Wednesday, 25 August 2021
Regulations and Determinations
Industry Research and Development (Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program) Instrument 2021; Disallowance
At the request of Senator Waters, I move:
That the Industry Research and Development (Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program) Instrument 2021, made under the Industry Research and Development Act 1986, be disallowed
I know Senator Waters is sitting there ready to make a great contribution.
[by video link] I note that business of the Senate notice of motion No. 1 has been moved. It is to disallow the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program grant. I want to start by saying clearly what this vote is about. In the middle of a climate crisis, at a time when the International Energy Agency, the G7 and the IPCC are all saying, 'Stop funding coal, oil and gas,' the Morrison government is gifting $50 million of public money to the fossil fuel industry to frack for gas in the Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory. It's doing so against the wishes of First Nations communities and before key environmental baseline studies have been completed.
Twenty-one million dollars of that slush fund has already gone to the first applicants, Imperial Oil and Gas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Empire Energy, a company that is linked to major Liberal Party donors and life members and has been lobbying relevant ministers for months. There is absolutely no requirement for the company to repay any of that largesse if they go on to make millions from exploiting a public resource. There is no assurance that the companies will not spend the money offshore and avoid paying tax locally.
Today the Senate has the chance to stop this misuse of public funds, to stop the rorting, to listen to First Nations communities, to listen to the climate science, to protect precious groundwater and to save $50 million that could be better spent on housing, education or increasing JobSeeker. We have the chance to stop it. But yesterday the Labor Party said that they won't. We beg them to change their minds, because there is so much at stake here—firstly, for the climate. The Beetaloo basin holds 34 billion tonnes of gas, which is the equivalent of 68 years of Australia's current pollution level. It alone would increase Australia's annual emissions by six per cent. It is a climate bomb. Opening up the basin would completely blow our chance of meeting our already weak Paris targets. The IPCC advice could not be clearer on this: we have until 2030 to halve the world's climate pollution if we want to have any chance of staving off chain reactions that will lead to runaway climate breakdown. This is a critical decade, and even conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency recognise that and have urged governments to stop subsidising climate-wrecking fossil fuel projects. Yet this government wants to hand out more public money to its fossil fuel mates, and it seems the Labor Party are going to let it do it.
But it's not just climate impacts. Our precious groundwater is also at risk from fracking. The independent review of fracking in the Northern Territory, the Pepper review, noted significant environmental, social and economic risks from fracking the Territory. The review made 135 recommendations and it said only the full implementation of all of those recommendations could provide any assurances that those risks could be managed. But fewer than half of those recommendations have been implemented, the Senate inquiry that the Greens initiated into this insane proposal was told. The federal grants program that we're seeking to disallow would actively fly in the face of at least three of those Pepper recommendations. Environmental baseline studies won't be completed before the drilling expedited by these grants would be done, there's no requirement for carbon offset arrangements to be locked in before the drilling commences, and the federal government has no plans to extend the water trigger under the EPBC Act to assess the impact of shale gas extraction on water, as amendments that I moved in 2013 would have achieved had they not been voted down by both big parties.
Perhaps most importantly, the justice of our nation is at stake. The Senate inquiry heard from traditional owners right across the Territory, who were deeply concerned about fracking the Beetaloo basin. First Nations countries are worried for their country, their water, their kids and their access to cultural practices. They are furious that this government is handing out millions of dollars to its donor mates and offshore shareholders while kids can't get a decent education and towns like Borroloola don't have footpaths or safe water and houses are poorly built and overcrowded. These traditional owners told the Senate inquiry that they have not been consulted in any meaningful way by this government or by the companies that are so keen to pillage their country and their groundwater. There's been no scientific explanation of the work being undertaken or information provided to those traditional owners about the long-term impacts and risks. Their questions have gone unanswered and their concerns have been ignored. Traditional owners despair as their wishes and their responsibilities as custodians of this country continue to be ignored.
Yesterday, Senator McMahon shamefully dismissed the views of First Nations community members who gave evidence to the inquiry. Her comments were so typical of the attitude of this government and their approach to consultation: if you don't like what you hear, dismiss it, belittle it, ignore it. First Nations communities have spoken loudly and clearly in opposing fracking in the Beetaloo basin. This Senate must listen.
Even if you were to overlook the climate impacts, groundwater risks and the opposition of First Nations communities, these grants should be stopped, because the program is yet another dodgy Liberal slush fund for Liberal Party mates. The rogues gallery of applicants for the grants includes Sweetpea Petroleum, a company registered in a tax haven that is connected to a Russian oligarch who is currently on a US sanctions list. It includes Tamboran Resources, which is registered in a tax haven and is so opaque that we don't know who actually owns it. Santos, Australia's 11th-biggest polluting company and a regular political donor to both of the big parties, is also in the mix. There is Empire Energy, a company with extensive links and lots of financial support to the Liberal Party, one of whose main shareholders is a man with an outstanding arrest warrant from Hong Kong for insider trading.
Yesterday, Senator Watt, for the Labor Party, in his contribution to debate on the interim report of the Senate Environment and Communications Committee's inquiry into fracking in the Beetaloo, went through the shocking list of everything that is wrong this program. There were the meetings between Empire Energy and Minister Taylor, at which Minister Taylor says the grants programs weren't discussed, something that is contradicted by emails from the company disclosed under FOI. There was the Empire Energy funded joy flight for Minister Taylor; Liberal donors; half of Minister Taylor's fundraising arm, the Hume Forum; a Nine News journalist; and Senator McMahon and her then staff member, who, incidentally, was recently preselected by the CLP for the Daly by-election and, if elected, could vote on future NT government decisions regarding Empire Energy's fracking operations. Thirdly, there is the coincidence of Empire meeting with Minister Taylor just days before the first-in, first-served grant guidelines were released, and then happening to be the first application and, so far, the only one to be served. We know that Minister Taylor isn't the Minister for Resources and Water, as Senator McMahon so helpfully pointed out yesterday. But he does represent resources in the cabinet. Empire Energy was pretty keen to talk to him and for his help to get them a meeting with Minister Pitt.
Applicants for grants under the Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program are required to declare conflicts of interest. Where no conflicts are declared, no further questions are asked. Being a massive donor to the Liberal Party apparently isn't a conflict. Having a meeting with the relevant minister just prior to the guidelines being announced apparently isn't a conflict either. The whole program is so dodgy that the Labor Party want to refer it the ANAO. Why not just stop it now?
Senator Watt says that if people want to know where Labor stands, they should look at their policy platform. I think people will look at Labor's voting record. Right now, Labor has a chance to actually avoid another sports rorts or park-and-ride style abuse of public funds. Rather than give the program a catchy name and then be outraged when the ANAO finds that it was a really bad idea, you could just vote to stop it now. The community will remember that Labor had the chance to stop public money going to climate-wrecking projects that First Nations communities have said they do not want. Labor have decided they will just step aside and let the Liberal government do the bidding of their fossil fuel donor mates.
This grant program is a bad one. The evidence of the inquiry was clear: the criteria don't require climate risks to be considered, won't consider the adequacy of consultation with First Nations groups and aren't interested in the environmental history or the tax-avoiding behaviour of applicants or conflicts of interests. The only relevant criterion seems to be whether you are a friend of the Liberal Party.
Australia should not be spending public funds on fossil fuel projects when we know that we have less than a decade to prevent climate catastrophe. Health, education, increasing JobSeeker—there are so many better ways to spend $50 million in the Northern Territory. Granting public money to party donors for a climate-wrecking project that no-one wants is unethical, wasteful and a danger to our children's future. I urge the Senate to disallow this program.
This instrument should not be disallowed. The Beetaloo Cooperative Drilling Program will unlock new gas potential and accelerate exploration and development in the important Beetaloo basin in the Northern Territory. The basin is a new, world-class gas province, with an estimated 200,000 petajoules or more of gas. The Australian government's $50 million accelerated drilling program is designed to realise the benefits of gas development as soon as possible for all Australians, including the traditional owners in the basin.
I rise to make a contribution on behalf of Labor in this debate, and I'll make clear at the outset that Labor will not be supporting this disallowance motion. I think it's really important to be clear as to what this motion is about. It seeks to disallow a funding program in its entirety. It seeks to disallow and to effectively abolish the funding that the government has decided to allocate for exploration activities in the Beetaloo basin. This motion is not, as the Greens suggest, about trying to stop a grant to Empire Energy. It goes beyond that. It's not just about Empire Energy; it seeks to abolish the entire funding program from which grants to Empire Energy have been made. Labor do not support disallowing this entire funding program. That's why we will not be supporting this disallowance motion. The motion is not to disallow or to stop grants to Empire Energy. The motion promoted by the Greens is to disallow an entire funding program from which the grants have been made.
The reason we are not supporting the disallowance motion and the reason that we do not support getting rid of this funding program altogether is that our platform, which I have directed people to already, says 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.
That is the balanced position that Labor came to at our national conference and that is our position on all matters to do with gas. So supporting this disallowance motion would be in conflict with our policy position and that's why we are not supporting it.
We do, however, have serious concerns about the grants that have been made to date from this program. As I outlined yesterday in my contribution on the Senate inquiry report, we have particular concerns about evidence received in the Senate inquiry about the adequacy of consultation with traditional owners and First Nations people generally in relation to proposed gas developments. We also have serious concerns about what have become clear are the close links between certain ministers in the government and the only beneficiaries of this grants program to date. Because of those concerns, we were part of a majority report in the Senate inquiry into this matter and we supported the recommendations of that committee inquiry. It's because of these concerns that, unlike other parties in this chamber, we are in the process of referring this grants program to the Auditor-General. There are serious concerns about conflicts of interest between Liberal Party ministers involved in this program and Liberal Party donors who have benefited from this program. That is the appropriate way to deal with these sorts of concerns about particular grants. It's also because of these concerns that we are moving an order to produce documents seeking further documentation about the latest scandal involving Minister Angus Taylor, and it's why we're pursuing other remedies as well.
This motion doesn't do any of those things that Labor has already put into action. This motion doesn't do anything about trying to tackle the conflicts between Minister Taylor, in particular, and the beneficiary of this grants program, which includes a number of significant Liberal Party donors. Labor has a very strong record of trying to fight this government's rorts. It's why, for some time now, we have consistently called for an anticorruption commission. It's why we led the charge on sports rorts. It's why we led the charge on car park rorts. But I might point out that, while we have taken up big issues and big complaints about sports rorts and car park rorts involving this government, we have never called for those particular funding programs to be abolished. What we did was refer matters to the Auditor-General for investigation, and we have taken up the charge on them ever since. That's the appropriate way to deal with issues involving particular grants that have been made. That's what Labor's doing. But going beyond that and disallowing the funding program in its entirety would be akin to disallowing sports programs, which were rorted by this government. It would be akin to abolishing car parking funding programs, which were rorted by this government. We didn't do that in those cases, and we don't intend to do it now.
I rise to speak to this disallowance motion and add my voice to those comments already made so eloquently by Senator Waters in relation to this issue. But I do want to point out the sheer hypocrisy of the Labor Party in relation to this and the hypocrisy of the government who, on one hand, say that they care about climate change and, on the other, spend public money making climate change worse.
Let's just be honest here: the Morrison government, the Liberal Party and the neoliberals of this government pretend that they are the best economic managers around, yet what we have is public money being handed over to a bunch of fossil-fuel polluting gas companies for an industry that we're apparently going to have to spend more money to try to clean up after in years to come. That is not good economic management. It's certainly not good environmental management, and it is not good for the planet. No wonder this government is being embarrassed on the world stage by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, by many of our closest trading partners, and even by the US in relation to their commitments to climate change. Even China, for heaven's sake, are saying that they have some targets to reduce carbon pollution and have a net zero ambition. This government has none of that. Instead, they're handing over public money to make climate change worse.
Now, if this industry is worthwhile and stands on its own, where's the free market? Why isn't it able to do it on its own? This Prime Minister has said that, out of the COVID crisis, we will have a gas led recovery. I can tell you that that's not going to go down very well when the Prime Minister and his bureaucrats get to Glasgow at the end of this year, because the rest of the world knows that we have to get out of fossil fuels and we have to get out of making climate change worse. That means reducing pollution, not making it harder to reduce it. That's before we even get into how dodgy the deals to hand over this initial $21 million have been. Can you imagine where that money would be better spent? It might be spent on housing First Nations peoples in the Northern Territory, on health services, on education or perhaps on clean renewable energy sources that are going to be there for the future. This government is pouring more and more public money into propping up an industry that is making our job to tackle climate change even harder. There is no way we're going to be able to reach the targets that we need to if this gas field is opened up, propped up and subsidised by the public purse.
It is just extraordinary that the Labor Party is now lining up with the Morrison government to say: 'You know what? Go for it. Drill for as much gas as you want. We don't care about the impact that that's going to make on the environment and on our pollution and on climate change'! Well, it's pretty damn clear today, hearing the comments from the government and from the Labor Party, that both of these major parties are in the pockets of the gas and the fossil fuel industry, because otherwise why would it be that the Labor Party are refusing to stop this dodgy rort from going ahead? They admit that we've got all the evidence that this money shouldn't have been handed over. They admit that this is just a rort for the Liberal Party mates. They admit that there's been no due diligence done, so much so they've written to the Auditor-General to ask him to have a look at it. But when it comes to actually being able to do something about it, they're refusing, and they're refusing because they don't want to upset their other mates, their Labor mates in the gas industry and in the fossil fuel industry. The Labor Party also got some election donations from Empire Energy. Did you know that? So is it any surprise that they've come in here all guns blazing but actually can't deliver when it's needed. All sizzle, no sausage, is what we've got from the Labor Party on this, and Senator Watt in particular.
This government is making climate change worse, and they're spending your money, public money, taxpayers' money, propping up an industry that is going to condemn the future of this planet and our environment to a dust bowl, making climate change worse. That's what's going on here. It's like asking McDonald's to run the school canteen, paying them to do the school lunches while you're trying to fight child obesity. There is no logic here. If we want to stop climate change, we have to stop polluting. If you want to stop polluting, you have to stop subsidising those who are polluting, those who are making money out of making climate change worse. This parliament should be doing that, and it's sad today that we see the Labor Party rolling over into bed with the Morrison government and satisfying, both of them, their big fossil fuel mates and fossil fuel donors.
[by video link] I would like to share the words of Ms Joni Wilson, Yanyuwa Garawa woman from Borroloola:
Country is important to me because it's my life; it is a part of my body, my soul and my spirit. It provides food, medicine, water and healing. It's important for my cultural connection to the land and my language, and the identity of who I am through my skin name. My skin determines how I fit into my clan. Country is important because I live off the land, like my ancestors did. It's my responsibility as a jungai, protector for country, as a traditional owner, to protect it with my people for the next generation to come. I want my kids to be able to practise, teach and learn on country, like I did and like my people did before me. Without our land and water, we are nothing and we are nobody.
Ms Joni Wilson is a strong Yanyuwa Garawa woman from Borroloola. She said this in her evidence to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo basin, an inquiry that would not be happening without the support of Labor. And I do recall, as we do, all of us, that it is because of Labor that we're having this Senate inquiry at all.
It is traditional owners like Ms Wilson and many others who are able to tell their story, voices that have not been heard for way too long—for many, many years. They are traditional owners who have not had that opportunity to speak directly to the Senate, to the Australian parliament, to talk about the importance of protecting country and culture, that this is just as valuable and important as protecting industry interests.
Labor will continue to advocate for ongoing and meaningful consultation with traditional owners by both government and industry and for the cultural heritage that is so critical to our people as First Nations people, across the Northern Territory and Australia, and for the environment as well. It's because of the support of Labor that we are uncovering the story of how these grants are being made. It is enormously difficult, as any politician can tell, and it certainly is for me, a Yanyuwa Garawa woman in the Australian parliament trying to pursue, as best I can, through the many ways of navigating your Westminster system—to find the voices of our people. I do that as a Labor senator for the Northern Territory, as difficult as often that may be, in terms of its complex and oftentimes contradictory nature. But I firmly believe we are in this position due to the support of my colleagues in this inquiry.
We have a way to go and I will not give up ensuring that we persevere, most genuinely, to find out what is going on in the Beetaloo. I look forward to working diligently over the coming months, as a member of this Senate committee inquiry, to examine the grants process further. I am pleased that Labor has referred the grants process to the Auditor-General to examine the potential conflicts of interest, and I certainly will be pursuing that most vigorously as well. I am aware that Labor will be using every strategy at its disposal to continue to prosecute this work, to shine a light on the probity of this grants process and the conduct of particular ministers in handing out public money to their mates.
This message I give now is to the First Nations people of the Beetaloo region: I will not give up fighting for the rights of country. I will not give up. I will not walk away from what is so critical to all people of the Northern Territory. We must have a fair and just process in going forward, in understanding how it is that millions and millions of dollars can be so easily granted.