contribution from Bass Strait, 54 per cent of Australia's crude oil and liquids and 40 per cent of eastern Australia's natural gas has come out of that development, creating 370 full-time-equivalent job years of employment throughout Australia and half a billion dollars worth of taxes in every year of operation.

I'm an evidence based person. I don't get convinced by the last person I spoke to. I like to listen to everybody's contribution, seek the evidence, test the evidence and go forward. We've had an inquiry in this space. Witnesses like the Australian Conservation Foundation gave their evidence and were professional about that, citing examples and putting evidence forward, and we tested that evidence. But one direct question at the end of their appearance was, 'Is there anything that will convince you that this should go ahead?' And they honestly answered, 'No, we cannot be convinced.' So sometimes you're faced with implacable opposition.

The evidence is that this is not easy business. But we have a successful track record. We have a fully professional independent regulator, which came out of the Montara spill—let's not forget that. It came out of the spill in the Timor Sea, which wasn't good. It's been created, enhanced and refined and it's operated successfully. And we have a track record of, I think, 3,800 wells drilled around the country, most of them on the North West Shelf. The entire coast of Western Australia cohabitates with oil and gas exploration. The whale populations are allegedly increasing; people tell me that. There are sanctuaries—Barrow Island, I think, is a World Heritage area—in amongst oil and gas exploration.

So the Australian record is that we can coexist. We can have the dual benefits of good exports, safe operation and beautiful beaches. And, more importantly I suppose, we've got the economic wellbeing to be able to enjoy those activities, in four-wheel drives, caravans, boats and, dare I say it, even planes. I do know—it's probably a pretty low shot—that Senator Hanson Hanson-Young took a chartered plane to go and have a look at the area of activity. Presumably that wasn't a glider; it was powered by avgas or something similar.

The Labor Party is always going to take a scientific, evidence based approach to this. We don't believe there needs to be too much fine tuning—or blunt tuning, with Senator Hanson-Young's bill—in this space, because demonstrably it has worked. Independent regulators do their job forensically. No-one says they're an easy mark. The plans that you have to go through and all of the requirements are extensive and comprehensive. I am told, from briefings I've sought, that these are industry professionals. They're not—I don't want to denigrate bureaucrats in Canberra, because there are plenty of them here. They're industry trained professionals who would have done this sort of safety assessment for private sector companies, and they're now looking at those private sector companies with a very, very critical lens and making sure it's right. I think—and it's fairly clear to me after talking to NOPSEMA a couple of times—they value their reputation. They're not going to get anything wrong here. They're not going to go down any low road at all. It's going to be to the highest environmental standards and the companies are going to be held to account.

I actually don't mind driving a car. I really enjoy the fact that there are fuel stations around the place so that if I got up one morning and wanted to drive 3,000 kilometres in Australia I could go from service station to service station and make my way around the country, free and independent. We're not at the stage of abandoning fossil fuels in any part of the world. If you go to Europe, you will get a diesel car. There are electric cars coming; we know that. We know there is change on the design chain. There are intelligent intersections and autonomous vehicles. But in my view we're not going anywhere away from combustion engines in the short term or in the next 25 to 30 years. It's not going to be a light-switch moment where we go to electric vehicles. So we're going to need to find fuel and fuel sources. Senator Canavan's right: we have low security. We've got 20 days. We have four ailing refineries, with little or no investment going into those. Coincidentally, we're probably running the dirtiest fuel. We're running low-octane fuel. Europe is moving to high-octane fuel. Engines are moving to high-octane fuel, lower emissions and hundred parts per million of sulphur.

All of these things are happening and we're worrying about whether we should take a small 60-day operation into the Great Australian Bight, 400 kilometres off the coast. That is not going to be the end of anybody's world. There'll be a 60-day drilling operation 400 kilometre out into the Great Australian Bight. It is not going to challenge a child on Brighton Beach, on Glenelg Beach, down on the Fleurieu Peninsula or over at Kangaroo Island—and I visit all of those places. They are beautiful and wonderful. They should be protected and they will be protected under the relevant legislation. We need to go to all of the Indigenous communities who have a view in this space and we need to do the appropriate thing, as we always do. There is legislation that requires that. The Labor Party believes that that should always be complied with.

My experience with this company and the predecessors, Equinor, BP, and Chevron, is that they've gone out of their way to talk to oyster fishermen and tuna fishermen. I've spoken to people at Streaky Bay. One group of fishermen said, 'Yeah, we could handle that,' and another group of fishermen said, 'Oh, we don't really know.' The communities have been consulted by these people. Equinor and the predecessors have been all over the place talking to people. It is widely held and deeply felt, but I reject the assertion that it's one-way traffic.

The scattergun approach that Senator Hanson-Young takes is that, even if you've got something right and you could drill a well, we don't want it, because we're warming the planet. You can't conflate these issues. You're either trying to bring a bill in here that deals with the Great Australian Bight or you're going to the United Nations to say that we should do something else. The blunderbuss approach: everything is wrong; it'll blow the whole world up; you won't be able to surf in Coolangatta, because of what's happened in one well in the Great Australian Bight—it's not really borne out by evidence. Like I say, 3,800 wells drilled around Australia and, as Senator Canavan's pointed out, 13 of 16 drilled in the Great Australian Bight without incident or problem. I don't know how we get to the stage where, if we let this happen, the world will end in terms of the environment, children enjoying their time at the beach and warming of the planet. I have to say that, if Equinor don't drill there, someone else will drill somewhere else. We can't fix it with this one-stop shop here. The Great Australian Bight is pristine and wonderful. I visit it as often as I can. I know communities are concerned, but I don't think it is one-way traffic. I think the genuine economic opportunities here will eventually outweigh the environmental concerns.

With those few short comments I want to go back to this being an example of exploitation of genuinely deeply held feelings for purely political purposes. Really they're not being entirely honest here. They have an ideological view—and they're entitled to that—but they bring a bill into this chamber and allege that people are doing things that are brutal. Some of the allegations Senator Hanson-Young made couldn't be made outside the chamber without potential recourse to another jurisdiction. I think that's a low road to start. Then she conflated all of the issues. If my granddaughter listened to the contribution from Senator Hanson-Young and said to me, 'Does that mean, Grandad, that I can't go to Glenelg beach?' I'd say, 'No, it doesn't.' But that is what she said. How do you explain it to impressionable people who may be swayed by this type of rhetoric? So it was completely over the top. I reject a lot of the assertions there. They're not based on science or fact.

We believe that we should be consulting widely with everybody and watching very carefully as these companies actually do that. We know they do the consultation. There is ample evidence right through the inquiries that have been held in this space. Nothing will go ahead without a proper tick off from the regulator. Nothing will go ahead that the communities are not aware of. There is no smoke and mirrors. People will seek to take what is a prudent evaluation of risk and a prudent plan for dealing with the eventuality if the risk occurs and then say, 'That's why you shouldn't do it.' They avoid the fact that it's a minimal risk in the first place.

There hasn't even been an approval granted as yet. We don't even know whether this 60-day operation 400 kilometres off the coast of South Australia is actually going to be approved. This is pre-empting what the regulator may say. We can't instruct the regulator. They will come down to make their decision. But there will be science. We are sure that science is going to make this decision. Based on the available data and science that we see, I'm hopeful that there will be a favourable decision made.

A community right outside the area is Ceduna. I've visited Ceduna on a number of occasions. That's an area where the Greens have taken some particular interest in social policy, with the cashless welfare card and the like. I know that Ceduna Airport benefited from some investment in some helicopter facilities. When BP attempted to go through this protocol and procedure they invested in Port Adelaide and in Ceduna. I know a lot of people in Ceduna were looking forward to the economic opportunity that might come out of some fly-in fly-out workers. This is work that's done quickly. It's very expensive work. An incredible amount of logistical effort goes into it. Money is spent in the surrounding areas. I know from talking to the mayor and other people over there that there was an indication that it would be a good boost to the economy and it might help alleviate some of the problems that they've had there for decades in terms of low employment and underemployment.

You go over to Port Lincoln. Port Lincoln is an interesting town. It's a very wealthy town in a lot of ways. It has its own economy. It's got tourism, it's got farming, it's got tuna, it's got fishing and they're very independently minded. There are views there, very strong views. If you talk to a tuna fisherman like I often have to do, they've got very strong views about the world and how we in Canberra should be doing this and that and the rest of it. But they are people who've gone out there and created something in that wilderness, in the Great Australian Bight, and the tuna fishing and farming industry is world leading.

They have concerns. I don't think they'll be relying on Senator Hanson-Young advocating for them. They will be advocating very strongly and professionally through their relevant associations and their politicians or representatives in this place, and they'll be making sure their concerns are taken note of. They will not be held back by anybody. I've got this great confidence that the region is so robust and well represented through their associations, their industry associations and their participants that we don't have to do a lot. Equinor's got to do a lot. The regulator's got to do a lot. We just have to make sure that the process is working.

In earlier contributions, there were attempts to say that this would go back to ministerial discretion. I don't think that's the way. I think this is proven process working properly. I'm more confident: (a) that the world's not going to end if we drill in the Great Australian Bight and that it won't cause automatic global warming and the shutdown of the planet; and (b) it probably will cause the economy of that region to become more diversified and successful. What we do know in South Australia is that we do need more diversity and we do need more success. If you add another layer to the grain, the wine, the mining and the renewables—we do a lot of renewable leadership, so we've got three or four pillars to our relatively small state economy. If we were to add this initiative as a success, it would be greatly beneficial to South Australia. It may well be that the newspapers who run the polling, which nobody in this place will ever believe after the 18 May result, would take a slightly different view about the economic opportunities and impacts.

What we know is that, with almost every mining opportunity, drilling opportunity or expansion opportunity in regional and rural Australia—and it goes to coal seam gas exploration and the like—there is always angst and community concern up-front. That needs to be dealt with appropriately and properly. I think that's what's happening here. To the great credit of the regulator, they will not be rushed. No-one will rush them. You will tick all of the boxes and satisfy all of the concerns or you'll just have to keep doing it.

I take great comfort from the process. I don't know that there is a great swell in South Australia to race out and protect the Great Australian Bight. I think people appreciate it is a pristine area. It does have migratory whales and the like. I visit Kangaroo Island and watch the sea lions. You can imagine standing there how you could be living on Kangaroo Island, enjoying probably one of the more pristine places in the world, and someone says: 'Well, if there's a well drilled over 400 kilometres away, it's all going to come here and wash up on your beach.' Interestingly enough former Senator Back used to say in this chamber: 'It already does.' I would say, 'Senator Back, what are you saying?' And he'd say, 'Oil comes up from the seabed and it does wash up on Kangaroo Island. Not in great amounts, but it has done.' He was always enthusiastic about the Great Australian Bight because he said, 'There is oil there. We've just got to find it.'

Look, it's an opportunity, I think, for South Australia, for Australia. I don't subscribe clearly to the proposition that's been put forward and advanced in Senator Hanson-Young's contribution. I want to go to perhaps asking that, in any other contribution, if she's going to be fairly brutal with people, they should really have the right of reply. I can't recall coming in here and using this chamber to have a shot at someone that I wouldn't do outside the chamber. I think that's a good standard for us all to have. Potentially, people do things under parliamentary privilege but, really, if you've got a strong view, it should be couched in such a way that it's not actionable. I'm not sure that some of the earlier contributions from Senator Hanson-Young were in that vein. But that's her decision—no doubt about that.

In the few seconds I've got left, I hope the regulator makes a good decision for Australia and I support whatever that decision is. If the regulator says that it's too risky to do that, then I would support that. If the regulator comes out and says, 'You've ticked all the boxes. You can go, for 60 days, 400 kilometres off the coast of South Australia and drill a well,' then, if it's successful, it will be better for South Australia. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.

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