Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 August 2021


Environment and Communications References Committee; Report

4:50 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the interim report of the Environment and Communications References Committee on oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin, and I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

This report is a very important one. Not only has it gathered information and evidence in relation to the Beetaloo basin and the plans to drill for gas in that area in the foreseeable future; this interim report goes directly to the government's plans to give tens of millions of public dollars over to gas companies to start fracking in the Northern Territory.

The Beetaloo basin gas field, which sits south of Katherine in the NT, holds around 34 billion tonnes of heat-trapping gases, the equivalent of 68 years of Australia's already high pollution levels. The NT government said that opening up the basin's gas fields will increase Australia's annual emissions by six per cent, when we should be going the other way. We have many debates about having to reduce carbon pollution in this country and around the world. Rather than doing that, the government's plan to open up fracking in the Beetaloo basin is going to make it even harder for us to address climate change and to reduce pollution.

We have until 2030 to halve the world's pollution. Otherwise, we run the risk of setting off chain reactions that will lead to a runaway climate breakdown way beyond the ability of humans to get under control. The IPCC report that we've referenced in this place many times over the last few weeks is a big warning sign that, if we're to reduce the risk of temperature rise, this is the last decade that we have to take serious action to reduce pollution and get things back on track.

Putting aside the fact that this fracking plan in the Northern Territory is a climate bomb, it is a trademark dodgy process of this Liberal government. What we've seen is the government put on the table a $50 million grant fund for gas companies to go hell for leather in the Northern Territory. We've got spreadsheets marked with electorates. We've got mates looking after mates. We've got fundraising dinners and private jets flying across the Northern Territory, and we've got nice, cosy, private dinners with ministers and gas company executives. This is more 'cash for Liberal Party mates', at a time when we've been having a lot of debate in this chamber and the other place about other types of rorts that this government is involved in. They're up to their necks in car park rorts, and, of course, there's the sports rorts program. Unfortunately, we hear today that this gas rort by the Morrison government is going to be simply waved through by the opposition. That is an extra extremely disappointing position for the Labor Party to have taken.

What we know is that, out of the $50 million of public money that the Morrison government wants to hand over to gas companies, $21 million has already been earmarked for a company called Empire Energy. That company has been awarded $21 million so far. What this report outlines and what the committee has uncovered is that this company had the inside track. They were mates of the Liberal Party and even mates of the minister, Mr Angus Taylor. They were lifetime members of the Liberal Party. What happens is, of course, that this company ends up getting the lion's share, $21 million. The relationship between this company, Empire Energy, and the Liberal Party is so thick you couldn't count the number of ways on one hand.

In March this year, the company met with Mr Taylor privately in his ministerial office; no department officials were there. Eight days later, the grant guidelines were publicly released, showing that the scheme wasn't even merit based. The evidence that we've got through this inquiry thus far and detailed in this report is that the money was handed out on a first-come first-served basis. No due diligence was done. The criteria weren't even met. Of course, the key criterion for getting access to the cheque is if you're a mate of the Liberal Party. Minister Taylor denies that they even talked about the grants, but—let's be honest—this is the same bloke who denies that he played with the reports and documents from the City of Sydney website and who denies the ownership of Cayman Islands based companies that received $80 million in water purchases from the federal government. I leave it to you, Madam Acting Deputy President, as to whether or not you believe Mr Taylor was involved in this and whether he is to be trusted.

What we do know is that before this meeting, in October last year, Minister Taylor's personal fundraising vehicle, the Hume forum, specifically invited this very same gas company, Empire Energy, to attend his fundraiser in Darwin. Empire, of course, graciously accepted the invitation. They paid $4½ thousand to attend that event. The next day the company chartered a private jet to the site where the well is to be drilled. That not only included Mr Taylor; his staff were flown there. His chief fundraiser, the head of the Hume forum, Mr Ryan Arnold, was there as well, as were members of the gas lobby, APPEA, and the executive director of the Menzies centre. What were they all doing, flying out to the well site over there? They were all in attendance. Of course, a few months later, this company ended up getting $21 million of public money. After a big day of jetsetting, obviously they would have been pretty happy with themselves that night! They even went out for a private dinner.

Who exactly owns Empire Energy? The chair of Empire, Mr Paul Espie, was described in parliament by cabinet minister Jane Hume as a friend and a mentor and a doyen of the Liberal Party. He's the chair of the Liberal think tank the Menzies centre, which explains why the Australian columnist and Menzies executive director Nick Cater was on board this private jet as well. Mr Espie has donated over $400,000 to the Liberals over the years. Do you see a theme here, Madam Acting Deputy President? Cosy, cosy! Friends, friends, friends! The major shareholder of this company is a Tasmanian billionaire, Dale Elphinstone, who has been involved in Liberal Party preselection, is a regular supporter and is referred to as a lifelong member of the Liberal Party. The next largest shareholder of this company—and this goes to the lack of due diligence that was done before giving this money, public money, $21 million of taxpayers' money, to this gas company—is an investment vehicle owned by a Mr Michael Tang, who is a Chinese national, and there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest, in Hong Kong, for insider trading. Boy! So, on one hand, you've got mates of the Liberal Party and, on the other, a bunch of criminals. And yet taxpayer money is being spent on this rubbish—$21 million of taxpayers' money to be spent trying to frack for gas in the Northern Territory at a time when we should be reducing carbon pollution.

Now, we could have a debate about whether we should be fracking in the Northern Territory, and the Greens' position on that is crystal clear. But what this report goes to—as well as the lack of consultation with the traditional owners, and I know there will be other senators who want to refer directly to that—and what I'm worried about is that even the process for handing out this money has been dodgy from go to whoa. But I'm very disappointed to hear today that the Labor Party, rather than standing up to it, is going to let this one slide. It is going to let this one slide just so it can perhaps keep its mates in the gas and the fossil fuel industries happy. Boy oh boy, why on earth would the Labor Party want to let the Liberal government, the Morrison government, Mr Taylor and his mates off the hook when clearly this stinks of just another Liberal Party rort. It's also going to cook the planet. (Time expired)

5:00 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I speak to the interim report of the Environment and Communications References Committee's inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin, which has just been tabled in the Senate. There is $50 million of public moneys about which we have so many questions. This report has uncovered that, and you will see that in the recommendations. The recommendations centre around the concerns of transparency, accountability and openness and the fact that there are so many questions which still remain unanswered. There is the issue of $50 million, where $21 million has been provided to one company based on merit. It beggars belief that millions and millions of dollars can be given in such a way.

What we heard in this inquiry was important evidence from people who live in the Beetaloo region. These are people who matter. They are people who worry about their future, their livelihoods and their families. We heard from very many groups right across the Gulf of Carpentaria, across the Beetaloo and Barkly and right up to Arnhem Land. These concerns are very real. Witnesses gave evidence where they have not had the opportunity to do so before. These witnesses matter. We had a witness who comes from the Borroloola region and the Beetaloo region who now is in Dubai unable to get back to Australia. Her evidence spoke very strongly about the importance of being accepted as a traditional owner.

There were questions that we were also able to put to the Northern Land Council, which is responsible for looking for and talking with traditional owners—not to influence in any way their decisions but to ensure that they are aware of what it is that they're agreeing to or not agreeing to. These processes that we have seen took place back in 2011. Even then, families were unaware of what it was they were agreeing to. These were the statements that were coming from the older generation, and now they are coming from the younger generation of people who live in the region, in particular the First Nations people. The fact that $50 million could be so much better spent elsewhere was also an important piece of evidence that kept coming through time after time from witness after witness.

But perhaps one of the most important things is the role of the parliament and the role of the scrutiny it funds and the role of how money is given or gifted. That's the role of the Senate and this inquiry. Their role is to examine why it is that, when you have massive failures in the COVID vaccination of First Nations people and in closing the gap, in terms of First Nations people and health, $50 million can be provided to companies that do not have to meet any particular criteria, other than first come, first served. These are serious questions that this inquiry has to delve further into, and we'll continue to do so as we continue through to March. It's for these reasons that I would certainly encourage the Labor senators to consider that. There are too many things here that need to be answered. There is too much doubt. Allowing $50 million of funding that comes from public moneys and could go to other things to be given away has to be seriously considered.

I say to the witnesses who have given evidence so far: this inquiry will diligently continue on its path. This interim report is a very vital piece of information for the parliament, both the Senate and the House, to recognise how serious the concerns are in relation to this program in the Beetaloo. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

5:05 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I would also like to make a short contribution on this report. I am not and have not been a member of the committee, so have not been involved in the inquiry, but I have followed these issues closely, particularly in my capacity as shadow minister for northern Australia.

I want to recognise all of the members of the committee for the work that they have done in this inquiry, in particular my colleague Senator McCarthy, who, as you just saw, has maintained a very close focus on this issue for quite some time. I know that she has been a thorough and effective advocate for the citizens of the Northern Territory on these issues, particularly traditional owners, around the concerns that they have. I do want to publicly recognise the work that Senator McCarthy has done on this inquiry, and even beforehand.

It's no secret that in Australian politics today the development of the gas industry is a contentious issue. There are many who support the development of the gas industry, particularly on the basis of the jobs that it can create, the export dollars that it can earn and other economic benefits. Of course, there are others in the community who oppose the development of the industry, particularly on the basis of their concerns around climate change.

We often hear, as we heard earlier from Senator Hanson-Young, different people's versions of what Labor stands for on these issues. But I would always encourage people who would actually like to know what the Labor Party believes on a particular issue to consult our platform, rather than listen to our political opponents and how they choose to characterise our position. What Labor's platform says on the matter of the gas industry, among other things, is that we support new gas projects and associated infrastructure:

… subject to independent approval processes to ensure legitimate community concerns are heard and addressed. Labor will ensure the industry assesses and manages environmental and other impacts, including on water reserves and co-existence with other agricultural activities, and engages constructively with landholders.

Throughout our platform there are also a number of references to the need for traditional owners and First Nations people generally to be consulted on developments of any kind, including in the resources industry.

Quite apart from the gas industry in general, the proposed development of the gas industry in the Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory is also a contentious issue for the reasons that I've already outlined. But I do want to draw the chamber's attention to the fact that a couple of years ago the Northern Territory government commissioned an extremely rigorous inquiry, known as the Pepper inquiry, which explored the issues around the development of the Beetaloo basin. That inquiry put forward 135 recommendations about how the development of the Beetaloo basin should occur. The Northern Territory government and a range of other parties are in the process of implementing those recommendations now. I think it's important to understand some of that background to this inquiry.

As I said, I haven't personally been involved in this inquiry, but I'm aware, from my discussions with colleagues, especially Senator McCarthy, that there are two particularly big concerns that have been raised over the course of the inquiry. The first concern relates to the level of consultation with traditional owners and First Nations people generally in and around the Beetaloo basin. It does appear, through the evidence to this inquiry, that there are some legitimate concerns about how adequate that consultation has been with traditional owners and First Nations people by some of the gas companies who are seeking to explore and develop in the Beetaloo basin. These are concerns that we should all take seriously. Again, looking at Labor's platform, you would expect us to take them seriously, and we do take them seriously. In fact, they are concerns that I personally have raised with the gas industry in very recent times, and I know that colleagues of mine in the Labor Party have done the same thing. I don't know whether the Greens party have bothered to raise those concerns directly with the gas industry, given that their modus operandi is usually to pull a stunt in here rather than seek constructive improvements.

It's because of those concerns that the additional comments that have been made by Labor senators in this report acknowledge the efforts of the Northern Land Council to consult with a range of traditional owners and other interests over many years about the Beetaloo basin. We urge the government to consider supporting the Northern Land Council to ensure even more rigorous consultation with affected traditional owners and native title interests. These are issues that deserve to be taken seriously, and we hope that the government will take the comments on board.

The other big concern that has been raised by a number of people over the course of this inquiry is the probity of particular grants to the value of $21 million in taxpayers' funds that have been made under this program. Of course, when taxpayers' funds are being provided to private sector interests, whether it be in the gas industry or any other industry, we need to be confident that those grants have been administered and approved on a completely above-board basis. I think we are right to be concerned about the distribution of these grants in particular, given that the evidence demonstrates the quite extensive involvement of Minister Angus Taylor, his chief fundraiser and other people with very strong connections to the Liberal Party. We need to remember, of course, that when we're talking about Minister Taylor we're talking about someone who has form. This is the Minister Taylor of the water rorts and the grassland rorts, the Minister Taylor of 'Well done, Angus' and of 'Great job, Angus'—

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Watts. Senator Brockman?

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The President very recently made a ruling that you are not allowed to use language saying that a minister has undertaken rorts, so I ask for that language to be withdrawn.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt, my advice from the clerk is that if you could please clarify what you mean in using that language it might be helpful for the chamber.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I understand why members of this government are sensitive when accusations of rorts are put to them, because it is something that is endemic within this government. What I'm talking about is the involvement of Minister Taylor in what have become known as water rorts and grassland rorts. Let's face it: this is a government that is full of rorts. It doesn't stop with Minister Taylor. We've got the sports rorts and car park rorts, and I'm sure we'll be discovering more before too long. The fact that these rorts are so endemic in this government is why Labor has called for an anticorruption commission, something the government has not agreed to.

This inquiry has heard very concerning evidence about private flights paid for by a grant recipient headed by a Liberal Party life member. Those flights were taken by Minister Taylor and his chief fundraiser. Those trips coincided with fundraisers for the Liberal Party in the period leading up to the grants being administered. Equally concerning is what seems to be misleading evidence that has been given to the inquiry by a number of witnesses. There are some things that Labor is particularly concerned about. Firstly, Minister Taylor seems to have misled parliament by maintaining that his office had not discussed the program with the recipient company prior to the opening of applications, when FOI documents on the website of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources clearly show the opposite. Secondly, it appears that, in answer to a question on notice, the managing director of Empire Energy said that a CLP fundraising dinner was not referenced in its invitation to Minister Taylor when he visited the Northern Territory. There is other evidence, particularly in the Saturday Paper, to the contrary. Thirdly, in answer to a question on notice, the managing director of Empire Energy said the company did not discuss the design of the grant program with Minister Taylor or his office, but an FOI return includes an email from Empire Energy to Minister Taylor's office in January this year that refers to discussions about the grant program. Fourthly, in response to a Senate order for the production of documents, Senator Ruston presented an answer which said there had been no correspondence between Minister Taylor and Empire Energy discussing the program, when there is FOI evidence to suggest the contrary. So we have at least four occasions when ministers or other witnesses appear to have given misleading information to either the Senate or this inquiry.

In response to these concerns, Labor will use the Senate inquiry to pursue this apparent misleading evidence from witnesses. What we will also do is move another motion for an order to produce documents this week in this chamber to seek all correspondence relating to Minister Taylor's visit to the Northern Territory, there is a stench around these grants. There is a stench around Minister Taylor's involvement in them, and we deserve to see all correspondence regarding Minister Taylor's visit to the Northern Territory.

Finally, because of the concerns that have been raised in the inquiry around the probity of these grants and the potential misbehaviour and misconduct of Minister Taylor in particular, Labor will ask the Auditor-General to conduct a performance audit of the grant program, noting the close political connection between Minister Taylor and Empire Energy, and draw to the Auditor-General's attention the presence of Minister Taylor's chief fundraiser on the site visit and the company's presence at a Liberal fundraiser on the night before the site visit. These are serious questions, they deserve to be taken seriously and that's why Labor is taking firm action in the way that I have outlined.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Watt. Are you seeking leave to continue your remarks?

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

5:15 pm

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to point out that the coalition senators involved in this inquiry cannot support the majority report. This report is characterised by overtly political and ideological statements and selection of evidence. It has resulted in a quite biased report and biased conclusions, and we do not support it at all. In fact, we have a dissenting report which relies solely on scientific and factual evidence that was given by organisations such as the CSIRO and GISERA. The evidence that was picked up and presented in the majority report relied on a lot of unreliable witnesses, a lot of witnesses that didn't even seem to know why they were there or what they were saying. This is the reason we can't support this report.

For the Northern Land Council, in fact, one of the star witnesses was a lady who gave evidence from Dubai, where she lives, claiming to be a traditional owner. The Northern Land Council, which is the body under the legislation that is charged with identifying and organising consultation with traditional owners gave evidence that this witness was, in fact, not a traditional owner of the area concerned.

The report is just punctuated by claims such as these all through it, where these witnesses, who were supposed to be factual witnesses, giving evidence were actually activist groups, such as GetUp who were coaching a lot of the witnesses that were appearing, and a lot of the witnesses who supposedly appeared independently gave strikingly similar answers and they were the same answers as those that were given by organisations such as the Australia Institute and GetUp. My colleague Murray over there seems to be pathologically obsessed by Minister Taylor.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator McMahon—

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt seems to be pathologically obsessed by Minister Taylor. In fact, he spoke about Minister Taylor and about Minister Taylor's trip to the Northern Territory for quite some time and he cast aspersions about Minister Taylor's involvement. I would just like to point out to Senator Watt that he has the wrong minister, because Minister Taylor is not responsible for this program. In fact, Minister Taylor has absolutely nothing to do with this program. This program is administered by Minister Pitt—two completely different ministers, two different parties, in fact—and it is, in fact, Minister Pitt who has carriage and he is the sole decision-maker of this program.

Minister Pitt was not even there. In fact, he's never been to the Beetaloo. I would love and I extend the invitation for him to come, but he's not even been there, so I don't know why Senator Watt is so obsessed by Minister Taylor and why he is trying to draw him in to what should be a factual report of evidence given by credible witnesses. In fact, he is using the opportunity to try to draw in a minister who is not involved in the instrument that this inquiry was about. Senator Watt, I don't know what your obsession is—I really don't—but you have definitely got the wrong minister. If you want to talk about any ministerial involvement in this program then you need to talk about Minister Pitt, not Minister Taylor. In case you need help: they do look quite different, they are from two different parties and they do look after different areas of ministerial responsibility. If Senator Watt and the Labor Party are going to try to incriminate any ministers in any of this program, I suggest they at least get the correct minister.

As I said, coalition senators have a dissenting report, which we believe displays the factual evidence that was presented by credible witnesses. I ask the Senate to please take our report into consideration and to discredit some of the evidence given by Labor that implicates the wrong minister. Our recommendations in this report are quite easy. There are two recommendations. The first one is that the NT government complete its implementation of the Pepper review in a timely manner. That is something that came out as part of the evidence. Many witnesses gave evidence that the issues they had were because the NT government had not implemented the recommendations of the Pepper review, as it was meant to. The other recommendation we have is that the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program proceed. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.