The rush to appeal to (and in some cases appease) activist groups during election campaigns is a common phenomenon.
This week we saw the ALP’s commitment to extend the so-called ‘water trigger’ to cover shale and tight gas projects becoming the commitment that didn’t need to be made – because existing regulatory provisions largely cover the issue.
Protest group Lock the Gate’s Water4Life campaign asks candidates to ‘commit’ to an index, which if implemented would have the practical effect of shutting down Australia’s resources industry – which is Lock the Gate’s underpinning raison d’être.
One aspect of the index is to:
‘Strengthen the water trigger and extend it to fracking for shale and tight gas’
While that might sounds like a laudable aim to some candidates, the fact is that there is already a sound, comprehensive regulatory framework that applies to all gas and mining projects, regardless of the water trigger.
As APPEA Chief Executive Malcom Roberts pointed out this week:
“The water trigger was a political fix by the Gillard government to secure Tony Windsor’s vote in 2013. There was no regulatory impact assessment and no evidence that State regulation was deficient. While adding another layer of costly Commonwealth regulation, the trigger did not add any new scientific assessment or evidence.”
The Commonwealth Environment Department goes further, making it clear that the water trigger provisions of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act don’t actually change the process for seeking advice from the Independent Expert Scientific Committee.
That’s something Lock the Gate forgot to mention.
The reality is that the onshore gas industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country, and there are a myriad of State and Commonwealth provisions to meet before gas extraction activities are approved.
Extending the water trigger would duplicate existing arrangements.
It also remains unclear how Lock the Gate – who endlessly proclaim to stand up for farmers – reconciles their support for extending the water trigger when the country’s peak farm representative group opposes it.
In 2013, former National Farmers Federation President Jock Laurie said:
“There is a huge risk in opening the door to a so-called ‘water trigger’ under the national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, as while it may be introduced with the aim of safeguarding water from the mining and coal seam gas industries, it could very easily be extended to other industries, including agriculture.
“Water is a critical factor for our farmers, and our strong concern is that this bill could actually have perverse negative outcomes for our agricultural sector. What may, on first glance, look like a win for farmers in the short-term could actually have long-term unintended consequences for our current, and future, farmers.”
Commitments are easy to call for during election campaigns, but it’s important to see them in context of an election, and to understand what the practical impact would be – something that is missing in the Water4Life campaign.