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Larissa Waters blows the lid on Queensland CSG industry, the CMC and the Premier’s Office

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Larissa Waters 26 Jun 2014

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (19:18): I rise to place on the public record some alarming new information regarding the assessment and approvals of two large coal seam gas projects in my home state of Queensland and the events which followed and to draw attention to the cosy relationships between the CSG industry and key decision makers. I have recently become aware of a series of events following complaints made to the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission-the CMC-about the environmental assessment process for Queensland Gas Company and Santos projects in Queensland's west and the associated export terminals near the Port of Gladstone.

I understand that the CMC received complaints from two individuals, Mr Drew Hutton and Ms Simone Marsh, on 18 and 19 February 2013. Those complaints alleged that undue pressure had been placed on departmental staff by senior public servants and by the CSG companies. They also pointed out that the companies had failed to provide critical data which was a prerequisite for environmental approval under the Queensland's Environmental Protection Act, including baseline studies of the areas to be affected, maps of proposed works and cumulative impact assessments.

Simone Marsh, who appeared as a whistleblower about these matters on ABC's Four Corners program in April 2013, worked within the state government on the approval. She raised concerns at the time that the proponents had failed to provide this very basic data. Ms Marsh was called into a meeting one day and was told point-blank that the projects would be approved, regardless of whether adequate assessments had been done. She was told that there would be no groundwater chapter in the report, despite the fact that it was a key impact of the projects. Her superiors gave no explanation. She was given half a day to write the climate change chapter of the report, despite having no time to review the source materials. An internal email from a senior public servant dated before the approvals were given says that the assessment process:

... has been difficult and uncertain without the full suite of information normally available. We are mindful of the CG's Report being able to provide a 'bankable' outcome.
That was a bankable outcome-not a rigorous assessment, but a bankable outcome. In the days after the CMC complaints were lodged, two meetings occurred which I believe raise very serious issues.

The Premier of Queensland's diary for that period records that on the very next day after the CMC received the commission plaints, 20 February, Premier Newman and others met with the chair and deputy chair of the CMC. We only know that the meeting occurred, not what was discussed. Then on the following day, 21 February, the premier met with Rob Millhouse, the vice president of QGC, which is one of the CSG companies the complaints were about. Again, we do not know what was discussed. The CMC dropped their investigation later that year, in September 2013, offering an inadequate explanation.

I do not stand here to unfairly implicate individuals in wrongdoing. However, when it comes to CSG, our rural communities, our natural environment, our water and our climate hang in the balance. We have a right to ask whether our decision-making processes have been compromised.

Particular questions arise for me when I hear about the connections and career trajectories of some of the individuals present at those meetings. For example, the Premier's diary indicates that among those present at the meeting with the CMC were the Director-General of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Mr Jon Grayson, and the Premier's Chief of Staff, Mr Ben Myers.

At that time, Mr Grayson owned a 25 per cent stake in a CSG services company; the other 75 per cent was owned by the Queensland arm of the now disgraced Australian Water Holdings. Mr Grayson had served as a director of the company until 2012. The two other directors were Tony Bellas, and the now disgraced New South Wales Liberal fundraiser Nick Di Girolamo. While holding that ownership stake, Mr Grayson had provided advice on CSG and water issues to the Premier.

Mr Grayson has recently sold his stake in the CSG sector, after mounting media attention. But there are also family connections to CSG that are worth noting. Jon Grayson's nephew Mitch Grayson had been a staffer for Premier Newman in 2012 and, by early 2013, had joined CSG company, Santos. Mitch Grayson is now back working for the Premier. When asked how he resolved these conflicts of interest, a spokesperson for Mr Jon Grayson said:

Mr Grayson does not accept he has a conflict of interest, potential or otherwise.
That is an astounding statement, and it leaves me with little confidence in his ability to even recognise, let alone resolve, conflicts of interest.

Another participant at the meeting with the CMC was the Premier's Chief of Staff, Ben Myers. He used to work for QGC. A subsequent meeting with QGC on 21 February took place in his office. So the Premier met with the CMC, alongside individuals who appear to be closely connected to the industry, and then the next day he runs off to meet with a CSG company executive. These meetings raise questions which the Premier must answer. Is it merely a coincidence that just days after the CMC received a potentially explosive complaint about corporate and political misconduct, the Premier met in quick succession with the CMC and then with the very company against whom the complaint was directed? Is the Premier usually privy to CMC investigations? What was discussed in the Premier's meeting with QGC? Did he tip them off about the CMC complaints? Did the Premier or QGC exert any influence or other 'encouragement' for the CMC to abandon their investigation? The Queensland farmers and coastal communities who will be impacted by coal seam gas fields and ports have a right to know how the Premier and his staff managed the conflicts of interest present in that room. I call on the Premier and the CMC to disclose all meetings and correspondence between the Premier's office, the CMC and QGC regarding these two complaints.

In the months following those meetings, there was a mass exodus at the CMC. In May 2013, a Dr Ken Levy took over as acting chair. Dr Levy is widely viewed as too close to the Newman government since writing a newspaper column supporting the controversial anti-association laws. He initially denied being pressured by the Premier's office to write the column but then admitted that the Premier's chief media adviser had called him, apparently to coach him on what to say to the media. The Queensland parliamentary CMC oversight committee began an investigation, and Dr Levy told them in November 2013 that he had refrained from criticism of the Newman government for fear that they would abolish the CMC entirely. The Premier then sacked that parliamentary CMC oversight committee and Dr Levy is now under police investigation.

In the intervening months before the February complaints were made and the September dropping of the complaints, another set of meetings took place. First, the Premier, along with the Attorney-General, met with Dr Levy on 8 August. Second, the Attorney-General met with top resources industry lobbyist Michael Roche from the Queensland Resources Council on 5 September. Third, on the very same day, the Attorney-General met with Dr Levy again. We do not know what was discussed-only that the meetings occurred.

Under Dr Levy's oversight, in September 2013 the CMC announced that the investigation into Ms Marsh and Mr Hutton's complaints would be dropped. It stated that the investigation had found 'no evidence' of any unlawful activity. This is a staggering finding. After being presented with a mountain of documents, including what looks to me like clear evidence that CSG approvals were given unlawfully, it is very difficult to believe that there was 'no evidence'. The CMC has never responded to repeated written requests for a copy of their assessment report setting out the reasons for dropping the investigation. It is my understanding that assessment reports are usually provided as a matter of course-not in this case. I call on the CMC to publish the assessment report in relation to these complaints. Queenslanders must be assured that the investigation was conducted in an independent and unbiased manner. This long series of events would lead any reasonable person to the conclusion that the Premier pressured the CMC to drop the investigation.

In relation to this matter I would like to seek leave to table four documents. I note that these documents are already in the public domain and that the whips have cleared such tabling. The documents include the Premier's diary for the relevant period; an email from 2010 from Mr Ian Fletcher, addressed to the Queensland Treasurer; subsequent internal emails; and an email from 2010 from Ms Marsh, addressed to the Deputy Coordinator-General and the Assistant Coordinator-General.

There are questions which the Premier must answer. Did he inappropriately pressure Dr Ken Levy to drop the CSG complaint? Did he ever threaten to abolish the CMC? Has he suppressed the assessment report in relation to the complaints? I call on the Premier to show some moral leadership and, if he cannot, I call on my fellow Queenslanders to show him the door. I seek leave to table the documents.

Leave not granted.

 

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