COAL AND COAL SEAM GAS EXPLORATION
Mr KEVIN ANDERSON:
My question is addressed to the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure. How is the Government delivering on its commitment to provide greater protection for high-value agricultural land from the growth of coalmining and coal seam gas?
Mr BRAD HAZZARD:
I thank the member for Tamworth for his question and very strong support for the Government's agenda of protecting agricultural land and the aquifers that underpin our strategic agricultural land. This is an exciting day for New South Wales, an exciting day for the safeguarding of the most valuable agricultural lands in this great State and an exciting day for the community to get involved in having their say about protecting our strategic agricultural lands. Today this Government is delivering on yet another election promise. The Liberal and National parties began this process from Opposition, recognising that the former Labor Government, this hotchpotch of members opposite, had done nothing to protect strategic agricultural lands in the 16 years they sat on the Treasury benches—not a thing. Coal seam gas grew as an industry and they did nothing.
Worse, they wilfully handed out exploration licences without any consideration to their impact on agricultural lands. In fact, they handed them out like confetti. In some cases it took massive up-front payments for granting exploration licences and created an expectation that development approvals would follow, as night follows day, or, as in many development cases, decisions followed donations to Labor. As in so many other areas of planning, this Government determined that it would introduce transparent and honest processes and a concept that the Labor Party does not understand: merit-based processes. To that end, we have worked across a range of portfolios and it has been a first-class effort by a number of different government agencies and Ministers. The public service of this State has done a first-class job working with the Government to ensure that we produce those guidelines that will protect strategic agricultural land.
Order! I call the member for Canterbury to order for the second time. I call the member for Maroubra to order for the second time.
Mr BRAD HAZZARD:
It is always good to hear from those opposite on planning issues; they know a lot about them. As I was saying, through a process of working with the community and various stakeholders, we have identified an approach to ensuring that strategic agricultural lands are identified and safeguarded. Under the previous Government, exploration licences were handed out like confetti. There was an expectation that they would move on to the development application process without taking the intervening steps to ensure that appropriate safeguards would be in place. The draft guidelines will introduce a new stage that will be a gateway. An independent panel of scientists will look at soil and water issues, which will ensure that no exploration licence will morph automatically into a development application. Each licence will have to be scrutinised independently. In concert with that, we have worked extremely hard with the public service and individuals to produce mapping of the Upper Hunter area and the north-west area, which takes in the viable Liverpool Plains around Gunnedah. Once those lands have been mapped—they are in draft form now—that becomes the catalyst for the application of the gateway process.
On this particular review we have had a number of people with us along the way. In addition to the government agencies of Planning, Primary Industries, Environment and Heritage, Trade and Investment, Resources and Energy, Treasury and the Office of Water, we have had a stakeholder reference group that included representatives of New South Wales farmers, the New South Wales Minerals Council, the Nature Conservation Council, the Total Environment Centre, the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, the Association of Mining Related Councils, the New South Wales Irrigators Council, thoroughbred breeders, the Hunter Valley wine industry and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. We have ended up in a position that we think provides the best possible balance for the State to protect strategic agricultural lands. It is about balance. I am a little disappointed today that New South Wales farmers and irrigators, who have been involved in the process, appear not to understand some of the detail. They certainly do not seem to understand that water is being protected.
Order! I call the member for Canterbury to order for the third time.
Mr Kevin Anderson:
Point of order: This is a critical issue.
Order! Is the member asking for an extension of time?
Mr Kevin Anderson:
I am asking for an extension of time.
Order! The Minister has an additional two minutes to complete his answer.
Mr BRAD HAZZARD:
It was disappointing, but not surprising in the sense that these groups have their own constituencies to which they make comments.
Order! I call the member for Mount Druitt to order.
Mr BRAD HAZZARD:
Fairness demands that New South Wales farmers and irrigators acknowledge that the process, in which they have been involved to the nth degree, has been totally transparent. I put it to the farmers and the irrigators that the concerns they are now expressing to their members are erroneous and misleading. The simple fact is that under the Water Act, which falls within the portfolio of my colleague the Minister for Primary Industries, there is a definition of "minimum harm" with regard to impacts on aquifers and so on. Until the commencement of this exercise, the definition was a subjective interpretation; in other words, no objective criteria applied to the concept of minimum harm. Through this process we have now advanced light-years insofar as we now have clear objective criteria that can be applied to minimum harm when interpreting whether there should be approvals around aquifers. That is a major plus.
I am disappointed that the irrigators do not see that, but I tell them that this is the start of a two-month process of more public consultation. We will continue to work with them. We are working with the entire community. We will have public meetings in the relevant newly mapped strategic land areas, and we will have drop-in and other meetings in which we want them involved. We want the farmers, the irrigators and the community involved. This is a different approach to that of Labor, but it has produced results and it will produce the best outcome and protection for strategic agricultural lands in this State.