Monday, 10 September 2012
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012; In Committee
by leave—I move Greens amendments (4) and (6) on sheet 7233 together:
(4) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 17), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(a), add ", and any associated environmental and health impacts".
(6) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 23), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(b), add ", and any associated environmental and health impacts".
These amendments go to the committee's scope of consideration. The amendments add public health and environmental impacts to the list of issues that the committee has to consider and advise the various ministers on. There seems to have been some movement in that respect by the government and the opposition, which I welcome. Their amendments do not quite go as far as these amendments, but we will come to those amendments later and certainly the Greens will be supporting those. I welcome the reconsideration by both sides of the chamber of the scope of the committee's work. It is important that this committee be charged with looking at as many issues surrounding coal and coal seam gas as possible, although I note that it is unfortunate that that does not remedy the fact that the federal minister is unable to act on the advice of this committee where there are water impacts only as opposed to impacts also on other matters that are protected by our environmental laws already.
I just wanted to speak generally on the amendments, but since we are on this I want to recapitulate as to where we are with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012. It was a bill setting up a scientific committee to look at issues relating to coal seam gas and large coalmining developments. The committee was to be an independent and expert committee. There were amendments proposed, which actually set down the types of expert scientists that would form part of that committee. The debate in the second reading ranged widely on issues relating to coal seam gas and I spent some time in my second reading contribution referring to the new Queensland government's GasFields Commission that had been set up under the leadership of Mr John Cotter, a distinguished Queenslander who has spent a lifetime living in Southern Queensland and former chairman of AgForce. I indicated to the Senate in my second reading contribution just what the role and remit of the Queensland GasField Commission was.
When we came to the committee stage, I asked Senator Conroy, the minister who is taking this bill through the chamber, being the representative environment minister in this chamber, a couple of fairly succinct and relatively simple questions. One was: what would the scientific committee do that the Queensland GasField Commission would not do? The other question was relative to how the government was going to select the members of this independent expert scientific committee. I asked those questions before question time. Senator Conroy indicated that he would, during the course of this debate, attempt to get me answers for those questions. He indicated, and I accept, because I am a reasonable sort of fellow, that he did not have that information at his fingertips, but here we are five hours later and I am sure that Senator Conroy in the five hours would have had his advisers and public servants working flat out to find that information. I would not have thought it would take terribly long. As an aide memoire to the minister, I look forward to the answers to those questions which you indicated you would provide.
I am still seeking further information on the process. As I said, it will be far more rigorous than the Christmas card process that the Liberal Party normally engage in.
On the question of the overlap, you seem to be very familiar with the Queensland commission's responsibilities.
I am pleased you did. I am glad you admitted that. You have clearly read the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012, so you are familiar with the work of the committee, so I am struggling to understand how you are not able to make that assessment yourself. You have both pieces in front of you and you would like me to explain to you the differences. I would suggest that you put them next to each other and you would be able to work your way through it. You are clearly familiar with both, Senator Macdonald. So, if you would like someone to give you some assistance, perhaps your staff might want to help you.
I thank Senator Cameron for his comments. My reading, Minister Cameron, was such that there did not seem to be any point in setting up this federal scientific committee when the work that the federal scientific committee was going to do was effectively being covered by the Queensland commission. The Queensland commission has reputable scientists, people who are well versed in these issues and live in the area where coal seam gas is a particular issue. Minister, having done as you suggest—that is, reading your bill and looking at what the Queensland commission does—I am not sure why you are bothering with this legislation. Sometimes I do miss things, so I am seeking your assistance and that of your advisers to explain to me what this committee will do that the Queensland commission is not already doing.
Perhaps by implication I raise the question: is this just another Labor Party 'regulate, legislate, build-up-the-books' exercise? Australia is crippled under red tape, green tape, this body and that body, and more legislation and more regulation. Minister, I believe your government actually has a minister for deregulation—a minister for getting rid of regulation—and yet you keep adding. It may will be that there is something in this scientific committee that does things that the Queensland commission would not do. I cannot see it—I am not always that bright—so I am seeking your assistance, Minister. You and your advisers should be able to succinctly point out to me what is different. Well, not what is different; I know what is different.
No; I am asking why you are bothering with this committee when one could be excused for thinking that what this committee will achieve is already being achieved by a commission set up by the Queensland government some months ago. I might say that it was set up by the new Queensland government—the Campbell Newman 'can do' Queensland government—after years of vacillation by the previous Labor government in Queensland. The Labor government in Queensland, prior to the stunning success of Campbell Newman, talked about this for four or five years, as I recall, and fumbled around. They showed the same sort of management capability that the federal government has shown with pink batts, school hall constructions, the carbon tax—now in its sixth version—and the mining tax.
Minister, you clearly do not hear too much. I just want to make it clear to you, Minister, that I personally think that you are a great guy. It is just the duplicity of yourself and your colleagues in the federal government ministry that I really detest. I might as a throwaway line say the same about the Greens. I love them all personally as people but I detest the duplicity and the hypocrisy and sometimes that distracts me.
Minister, I hear you talk about sacking people. Perhaps you have not heard yet that BHP have just closed another coalmine in Queensland.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Macdonald, I remind you to come back to the amendments to the bill in question.
Thank you, Mr Temporary Chairman. I was distracted by that unruly interjection from the minister. What I was saying in relation to coal seam gas in Queensland is that the previous Labor government in Queensland showed the same expertise in managing the coal seam gas issue in Queensland prior to the change of government as the federal government have shown in relation to pink batts, green loans, carbon taxes, mining taxes—you name it. They have just been incapable of delivery. That was my point, and that is how I got onto that line.
I can well understand that the minister does not personally know the answer to this, but he has four advisers sitting there who would. Unfortunately they cannot speak; they can only speak through the minister, regrettably. What I want to know is what this committee will achieve that the Queensland commission will not achieve.
Senator Macdonald can probably ask that question, among his streams of consciousness, four or five more times before the dinner break and the answer will be the same. He has already expressed to the chamber that he knows the differences. I am not sure I am going to be able to add much more to your knowledge than you already claim you have, Senator Macdonald. The will of the other place created this committee, is my understanding, and that is why this legislation is before us. You have already professed your expertise. You have examined this and you know what the differences are. Unlike your earlier claim that the committee stage is about seeking information, you are actually asking questions and, even funnier, answering your own questions as you ask them, which leaves me not in a position to give you any further information than you already admit you know.
I would like for a minute to reinforce the question that Senator Macdonald has been asking in relation to the establishment of the committee. I think it is a very reasonable question. It is a bit symptomatic of the way this government work that they put up a piece of legislation and have no concept of how the fundamentals of it might work. I think it is a reasonable question for Senator Macdonald to ask—a very reasonable question. He did ask Minister Conroy this morning how that process might operate. I acknowledge that Senator Conroy said that he would have to seek some additional advice—and, as Senator Macdonald has just said, some five hours have passed since he asked that question. I think it is quite reasonable that this chamber have some understanding of the process through which the committee might be established.
It is all very well for Senator Conroy to make comments about how other processes may have worked, but that really is not quite relevant to the questions that we are asking. We are asking some genuine questions about how the panel might be appointed. There are a number of mechanisms that are relatively standard. Will there be a selection panel appointed with a recommendation to the minister? Or is the minister just going to make his own appointments based on information from staff in his office? Or will the department recommend to the minister names for appointment? Given the contention that exists around this issue and given the concerns that have been raised both in this chamber and in the other place, it is reasonable that we ask these questions and get a serious response. This piece of legislation has been around for a while. It has been through a Senate inquiry process and I find it difficult to understand why the minister has absolutely no idea what particular process might be undertaken to select the panel. It is perhaps one of the fundamental issues of how this whole process is going to work. If we cannot have confidence in the efficacy of that process, if we do not understand while we are passing the legislation how that process is going to work, what can we have confidence in?
Senator Macdonald has mentioned some of the previous and numerous failures of this government around process. He mentioned pink batts and I think that is a pretty prime example. He mentioned school halls and the complete disaster that was the process of allocating funds, particularly through the former New South Wales government. If the minister cannot tell us, at least, what the process might be or give us an indication of how the process might work, are we going to find out prior to the passing of the bill? I do not think it is reasonable that we do not know that information prior to the passing of the bill. It is a simple question. It is a reasonable question. This piece of legislation has been around for some time and I think it is quite reasonable that the chamber actually ask the question and receive an answer.
I am advised—and most of this I have already advised—that the minister is looking widely for suitable expertise and the minister has written to the states under the national partnership agreement seeking possible candidates. As I said, we are consulting the states.
I want to move to the issue of conflict of interest with the committee members. It is a bit unfortunate there seems to be a lack of confidence in the community about the independence of the interim committee. Certainly when I asked in estimates about the background of the interim committee members I received some alarming statistics. Half of the interim committee members in fact had financial interests in the coal seam gas industry and in some cases the bulk of their research funding was being provided by industry. Of course, that is due to the neglect of the government to fund proper research and development in our tertiary institutions, so the fault does not lie with those researchers, but the perception in the public remains that these interim committee members are not in fact independent from industry. I have some amendments, which I will move in due course, that go to this question of conflict and how it is dealt with.
I want to pick up now on a question that has been raised already but not answered fulsomely, in my view. I understand we need to balance the need for expertise on this committee with the fact that we do not want people who are compromised and have a conflict of interest. I am interested to know how the government intends to balance those competing interests in making the appointments to the final positions on this committee, if the minister could elaborate substantially on his earlier response to opposition questions with respect to that.
I am advised of the following on the interim committee: members of the interim committee were appointed on the basis of their strong scientific expertise and credentials in understanding the potential impacts of coal seam gas and coalmining on water resources. The government has full confidence in the operations and advice of the interim committee, despite the accusations that they are conflicted. It was the opinion of the Senate committee that members of the IESC should be experts and this may include members who have worked or received funding from mining organisations. It is important to have people who are experts, not people who are learners in this whole area, which when brought together can bring a range of skills to be an effective expert committee. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring you have the industry expertise and managing potential conflicts of interests to ensure the advice is robust, rigorous and independent. That was the experience of the government with the interim committee. I have indicated we are writing to the states on the membership and consulting the states.
Thanks, Minister. Yes, I heard your answer earlier that you would be seeking nominations in your contact with the states. Can you tell me if there are any criteria that the government will be employing to sort through those nominations once received?
Besides having expertise, a balance of views, similar to the range of experiences using the interim committee. I am not sure there is much more I can say than that.
Minister, are there going to be any limits on whether or not members of the final committee will be currently on the payroll of industry? Will there be any limits in that respect? I do understand the need to balance expertise and field expertise. Although it has been suggested by some members of the community, my amendments, which I will move in due course, do not require that members on this final committee have never worked for industry. The intention is that they are not currently employed by or on the payroll of or receiving research funding from industry. Can the minister advise whether there are any such parameters in the government's appointment criteria?
There are a range of issues we are looking to to ensure that we have the right governance and probity. I am not sure that at this stage we have quite finalised all of those deliberations.
I want to follow on from Senator Waters's question. There are a lot of allegations about the science that is commissioned by industry, but there is another category to this process which is science commissioned by environment movement groups. If the allegation is that the science commissioned by industry is skewed towards industry and their views, what about the other side of the equation—science commissioned by environment groups who have a philosophy against industry? Surely the allegation must work both ways.
Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
The committee is considering the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development) Bill 2012. The question is that the bill as amended be agreed to.
Before we ceased for dinner I was asking Minister Conroy some questions in relation to the amendment around qualification for selection on the panel. As I was saying, Senator Waters had indicated that anyone who had done any work for industry in respect of science must have tainted science.
Mr Temporary Chairman, I raise a point of order. That is not at all what I said. I was clearly making the distinction between the appointment of people to the committee who currently are on the payroll of industry and the appointment of folk who had previously worked.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: That is not a point of order. You are merely debating.
It clearly was not a point of order. I think we all understood the inferences Senator Waters was making. I sat in silence listening to Senator Waters and it would be nice if she might do the rest of the chamber the same courtesy. I would like to know from the minister about, for example, a scientist who had been working for one of the more unreliable of the environmental groups that oppose coal seam gas because they oppose coal seam gas, someone like Greenpeace, who I note were fined $280,000 just last week for illegal invasion of a CSIRO crop trial, so clear lawbreakers with little respect for the law. Would the same rules have to apply to someone who was currently doing science for an organisation such as Greenpeace as might apply to industry? You cannot have it both ways. If you are saying that somebody who is doing science on behalf of industry is tainted in their work because they are on the payroll of industry, surely for somebody who is on the payroll of an environmental group which is fundamentally opposed to this anyway regardless of the outcome their science is similarly tainted. We have seen some pretty sad examples of this in recent times. In fact, we have even seen environmental groups trotting out scientists who do not have qualifications even in a related field attacking scientists who do to try and besmirch their image. It is a well-worn path for the Greens and environmental groups to undertake these practices. I ask the minister: if it is an issue that someone who is doing science for industry should be disqualified, what about the other side of the equation?
I am very much enjoying the debate between the two perspectives that are represented by this. My answers to you are exactly the same as they were to, if you like, the polar opposite-style question from Senator Waters. I am not sure I can actually add much to your bank of knowledge from what I have already stated in answer to a similar line of questions but from a different angle.
I believe the minister's earlier answer, that the government had not yet finalised the criteria for appointment of the panel, might answer Senator Colbeck's question. I repeat my objection to him verballing me. Be that as it may, I would like to move to the substance of some amendments that I will move in due course, and that is how the government proposes to deal with actual or perceived conflicts of interest in appointing the final members of the committee. My understanding is that the combination of the act, the regulations and the policy so far has been that conflicts of interest of the interim committee members have been disclosed in meetings of that committee and such conflicts have been recorded in the minutes. The policy of government, although not reflected in statute anywhere, is for those minutes to be published online. I have two issues about that that I would like the minister's response to. Firstly, if it is indeed the policy of government that those minutes be published online so that all members of the public can see them, why is there not such a clause in the bill to enforce that policy stance?
I am advised that we will be publishing the advice and we will be publishing the minutes, if it helps by having me say that on the record. The whole point of the committee is greater transparency in this issue. So I have given a commitment on behalf of the government that we will publish the minutes and we will publish the advice.
Thanks, Minister. Perhaps it might be useful to include that in the bill, given that your side may not always be in government and it may not be a policy that is shared by the other side. So our position is that clearly such parameters should be reflected in the bill. I have an amendment to that effect. The other important point I would like to ask the minister about is the fact that the conflict disclosures made in those meetings, which are minuted, are included in appendices to the minutes which are not available online. If the purpose is, indeed, greater transparency then I ask the minister why the complete minutes, including the appendices wherein those conflicts are disclosed and, presumably, the decision of the meeting as to how they are dealt with—the relevant, and surely the most interesting, parts of the minutes—are not then published online.
As we indicated, we will be publishing the minutes. I think perhaps there has been a misunderstanding; at the beginning of any meeting it is required to outline the conflicts of interests and they are put in the minutes of the meeting, which will be published. I hope that goes some way to dealing with your concerns, but I think you are wrong in terms of how the information will be publicly available.
Thank you, Minister. I am simply referring to the meetings that have already happened, for which the minutes are already online. In those minutes questions of conflict are said to be dealt with in appendix A, and appendix A is not included on that website where the minutes are. I am very pleased to hear that you seek to change that for future instances—perhaps you could confirm that that is indeed your intention—but I would also like to know whether you will be retrospectively uploading those aspects of the minutes of existing meetings.
Hopefully we can advise you of something, but certainly from my understanding from the officers it is not our intention for that information not to be available. Literally, we are online looking into it as you speak.
Thank you, Minister. I think that would be a good outcome. Again, it reflects the need to have these sorts of procedures reflected in the bill so that they are beyond question for the folk who are implementing these provisions. I am pleased that perhaps this appears to be an oversight and I look forward to the disclosure of those appendices not just to me as a member of this chamber but also on the website so that all members of the public can access them.
I can see an iPad approaching you rapidly. I will be very pleasantly surprised and pleased if in the two-week interim since I last looked at these minutes the appendices have in fact been uploaded. If that is the case I welcome that, and I would ask that you ensure that that is standard practice for future meetings. Again, I repeat my suggestion that if that is in fact the government's policy it would be wise to reflect that in the provisions of this bill. Certainly, it is a very easy amendment to craft.
I have found a rogue, stray iPad which has a copy of the minutes of the meeting of 21 June—meeting number 6. Certainly, this one, which is already online, contains one standing item—1.1: conflicts of interest—and a disclosure about a member. So, certainly, it is happening. If there is an issue around the previous five meetings—I think this indicates that it is meeting number 6—I am happy to look into that for you.
Thank you. I will double-check that now myself, but my understanding is that the minutes refer to a disclosure and then the details of such disclosure are in the appendix, which is then not online. I think that we have clearly canvassed the point that needs to be rectified here.
The other aspect of the amendments that I will move shortly is that the Greens are interested to see the various advices provided to the minister be provided to the public—in fact, at the same time as their provision to the minister. This is of course important for transparency and, given that there are opportunities for the public to make comment on referrals through the normal processes in the EPBC Act, it is important that the public has before it the same information that the minister has and on which the minister is basing his decision. This is so that the public can make appropriate comment and also scrutinise the decision-making processes of the minister and ensure that where there is such advice provided it is being taken proper account of.
There are various different lists of advices which need to be provided. There is advice in relation to particular coal seam gas developments or large coalmining developments, there are requests for advice of the same nature from state ministers, there are requests about the scope of bioregional assessments in the priority areas in which those bioregional assessments should be undertaken, there are advices about the priorities for research projects and, of course, there is specific mention of scientific advice to the minister in relation to a matter protected by part 3. There are several mentions there that link in with the EPBC referral process. My question is whether or not there is any intention to disclose that advice publicly and, if so, in what sort of time frame.
Consistent with the treatment of other advice provided to the minister from independent committees constituted under the EPBC, advice is not made publicly available until the decision maker has considered it and made their regulatory decision, thus avoiding the possibility of decisions being inadvertently prejudiced. The current practice of the interim independent expert scientific committee has been to publish material at the same time or just after a decision has been made based on that material. The government is committed to transparency in the advice provided to it by the committee, and that advice will be published as soon as possible after a decision has been made.
Minister, I wonder if you could just explain that a little more to me? I am interested in the manner in which you contend that the minister's decision would be prejudiced if the advice of the relevant expert body is provided at the same time to the public as it is to the minister?
Under the terms of the act the minister must make his own decision, and he cannot be influenced. It is a fairly standard process where even the Cabinet cannot make the decision. The minister is empowered to make the decision individually. I am happy to get a more detailed description for you, but it is a fairly normal standard process.
With respect, Minister, the environment minister is empowered to—and I understand frequently does—seek advice from relevant state ministers in the course of his approval decision, and he is also empowered to consider any information he considers relevant. So I am afraid that line of argument does not address my concerns. Is there perhaps any other reasoning that can shed any light on the policy decision to delay the release of that advice until after the minister has made his approval decision?
I might just ask the minister's advisers and the minister himself to reconsider that point. It seems that, if the justification for that policy position is not really supported by the existing provisions of the act and there is no other policy basis advanced to support that position, perhaps a reconsideration may be in order. On that note, I have mentioned the substance of the two amendments that I now wish to move—that is, that the advice to the minister from this committee be published online for the public at the time it is provided to the minister, and likewise that the minutes of the meetings of this committee be made public within seven days. Again, the point is that, while that may well be government policy, it is not in the bill. We have already seen that, unfortunately, the relevant aspects of the minutes as to conflict have not been uploaded, and I am looking forward to that being rectified. But I think it would be greater insurance if that were reflected in the terms of the bill. Therefore I seek leave to move Australian Greens amendments (10) and (13) on sheet 7233 together.
I move Australian Greens amendments (10) and (13) on sheet 7233:
(10) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (after line 30), at the end of section 505D, add:
(3) The Committee must publish on the internet any advice it provides under paragraph (1)(a), (b), (c), (ca) or (d) or (2)(a) or (b) at same time the advice is provided to the relevant Minister.
(13) Schedule 1, page 7 (after line 8), after item 5, insert:
5C Before subsection 510(1)
(1A) The minutes of a meeting of a Committee must be published on the internet by that Committee within 7 days of the meeting to which the minutes relate.
The substance of these amendments, which I will move shortly, is that the committee be properly resourced to do its work. The first part of these goes to the staffing of the committee. Before I get to the substance of my amendments, I am interested in whether the minister can tell me a little more about the existing resourcing for the committee, both by way of sheer dollars and by way of staffing numbers.
I understand that we have committed $150 million towards the resourcing of this committee and $50 million to assist the state governments. We are just trying to see if we can find the number of existing staff to assist with your question. We will seek to find that. I am not sure we have it to hand, but we are chasing it.
Thanks, Minister. I look forward to that advice, because it goes, of course, to the capability of the committee to undertake its functions. Although the committee's functions are not as broad as the Greens would like given the lack of support for some of our early amendments to broaden out the functions of the committee, there is certainly a rather long list of them, and I would be alarmed if, as I believe, part-time committee members did not have adequate support to undertake their functions. So I await that information as to the staffing for the interim committee and also whether or not that will be significantly different once the committee moves into its final form. Can the minister advise if such information will be forthcoming nowish, soonish or not for a while?
I want to ask now about the length of tenure of the committee members. Can the minister advise me whether there is any tenure? I do not believe there is any statement of tenure in the bill, but I am happy to be pointed to such a provision.
As with some other independent committees constituted under the EPBC Act, it is appropriate for there to be some flexibility of tenure to allow for the appointment of members for a shorter period than three years due to legitimate business reasons such as availability.
I think that, given the title of this committee and the fact that it is intended to be independent, it is crucial that the committee be supported with adequate staff—in my view, public servants—to do that work and also that the committee members have security of tenure. Of course, there has been some controversy about the conflicts of interest of the interim committee members. Also, with the nature of the work being part time, one envisages that these committee members will need to undertake other work as well. All of this goes to a reduction in the perceived or actual independence of these committee members. Has the government given any thought to stipulating tenure on the grounds that this is one of the few committees that actually has 'independent' in its title?
I am not sure—and perhaps I have misunderstood your question—but I think I have addressed the issues that you have raised again there. I am not sure if I have missed something, but I think my answers have canvassed the question.
As I said, it is appropriate for some flexibility of tenure to allow for the appointment of members for periods shorter than three years due to legitimate business reasons such as availability.
For the reasons I have outlined on the need for this to be a genuinely independent committee and for it to be properly resourced to do its workload—which, of course, the Greens think should be broader and include the environmental impacts and public health impacts of coal seam gas, though my amendments to that effect were recently defeated—I move amendment (11) on sheet 7233:
(11) Schedule 1, item 4, page 7 (after line 4), at the end of Division 2B, add:
505F Staff assisting Committee
The staff necessary to assist the Committee are to be persons engaged under the Public Service Act 1999 who are:
(a) employed in the Department; and
(b) made available for the purpose by the Secretary of the Department.
I move Australian Greens amendment (12) on sheet 7233:
(12) Schedule 1, page 7 (after line 8), after item 5, insert:
5A Subsection 507(1)
Repeal the subsection, substitute:
(1) A member of a Committee holds office for the period specified in the instrument of appointment. The period must not be less than 3 years and must not exceed 5 years.
Note 1: For re-appointment, see section 33AA of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.
Note 2: Section 509 sets out the circumstances in which a member's appointment may be (or must be) terminated.
5B Application of item 5A
The amendment made by item 5A applies in relation to an appointment made on or after the commencement of this Schedule.
I have already spoken to the substance of amendment (12) on sheet 7233, it being the need for the committee members to have some tenure to ensure that they can be genuinely independent from both industry and government—really from any sort of bias that may or may not seek to influence their decisions.
The amendment I have moved establishes that the committee members should have at least three years tenure but for not more than five years. Again, I have already spoken to the need for this amendment, namely independence, and I certainly hope the government has had a change of heart in the last five minutes and will support this amendment. Sadly, it seems that many of these amendments are doomed to failure; however, I shall it move it nonetheless.
I asked in estimates hearings how long the committee would take to do its work, and the answer was, 'About five years.' They have a fairly comprehensive research program, including undertaking bioregional plans which, of course, are long overdue and much needed and, frankly, should have been done before any coal seam gas approvals were issued. Minister, was any thought given to actually allowing the committee to do its work before further decisions were made by the federal environment minister?
I did hear my colleague Senator Feeney as I was arriving in the chamber earlier that the point of this was to find a balance, to find the right solutions. I think these arrangements will provide all Australians with greater confidence that projects will be subject to rigorous and objective scientific assessment. Independent assessment will help build greater trust and help build community confidence in coal seam gas and coal mining development in sensitive areas. Under these arrangements, the states will remain the primary regulators, the framework will apply to future licences and businesses will not be required to change the way they apply for a licence. The framework is not designed to add extra work or to increase the regulatory burden for upcoming projects but it does mean, however, that their applications will be subject to rigorous and independent scientific assessment by the committee before states grant an approval for a relevant activity. This is a good outcome as it will inform better environmental regulation of coal seam gas and large coalmine development impacts on groundwater across Australia without imposing additional Commonwealth regulation.
It leaves the administration in the hands of the states, which have the local knowledge and local relationships, while avoiding duplicated regulatory systems, with the added cost and uncertainty that brings. Independent expert scientific advice to provide quality recommendations for the protection of underground water has formed part of federal approvals when they have been given. To date, this quality independent advice has been limited to the extent of the environmental powers set out under the EPBC Act. With this new independent expert scientific committee, the level of scientific rigour will be applied to consider the impact on underground water more generally. This is an important development, with Australia set to benefit from a strong coalmining and coal seam gas industry for years to come.
Thank you, Minister. I am struggling to understand how the government can find the right balance in relation to groundwater once it is depleted, once the pressure has been changed or once it has been contaminated—all of which are likely and in fact demonstrated outcomes of coal seam gas. How on earth can you balance our most precious resource that much of our food growing and food export, for that matter, depend upon with an industry that threatens to have long-term impacts that will deplete and/or contaminate it? How is that a balance, Minister, when one will be totally destroyed by the other?
I think that is probably more a rhetorical question. I am not sure that that question was actually designed for a response. I think it was more of a statement pretending to be a question.
Thanks, Minister. Unfortunately, that is perfectly clear, but what is not clear is this spurious balance that you are seeking to create in relation to a resource that stands to be completely destroyed by the activity. I am simply seeking to understand the reasoning. Given that this is the committee stage and we are asking questions here, perhaps the minister could respond to that.
I think I just read out a fairly lengthy statement explaining why we are going down the path that we are, and I am not sure that I can add much more to what was a fairly lengthy statement.
I am disappointed by that. It was a statement of a couple of minutes, but you made a number of contentions within the statement that I am seeking to further understand. It does dismay me that the process is unable to allow me to explore the reasoning and the policy behind the position you have articulated. I thought that that is what we are here to do, but, hey, I'm new to this gig. It seems that I am not going to be getting any joy as to the government's reasoning on how they can 'balance' groundwater with coal seam gas when one punches a hole through the other and threatens to contaminate it and deplete it. I will move to the second point in your so-called lengthy statement.
I completely agree with Senator Heffernan, but I am seeking to allow the government a chance to justify their policy position. I hope to succeed in that at some point this evening.
The next contention, Minister, that you made in your statement was that the public will have greater confidence that coal seam gas will be subject to rigorous assessment. How can they, if the assessment is proceeding and approval will be given without waiting for the results of this committee? If the minister could expand on how that could possibly logically follow, I would be most grateful.
I am pleased that there is an amendment coming to deal with land and I am grateful to all the people who negotiated that, including the government. As I have said several times today, what this is about is a committee set up to look at the various problems which will hopefully, after the next amendment, include the impact of salt on land and its use. But it is designed in such a way as if the minister—I had better not dob him in—had said, 'Look, Bill, we don't want to own the problem.' This committee may well provide some really good research—and I would love to be on it—but there is absolutely no compulsion for anyone at any level of government to take any notice. It is a complete farce if it is allowed to just find the evidence and present it but have no powers to compel some of what may be very compelling impacts on the various players, which will mainly be the states.
Again, it alarms me, but I agree with Senator Heffernan on that front. That is why we have sought to strengthen this bill with the series of amendments that have sadly received no support from any of the other parties, although I exclude the DLP and the Independents from that assessment.
Minister, you said that the committee would enable decisions to be based on expert evidence. The whole point of my questions in estimates was to establish how long it would take for those bioregional assessments to be prepared. The answer I was given was roughly five years. The committee is empowered to provide advice on specific referrals but that advice will be hindered by a lack of the knowledge that will be given by those bioregional assessments—that is, we need those bioregional assessments in order to understand the cumulative and longer-term impacts on groundwater. So again, how can you contend that decisions will be based on expert evidence if those bioregional assessments, which take five years, will not be done before more approvals are given?
As I have already articulated, the committee will examine each proposal that comes forward. We are not going to close down and introduce a moratorium. I do not know if I can be more succinct or clearer than that.
The committee gathers evidence. It is a good idea that it is not tooled to do anything; it is tooled to gather evidence. Minister, could you confirm for me that, whatever this committee does and whatever advice it provides to whoever it provides it to, there is absolutely no authority for the committee to have its decisions and findings imposed anywhere?
We have come really to the nub of it. This is a committee which was set up to advise someone who does not have the power to consider or act on the advice properly and to advise the states, which are merely obliged to take account of it—which can mean read and then shred. I ask the minister: what is the point? Why is the government even proceeding with this bill when you are determined at every motion to make it as weak as possible?
With respect, Minister, it is not going to be terribly effective legislation. It is a great shame because this was an opportunity for the federal government to step in and caretake what is an incredibly precious national natural resource, groundwater, which so many of our rural communities and productive economies depend on—let alone our natural environment. It is very dismaying that we see pure politics operating here. Of course, that operates a lot of the time—but there seems to be no other motive for this bill because it is deliberately drafted to have as little impact as possible. It is such a shame. It really lets down all those communities which are seriously worried about the future of their land and are basing those fears on advice from CSIRO and the water commission which are both saying, 'The science isn't sufficiently advanced that we know what the long-term impacts of this industry will be; yes, it could have irreversible, long-term impacts.'
Why are you flying in the face of that expert advice? Why are you flouting those communities' concerns when you have an opportunity to do something to fix these issues? It is not that hard. There are just a few small amendments that would strengthen this. It needs to go much further, and I have two other bills before this place to deal with the broader issues of coal seam gas. One is to give farmers the right to say no to coal seam gas on their land while there is this uncertainty about its long-term impacts. If the government needed that land there are always compulsory acquisition powers at both the state and federal level, so there is no concern about inhibiting the necessary functions of government if government deems it necessary.
The other bill is to give the federal environment minister some water power, otherwise it is really making a mockery. You made mention in your earlier statement of the fact that there were already some conditions about water imposed on those Queensland CSG approvals. Yes, there were but that is only because there was a groundwater dependent threatened species that was going to be significantly affected by those coal seam gas activities. But there will not always be a groundwater dependent species that is on the threatened species list and lives in the same place as coal seam gas activities want to mine. So I am afraid it is not logical to say that the minister can act, because he can only act in those particular circumstances and those circumstances will not always be replicated.
It is so important that this chamber and the government—and the opposition for that matter, although there are certain individuals in the opposition who are very strong on this issue—take this opportunity to act to protect our water. We have got one chance and this bill is just such an insult to all of the people who really care about our groundwater, our land, our food productivity—and our climate for that matter and also our reef for that matter because of all of the massive dredging that is going on to build new ports to export all of this coal seam gas once it has been liquefied, which in itself is an energy intensive process. So I think it is a great shame given there is a chance here to set up a body that might do more than just provide advice and that might actually enable the federal minister to act, if he gave himself the powers to act rather than instead weakening the laws, as he is proposing in some other legislation that is due to come to us shortly, and also weakening it all, by the COAG process, by handing off half his powers to the states. It makes no sense that you should dabble in coal seam gas in a completely ineffective manner. You might as well not have pursued this bill at all. It will not actually help much. It is a tiny step in the right direction but so much more is needed and it could have been made so much stronger. Unfortunately, we have had no support for these amendments.
I am pleased to see that some of the Nats are in the chamber now on this important debate because they do talk the talk on coal seam gas. I have to give them credit for that but I really am disappointed when they do not always come into the chamber to vote in accordance with what they say. Senators, you were not here earlier. I am glad you are here now. I really hope that you will be voting in support of this amendment for a moratorium when I move it. Shake your head you might but we do the same, as do the communities who feel ripped off, frankly, by your lack of support when it comes to the actual numbers.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The peculiar thing about the right-wing headkicker who keeps the left wing underfoot and does not let them speak out is that you must say he is a great headkicker. So that is Senator Conroy!
It is very important that we clear the record. Senator Waters, with due respect, it is usually the case that around about now there is a multiplicity of meetings. We have to be at a whole range of them and we have to have as a shadow ministry a leadership position and there are times, peculiarly enough, when I cannot be here for every little dalliance of the Greens and whatever their latest provocations are. If I must accept your admonishment, maybe this is one instance where one of those crazy peculiar tilts that the Greens have—sometimes they are right but the other 98 per cent are not—is right. I must admit I do not follow the Greens with that much interest.
So we are going to spend $150 million on committee proceedings which ensure that the gutless people in this parliament and the Commonwealth, the ones who do not want to have ownership of or anything to do with the ownership of the coal seam gas industry, have political cover. So we set up a committee which is going to do an investigation which no-one has to give any effect to and in doing that there is the cost of the political cover on which the minister said, 'The main thing you've got to understand, mate, is we don't want to own this problem.' We are going through this facade of science gathering by these eminent people, whomever they are and they could be political stooges for all I know, to maintain the apparition that somehow 'we are concerned but our concern is that we don't own the problem'. Can you explain to me as to that $150 million, Minister, what is the expected expenditure rate over what period for how many people?
I am not in a position to outline an expenditure rate. As to how many people, I think we have been seeking to try to ascertain that. Hopefully, we will have some information for you during the course of the evening.
I think it was just an agreement reached by those in the other place. I am unaware of the details. If there is any other information we can give you, Senator Heffernan, I will happily oblige.
Well, do you accept that the workings of this committee could be just laid on a shelf somewhere when no-one is obliged to take any notice of it? It is a fact, isn't it, Minister, that no-one is obliged to act on whatever it is that we spend the $150 million on?
I think we have already established that you are on the money and that this is an advisory body, Senator Heffernan. I think that you have now confirmed—for a second or possibly a third time—that it is an advisory body. Congratulations!
My question, Minister, relates to the timing of when the states need to amend their laws to require themselves to take account of this advice, which as we know can often mean 'read and then shred'. The parliamentary secretary earlier today revealed that the states have until 30 September to identify a protocol as to how they are going to amend their own laws. I am asking whether or not there is a time frame—and, if not, why not—on when the amendments to state legislation have to be made requiring them to take account of the advice of this otherwise completely toothless and useless committee.
I think we have already had some debate about that. We are seeking some more information. I will just see if any more has arrived, Senator Joyce. I am advised that most of the funding is for bioregional plans and research and development. There are some staffing resources in the Office of Water Science. Those staff actually do a whole of range of other things but they will be advising the committee.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Minister!
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Minister, I am in the chair; I have the call. Senator Joyce, I am happy to entertain your questions to the minister about this bill, so please continue to ask what questions you have.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair. Madam Chair, the minister did not give an actual figure. He said some of the resources will come from there. The question was: how much of the $150 million—which invokes an actual number from the minister—will fund extra resources or staff within the department of the environment? The minister has been so kind as to cast gratuitous remarks and basically be rather a clever person. So, seeing he is rather clever, let us see if he is clever enough to answer the question.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
Thank you. Senator Heffernan, you are smarter than you think. Senator Joyce really must have had a bad time tonight over something in shadow cabinet. I can only imagine what it was but, welcome, Senator Joyce. I was quite clear: the majority of the money, most of it, is being spent on research and development. There is an existing body of staff, and some of those staff resources from the Office of Water Science will go towards servicing the committee. If I can give any further detailed breakdown—and, as the other senators will tell you, we have been debating this during the course of the evening, so we have been seeking further information—I will be happy to supply it.
Most of the funding is for research and development and bioregional plans. I am probably guessing, but I am sure I am reasonably close that the Office of Water Science is within the department of the environment, surprisingly, and some of the resources of those staff will go towards servicing the committee. But the vast bulk of funding is for bioregional plans and research and development.
I understand there are some additional staff, Senator Joyce. That is perhaps a question that by the time we get to estimates we will be able to clarify for you. I am not sure I can get that information tonight. I am not sure those issues have quite been finalised. But by the time estimates comes around I am sure I will see your smiling face—smiling as opposed to your grumpy face that you have got on tonight—and we will be able to give you some further information.
Minister, can you give us in your own words, with your loquacious talents, an idea of what you mean by 'some'? Is 'some' 10, 50, 100, 150? Give us just a rough, ballpark figure of what our interpretation of 'some' should be.
I am not sure that it is clearly defined yet whether there is a fixed number of hours that some of those staff may work. I am sure that by the time estimates comes around you will be able to pursue this and we will have a better feel. But if there is any further information I can give you tonight, Senator Joyce, we will seek to get it, as we have done during the course of the debate. As I am sure the other senators would acknowledge, we have been chasing up information as requested.
The answer obviously is that the minister has not a clue how many—not even a vague clue. Since we cannot get a prospective answer, let us get a current position. Minister, how many are actually employed now in the department to this purpose?
In case the senator thinks this might be Senate estimates, this is the committee stage of a bill. That is the sort of question, Senator Joyce, that would be welcomed at Senate estimates, but I am just not sure we have the information to hand. We have gathered a range of information in response to questions during the course of the afternoon and evening, and, as I said, I am just not sure we can give you that information right at this moment. But I am sure that, with your forensic questioning at estimates, we will be able to get to the bottom of it for you. But that is more of an estimates question. It is not some sort of test for the limited number of officers that are here tonight.
That is obviously another area on which we are incapable of getting an answer. So let us try this: will the committee call for expressions of interest for where they are going to locate this research? Where will it be? Have you had expressions of interest from, for instance, the University of Southern Queensland?
I am told that a range of different organisations will be involved: CSIRO, as you would expect; Geoscience; universities—a range of institutions will conduct the research for us.
I would just add—while we are trying to be more succinct for you, Senator Joyce—the research will be taking place at the places where the coal seam gas is proposed to be undertaken. But I will just see if there is any further information I can get for you.
We will be seeking the best scientific minds. We have not identified the researchers at this point. So there will be a process to establish those brightest minds.
Senator Heffernan will, no doubt, be on that list! I am not sure that that is all quite finalised. Perhaps, again, at estimates we may be in a position to give you further advice.
This department? I am confident they will be in attendance. We have seen a whole range of questions from Senator Joyce tonight, so the officers, I am sure, will be forewarned and forearmed in dealing with your questions.
I understand there will be some additional staffing resources as well; we do not have that available at this point.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
No, it is new money and new resources.
But existing employees?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Well, that is rebadged money.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, I would prefer it if you actually asked your question once I have called you, from the chair, and it would certainly help if you let the minister finish his answer. And, Minister, it would clearly help if you let Senator Heffernan finish his question. So who is going next? Let us see if we can proceed in some orderly fashion here. I know we are excited about this legislation.
Yes, some of us are excited about this legislation. I just wish that excitement was more broadly spread around. Be that as it may, I want to pick up on the line of questioning that I was pursuing before some other excited and interested senators raised other lines. But, before I do that, the question was raised about estimates; Minister, will this committee appear before estimates? I would not have thought it would, but I would like to have you clarify that.
Thanks, Minister. So the Office of Water Science will be the ones accountable on behalf of this committee. I noticed you mentioned you had been gathering information in response to questions, and you gesticulated in my direction. I am really eager to receive the response to those questions, if it has been amassed at this point. One of those questions went to the staffing that was planned, and this same line of questioning has been raised by other senators as well. We are very keen to know the staffing numbers. My interest stems more from whether or not the committee will be adequately resourced to perform their functions—although, there are, of course, financial considerations behind the question as well. Minister, can I take your comments to mean that you do have some of that information now to share with us?
I am seeking to provide as much information as is becoming available. I am giving you all the information that I have at this point in time. I am seeking to gather more information and, as more information comes to hand, I will share it with you.
Yes, sorry, gents, I have not quite finished yet. Thank you. It does sort of dismay me that the process is such that we will be voting on this legislation, presumably this evening, and yet we have been directed to ask our questions in estimates, some weeks away. However, I will just register my discontent as to that process.
I want to take you back to your answer to one of my earlier questions. You said the states will not have to change their laws so that they have to take account of this committee until March 2013. You also said earlier—or perhaps it was your parliamentary secretary—that there would not be any retrospective application. Can I just confirm for the record that there will be absolutely no influence of this—fairly toothless anyway—committee between now and March 2013?
This is the interim committee providing advice to states that do not need to take account of it and to a federal minister who does not have the right to act on that advice and impose any relevant conditions. I am afraid that does not really reassure me that this committee is currently functioning with any teeth. And sadly we have already discussed that the teeth that it will have, come March 2013, are simply that the states will need to 'take account of' the advice—and, again, that means virtually nothing. I wonder what the enforcement provisions are. What happens if the states do not take account of this advice? Has the Commonwealth turned its mind to whether there will be any consequences?
I can absolutely confirm for Senator Heffernan and yourself that this is an advisory committee, but to be honest, I am not sure there is anything I could say that would reassure you. I do not think there is anything I could say that would reassure you, but I can again confirm that it is an advisory body.
Minister, you just mentioned the committee, so now we are all fascinated: who is on this committee? You told us before that you did not know how many staff it currently had. So now you can tell us who is on the committee and how many other staff are supporting them.
Unfortunately this debate has been going since very early—before question time even—and we have actually had a discussion about an interim committee that exists at the moment and provides advice. As I said, I do not believe that we are in a position where I can give you any further information about the existing resources beyond what I have so far. If I am able to, I am happy to do so, but there is an interim committee in existence at the moment. We have had a lengthy conversation about the minutes that are published. You are welcome to join Senator Waters, who has examined the minutes and criticised them for not being as full as they could be or should be, but the minutes of this committee are available to you. If you are going to ask how many staff hours are committed to supporting this committee I would probably say to you that I need to take that on notice, and I am sure I could get that information for you.
Minister, you are the presiding minister of the Crown in this chamber to tell us about how we are about to appropriate $150 million but you cannot tell us how much will actually come from the department of the environment, how many staff they have, who are the members of the interim committee, who are the supporting members or what amount you mean when you use the term 'some'. Can you please inform us of one, possibly two, members of the interim committee. Are you capable of mentioning that?
Senator Joyce, perhaps you have mistaken the committee stage of a bill for Senate estimates. I will see if there are one or two names. I am sure the officers might be able to provide me with that. You could just google the minutes—as happened just before—and read them. I am sure they will list the entire committee for you. So I recommend a little bit of research, rather than running into the chamber while the rest of us have been in here having a conversation about it. A simple google search will find you this information, but if I can assist I will in a moment.
The issue is that you are actually the minister and an answer to a question is not supposed to be, 'You can go out and google it.' You are paid a salary by the Crown to be competent enough to answer these questions. If we just have to google it from now on, we do not need ministers of the Crown, we will just put laptops there and we will all walk up and google our answers. We do not need question time; we will just have google time! We will all walk out and just google the answers and there is no point being here any longer. This is pathetic! You must be able to do better than that.
Senator Joyce, if you would spend a bit more time doing some research rather than the numbers in Maranoa you might be able to get this information. It is, after all, publicly available on a website with the minutes. But just to help you, I will provide a couple of the names that you ask for: Professor Craig Simmons, a professor of hydrogeology at Flinders University and Jane Coram, Master of Hydrogeology. So, there are a couple of names for you. We will have the name of the website for you in a moment and you can just get your office to google it for you if you are not confident about that. We will have that website address for you very shortly. The minutes are there. You can read the minutes and you can check who is on the committee. You can see what it is doing. It is a very transparent process and some of us in the chamber have actually bothered to go and do that. You have, haven't you, Senator Waters?
It took a while, but we eventually got two names, and without his having to google it. They were actually beside him, but he forgot to ask for them.
Minister, you were talking about how you were going to go out and search, to scope the nation high and wide, for the scientific minds to assist you in this committee. Can you give us any sort of process for how you will go about doing this? How are you going to source these scientific minds and when will the expressions of interest begin for the process of sourcing high and wide these scientific minds? It sounds as if you just might be flying by the seat of your pants; it is sounding awfully like the NBN.
Oh my goodness, the NBN! Senator Joyce, tragically, we have actually spent quite a considerable amount of time in the chamber already on these questions. I would invite you to go and read Hansard to save everybody else the pain of having to go through it again. As I have indicated—
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
and I cannot be responsible for Senator Heffernan—we have written to the states seeking views from the states. We have had this conversation already. If there are any more details about when it started or finished I will see if we have got that handy, but we have had a lengthy debate about this already.
Yes, but under 'Commonwealth Environmental Water Office—reduced funding' in part 2, Expense measures' of the 2012-13 budget, it says the Commonwealth is going to 'reduce expenditure by $13.2 million' and:
Savings from this measure will be redirected to support other Government priorities.
Would that be some of the rebadged money that is going to this $150 million to be spent to be seen to be doing something when you are not actually doing something, which no-one has to take any notice of anyhow?
I am not in a position and I am not even sure the officers could remotely answer that question sitting here. It is certainly something I look forward to discussing with you at estimates but, I repeat, it is $150 million of new money.
No, I have a number of other questions beforehand. Perhaps for the benefit of both the minister and the other senators who have asked, the members of the interim committee are: Professor Craig Simmons, Professor John Langford, Ms Jane Coram, Associate Professor David Laurence, Professor Chris Moran and Emeritus Professor Peter G Flood—and I did not even have to google that, Minister. I asked it of you in estimates and I have the department's response here, so thank you very much for that.
Minister, you mentioned before that, yes, this was indeed an advisory committee and I said to you, 'Well, what are the consequences if the states do not in fact take heed of the advice?' You did not really answer me other than to say, 'This is an advisory committee,' which is a bit tautological. If there is no penalty for not taking that advice into account then what exactly are you giving them $50 million for?
It is an advisory committee. I do not know that I can be any clearer with you, Senator, than I have been with other senators. It is an advisory committee, it gives advice—that is the purpose of an advisory committee.
I have a series of questions I have been trying to get out for a while now and I appreciate the Senate's indulgence. Yes, it is an advisory committee, but it seems a rather expensive purchase of advice that does not need to be taken into account. I suggest there might be other, more useful ways to spend $50 million per signatory state, but that is obviously why we have a difference of opinion on such matters.
I want to move to your earlier comment where you said that the states will not amend their legislation until March. Of course, March next year is the same date that COAG has agreed to hand over half of the federal environment minister's powers to the states, including the power over threatened species. The environment minister was able to impose conditions that dealt with groundwater in Queensland because of groundwater dependent, threatened species. Come March, the federal minister will not have responsibility for threatened species anymore because of that COAG agreement to enter into an approval bilateral. What influence at all will this committee therefore be able to have? What is even the utility of having this committee advise the federal minister if he never had responsibility for water—which I have attempted to establish all day—and if, come March, he will not even have responsibility for threatened species? Why even have this committee advise the minister when he will not even be able to impose conditions about species that rely on groundwater, let alone groundwater itself?
The form and structure of this was negotiated, debated and agreed in the other place. The lower house is sometimes referred to as the will of the people. The floor of the other place took the decisions to go forward in this form.
We do have two houses of parliament, Minister, and this process is for senators as representatives of their state to examine the provisions of legislation. While I have some sympathy that you are the minister representing the actual minister, these are serious questions and people are actually very interested in coal seam gas and in the environment minister's powers to protect the environment, so I ask you to reflect on my earlier question. I know you have some very learned advisers in the box there who I know are across the COAG amendments to palm off half of the federal minister's powers to the states. I would seek an answer to my earlier question. If you cannot give it straight away, although I will be disappointed by that, fine, take it on notice, but I would like an answer to that question.
The Commonwealth minister will only enter approval bilateral agreements when equivalent standards are met. These agreements are irrelevant to this bill currently being debated.
My question to the minister is this: is the government currently entertaining or funding research into coal seam gas under this appropriation which is also co-sponsored at the University of Queensland, where it is being undertaken, by the mining industry? If that is the case, do you find that that may be a conflict of interest?
So they can sponsor climate change research, and that is okay, but they cannot sponsor coal seam gas? I just want to ensure that we have a consistent question. I will see if there is any information I can get for you, Senator Joyce. That is quite a detailed question that requires a little bit of research. If you would like to move on to another question the officers will see if they can ascertain any information on that for you.
I have a question that is supplementary to Senator Joyce's questioning. Could the minister outline the government's position on this. If the research that this advisory committee will be relying on will be coming from an institution that is also doing work for either the mining industry or an environmental group—in other words, a group that has a vested interest in this—is that something that would be of concern to the government in terms of issues of the impartiality of the research? It is a neutral question. I think it is a reasonable question.
We have had a discussion earlier. Senator Waters has talked about the questions of conflict of interest and whether they come into play. We have had a discussion about the minutes, whether conflicts of interest are revealed. There are perhaps some areas where we are working to see if there is any extra information. But we have set out quite a detailed process. The researchers have not been identified at this stage, so there is a process to be gone through. There will be, I am sure, governance issues and conflict of interest issues, as you would expect, but we cannot point to any individual institution yet because they have not been identified.
The answer to that earlier estimates question that I referred to does highlight that Professor Chris Moran, who is currently on the interim coal seam gas committee that has been functioning for several months now, is employed by the Sustainable Minerals Institute at UQ which has received funding from the mining industry over the past five years. So Senator Joyce's question was apposite. Unfortunately, Senator Xenophon's question was asked earlier and the response was inadequate. Apparently the government has no criteria to protect against conflict of interest, nor is it concerned that members of the interim or final committee might currently be on the payroll of industry. Perhaps the minister can shed light on whether that view has changed given the concern expressed by members of this chamber.
I reject utterly the interpretation that Senator Waters has put forward there. I repeat what I said earlier, that members of the interim committee were appointed on the basis of their strong scientific expertise and credentials in understanding the potential impacts of coal seam gas and coalmining on water resources. The government has full confidence in the operations and advice of the interim committee despite the accusations that they are conflicted. It was the opinion of the Senate committee that members of the IESC should be experts and this may include members who have worked for or received funding from mining organisations. It is important to have people who are experts, not people who are learners in this whole area, which when brought together can bring a range of skills to an effective expert committee. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring you have industry expertise and managing potential conflict of interest to ensure the advice is robust, rigorous and independent. That was the experience of government with the interim committee, and that is exactly what I said earlier, Senator Xenophon.
Minister, you left out one part in your answer, which was a question Senator Waters asked of you at Senate estimates which you had there and if you were on top of your job you would have known about because the answer has actually been given. You missed out a very crucial part of the answer, and that is: are there people currently on the payroll of the mining industry that are currently also going to apparently have an independent view on coal seam gas? If there is a person who is currently on the payroll of the mining industry who apparently is going to give independent advice, how does that person, in your own words, divest themselves of one pecuniary interest in favour of another pecuniary interest in the same heartbeat?
Sometimes there are things you say in the chamber, Senator Heffernan, that live on to come back and bite you. I suspect that will be one of them. Senator Joyce, if you listened to the answer I gave, we were not suggesting that someone who had received funds would be excluded from either the previous or the current committee. So I am not sure the point you are trying to get to. We have not suggested that this rules you out. As was debated and discussed earlier, though people might not agree, there is a process for advising of conflicts of interest just as there is on a whole range of issues on a whole range of boards all across Australia. So that process is in place. There has been some discussion about the minutes, but the minutes reflect this. I can read them out to you, just like I read them out earlier today, where people who have a conflict of interest have to identify clearly in the minutes and those minutes are all ultimately publishable, whether or not they have been up to this point. As I say, we are trying to resolve that issue for you, Senator Waters. If your argument is that it should be a disqualification, please make that argument, but that is not the position that I have been putting forward.
There still seems to be quite some vagary in your answer. I am going to ask one more time. Vagary has been the issue du jour for you here tonight, but on this one I will ask again. Are there people—you must understand this—currently on the payroll of the mining industry and supported by the mining industry who at the same time will be part of this committee? If so, what is your mechanism for creating some sort of Chinese wall in the psyche of these people so that they can divine between one interest supported by the mining industry and in the same heartbeat also be working on behalf of landholders as they try to protect themselves from what could possibly be detrimental effects to their lifestyle and their income earning potential from the coal seam gas industry? It is quite obvious that there is an immense conflict of interest. I have even given you the area, at the University of Queensland. Senator Waters has even giving you the name, Professor Moran. The reason we ask this is that even last week in trying to pursue this argument on your behalf, probably doing your work, we have gone to the University of Southern Queensland, where there is no interconnection with the mining industry, and investigated ways that they may be able to provide something that is proper and independent, unambiguous and not even perceived to be a conflict of interest, because we know that conflict of interest is not just whether there is or there is not, it is whether there could be perceived to be a conflict of interest. Quite obviously when a body is paid by both the mining industry and the federal government then you have two completely conflicting views and two completely conflicting objectives, and you cannot possibly make us say tonight, 'Well, that is not a problem.'
As I said to Senator Heffernan, sometimes you want to mark down those speeches that senators give because you know they are going to be used against you in the future. That was one of them.
You are attempting to define that somebody whose institution receives funding, and they are employed by the institution, then that somehow disqualifies them. If that is your position then you should say that. It is not the position being advocated by this government; it is not the position that we have put forward. But if you are simply putting the proposition forward that if the institution receives the money and then employs a person that should automatically disqualify them—that is your position, Senator Joyce—I am not going to be able to change your mind on that. But the government does not believe that that should automatically disqualify you.
We have in place a proper governance process where people have to advise of a conflict of interest on this committee already, and I would expect that that would be carried through. That is the proper process. If your position is 'just disqualify them', we are going to agree to disagree.
This is an absurdity. We are going to go to the people of Cecil Plains, we are going to go to the people around Kingaroy and we are going to go to the people around Dalby and we are going to say to them, 'Well, we want you to be fully confident in the outcome of research that is conducted by a body which is partially sponsored by the federal government to bring about an independent position, and also funded by the mining industry.'
I am not saying for one minute that it is a statement impugning these people's character. My statement is quite clearly one of the perception, which obviously has to be right if people are going to give the outcome of this body credibility. If you cannot deal with the fact that if the perception is wrong then the outcome loses meaning, then can you please explain about other fields where you believe that a conflict of interest is not an issue? Can we get people from the coalition to start advising the Labor Party on tactics? Could that possibly be perceived as a conflict of interest or not?
Without labouring the point, and further to Senator Joyce's line of questioning: I understand what the minister says, that the government does not necessarily want to disqualify—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Xenophon, just a moment: Senator Heffernan is talking to the minister and I am not sure if you have the minister's full attention for the moment. I think he is being a bit distracted. We will let Senator Heffernan walk between myself as chair and you again, Senator Xenophon, I assume.
Senator Xenophon, you have the call.
Thank you. Does the government have any broad policy position as to how it deals with issues of conflict? I understand what the minister has said. There is a position where if someone is working for an institution that is doing work or research, for instance, for the coal seam gas industry, it would not disqualify them. But if, for instance, that institution has a budget of $10 million a year and $8 million of that funding happens to come from the industry what would occur then? And what happens in cases where a person is a consultant and they are getting a significant proportion of their pay cheque directly from the industry? There are issues of gradations and degrees; is there a broad policy parameter on how the government would deal with this, or is it just in terms of general public service guidelines in dealing with issues of conflict?
You mean like if Gina Rinehart completely funds an organisation that is against the mining tax or climate change? Or flies people around in her plane and then declares that? There is a whole range of different perceptions of conflict of interest, Senator Xenophon, you are correct.
I do not have the exact details. I have had a bit of a conversation already today about the policies that the committee is engaged in. I am happy to see if we can get a little bit more information; they may have something published which states what the policy is. But they have to be quite clearly identified. They are in the minutes, although I think that Senator Waters was concerned that all of the details within the minutes had not been published. I said that we were looking into that. We found one set of minutes which clearly identified that, and those minutes are on the website.
So I am happy to see if we can chase up the policy of how you deal with those conflicts for you. But there is a process. To go to your point: yes, there is a process. People may not agree with it, but there is a clearly identified process.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Waters, are we moving to the next amendment?
Almost. I think the distinction that Senator Xenophon was making was between disclosures of conflicts of committee members once they have been appointed to the committee versus the selection of committee members deemed appropriate to be on the committee. My earlier line of questioning established from you that the government still had not set the criteria for appointing the final committee members and I urged you to consider that need for both the actuality and the appearance of a lack of conflict of interest: the need for genuine independence in that committee, which is a view that is shared, obviously, and a concern that several community members and groups have shared with me as well as several senators this evening.
Minister, I would like to ask you whether or not you are aware of the referendum on coal seam gas at the weekend in the Northern Rivers region held in conjunction with the New South Wales local elections? At last count, with more than 15,000 votes counted, that had found that 88 per cent of people were not in favour of coal seam gas.
It is fair to say that following Collingwood's defeat on Friday night I refused to read any newspapers or media whatsoever for the remainder of the weekend. I am slowly coming out of that on a Monday morning, simply because I am forced to. But I have to confess that I was not aware of that event.
As you would be aware, I represent the minister in this chamber, which means I do not follow each individual event in the portfolio area. I could probably give you a run-down of all the polls on the NBN. As you would expect, I do follow that one a little more closely. But I have to confess again to the chamber that I was unaware of this Newspoll.
Minister, the final poll was in August 2011. It was a Galaxy poll, and it was Australia wide. It found that 68 per cent of Australians wanted a moratorium on coal seam gas until the long-term health and environmental impacts were understood. So it is with the knowledge that there are serious concerns widely held by the majority of Australians—certainly at least those polled if they can be deemed representative of the rest of the community—and in the context of that concern I will now move amendment (14) on sheet 7233, which calls for a five-year moratorium, or less if the full research program of the committee takes less than the five years it was projected to take as per the advice given to me in estimates. It requires that we wait and let this committee do its work before we issue any more approvals. That is not to say that the assessment process will cease, because certainly the assessments do not happen overnight—although, frankly, they need to happen with a level of rigour and I am not proposing that they be contracted in any way.
One important point that the amendment includes is that it does not apply to scientific research that is done to better understand the interaction of groundwater systems and coal seam gas mining. We are not seeking here to preclude the filling of that information gap—not at all. We want that information. What we are seeking to preclude is coal seam gas drilling through aquifers without understanding what its long-term impacts are. Frankly, this is the most basic iteration of precautionary principle that you could write. It is not rocket science. It is a principle that has been reflected in many of our laws for many years. It is a standard process when you have a lack of information about potentially irreversible long-term impacts that you do not do something that might stuff it up.
So it is with great pleasure that I move this moratorium on coal seam gas—a moratorium for five years or until the committee can do its work. It seems to me a bit ridiculous to waste $150 million to set up a committee and not even wait for the results of its work. So this amendment, I think, is very necessary. It goes a long way to addressing the concerns of the community, as I cited in those polls—67 per cent of Queenslanders, 68 per cent of Australians and, over the weekend, 88 per cent of Northern Rivers residents, who are concerned about coal seam gas or want a moratorium until we have better information.
You have stated previously that it is not the government's intention to stop industry investment. I would have thought that it is the environment minister's job to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity, as he is charged with doing under the EPBC Act, so perhaps you could reflect on that in the decision as to whether or not you will support this amendment. This amendment is needed. We have already discussed throughout the day the unfortunately large numbers of flaws with this committee and the fact that it could have been much stronger. There have been various amendments to strengthen it. Of course, we have one coming up from Senator Xenophon, supported by a number of others, including the Greens. It seems to me a gigantic waste of everybody's time and of $150 million to set up a committee whose advice does not need to be paid any heed to and that will not stop any approvals being issued while it does its scientific work. Of course we support science based decision making, and that is why we are voting for this bill despite the fact that it is weak in the extreme. But it is almost ridiculous to have this committee spend five years doing work that is going to be ignored in the interim. So, without any further ado, I move amendment (14) on sheet 7233:
(14) Schedule 1, page 8 (after line 14), at the end of the Schedule, add:
12 Aquifer drilling—moratorium
(1) A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person takes an action; and
(b) the person takes the action for the purposes of, or in connection with, coal seam gas mining; and
(c) the action is, or results in, drilling through or into an aquifer; and
(d) the drilling occurs before the earliest of the following:
(i) 5 years from the commencement of this item;
(ii) the conclusion of the full 5-year research program of the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development.
Penalty: 2,000 penalty units.
(2) Subitem (1) applies only if:
(a) the person is a corporation to which paragraph 51(xx) of the Constitution applies; or
(b) the action is taken for the purposes of trade or commerce:
(i) between Australia and another country; or
(ii) between 2 States; or
(iii) between a State and a Territory; or
(iv) between 2 Territories; or
(c) the action is taken in a Territory.
(3) Subitem (1) does not apply if the action is taken to facilitate scientific research to better understand the interaction of groundwater systems and the impact on those systems of coal seam gas mining.
(4) This item has effect despite any provision of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 or any other Act.
by leave—I, and also on behalf of Senators Heffernan, Madigan, Nash and Waters, move amendments (1) to (11) on sheet 7278 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 3 (line 29), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 17), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 23), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(4) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 2), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(5) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 5), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(6) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 9), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(7) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 11), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(8) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 17), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(9) Schedule 1, item 6, page 7 (line 15), after “resources”, insert “, and/or land and its use,”.
(10) Schedule 1, item 7, page 7 (line 20), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
(11) Schedule 1, item 10, page 8 (line 8), after “resources”, insert “and/or land and its use”.
These amendments are common-sense amendments to give sense to the intention of this legislation. It is to insert the words 'and/or land and its use' after the words 'water resources' in various parts of the bill and it is to do so as a result of a line of questioning put by Senator Heffernan. I am very grateful to Senator Heffernan for his line of questioning and to my other colleagues who participated in this debate. That line of questioning asked a number of very pertinent questions on the issue of salinity and on the impact on land, and it does not make sense for this advisory committee to have a role to look at the impact on water resources of coal seam gas mining and not to look at the impact it also has on land and its use. That line of questioning on salinity by Senator Heffernan was quite revealing and prompted this amendment.
So that is what this amendment is about. I want to square off on any legal or constitutional issues in the event that the government raises them. My advice and view is that, as this is an advisory committee, it can also advise on the issue of land use. There is no constitutional impediment for the committee to do so as the committee is not exercising any powers as such because of its advisory role. So this is a common-sense amendment that will go some way to strengthening the intent of this bill. I urge all of my colleagues to support it.
I would like to speak in support of this amendment, which is a perhaps more constrained version of an amendment that I moved earlier today. I am really pleased and am hoping that it has cross-party support. For the reasons that Senator Xenophon outlined, there seems little point to set up a committee that looks at one aspect of coal seam gas without looking at other serious problems that it poses to our environment and to our land. I foreshadow that I will be moving an amendment after this one to further expand the scope of the committee not just to land use but also to climate and to public health, which are other facets of the coal seam gas issue which have serious scientific doubts and lots of community concern about them. Unfortunately, the reason this is constitutional is the irony that this is simply an advisory body that does not have any teeth, as we have canvassed all day. So it is a great shame that, whilst the remit of the committee's advice can be expanded, the federal minister still will not have the ability to act to protect our environment from the impacts identified by this advice. But I welcome the amendments and thank Senator Xenophon for his work in drafting them today.
In no way does this amendment—and I am grateful to the people who have signed up to it and the accommodation that has been made to short cut what is usually due process—need to reflect on the fact that the lower house passed this bill without having discovered that there is a serious hole in it. The only choice would be to vote the bill down without this amendment because, as everybody has pointed out all day, this bill is designed to look at a problem knowing that no-one has to take any action on whatever the outcome of the look at the problem is. But to look at the problem of salt as it affects water without looking at the impact of salt as it affects land and its use, given that salt is the most toxic substance to agriculture, is a serious oversight for which we should forgive ourselves and move the amendment and get on with it.
The government is unfortunately not able to support this amendment. The meaning of water resources has the same meaning as is defined in Water Act 2007:
… (including water, organisms and other components and ecosystems that contribute to the physical state and environmental value of the water resource).
With this in mind, there is no doubt that salt is included and water resources under the Water Act 2007 is specifically referred to at section 4(1)(a) to include surface water and groundwater.
Unfortunately, Minister, and I know you are really interested in this subject, what you have left out in what you have just read is what they tried on me earlier in the day—it excludes land. I am sorry, but you will not find land or its use anywhere in the statement you have just read, and without that this parliament would look ridiculous.
I thank the Senate for its support on those previous amendments. This last lot of amendments are in a similar vein to the previous ones just passed so I am hopeful that senators may feel of a similar mind and agree to again extend just a little further the scope of issues that the committee advises the ministers on. We have just agreed to add 'land use' as an issue that the committee will provide advice on—or, rather, the impacts of coalmining and coal seam gas on land use.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Waters, I am going to ask you to stop your contribution while all the groups chattering move to do so outside the chamber. I will call you when you have the silence you deserve. Please continue, Senator Waters.
Thank you, Madam Temporary Chairman. I am sure they are chattering about coal seam gas so all the better. As I was saying, the last amendments added the impacts of coalmining and coal seam gas on land use to the issues that this advisory committee has to advise on. That is a good thing. It is a small improvement but it does not fix the fundamental problem with the bill being that nobody has to take any heed of the advice; however, it is still good to have that advice on the public record.
These next amendments seek to extend that remit just a little further to include the impacts of coalmining and coal seam gas on climate change and on public health, which, as I alluded to earlier, are issues of great concern in the community and also among the experts. Given the lateness of the hour, I will not elaborate any further. These amendments are similar in nature to a couple that I moved earlier today, which were to add environmental impacts and public health impacts to the list of issues that the committee considers. Given the success of the previous amendments I was encouraged to re-move these slightly reworded amendments, and it is with great hope for support that I now seek leave to move amendments (1) to (11) on sheet 7279 together.
I move Australian Greens amendments (1) to (11) on sheet 7279 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 3 (lines 29 and 30), omit “; and”, substitute “and/or climate change and/or public health; and”
(2) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 17), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(a), add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(3) Schedule 1, item 4, page 5 (line 23), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(b), add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(4) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 2), omit “; and”, substitute “and/or climate change and/or public health; and”
(5) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 5), at the end of subparagraph 505D(1)(d)(ii), add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(6) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 9), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(e), add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(7) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 11), before “from”, insert “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(8) Schedule 1, item 4, page 6 (line 17), at the end of paragraph 505D(1)(g), add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(9) Schedule 1, item 6, page 7 (line 15), at the end of the definition of bioregional assessment, add “and/or climate change and/or public health”.
(10) Schedule 1, item 7, page 7 (line 20), omit “:”, substitute “and/or climate change and/or public health:”
(11) Schedule 1, item 10, page 8 (line 8), omit “:”, substitute “and/or climate change and/or public health:”
The amendments are not supported. The focus of the committee is quite properly on the impacts of coal seam gas and large coalmining development on water resources. This is critical to ensure that the committee's work is focused on the priority issues under its mandate and to be sure of consistency with the arrangements agreed between the Commonwealth and states under the national partnership agreement.