Senate debates

Tuesday, 7 February 2017


Defence Facilities

7:45 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on yet another massive stuff-up from the Turnbull government, concerning the debacle that has become known as the Shoalwater Bay Defence land expansion. Shoalwater Bay is a Defence training area just north of Rockhampton in Central Queensland, and each year it hosts many Australian and overseas soldiers undertaking training exercises. The process that the government has adopted over the last few months in relation to this is a textbook example of how you do not consult a local community and how you do not handle a massive project that is going to impact on people's lives.

This process started two days before the last federal election, when, miraculously, the government decided to announce to the people of Central Queensland that it had secured a deal with the Singaporean government which was going to inject over $1 billion of infrastructure upgrades and other economic benefits into the local Central Queensland community. At first blush that sounds fantastic, and, not surprisingly, most people in Central Queensland welcomed that news. It is an area that is struggling with high unemployment, and anything that governments can announce around new jobs and economic opportunities is very much welcomed. But what the government failed to mention at the same time as announcing this expansion was that it all relied upon dozens of compulsory land acquisitions in some of the best cattle farming country in Australia. It is not for no reason that Rockhampton is known as the beef capital of Australia, and the very country that has led to that title being conferred on Rockhampton was exactly what this government was proposing to forcibly acquire, without bothering to tell any of the landowners or businesses that rely on that industry.

Landowners only heard about the intention to forcibly acquire their land in November last year, months after the election and months after that announcement had helped deliver the seat of Capricornia back into LNP hands and helped this government retain office by one seat. Landowners heard about this, not because their local member picked up the phone and talked to them and not because anyone from government talked to them, but because they got officious letters in the mail from the Department of Defence saying, basically: 'Hello, we are going to come along and compulsorily acquire your property. Thanks very much.' Some people did not even get a letter. Some people had to read about it in the newspaper. There are businesses that stood to lose their entire livelihood and that, to this day, have not been spoken to by anyone from this government or anyone from the defence department about their plans.

The landowners and other businesses were not the only people who were surprised about the fact that this big announcement was going to rely on forced land acquisitions; the local LNP member, Michelle Landry, did not have a clue what was going on either. She actually went on TV news recently saying that she was completely in the dark. What kind of member of parliament has no idea about a major development that is going to go on in their electorate and is not all over it, giving information to their constituents? Of course, there was a marked change in the government's attitude to all this after the Labor Party took up the cause of these landowners and businesses, and they were certainly prompted into action. Despite that, we saw continued mass confusion caused by the fact that the government could not get their story straight. Day after day, you would have Michelle Landry, the member for Capricornia, out there saying that it was going to need forced land acquisitions, and the defence minister would be saying the same thing. Then, last week, we had the Prime Minister saying that he directed the department to look at alternatives. No-one spoke to the landowners about that; the Prime Minister just told his mate Tim Nicholls, the state LNP leader. Then last Friday we had the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, the Central Queensland based Senator Matt Canavan, in the media saying that compulsory acquisitions were going to be needed. Later that morning, the Deputy Prime Minister was in the media saying that there were not going to be any forced acquisitions. It was no wonder that people were so confused about what was happening. Now, today, we finally had the government announce that there will not be any forced acquisitions. It is about time they made this announcement and put people out of their misery and relieved the stress that has been caused by the government's incompetence.

I pay tribute to the local community for taking up the fight to the government. I and many other people in the Labor Party, state and federal, have been very pleased to stand side by side with them and to help them get the answers that they need. Unfortunately, there are still many unanswered questions, which we will be pursuing in the parliament. We do not know what is going to be happening to businesses that will be adversely affected by an expansion undertaken by voluntary acquisitions and whether those businesses can expect compensation. We will be continuing to ask questions of the government.