Speech to Queensland Media Club

It is great to be here at the Queensland Media Club to address you as a relatively new Resources and Northern Australia Minister.

In my first few months in this job I have been stressing how important the resources sector is for our nation’s history, and to our future. We have all heard the story of the gold rushes, Peter Lalor and the Eureka Stockade but you might not know the important role of your industry, the media, in that story.

When Edward Hargreaves found gold near Bathurst in 1851 there was resistance from the New South Wales government to allow mining. So Hargreaves went to the press, promoting his finds in the Bathurst Free Timesand the Sydney Morning Herald, naming the new fields “Ophir”, after the biblical town of great wealth and gold, and soon enough 300 miners arrived.

Some wanted to evict the unsanctioned miners and impose martial law but cooler heads within the government prevailed. A licensing system was introduced which was first very effective, but then later of course caused so many problems at Ballarat.

The lesson is that without the media, the government at the time may not have promoted mining, and we may have missed out on the remarkable dividend that gold mining delivered to Australia, and is still delivering to Australia as gold is our 6th largest export.

I raise this anecdote because I think the mining industry needs the media again. Perhaps not since those initial days, the mining sector is under unprecedented attack.

The media has a role to play in exposing the mining sector when it does the wrong thing, and it is not perfect. But there is also a concerted campaign that is abusing our legal system, and presenting figureheads as representatives of local communities when clearly they are not.

This is a story. It was a story on the front page of The Sunday Mail this past week. That expose showed that there is an organised campaign against development in Queensland. This campaign is led by a group that have an ideological opposition to development, be it in mining, agriculture, housing developments or tourism infrastructure.

This is a great threat to the dynamism of the Queensland economy. This debate is not about the environment, it is about the proper balance between protecting the environment and encouraging a strong economy that can create jobs and spur development.

The story last Sunday referred to the “Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom” document which outlines the anti-coal movement’s agenda. I want to quote a little from this because this is not me making this up. This is right from the horse’s mouth.

The strategy was dreamed up in the Blue Mountains in 2011 and states:

“Legal challenges in the courts are an essential element in this anti-coal campaign … This means lodging legal challenges to five new coal port expansions, two major rail lines and up to a dozen of the key mines. This will require significant investment in legal capacity. While this is creating much needed breathing space, we need to continue to build the movement and mobilize to create pressure on politicians and investors alike.”

There it is in black and white. The legal challenges are not to protect the environment, they are to provide “breathing space” for a wider political campaign.

This strategy is now playing out exactly as these environmental activists had planned. Multiple new coal developments are now tied up in both state and federal courts despite receiving environmental approval and in some cases having been granted a mining lease.

The arguments that have been put in these cases by environmental activists have been discredited over and over again by various courts. Activists have argued that the projects are not economic and that the claims of economic growth are misleading.

The first point to make about this is that it is not the government’s job to stop people investing in this country. It is our job to regulate to protect public goods like the environment, safety and workplace conditions. We are not a developer’s banker or investor.

Secondly, it is clear that the more gloomy predictions of coal market decline are off course. Coking coal prices have more than doubled since their lows late last year, and thermal coal prices are up more than 50 per cent. The future path of prices remains uncertain but it is clear that there remains significant demand for coal, especially in the developing world, and that Australia has some of the highest quality, and affordable, coal reserves in the world.

But we would be naive to think that we are the only place in the world with coal reserves that could meet these global demands.

According to the International Energy Agency, China, the US, India and Indonesia join Australia in the top five coal producing nations.

This fact that there are other sources of the world’s coal has been underlined in the decisions of two very important court cases on these matters. Again this is not me talking but respected judges.

As the Queensland Supreme Court found a couple of weeks ago, in relation to the Alpha Mine:

... the power stations would burn the same amount of thermal coal and produce the same amount of greenhouse gases whether or not the proposed Alpha Mine proceeded. That was so because thermal coal was plentiful and cheaply available to the power stations from many sources.

This is a very important point. We cannot save the planet from our country alone. We cannot cool the planet from a room in Canberra. It is a global problem requiring a global solution, such as those agreements made in Paris last year. We cannot solve these issues by shutting down individual projects and costing thousands of jobs in Queensland.

And if we try to we will just export the environmental problem to another country while doing nothing to protect the planet.

The abuse of our legal system raises questions about our environmental regulatory framework. Our courts have made sensible decisions but many of these cases should not be tying investments up for so long with frivolous actions.

As outlined in their “Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom” document, the activists’ don’t plan to win these cases but simply delay the projects long enough that it hurts our international reputation. Already PriceWaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the legal delays on the Adani project have cost Queensland $3.9 billion in economic output, lost jobs of at least 2665 people and cost Adani more than $200 million.  An additional delay of one year would further reduce gross state product by $1.2 billion over the decade to 2023-24 and result in an additional $53 million in financial holding costs to Adani.

The government has attempted to reform our federal environmental laws to facilitate investment and to remove the ability for abuse of our legal system.

On coming to government we established a “one stop shop” for environmental assessments so that a project can deal in a consolidated way with the assessment of their project. Bilateral agreements have been signed with all State and Territory governments to establish these one-stop shops, and we will continue to pursue the reforms necessary to complete this process and save business $370 million annually.

However, the government’s attempts to establish a one-stop shop for approvals as well as assessments has been frustrated by the Senate. That change would require changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that we were not able to get Senate approval for.

Likewise, our attempt to end frivolous or vexatious legal cases has been frustrated by the Senate. Last year we announced that the government would seek to amend section 487 of the EPBC Act so that only groups directly impacted by a project would be able to take action challenging a decision under the Act. This would align “standing” provisions with those that exist under other Commonwealth laws. The EPBC Act is unusual in that it allowed anyone with an interest in environmental matters to take action in the court.

In effect, this gives out-of-town environmental activists more rights than locals who may want the jobs and investment that flow from the project. People like Bruce Hedditch who bought the Larrikin Hotel in Bowen a few years ago hoping to make a good investment from the development of Abbot Point. He would not necessarily get standing under section 487 because his concerns are economic and social not environmental.

People living hundreds of kilometres from a project should not have more rights than locals that are directly impacted. Local businesses do not have the deep pockets of the Australian Conservation Foundation to fund ongoing legal actions but our laws currently give them little power or influence. That is why the government believes that these provisions should change.

However, once again, those changes were frustrated by the previous Senate. We now have a new Senate. The government remains committed to reforming our environmental laws to slash the green tape that costs thousands of jobs in Queensland. I have begun speaking to cross bench Senators about these issues and remain hopeful that some changes could receive support.

At the COAG Energy Council, officials are working on a report that will provide for the first time a consolidated assessment of the delays in approving projects across Australia. This information should help progress the debate on the problem that we have, and what solutions we need to fix it. That report is due back to COAG by the end of the year.

As I said earlier, these challenges and delays to major projects do not just involve the mining sector. They are also a threat to the development of the north too, which brings me to the second part of my portfolio.

The Government sees enormous potential in the north. Northern Australia receives 60 per cent of our rainfall even though it is only 40 per cent of our landmass. It makes us money too. The north’s contribution to GDP is 11 per cent despite being home to only 6 per cent of the nation’s population. The north punches above its economic weight.

We are investing in the north because it provides a return to our nation not because we feel sorry for the north.

The Government is investing more than $6 billion in the north mostly in the basic infrastructure that will support business growth and bring down costs.

During the election we announced more than $400 million of investments in roads across the north, including the construction of the first inland sealed route from Cairns to Melbourne, and the construction of only the third sealed east west route via the Outback Way. These are major nation-building projects.

We have established the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in Cairns. This will be a game changer as it will bring a whole new industry of infrastructure finance to the north. At the moment, the skills to finance billion dollar projects are in our major capitals.

That is why we have had to appoint an interim CEO from outside the north. The permanent CEO will be announced shortly and I am confident that he or she will be based in Cairns.

There is a great need for new infrastructure in the north and there is great interest in the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. The NAIF has received more than 70 enquiries from project proponents. More than half of these come from Queensland.

  • 11 projects (with a value of almost $9 billion) are actively working towards submission of an investment proposal
  • 40 projects are in an active enquiry stage that are in the process of providing higher level project information

Not all of these projects will receive funding and I would encourage others to bring projects forward. The board has been instructed to act in a commercial way and they are meeting again this week to advance these projects further.

Perhaps the biggest potential of the north exists in growing more food and expanding our agricultural sector. That is why we have put $200 million towards building dams in the north and we have a $2 billion low concessional loan facility for state governments to access to invest in water infrastructure.

In the election we announced funding to progress the Hell’s Gate Dam, the Burdekin Falls Dam and capital funding for the Rookwood Weir. We had already announced funding for the Nullinga Dam west of Cairns as well.

There should be no more excuses for State Governments. Let’s get on with it and build some dams and create jobs.

The Queensland Labor Government claims to be running the state from Townsville this week and yet can’t ensure that the crucial water projects needed to ensure jobs in regional Queensland are delivered.

Queensland falls further behind other states as the Palaszczuk Government remains the only state that has not submitted a project schedule for delivery. I have a simple message for the Queensland Government: just do it.

More funding has been committed to Queensland than any other state so it is disappointing that Queensland may miss out due to the muddling approach of the Labor Government.

There is a wider issue for Queensland here that we must be vigilant about it. When I grew up, here in Brisbane, Queensland was getting its mojo. This was the era of State of Origin, Expo ’88 and the Victorian number plates which we all joked said “on the move … to Queensland”. My wife was one of them, seeing the light, and moving up to the Gold Coast from Ballarat with her family in the 90s.

Back then Peter Beattie used to say that 1000 people moved to South East Queensland each week. For the last reported year, 2014–15, the figure for the whole of Queensland for the entire year was just under 7000. The demographer Bernard Salt reckons that we could soon lapse into negative net migration territory, that is more people would leave Queensland than arrive here. Queensland has not experienced that since 1947.

Time is running out and we need action now.

I am worried we risk losing that mojo now with a State Government that has done nothing in almost two years in office and is showing no signs of changing that any time soon.

The Federal Government has a plan for Queensland to support the development of north Queensland, back job creating projects and invest in infrastructure. We need the State Government to partner with us and I am sure if they will Queensland will continue to boom.

(ENDS)

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