Speech: Gloucester at the crossroads
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:07): Tonight I would like to talk about the Gloucester region in New South Wales. I was fortunate to visit this area again recently. The Gloucester Valley sits between the Avon and Gloucester Rivers. Prominent along the skyline of Gloucester is the famous Bucketts Range, an unusually rocky feature for a valley which attracts visitors for bushwalking and rockclimbing. A little further on is the stunning Barrington Tops National Park, carved out of an ancient volcano. Barrington Tops is one of Australia's largest temperate rainforests, and another major attraction for bushwalkers. This region is truly picturesque, and the contrast of the green valley and the Bucketts is yet another example of the fantastic diversity of the Australian landscape. The area is peaceful, productive and colourful.
My first port of call on this visit was a farm-gate stall for the Tucker Patch. An initiative of the Gloucester Project, the Tucker Patch is a six-hectare demonstration farm run almost entirely by volunteer labour. This project shows how land that has been under-used, or in this case abandoned, can be made productive again. The first thing that struck me while walking up to the farm gate stall was the abundance of fresh greens and the scent of fresh herbs. Volunteers were busy with the constant flow of customers. The hard-working locals were stocking and arranging the produce, transporting it from their vast gardens and serving customers. It was a real hub of community interaction. The Tucker Patch is truly inspiring. This work carries an important message-that small farms can work. At the Tucker Patch they are replenishing the land without any running water to rely on, and growing saleable quantities of fresh food. The Gloucester Project is showing that a different business model can work, in taking food from soil to table with direct marketing. In setting up the community for a sustainable future, this project is impressive. It operates as a training ground in aspects of both business and agriculture, giving participants a unique experience. We extend our thanks to Ken and Marie Johnson, whose vision and hard work drives so much of the Gloucester Project.
The project has won the ABC's Thrive and Revive award and has gained attention from Gardening Australia's Costa Georgiadis. Unfortunately, right at the time when they should be expanding, the group may have to cut back on the extent of the program because federal funding for the project has run out. However, the Gloucester Project survives and thrives. I certainly feel there is a healthy future for it. Funding cuts are not the only threat, however, to the community resilience in Gloucester. Like so many other places in New South Wales with diverse, thriving economies, Gloucester is under threat from the encroachment of mining. The main employer in the region is agriculture followed by health, retail, construction, services and education. Mining currently comes in on this list as the seventh-highest employer. The region has been subject to ongoing encroachment of open-cut mining for some years now. South of Gloucester, the Stratford mine first opened in 1995, promising to be just a local mine. At least four significant Aboriginal sites have been destroyed by the nearby Duralie mine and the Stratford mine. These mines are currently seeking expansion approvals, and the industry wants more. Another open-cut mine is proposed only 900 metres from homes. The site for the proposed open-cut mine is currently a rich green landscape of grassland, pasture and hills. It is shocking to think that an open-cut mine might replace all of that, and what is proposed is only stage 1.
If the risk from open-cut coal is not enough, the valley is also the site of AGL's plans for coal seam gas. AGL was given permission from the New South Wales Labor government in 2011 for 330 coal seam gas wells. The first stage of this, 110 wells, was approved federally just before the New South Wales government announced a two-kilometre exclusion zone around existing and future residential areas. So the residents of Gloucester miss out on a technicality. When this announcement was made, my colleague in the New South Wales parliament, Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, said:
This is a clear signal that the Liberal and National Parties are pro-fracking and pro-coal seam gas.
The New South Wales government ignored Gloucester again only last week when it announced the continuation of its ban on new coal seam gas approvals for another year. Clearly the government can see that there are problems with this industry. They have recognised this in places like Bentleigh in northern New South Wales, but they have left the residents of Gloucester out in the cold.
AGL has been given permission to frack four exploration wells, some of which are as close as 300 metres to homes. Three of the four wells are on a floodplain, making all of these risks even more concerning. What a contrast it is to the productive, sustainable future the Gloucester Project would provide. However, this level and form of mining would lead to the industrialisation of the Gloucester Valley. That industrialisation would be made up of a washery, considerable lengths of pipelines and a grid made up of 100 wells, creating seven frames where huge amounts of salt would collect. There would be polluted runoff into the river and trucks plying up and down the narrow roads, and we have the open-cut coal mine just nearby. That is the industrialisation that faces Gloucester, in sharp contrast with the beauty I described at the beginning of this talk. The process of approval for the project was fraught with questionable practices. When the groups that have been campaigning tirelessly for the future of Gloucester pointed out that AGL should be undertaking a full EIS because there were already wells within three kilometres of those they propose to frack, the New South Wales government just went in and changed the law. It was in early July that activists discovered that the planning department had quietly uploaded changes to the regulations to get around this.
Interestingly, AGL have made political donations amounting to $300,000 to Labor, the Liberals and the National Party. The community have tried every aspect of democratic participation available to them. The amount of effort they have put in to research and lobby is truly incredible. I do congratulate the former Gloucester mayor, Julie Lyford, and all of her colleagues for their outstanding work in defending and protecting Gloucester. Locals are out there at the gates, but after so many knockbacks, community actions are being stepped up. I visited the site of the vigil and the Gloucester protection camp. Locals are out there at 6 am-at the gates of the first well being prepared for fracking. They set up on the side of the road with tea and biscuits at hand. While we chatted by the roadside, a number of company cars went up and down, just reminding those present that they were being watched. At AGL's office, a small building surrounded by a massive wire fence, there was another vigil going on. It was so impressive.
The council has recently granted Groundswell Gloucester, an umbrella group for a number of local organisations, permission to host a camp for those who want to protect the region. Local farmer Ed Robinson has offered his land, but the group will have to meet stringent conditions, including a $26,000 bond. I met with many locals during my visit, including one brave couple who have been fighting AGL and are very much suffering for standing up for themselves and their community. I am sure it has not helped that AGL, for their part, are giving funds to a countergroup that supports their mining plans. This is true to form for big corporations. Many of the people I met told me that, if they question the plans the mining companies have for their valley, they are told they are in the way of progress.
Gloucester is at a crossroads. On the one hand are the mining companies, who want to extract all they can. On the other is a resilient community standing together to protect this beautiful, productive region. Their resources are not coal and gas; their resources are community spirit and the ability to nurture the land and make it productive in a way that does not deplete it. I think it is clear which is preferable. These people who are standing up with the farmers, with local business people and with the people who have been elected to council are to be congratulated. They are a wonderful community. The beauty of the area should be protected. It should not be sacrificed in a way that will damage not only the natural environment but also the economy and the fabric of this wonderful community.