Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill 2013

21 March 2013

House of Representatives

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (12:18): I plan to be very brief because we do have a very important event attached to the apology coming up very, very soon, but it is necessary for me to speak on this bill. I am very keen to speak on this bill and any amendments, because I am the member for Hunter and this initiative, which has been brought forward by the minister for the environment, is very relevant to my electorate.

I have a particular dislike for regulation. Overdone, it has the potential to strangle business and constrain our economy. But regulation, whether we like it or not, is a necessary evil. It maintains civil society, protects us from the excesses of the market and addresses market failure. The real challenge is to get the balance right. I have seen many unnecessary regulations from government at every level and of all political persuasions. Most people could readily cite an example of a stupid regulation and the waste of resources involved in enforcing that regulation. If you were looking for obvious people to ask, I suggest you turn to anyone who runs a small business.

Even though I would prefer that the Commonwealth had not found it necessary to intervene in this area, I do not put this particular initiative in the category of bad regulation. I would put this in the category of necessary intervention. I do so because, even though it involves an overlap with the various state governments, it also addresses the shortcomings of those state government planning processes. It also has great potential to restore some confidence in those planning processes which are so important in many communities, but very, very important in communities like the ones I represent because they have seen the excesses of development. Coal mining has brought wonderful and great wealth to the Hunter, but it has also brought environment problems, capacity constraints and other issues. Some of those environmental questions will live with us for a long, long time to come. I remain a very, very strong supporter of the coal mining industry. But we must ensure we get the balance right and are not in any way threatened in our water tables, for example, and the sustainable industries that strive as a result of the availability of clean and unpolluted water.

Coal seam gas is a wonderful resource for this country. It addresses our looming gas shortage. People will maybe come to understand that when they realise the price effect of shortages in gas and, ultimately, the effect of not being able to access gas. But again, just like coal mining, we cannot allow gas to come on line if there is a threat to our natural environment. I do not promote zero tolerance, by the way. We have never applied zero tolerance to any industry. We would not have too many industries proceeding if they presented any form of environmental problem. Again, there is an important balance. I believe this initiative gets the balance right. It brings the science into the arrangement. I welcome the investment by the minister in the scientific panelsome $230 million. It is a great initiative. It will restore confidence in planning approvals and processes, so I welcome the intervention.

I took the opportunity to inspect one of AGL's projects in a small village called Broke in my electorate. The gas drilling is taking place outside the village. Where they are exploring, they are using the extracted water to irrigate a vineyard which they have purchased, just to demonstrate some of the benefits. The water-saving is, I think, 20 per cent. They take the water out, dilute it with both rainwater and water from the Hunter River, let it settle and use the water to irrigate their vines. It is a pretty impressive example of how good the industry can beproviding gas supply, wealth and jobs, and water-saving comes with it. If we get it right it can be a wonderful thing for the Hunter Valley, bringing similar wealth as coalmining without anything like the footprint that open-cut coalmining brings, for example. But we have to get the balance right and I think this initiative strikes the right balance.