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Speech: Hands off the Water Act

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:17): I endorse the comments of my colleague, Senator Waters, our spokesperson on environment and mining matters. She set out a very clear case when we come to this Omnibus Repeal Day (Autumn 2014) Bill 2014 that there are some aspects that definitely should not be repealed. If the repeal goes ahead it gives a considerable leg-up to the mining industry, a mining industry that already gets great benefits, irrespective of which party is in power at a federal or state level. The mining industry regularly benefits and they certainly would here if section 255AA of the Water Act were repealed.

Senator Waters read the section out. It is an important section that sets out very clearly why we need to be protecting all aspects of the water in the Murray-Darling. That protection was obviously put in there for a clear reason: our forebears had the wisdom that there needed to be some checks and balances on this industry. They set it out very clearly that, prior to licences being granted for subsidence mining operations, certain studies had to be undertaken. This is a section that we should not lose. I repeat that: it was put in there for good reason. Those who were looking to balancing the needs of the Murray-Darling with regard to the pressures of farming, irrigation and mining saw that there was a need for this study. That is why we certainly should not lose it.

What is being proposed—the justification is, 'We've actually got something new that will undertake the work'—is a weakening of what is there presently. We should be improving on what we have got, not weakening it. If this repeal were to go ahead what we would end up with is the independent expert scientific committee. That would only look at coal and coal-seam gas. This is one of the aspects that highlights what a big step backwards it would be. Mining is expanding across the Murray-Darling Basin. It is expanding across Australia in so many areas. We need these thorough studies to be undertaken in terms of subsidence and the impact that would have.

One example of that that is very serious within New South Wales is a giant gold mine, the Cadia goldmine, near Orange. This is Australia's largest underground goldmine. It is the fourth-largest goldmine in the world. The amount of water it would use on a daily basis runs into millions and millions of tonnes. I have had the opportunity to talk to the farmers in that area on a number of occasions. One occasion was just after Senator Christine Milne had been elected as the parliamentary leader of the Australian Greens. She went on a tour around the country, listening to folk and their concerns. That was one of the first places we went to. We met a lot of farmers with very productive orchards—a whole range of produce comes out of that area—and some fantastic sheep farms. It was very interesting to hear about it. But from the many visits I have had there a concern that comes up time and time again is about the future of the water resources in this area because of the expansion of this goldmine—something that Labor and the coalition have ticked off time and time again.

I will just run through a few of the issues that arise with this mine, because it highlights why we need to keep the present section. It should not be repealed, because any mining involving subsidence needs to be thoroughly investigated. There has already been a groundwater study for this mine that predicted a permanent drop in the water table north-east of the mine if an expansion goes ahead—because Cadia has expanded enormously—and that study was undertaken early on. It was also found that the subsidence zone could break up the aquifer, and that concerned a lot of surrounding farmers—some of them with thousands of hazelnut trees as well as some very important breeding ewes, which are some of the very rich aspects of this area. All this was to be impacted on.

Another big concern that comes up is the value of the property. People would say to me, 'Who's going to buy our property when they don't know if those water resources are protected or if they will be there?' because when similar mines have been undertaken people have reported a drop in the levels of the bores they access their water from. Water supplies are under threat when this type of mining goes ahead, so surely we need to retain this section so that the impact of subsidence on groundwater can be thoroughly studied.

One thing that came up for us about the value of the property is that some of the farmers reported that they were finding, from talking to their neighbours, that it was expected that there would be a fall in the value of their properties by a third, with some of them just not being able to sell. This puts people under enormous stress, wondering about their future—about how they will go as they get older and whether they will be able to sell and move up and enjoy their retirement after years of working so hard on their farm.

This Cadia mine is owned by a company called Newcrest. This brings us to some of the interesting developments in New South Wales politics that have not been fully answered with regard to some of the ICAC inquiries, and also to how some of the former ministers have operated.

One of the ministers who has now resigned because of how some of these ICAC issues have played out is Chris Hartcher. He was the mining minister and had some very interesting connections with this Newcrest mine. He actually took the extraordinary step of introducing legislation which effectively ended a court case. He acted to introduce that legislation and push it through—as is sometimes done in these parliaments; when governments have the numbers they will sometimes push laws through very quickly. The law that Minister Hartcher was pushing through was in favour of Newcrest, which, as I have said, runs Australia's largest goldmine, and was in a dispute with Gold and Copper Resources. The legislation was the Mining Amendment (Development Consent) Bill 2013. Its introduction effectively ended a court case. That case was a commercial dispute—which periodically you get between mining companies, and between all sorts of companies. So why did Mr Hartcher intervene in such a decisive way? Even before we had heard everything play out in ICAC, it already seemed quite questionable for a minister to take such action.

What the bill did was to amend the provisions of the Mining Act 1992 relating to the need for development consent before a mining lease is guaranteed. This issue came out—and on the one hand, as I say, it was a commercial dispute, but it was a commercial dispute with some interest, with fraud allegations being revealed, with departmental documents disclosed in legal battles between Gold and Copper Resources and Newcrest, and with accusations of departmental officers swapping the front page of a renewable application lodged by Newcrest for an exploration licence next door to its Cadia East goldmine. These things happen in the business world. But when you put on it the overlay of ICAC, and the overlay of how Mr Hartcher is now quite discredited, it certainly is another chapter in the story of this very murky world.

What is also interesting in terms of the time line here is that, on the day that ICAC released its report into the administration of mining in New South Wales, the then mining minister, who was Mr Hartcher, moved to push his bill through the New South Wales parliament with no consultation—it was just rushed through; nobody was expecting it. So, again, there are so many unanswered questions.

Some of you may think, 'What's this got to do with the issue that we have raised about section 255AA of the Water Act?' We are saying that it should not be repealed—that the protection for our water resources needs to be improved, not watered down. There is a link here, because we need to be strengthening our regulations here—strengthening our laws to cover this issue, not allowing a run-down in the planning laws and other relevant laws, which, as we have seen in New South Wales, does lead to some very undesirable practices and possibly, at some times, corrupt practices. So there is a need to retain this section of the act. It is just calling for the reports to be undertaken, so it is really quite minimal already. It should not be weakened.

Another aspect—and my colleague Senator Waters went through this—is that mining of many minerals is occurring now. I have mentioned copper; I have mentioned gold. There are others as well. But what is also in the pipeline—possibly in Queensland and possibly in New South Wales—is uranium mining. Again, we need to have these laws strengthened. The impact that any sort of mining can have on our groundwater, our surface water and the interaction between those water resources can be very serious. We need to weigh up, of mining, whether it should go ahead and under what conditions it should go ahead. But if this were repealed that would be weakening the minimal protection that our water resources have. So there is a very clear case why section 255AA of the Water Act needs to be retained.

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