Tuesday, 24 August 2021
Environment and Communications References Committee; Report
I would also like to make a short contribution on this report. I am not and have not been a member of the committee, so have not been involved in the inquiry, but I have followed these issues closely, particularly in my capacity as shadow minister for northern Australia.
I want to recognise all of the members of the committee for the work that they have done in this inquiry, in particular my colleague Senator McCarthy, who, as you just saw, has maintained a very close focus on this issue for quite some time. I know that she has been a thorough and effective advocate for the citizens of the Northern Territory on these issues, particularly traditional owners, around the concerns that they have. I do want to publicly recognise the work that Senator McCarthy has done on this inquiry, and even beforehand.
It's no secret that in Australian politics today the development of the gas industry is a contentious issue. There are many who support the development of the gas industry, particularly on the basis of the jobs that it can create, the export dollars that it can earn and other economic benefits. Of course, there are others in the community who oppose the development of the industry, particularly on the basis of their concerns around climate change.
We often hear, as we heard earlier from Senator Hanson-Young, different people's versions of what Labor stands for on these issues. But I would always encourage people who would actually like to know what the Labor Party believes on a particular issue to consult our platform, rather than listen to our political opponents and how they choose to characterise our position. What Labor's platform says on the matter of the gas industry, among other things, is that we support new gas projects and associated infrastructure:
… subject to independent approval processes to ensure legitimate community concerns are heard and addressed. Labor will ensure the industry assesses and manages environmental and other impacts, including on water reserves and co-existence with other agricultural activities, and engages constructively with landholders.
Throughout our platform there are also a number of references to the need for traditional owners and First Nations people generally to be consulted on developments of any kind, including in the resources industry.
Quite apart from the gas industry in general, the proposed development of the gas industry in the Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory is also a contentious issue for the reasons that I've already outlined. But I do want to draw the chamber's attention to the fact that a couple of years ago the Northern Territory government commissioned an extremely rigorous inquiry, known as the Pepper inquiry, which explored the issues around the development of the Beetaloo basin. That inquiry put forward 135 recommendations about how the development of the Beetaloo basin should occur. The Northern Territory government and a range of other parties are in the process of implementing those recommendations now. I think it's important to understand some of that background to this inquiry.
As I said, I haven't personally been involved in this inquiry, but I'm aware, from my discussions with colleagues, especially Senator McCarthy, that there are two particularly big concerns that have been raised over the course of the inquiry. The first concern relates to the level of consultation with traditional owners and First Nations people generally in and around the Beetaloo basin. It does appear, through the evidence to this inquiry, that there are some legitimate concerns about how adequate that consultation has been with traditional owners and First Nations people by some of the gas companies who are seeking to explore and develop in the Beetaloo basin. These are concerns that we should all take seriously. Again, looking at Labor's platform, you would expect us to take them seriously, and we do take them seriously. In fact, they are concerns that I personally have raised with the gas industry in very recent times, and I know that colleagues of mine in the Labor Party have done the same thing. I don't know whether the Greens party have bothered to raise those concerns directly with the gas industry, given that their modus operandi is usually to pull a stunt in here rather than seek constructive improvements.
It's because of those concerns that the additional comments that have been made by Labor senators in this report acknowledge the efforts of the Northern Land Council to consult with a range of traditional owners and other interests over many years about the Beetaloo basin. We urge the government to consider supporting the Northern Land Council to ensure even more rigorous consultation with affected traditional owners and native title interests. These are issues that deserve to be taken seriously, and we hope that the government will take the comments on board.
The other big concern that has been raised by a number of people over the course of this inquiry is the probity of particular grants to the value of $21 million in taxpayers' funds that have been made under this program. Of course, when taxpayers' funds are being provided to private sector interests, whether it be in the gas industry or any other industry, we need to be confident that those grants have been administered and approved on a completely above-board basis. I think we are right to be concerned about the distribution of these grants in particular, given that the evidence demonstrates the quite extensive involvement of Minister Angus Taylor, his chief fundraiser and other people with very strong connections to the Liberal Party. We need to remember, of course, that when we're talking about Minister Taylor we're talking about someone who has form. This is the Minister Taylor of the water rorts and the grassland rorts, the Minister Taylor of 'Well done, Angus' and of 'Great job, Angus'—