Milne: We have to restore the health of our democracy
Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:30): I move:
That the Senate-
(i) the negative impacts of coal and coal seam gas mining on Australia's environment, including prime agricultural land and water, and the wellbeing of regional communities, and
(ii) the concerning relationship between these mining activities and political corruption, particularly in New South Wales, as evidenced by the findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption; and
(b) calls on all parties contesting the New South Wales state election to commit to a ban on coal and coal seam gas mining.
This is an absolutely critical motion for the Senate to consider. I have been in politics for over 25 years, and I have got to the point where I do not believe that we live in a democracy anymore. We are living in a plutocracy in Australia—that is, government by the wealthy in the interests of the wealthy. I have now got to the point where I recognise that we can vote, we can march, we can write letters, we can make calls, we can post tweets, but, as long as the rich few can buy the political process, there is very little hope.
Honourable senators interjecting—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Smith): Order! I remind senators that the standing orders require that senators will be heard in silence.
Senator MILNE: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. As I said, to get our country back, to give ourselves a chance, we have to restore the health of our democracy. We need to educate everyone to put up in lights just how big business and wealthy individuals use their money and connections to take and retain power. That is precisely what has happened in Australia, particularly with regard to resource extractive companies. It has been the case for a very long time. I got into politics on this very issue, when North Broken Hill ran the Tasmanian Liberal government under the then Premier, Robin Gray. It got to the point where North Broken Hill, holed up in what was then the Sheraton Hotel, issued a press release on North Broken Hill letterhead recalling the Tasmanian parliament to get it to pass doubts removal legislation that would give North Broken Hill all the rights to pollute and do as it liked in Tasmania.
That is what has happened over the years in Tasmania—crony capitalism. Quentin Beresford has just written a brilliant book, The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd, that documents how the timber company North Broken Hill, in cahoots with a whole lot of people in government and in Forestry Tasmania, destroyed democracy in Tasmania for a long time. The governments of Tasmania became the puppets of the forest industry. I would argue that that same cronyism between resource based companies and parliament has existed in New South Wales for some time. It got to the point in Tasmania in 1989 where the graffiti all over the state was: 'Vote 1 North Broken Hill and cut out the middle man'. That is what people thought about the role of the parliament. You could do that in New South Wales right now. You could say: 'Vote 1 coal seam gas, Vote 1 coal and cut out the middle man in the New South Wales parliament', because effectively that is what has occurred.
We heard the same sort of attitude today in question time, when my colleague Senator Janet Rice from Victoria asked the government to explain how it is that the proponents of the East West Link in Victoria drafted the letter for the Liberal government of Victoria to sign. The letter said that they would be granted compensation if the East West Link did not proceed, because they thought there was a likelihood that the Liberals would not win the election. We asked a serious question about corruption—how else would you describe it?—and Minister Cash stood in here and laughed and shouted and failed to address the question, even though she was brought back to it three times. I happen to think it matters that the corporations that were proposing a road for which Infrastructure Australia said there was no business case wrote the letter to deliver themselves that level of compensation, and it was signed off by a Victorian Liberal Premier. Of course, the Liberal Party lost the election and the road will not proceed. This is exactly what has happened in New South Wales, and that is where I go now.
It is not just the Greens saying it. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, ICAC, put out a shocking report in October 2013 entitled Reducing the opportunities and incentives for corruption in the state's management of coal resources. That ICAC report found shocking levels of corruption and incentives for it in New South Wales under what was then a Labor government but that continues now, I would argue, under a Liberal government. We have corruption in New South Wales. There is no other way that you can describe the absolutely disgraceful behaviour.
The investigation in Operation Jasper followed an allegation made by a private individual in February 2011 that confidential information regarding the tender process for awarding the Mount Penny coal tenement had been leaked to the Obeid family. As part of that investigation, the commission examined the circumstances surrounding a decision made in 2008 by the Hon. Ian Macdonald MLC, then Minister for Primary Industries and Minister for Mineral Resources, to grant a coal exploration licence to Cascade Coal Pty Ltd and the circumstances relating to the tendering process and the way in which the tender bids were assessed.
The commission found that Mr Macdonald's corrupt conduct was motivated by an agreement with the Hon. Edward Obeid Senior and Moses Obeid to financially benefit the Obeid family. Mr Macdonald, Edward Obeid and Moses Obeid were found to have engaged in corrupt conduct by conspiring to defraud in the creation of the Mount Penny tenement. The commission also discovered that several co-investors, including Travers Duncan, John McGuigan, John Atkinson, John Kinghorn and Richard Poole, had engaged in corrupt conduct to obtain financial advantage by deception-and on and on it goes. The commission said:
In preparing this report, the question facing the Commission was not simply how the state's policy and regulatory framework could allow ... ELs - exploration licences - of great value to be corruptly provided to favoured recipients, but how it could have been so easy to do so.
It is inconceivable that in any other portfolio area of government such value could corruptly be transferred from the state to favoured individuals with such relative ease.
That is the definition of plutocracy. New South Wales is not a democratically governed state; it is a plutocracy where the rich buy what they need through corruption in the political process. That is not found by the Greens; it is not an allegation; it is proven in this report by ICAC. Read it. It goes on to explain corrupt deal after corrupt deal. When you look at this, it is why we are moving today to call on all parties contesting the New South Wales state election to commit to a ban on coal and coal seam gas mining but also to note the concerning relationship between these mining activities and political corruption.
I go to the political corruption. Just have a look at the disgraceful and appalling behaviour that has given us Whitehaven and has given us the Maules Creek mine and the loss of the irreplaceable Leard forest. This goes absolutely to the heart of corruption. You had Mark Vaile, former National Party Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, who is now Chairman of Whitehaven Coal. Before that, however, he was also chair of Nathan Tinkler's company Aston Resources. Evidence tendered at ICAC reveals allegedly prohibited donations passed between the Aston Resources board and Chris Hartcher, through the Free Enterprise Foundation and eventually to the New South Wales Liberal Party, and that ministers who received donations allegedly assisted various Tinkler developments through the planning process. It is alleged that Aston donations to the National Party were made at the suggestion of the chairman of its board, Mark Vaile. That is just appalling, but that just tells you where the Nationals have come from and have been and remain in New South Wales when it comes to coal seam gas and coal. They are in it as much as the Liberal and Labor parties in delivering for coalmines and coal seam gas companies to the detriment of the community.
I am going to talk about the detriment to the community. I have sat at kitchen tables. I have been out to the Liverpool Plains. I have talked to people in the Hunter Valley. I have been onto some of those horse studs in the Hunter Valley. People have just looked at me and said they just cannot understand how it is possible that this would occur. And now we have the New South Wales Premier saying that he has delayed 16 new coalmines in the Upper Hunter. 'Delayed'? What does that mean? That means until after the election. I ask you: what will happen then to those 16 mines in the Upper Hunter?
It is the same with coal seam gas. We have a situation where the New South Wales government enabled the companies to get the licences in spite of absolutely shonky assessments in relation to impacts on water and impacts on prime agricultural land. It is just disgraceful that we would be doing this at a time when the international community, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has said we are facing an urgent crisis with global warming and two-thirds of all fossil fuel resources have to stay in the ground. 'Stay in the ground' means not extracting coal seam gas and not expanding coalmines and coalmining around the country. The Galilee Basin should stay as it is: no mines in the Galilee Basin.
And yet there are very serious questions about the arrangements that were previously made under the Newman government in Queensland: Jeff Seeney and Adani. That will come out eventually, no doubt. But there are serious allegations being made about who reversed decisions in Queensland, who fast-tracked the process and what they got for it.
But I return to New South Wales, where again, even at the federal level, you have all this doublespeak. Former minister Tony Burke gave approval to the Gloucester CSG licence, the biggest coal seam gas licence in New South Wales, delivered by Labor, saying, 'Oh, look, I had concerns about it,' but, because the New South Wales minister decided to leak a letter, he had to announce the approvals and has no idea whether it is going to go ahead or not. And now all those communities are stuck with it. All those communities have had to suffer because of the corrupt behaviour of the New South Wales minister, going out there and leaking it, and then the federal minister going ahead and granting the approval.
But I come back to Maules Creek and the offsets. The Commonwealth, under EPBC, had to guarantee the offsets that were there for the Leard forest, for those irreplaceable, critically endangered species. They had to have the appropriate offsets. They did not have them. The Commonwealth had the capacity to say, 'No, the offsets don't exist,' pick up the company and take them to court for misleading under EPBC-for putting in documents which did not provide the offsets.
Someone here in this federal government under Minister Hunt, whether it was Minister Hunt himself or the bureaucracy, decided not to take them to court and not prosecute them. I ask why not? Why weren't they prosecuted? At estimates nobody would own up to who actually made that decision. Which person? Was it the minister? He must ultimately take responsibility because this is a democracy in which ministerial responsibility, if it means something, means you have to have accountability.
How do you think people who are suffering as a result of corruptly granted licences feel about the Commonwealth deciding not to prosecute the company involved when the company has clearly misled the community on the offsets, and we are going to lose irreplaceable, critically endangered species? Again, I have been out there to look and it is absolutely the case. The Leard forest will be lost, and the offsets are nothing like the vegetation types that are required to sustain ecosystems there.
That is why we are saying that, at the highest level, coal and coal seam gas should stay in the ground because of the impacts of global warming. More particularly, we are highlighting the corrupt culture that has extended through the Liberals, the Nationals and the Labor Party in New South Wales. No amount of saying it has not changes the fact that if there was real justice in New South Wales then we would see every single one of those corrupt licences that have been given cancelled. Why haven't they been cancelled? Instead, bad behaviour has been rewarded. They are proceeding and Mark Vaile is going to make a great deal of money out of the fact that he is proceeding on the board of Whitehaven with a mine that should never have been allowed to proceed. How is that just and fair in Australia? Well, it is not. It goes back to my point: government by the wealthy, for the wealthy, through the corrupt processes set out by ICAC. The Greens join with ICAC in the question: how is it possible that this could have happened in New South Wales? It is inconceivable that such value could be corruptly transferred from the state to favoured individuals with such relative ease.
We have to get serious about this. It is no laughing matter when corruption is brought to the attention of governments. What we saw today in question time was disgraceful behaviour. But it will come out eventually. The relationship that we raised today between the proponents of East West Link and the former Liberals in Victoria will come out eventually. The grossly corrupt behaviour of the Labor Party and the Labor ministers in New South Wales has already come out, about how they were involved in the granting of licences to coalmining. Equally, the corrupt behaviour of the Liberal Party has come out through ICAC and that dodgy trail of political donations to get where they are. As I said before, it went through Aston Resources, Boardwalk Resources, Chris Hartcher, Free Enterprise Foundation and eventually the New South Wales Liberal Party. That is how the money trail went-clear as anything that that is the case. These were donations which should not be allowed.
Yet, we now have the Shenhua Watermark coalmine on the Liverpool Plains. Of course, everyone is seeing the deferred approval for Shenhua as a way of stopping this ahead of the New South Wales election. This should be cancelled. The licence should be cancelled. We know the amount of money involved in this Shenhua proposal. For example, it was granted a mining exploration licence by the former Labor mining minister Ian Macdonald, who has been found to be corrupt after Shenhua paid $300 million to the New South Wales government. Part of this commercial agreement saw Shenhua agree to a further payment of $200 million on the granting of its mining licence. Shenhua paid $300 million and was going to pay another $200 million when the licence was granted to a minister who is known to be corrupt. Why hasn't the Shenhua licence been cancelled? If there is any justice, that Shenhua licence should be cancelled. That is why we are standing here today on this very, very serious matter.
We have to end the connection between political donations and licences for coal and coal seam gas. We have to look after our agricultural land and water and regional communities. Food security in an age of global warming is critical. We are going to see the loss of crops and food around the world because of extreme weather events. Just as oil was one of the critical resources of this last century, food will be the critical resource of this century. Therefore, agricultural land and water are essential. Food is the oil of this century; land and water are the gold of this century. There will be resource wars in this century, but they will not be over coal; they will be over land and water to sustain ecosystems and grow food. Please, consider this corruption case. Consider why it is essential to ban political donations from these coal and coal seam gas companies. Get some justice for people and let's restore our democracy from its plutocracy.