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Resources Legislation Amendment Bill 2015

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
21 August 2015

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — I rise to affirm that the Greens will support what is essentially a good bill, but I will make some comments because, yet again, it is a bill that is really tinkering around the edges when what we need is bold action on something that is so serious.

As we have heard, the purpose of the bill is to tighten regulation of work plans related to mining licences and the extractive industry work authorities to make sure that we include threats to infrastructure in risks to be assessed in those work plans, to allow the minister and head of department to make changes to licenses and work plans so that risks are better managed, to increase penalties for corporations that do not comply with these regulations, and to increase transparency in reporting that can be required under these licences. Frankly, it is disappointing that it took a huge disaster like the Hazelwood mine fire for this to be done and that something like this has not been done before.

I have been down to the Latrobe Valley three times in the past six months. That is probably more than most people in this chamber, and I have heard from many people who were directly affected and who were there that the Hazelwood mine fire had devastating impacts on those communities, and on Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Metropolitan Fire Brigade firefighters, including CFA volunteers. As has been said before in this chamber, the people of Morwell and Traralgon were let down terribly by the previous government. They were left to suffer and some people were left to die by the previous government's inadequate response to the mine fire inquiry.

However, this is not the first time these people have been let down. They have been let down through the privatisation of our energy system and continue to be let down. There are current reports that GDF Suez, the owner of the Hazelwood mine, is still refusing to pay its $18 million bill to the CFA.

Mr Edbrooke — Shame!

Ms SANDELL — It is shameful, and the fire was a really terrible manifestation of the ongoing failure of successive governments to appropriately regulate the coal industry. I note that soon after the Labor government was elected the Minister for Emergency Services went down to Morwell and said that the government would change things and that it would now mandate and require that coal companies put out fires when they happen on their property. Frankly, it beggars belief that before this legislation was introduced they were not required to put out their own fires.

It is ridiculous that these huge coal companies are allowed to reap profits from what are our resources — that is, resources that belong to the Victorian people — but that when a mine catches fire and has a devastating impact on the locals and CFA volunteers, such companies are not required to respond to that. They are not required to take responsibility for that or even put out the fires in their own mines. I find it absolutely ridiculous that the Minister for Emergency Services had to go down there and say that now they are required to put out their own fires. Frankly, it was a pretty small step. Surely having them manage their risks, put out fires and avoid disasters is the very minimum that we should require. I hope that following the new mine fire inquiry government action will be much stronger to protect the local community and our climate.

I am a little bit worried because, while the Greens support this bill, it does not even do what the government claims it does and is much weaker than what is needed. The stated rationale for this bill is the implementation of recommendation 4 of the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report 2014Let us look at what the recommendation proposes. It proposes two things. Firstly, it is to 'bring forward the commencement date of section 16 of the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Act 2014', which introduces more substance to the requirements of a work plan. Secondly, the recommendation encourages the government to 'acquire the expertise necessary to monitor and enforce compliance with fire risk measures'.

In fact, if you look at the bill that is on the table today, you will see that it does neither of those two things. Section 16 of the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Amendment Act has not yet commenced, and I take this opportunity to ask the minister whether she is working to have that commencement date gazetted immediately? Otherwise we will remain with the date we have always had with regard to these work plans — that is, not until December 2016 — which is more than a year away. It is a simple step to bring forward the commencement date, and there is no reason why the government should not do that immediately, which would implement the recommendation from the mine fire inquiry report.

The second part of the recommendation asks the government to 'acquire the expertise necessary to monitor and enforce compliance' for coal companies. This bill does not address this issue directly. It does provide greater opportunity for government intervention in risk management, which has generally been left to private companies. I welcome that: that is a good thing. However, at the same time let us not ignore what the recommendation says — that is, that the government needs to acquire more expertise to monitor and enforce safety and risk compliance in relation to these coal companies.

I would like to know from this government whether it has decided to just ignore the recommendation or whether it is working to ensure that the government has this expertise. This expertise is necessary because from both sides of politics we have had years of a lax and very hands-off approach — as was supported by the member for Essendon — to regulating coal companies. It is really not surprising that the government does not have the expertise to implement these risk management processes now. But that is not good enough. It is not acceptable. It is what leads to things like the Hazelwood mine fire, and it needs to change.

At this point, I foreshadow that the Greens are looking to potentially introduce amendments to this bill in the upper house to require rehabilitation plans within these work plans to be made public. During the last sitting week Labor failed to give the opportunity to the Anglesea community to have rehabilitation plans and other documents made public through FOI. The Greens are again seeking a way to empower coal-affected communities to have information about rehabilitation plans and coal companies that they deserve to have. I hope that Labor will not resort to cheap politicking again and will support the local communities in their need for these amendments.

The amendments will improve the bill. It is what the local communities are calling for, and I hope that Labor heeds their call. As we look to the future of these mines, there is one thing that we need to make sure we never forget: even though plants like Hazelwood give rise to devastating consequences, like the mine fire, they also give rise to ordinary, everyday pollution that is also taking its toll on the community, the climate, the environment and the health of local people. While bills such as this one are good, essentially they just tinker around the edges. We know there is a much bigger problem here. If we want to avoid situations like this ever happening again, as the member for Morwell said he does, the only solution is to replace the Hazelwood mine and plant.

The mine fire was the manifestation of some of the worst possible consequences of our continued reliance on coal, but we need to recognise that this industry has a toxic impact on people every single day through its normal operations. We know it is toxic for our health. We know it is toxic for our environment and climate. We know it is toxic for the community. Post-privatisation we saw Morwell, Traralgon and the areas around them absolutely devastated by the loss of jobs, and we saw the coal company's absolute disregard for the community through its failure to provide benefits.

As a society we need to work out — and this is important, so I hope The Nationals members who are interjecting listen to this — how to move to a clean energy economy that is powered by renewable energy. Both sides of the chamber should heed that call. We are hearing it from scientists and we are hearing it from the local community.

We can ignore that advice all we like, but we do so at our peril. When we make the transition to a world that is much healthier, with its clean renewable energy, we will save money. It will also save us the trouble of regulating and monitoring a dangerous industry and cleaning up the mess when disaster strikes — it really is a no-brainer. I want to know how long members from both sides of the house — the Labor government and the Liberal-Nationals opposition — will continue to kid themselves that coal will clean up its act and become safe. Coal is simply not safe; if they think otherwise, they are dreaming. Coal is not safe for health or our climate.

At the moment we are seeing the end of coal globally. The economics of coal just do not stack up. Origin Energy even came out this week and publicly said that we need to be transitioning away from dirty power plants like Hazelwood. We have an oversupply of energy in the grid, something many members of this chamber seem to not understand; they seem to not understand the energy market.

Ms Thomas interjected.

Ms SANDELL — I will tell the member for Macedon that there is an oversupply of energy in the market at the moment.

The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms McLeish) — Order! I ask the member to speak through the Chair; she should not respond to interjections.

Ms SANDELL — I hope many members will do some research on the energy market, because they will learn that at the moment there is an oversupply in the grid, which means that renewable energy is being locked out. We could turn off plants like Hazelwood five times over, with no energy supply issues. Oversupply in the grid is a very real problem we are facing, but it presents an opportunity for transitioning away from dirty coal-fired power plants. We are also seeing communities around the world who are resisting the toxic impacts of coal and the exploitation of multinational corporations at the expense of their health and the health of our climate. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party and The Nationals cannot continue to defend coal companies and say they are doing good things by giving them slightly stronger regulations while letting the planet burn. It is a fundamentally irresponsible position to hold.

We also know that inaction on coal and climate change here in Victoria is bad for workers and community members. If the government sits around and does nothing, which it seems to be content doing, when we face a disaster like another mine fire — which will happen — or when the market decides to abruptly close Hazelwood or other plants, workers will be left stranded. We have a lived experience of this, and it happened this year when the Anglesea coalmine and power plant shut down. The coal plants at Port August recently announced their closures. Those coal plants pretty much left their workers and the communities high and dry, and they did that because there was no government transition plan for those workers. There was no government transition plan away from coal, even though it was clear the writing was on the wall that the market was going to shut down those plants.

The only responsible position is to have a just transition now for workers. We should get out of plants like Hazelwood, and get out of them in a way that gives workers some dignity and some jobs for the future. Otherwise, what is going to happen? This concern is not just coming from me; it is coming from many experts. The reality is that coal plants are going to shut down; it is a simple economic reality. We can either let it happen, not intervene and let workers and communities be stranded or we can have a plan to do it in a way that not only reduces pollution but gives workers and communities something to transition to, and that is what I am advocating for. Instead, we see governments introducing bills like this, which continue to tinker around the edges and may slightly improve risk management outcomes, but they blind themselves to the big issue that we simply cannot continue to rely on coal, especially brown coal.

I hope the government will take this opportunity to use regulation to replace Hazelwood and other brown coal power plants with what we know is possible, which is 100 per cent renewable energy. Frankly I do not want to risk another disaster like the Hazelwood mine fire. I do not want to risk the devastating impacts that we are going to see from climate change. I do not want to see people, including my friends in the Latrobe Valley, coming to me with stories of lung cancer and other devastating health impacts of not only old and new mine fires but also the general everyday operations of plants like Hazelwood. I do not want to continue to hear those stories. People come into my office all the time with stories about what happened to them in the Hazelwood mine fire — —

An honourable member interjected.

Ms SANDELL — From the Latrobe Valley, absolutely, because there is nobody else standing up for them and for their right to have clean air and clean energy. Members opposite can disregard the stories of the people from the Latrobe Valley. They can disregard the health impacts and their calls for something better, but I will never do that. I am standing up for these people because they have a member who will not, and they have a government which refuses to replace Hazelwood with something better to give them sustainable jobs for the future. Hazelwood has proven itself to be an absolutely toxic liability to Victoria on a daily basis, as well as following the impact of the mine fire, and it is absolutely time to replace it.

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
21 August 2015




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