Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Environment and Communications References Committee; Report
I present the interim report of the Environment and Communications References Committee on oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin, and I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
This report is a very important one. Not only has it gathered information and evidence in relation to the Beetaloo basin and the plans to drill for gas in that area in the foreseeable future; this interim report goes directly to the government's plans to give tens of millions of public dollars over to gas companies to start fracking in the Northern Territory.
The Beetaloo basin gas field, which sits south of Katherine in the NT, holds around 34 billion tonnes of heat-trapping gases, the equivalent of 68 years of Australia's already high pollution levels. The NT government said that opening up the basin's gas fields will increase Australia's annual emissions by six per cent, when we should be going the other way. We have many debates about having to reduce carbon pollution in this country and around the world. Rather than doing that, the government's plan to open up fracking in the Beetaloo basin is going to make it even harder for us to address climate change and to reduce pollution.
We have until 2030 to halve the world's pollution. Otherwise, we run the risk of setting off chain reactions that will lead to a runaway climate breakdown way beyond the ability of humans to get under control. The IPCC report that we've referenced in this place many times over the last few weeks is a big warning sign that, if we're to reduce the risk of temperature rise, this is the last decade that we have to take serious action to reduce pollution and get things back on track.
Putting aside the fact that this fracking plan in the Northern Territory is a climate bomb, it is a trademark dodgy process of this Liberal government. What we've seen is the government put on the table a $50 million grant fund for gas companies to go hell for leather in the Northern Territory. We've got spreadsheets marked with electorates. We've got mates looking after mates. We've got fundraising dinners and private jets flying across the Northern Territory, and we've got nice, cosy, private dinners with ministers and gas company executives. This is more 'cash for Liberal Party mates', at a time when we've been having a lot of debate in this chamber and the other place about other types of rorts that this government is involved in. They're up to their necks in car park rorts, and, of course, there's the sports rorts program. Unfortunately, we hear today that this gas rort by the Morrison government is going to be simply waved through by the opposition. That is an extra extremely disappointing position for the Labor Party to have taken.
What we know is that, out of the $50 million of public money that the Morrison government wants to hand over to gas companies, $21 million has already been earmarked for a company called Empire Energy. That company has been awarded $21 million so far. What this report outlines and what the committee has uncovered is that this company had the inside track. They were mates of the Liberal Party and even mates of the minister, Mr Angus Taylor. They were lifetime members of the Liberal Party. What happens is, of course, that this company ends up getting the lion's share, $21 million. The relationship between this company, Empire Energy, and the Liberal Party is so thick you couldn't count the number of ways on one hand.
In March this year, the company met with Mr Taylor privately in his ministerial office; no department officials were there. Eight days later, the grant guidelines were publicly released, showing that the scheme wasn't even merit based. The evidence that we've got through this inquiry thus far and detailed in this report is that the money was handed out on a first-come first-served basis. No due diligence was done. The criteria weren't even met. Of course, the key criterion for getting access to the cheque is if you're a mate of the Liberal Party. Minister Taylor denies that they even talked about the grants, but—let's be honest—this is the same bloke who denies that he played with the reports and documents from the City of Sydney website and who denies the ownership of Cayman Islands based companies that received $80 million in water purchases from the federal government. I leave it to you, Madam Acting Deputy President, as to whether or not you believe Mr Taylor was involved in this and whether he is to be trusted.
What we do know is that before this meeting, in October last year, Minister Taylor's personal fundraising vehicle, the Hume forum, specifically invited this very same gas company, Empire Energy, to attend his fundraiser in Darwin. Empire, of course, graciously accepted the invitation. They paid $4½ thousand to attend that event. The next day the company chartered a private jet to the site where the well is to be drilled. That not only included Mr Taylor; his staff were flown there. His chief fundraiser, the head of the Hume forum, Mr Ryan Arnold, was there as well, as were members of the gas lobby, APPEA, and the executive director of the Menzies centre. What were they all doing, flying out to the well site over there? They were all in attendance. Of course, a few months later, this company ended up getting $21 million of public money. After a big day of jetsetting, obviously they would have been pretty happy with themselves that night! They even went out for a private dinner.
Who exactly owns Empire Energy? The chair of Empire, Mr Paul Espie, was described in parliament by cabinet minister Jane Hume as a friend and a mentor and a doyen of the Liberal Party. He's the chair of the Liberal think tank the Menzies centre, which explains why the Australian columnist and Menzies executive director Nick Cater was on board this private jet as well. Mr Espie has donated over $400,000 to the Liberals over the years. Do you see a theme here, Madam Acting Deputy President? Cosy, cosy! Friends, friends, friends! The major shareholder of this company is a Tasmanian billionaire, Dale Elphinstone, who has been involved in Liberal Party preselection, is a regular supporter and is referred to as a lifelong member of the Liberal Party. The next largest shareholder of this company—and this goes to the lack of due diligence that was done before giving this money, public money, $21 million of taxpayers' money, to this gas company—is an investment vehicle owned by a Mr Michael Tang, who is a Chinese national, and there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest, in Hong Kong, for insider trading. Boy! So, on one hand, you've got mates of the Liberal Party and, on the other, a bunch of criminals. And yet taxpayer money is being spent on this rubbish—$21 million of taxpayers' money to be spent trying to frack for gas in the Northern Territory at a time when we should be reducing carbon pollution.
Now, we could have a debate about whether we should be fracking in the Northern Territory, and the Greens' position on that is crystal clear. But what this report goes to—as well as the lack of consultation with the traditional owners, and I know there will be other senators who want to refer directly to that—and what I'm worried about is that even the process for handing out this money has been dodgy from go to whoa. But I'm very disappointed to hear today that the Labor Party, rather than standing up to it, is going to let this one slide. It is going to let this one slide just so it can perhaps keep its mates in the gas and the fossil fuel industries happy. Boy oh boy, why on earth would the Labor Party want to let the Liberal government, the Morrison government, Mr Taylor and his mates off the hook when clearly this stinks of just another Liberal Party rort. It's also going to cook the planet. (Time expired)