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FOR – Committees — Environment and Communications References Committee; Reference

Nick McKim

Acting Deputy President, I draw your attention to the state of the chamber.

(Quorum formed)

Sarah Hanson-Young

I move my motion relating to the establishment of a Senate inquiry into the Middle Arm project in the Northern Territory:

That the following matter be referred to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 28 November 2023:

The Middle Arm Industrial Precinct, with particular reference to:

(a) the development of Darwin's Middle Arm Industrial Precinct, the role and funding intentions of the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments;

(b) the likely and intended future uses on the site, as well as the industries and supply chains that would benefit from those plans;

(c) any climate, environmental or health impacts as a result of developing the harbour and the industries seeking to establish themselves at Middle Arm;

(d) the conduct, process and implications of the proposed strategic environmental assessment for Middle Arm;

(e) engagement and advocacy by industries and their representatives throughout the Middle Arm proposal, including with First Nations groups and communities and adherence to the principles of free, prior and informed consent; and

(f) any other related matters.

This particular reference is one that has previously been proposed by the Environment and Communications References Committee, in our majority report into the Beetaloo basin back in April this year. Today we are discussing the direct terms of reference for the establishment of this inquiry, an inquiry into a project that this government has proposed and on which it has budgeted to spend $1½ billion. Why, you might ask, wouldn't the government just let this go through? It's an inquiry into spending $1.5 billion of taxpayers' money, so surely any type of big budget item like this needs to be considered properly, thoroughly scrutinised and indeed looked at closely by the Senate. That's why we are moving this motion for this inquiry today.

The Albanese government have a choice to make, a choice for basic integrity and scrutiny in the public interest, as of course they were elected to do and we hear time and time again that they stand for it, or is the government going to take the path of more greenwashing, cover-ups and climate-wrecking pollution? This is the choice that the Labor government and the Prime Minister, Mr Albanese, must make today when they consider whether or not to keep their commitment to this inquiry, to look at this project and to allow the public and the experts to have a say over exactly what this project needs. Will the Labor government backflip, break the promise and deny the ability for this Senate, the chamber of scrutiny, to indeed look at this particular issue?

It's $1.5 billion of taxpayer money which, as it stands today, will expand gas and fracking and help open up the gas fields in the Beetaloo basin. It will supercharge the climate bomb. It will cook the climate. Of course it should be scrutinised because it's public money, but it also needs serious consideration because of the climate impact, environmental impact and health impact that this project will cause.

As I said at the outset, back in April this year, only several months ago, the Labor government, including members in this place, backed the establishment of this very inquiry into the Middle Arm gas project. It was recommendation 2 of the Beetaloo report, which every member of the Labor government who was on that committee backed. They signed their names to it and supported it. It was a commitment that was made to the Senate and a commitment that was made to the public back in April, only a few months ago.

So what has changed? What's changed here? Why this change of heart from the Labor government? Why this change of heart from Labor senators in this place? Because of the gas lobby? Fossil fuel donors? The scare campaign of the fossil fuel industry? Your guess, Mr Acting Deputy President, is as good as mine. But it's pretty obvious, isn't it? They made a promise one day and it was broken the next. I thought they would be better. I thought this government came in on the premise that that type of backflipping, that type of breaking of promises and that type of flip-flopping was something to be left behind with the old style of coalition and Morrison government. Apparently not, unless of course we see a flip again and the Labor government do the right thing today and back this inquiry.

The commitment to investigate and to allow the Senate, community and experts to look at what the Middle Arm project means is important. It matters because, despite the attempted greenwashing about sustainable development—let's be very clear about this—the Middle Arm precinct will enable the expansion of fossil fuels. We know this because one of the very companies who want to frack the Beetaloo basin have put it up in lights to the ASX. They have said: 'We can keep going. We can frack. We can open up. We can create a big new gas field because this government is going to allow us to export our gas, our pollution, overseas.'

The reason this all matters is because we are, right now, in a climate crisis. We know what is happening. The planet is warming. In fact the United Nations have described the planet as 'already boiling'; we are at global boiling point. And what makes all of this worse? More gas, more coal, more fossil fuels. The world's entire expertise on climate and pollution agree, and the global energy experts agree, that if we want to arrest the most dangerous elements of the climate crisis and global warming we must stop expanding fossil fuels. We cannot have one more new project, let alone a project that is going to pollute so much that it increases Australia's emissions by 11 per cent—that is just one project, the Beetaloo basin, that's going to use this Middle Arm precinct.

Despite all the greenwashing in relation to this particular precinct, documents reported by the ABC show that the Northern Territory government described the project as 'a new gas demand centre', at a time when we need to get off gas, stop pollution and stop making things worse. Where is all this gas going to go? It's going to get shipped off overseas and burnt, and the climate crisis is going to get worse. Make no mistake: the Middle Arm gas precinct is about the expansion of fossil fuels and creating more money and more profit for the gas industry. This is about gas and fracking, and nothing more.

There are a number of people in the building today, as we heard during question time, wanting to talk to their local members of parliament, wanting to talk to their senators and wanting to talk to the government about the very real impact that this Middle Arm project and precinct is going to have not just on the health of the environment but on the health of the community. Under pressure from those community advocates and doctors in the building today, the Prime Minister himself stood up in question time and tried to make us all believe that this project that the Northern Territory government themselves say is a gas demand centre isn't about gas at all; it's only about solar and the export of solar power. Have you ever heard such rubbish? Have you ever heard such a blatant, terrible, ham-fisted attempt at greenwashing? The Northern Territory government themselves say that this is a gas demand centre, at a time when we need to reduce gas, get off gas and stop pollution.

I know there are good people in the government, on the government benches, who are vehemently opposed to the Middle Arm precinct, who are disappointed that every time they want to stand up in caucus or stand up in their local community and say, 'Enough is enough; the Labor Party has to be serious about climate action,' they get walked over. They get told to sit down and be quiet. It must be incredibly frustrating. But what frustrates me more is that three or four months ago, this lot, over here in government, said they would allow this inquiry to go ahead. We're not asking for the government to make a decision to scrap the Middle Arm precinct today or to not spend $1.5 billion today. All we are asking today is for the Senate to be able to do its job, to inquire, to investigate, to gather expertise, to hear the views of the local community and to consider all the impacts of this project properly.

There are serious questions about the economics of the Middle Arm precinct—not just the climate impacts but whether this is even going to stack up economically. A report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has said that they have serious concerns about the economic risk of this project. So not only do the scientists have a concern; the economists have a concern. Meanwhile, who doesn't? Who is saying: 'Yay! Okay! Let's open the floodgates. Let's set up the new gas field in the Beetaloo. Let's destroy and pollute more with the Barossa gas field'? The only people pushing for this project in this manner are the fossil fuel criminals.

The fossil fuel industry have their hands out again for more public money to keep doing what we know is destroying the environment and wrecking the planet. They can't even pay for it themselves. That's $1½ billion of taxpayer money plus hundreds of millions of dollars more in other forms of subsidies. The gas industry can't even stand on their own two feet. They're only kept upright because, time after time after time, state and federal governments give them a cash handout. Talk about corporate welfare. We can't afford—we hear over and over again from this government—to help people who are actually in a cost-of-living crisis. We can't lift people out of poverty, we can't fund free dental care, we can't fund free child care and we can't fund our hospitals properly, but we can afford, apparently, $1½ billion of taxpayers' money to keep the fossil fuel industry afloat.

Even on the sheer economics this project doesn't stack up. I've said very little about the coalition and the Liberal and National parties in this debate so far, and here is why: we know they care zilch about the climate impacts. We know the front bench of Peter Dutton's party is riddled with climate deniers. But here is the clincher. Do you really think the taxpayer should be funding $1½ billion for something that Labor members themselves say they have a problem with.

Susan McDonald

It will be of no surprise that the coalition won't be supporting this committee referral, for a very long list of reasons. Probably the most important one is that the entire argument for holding this committee is based on misinformation, lies and hysterical activism. It in no way supports the future of Australia, whether it be economically, environmentally or for the taxpayers and those Australians who enjoy great jobs, which fund their lifestyles and the First World life that we have in this country.

The coalition has never made any secret of the fact that, once we were sufficiently informed about the Middle Arm sustainable project and the potential costs in this development, we have been very supportive of it. That is because the Middle Arm project is incredibly important for the Northern Territory and for Australia as a whole. There has been an enormous amount of work undertaken in relation to the interactions between economic and environmental considerations in the creation and operation of this project, and this is the bit that I think is completely missing so far in this debate. There's a lack of understanding about the role that the Beetaloo gas project, in particular, can play in reducing emissions, in improving the quality of life for people in the Northern Territory and, yes, in increasing the royalties and company taxes and PAYG taxes that these industries provide to Australians.

The Greens talk about who's going to fund more medical care and more social security. Guess who it is? It's mining and resource projects. Over $38 billion worth of wages and salaries are paid to Australians by those companies. The vast majority of environmental projects in this country are paid for by resources projects. Forty per cent of Australia's corporate tax is paid for by resource companies. PRRT is already nearly $2 billion in the last financial year, which is paid for by offshore gas projects. The bit that the Greens will never talk to you about is that it is these projects that pay the bills for Australians. It is these projects that allow us the luxury of having these conversations. And the Northern Territory, a jurisdiction that is desperate to raise its people up and to provide greater services, desperately needs the taxes and PAYG jobs that these projects through the Middle Arm development will provide.

In our years in government we took a leading role in assessing and progressing the Middle Arm precinct. In April 2022, we announced a $1.5 billion commitment to the project, which was subsequently matched by the Labor Party. Our decision came after careful and comprehensive consideration more than a year after the project was included in the national Infrastructure Priority List. That consideration included embedding a clear focus at the precinct on advancing, in the words of the Northern Territory government, 'low emission hydrocarbons, green hydrogen, advanced manufacturing, carbon capture and storage and minerals processing'.

We absolutely cannot move to a lower-emissions, higher-energy economy and environment unless we bring on projects like this. There is absolutely no way to do it. There is no way that we can bring online the scale of renewables that is proposed by the Greens in the time frame that will allow us to support lithium processing projects, rare earths projects and critical minerals projects. It is an absolute fantasy to be trying to stop important gas projects which will allow us to have reliable and affordable energy in the foreseeable future.

It makes me very nervous about what would happen if we removed those industries. If the Greens were successful and there were no more new projects, who would pay the bills? Who would pay the bills for Australia? Who will pay the company taxes?

Sarah Hanson-Young

The taxpayers are paying the bills for the fossil fuel industry.

James McGrath


Long debate text truncated.


Date and time: 6:19 PM on 2023-08-08
Senator Pocock's vote: Aye
Total number of "aye" votes: 11
Total number of "no" votes: 28
Total number of abstentions: 37

Adapted from information made available by