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Interview with ABC Radio Brisbane

12 April 2017

Steve Austin

Subject: Adani Carmichael project, PM’s visit to India, Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, Abbot Point coal terminal


STEVE AUSTIN: Last night in New Delhi, Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull met Adani group chairman Gautam Adani. Prime Minister Turnbull says the Government, that's the Australian Government, will not give Indian miner Adani special treatment as it pushes for a taxpayer funded loan. The loan is reputed to be around about $900 million, nearly a billion dollars. The Prime Minister met with company chair Gautam Adani to discuss its Carmichael mine in Queensland. Now will they get it? Mr. Turnbull says they discussed the impact of a Federal Court decision casting doubt over the validity of a Native Title Agreement for the controversial $21 billion coal mine that Mr. Adani wants to build. So, let's speak with the Minister for Resources and the Federal Minister for Northern Australia, Queensland Senator Matthew Canavan. Senator Canavan, good morning to you.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Morning Steve. How are you?

STEVE AUSTIN: I'm very well. Let me ask you, did the Prime Minister make any commitment whatsoever for that line of credit that the Adani company is seeking?

MINISTER CANAVAN: Steve I wasn't in the room so I can't give a blow by blow account. But I know speaking to the Prime Minister about this issue and what he said over in India is that this loan, this application for a loan will be assessed by the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. What we do want to do is invest in Northern Australia and create jobs. We have a clear commitment to that. We have set aside $5 billion to do that.

STEVE AUSTIN: You are the Minister responsible. You're the Minister responsible for that fund. So, you would have a good inkling.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well as a Minister, I will not and cannot direct the board, the independent expert board of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility in their deliberations. It is up to them to consider this. To consider all the financial risks, to make sure all the approvals have been gotten by the individual projects, and then they make a proposal to me. Now that has not happened yet. So, I will at some point, if a proposal comes forward, have to decide whether it's in the broader national interest. But we're not at that stage yet. What we do support…

STEVE AUSTIN: Let me ask you a quick question there if I can please Minister. It is said that the Northern Australia Infrastructure fund has spent more money on staff wages than it has on any infrastructure projects so far. Is that correct?

MINISTER CANAVAN: So it's nine months old Steve. It hasn't issued a loan yet. So that's, by definition, that's correct. But it's only nine months old. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which is another fund set up to invest in renewable energy, took 11 months to make their first loan. They're typically dealing with lower cost projects, and not the same direct involvement with the private sector. So, where I sit, as the Minister responsible, I'm comfortable with their progress. They have a number of projects close to financial close, a number of others that are very advanced. There is one high profile one that you're speaking about, but there's others in the mix as well. So, I'm confident we're going to get some good projects which create jobs across Northern Australia very soon.

STEVE AUSTIN: What is the doubt over the Federal Court decision on the validity of native title for land that is related to the Carmichael mine that the Adani group wants to build?

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well it's very important to stress here Steve, that court case was not about Adani. It was about a decision, a native title registration in Western Australia. But it has cast doubt on at least 123 Native Title Agreements around Australia. So, they don't just relate to mining, and don't just relate to Adani of course. It's quite technical the details, but in effect the court has ruled that all registered claimants have to agree to a project before a claim can be registered, an area ILUA – an area Land Use Agreement can be registered. We are currently looking at legislation to return the interpretation back to where it was before, where only a majority of claimants would need support to proceed with a project. A Senate inquiry was released a couple of weeks ago supporting those changes. It has Labor and Coalition support, so we'll progress those when we get back to Parliament.


All right. That answers that. Now the groups, or some of the groups opposing the Carmichael mine, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the umbrella body Environmental Justice Australia have released a statement this morning. I'm not even sure whether you've seen it. But they say that the directors of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, which you are the Minister responsible for, are likely to be in breach of their duties as directors if they approve a loan for the rail line. They say they've received legal advice, or the ACF says they have received legal advice that they would be breaching their duties to consider the financial risks associated with climate change, if a decision goes in favor of the Carmichael group. Have you seen that statement and can you comment on it?

MINISTER CANAVAN: I've seen the statement. I mean let's be frank Steve, these guys are bullies. They're bullies trying to stop jobs being created in North Queensland.

STEVE AUSTIN: Their stated aims are to protect the environment.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Their stated aim is also against development, and against coal. And they're against the coal mining industry.

STEVE AUSTIN: No, they're pro renewable development and they’re pro environmentally friendly industries.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well Steve they're against coal and coal is our second largest export in Australia. It is an incredibly important part of our economy in Queensland, and that's why there's a unity ticket in Queensland between the Queensland Labor Government, all the mayors in North Queensland that just went over to India to express their support, the Federal Government. We're on a unity ticket here in support of this project, because we need jobs.

STEVE AUSTIN: They are quoting in their statement. Now let me tell you what they're quoting, so you understand. They're quoting the Public Governance Performance and Accountability Act of 2013, where national infrastructure facility directors must consider financial risks from climate change and the requisite standard of care and diligence prohibits investment, they say, in the Adani or rail project for the Carmichael mine. That's what they're quoting.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well obviously, I'll leave any detailed consideration of the project on financial and other risks to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. That's why we’ve established an independent board. Now on their substantive issue though, the Queensland Supreme Court, this is the same argument that the ACF used and others have used in court, and the Queensland Supreme Court has determined that that argument has no basis, because if we don't supply India with coal, other countries will. So, from a global climate change perspective, to argue that this mine in and of itself will warm the planet and cause global warming disasters is completely wrong and misguided, because there are other parts of the world that India can get its coal from, and it will do that. The Indian Resources Minister has said that to me specifically. Now if anything, if we stop this project it will be worse for the environment, because the coal that is there in the Galilee Basin is higher quality, much much higher quality than what exists in India. And to the extent that this coal can help replace and displace coal used from India, it will mean lower global carbon emissions, less threat for global warming and better outcomes for the globe.

STEVE AUSTIN: Now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, I was reminded this week, has previously said he was against taxpayer subsidies on projects like this. Why has he changed his position on the Carmichael project, or seemingly changed?

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well we've had a stated position Steve to support northern development through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility for years. This is a significant outcome of our White Paper to develop the north, the first time a Federal Government has put aside funds to develop the north.

STEVE AUSTIN: Why has the Prime Minister changed his view?

MINISTER CANAVAN: Well he has not changed his view. This is a loan too, there's a lot of misinformation about this Steve. If you are up around the Surat Basin or the Bowen Basin where our coal mines are at the moment, you'll note that all of those rail lines are actually built by Governments, and in many cases, are still owned by Governments. It's not unusual for Governments to invest in projects that help build our nation and open up new areas. Now the Galilee Basin, where Adani's mine will be going, there's no coal mines in it all at the moment. It would be the first coal basin we open up for more than 40 years in Australia. So, the reason that there is an interest from Government in the infrastructure, and the Queensland Government’s supporting a loan, I need to get the NAIF do their job, but it's the basic case for it is clear – is that this will open up a whole new basin and it will help other miners come online. That will create tens of thousands more jobs in North Queensland as well, and more export income for our state, royalties…

STEVE AUSTIN: Let me ask you about that. Thank you. We understand that. You've made that point several times Minister. I appreciate that. Let me ask you, so if this rail line goes ahead with taxpayer subsidy support for the Carmichael mine, what will actually happen is that there will be other mines that will seek to open there, because they can get access to the rail line as well. In other words, this will be a gateway to multiple coal mines from multiple companies in that region.

MINISTER CANAVAN: That's basically the only reason I'm interested in the rail line Steve. I mean I've always said our interest from a Federal Government perspective is to spur wider economic development in Northern Australia, not to support one company in particular. Now Adani, to their credit, have always said they want the rail line to be open access. They believe that the economics of the rail line need other suppliers to come on board so that they lower their average costs. But clearly, one of the key things I'll be looking at, if a proposal comes to me, is how it does benefit us as a nation. And one of the key things I'll be looking at is how this can spur wider economic development across the North and across Australia. And providing access to other mines that might come online in the Galilee Basin of course would possibly be a way of achieving that.

STEVE AUSTIN: What weight then, can you assist me in, what weight then does the Federal Government give the climate and the Barrier Reef. One of the arguments by some of the tourism operators up north, north of you, is that the future for Australia is in sort of a cleaner industries like boosting tourism. The Climate Council has released a report that found that this state of Queensland stands to lose one billion dollars in revenue if the Great Barrier Reef experiences another coral bleaching event. Scientists from James Cook University and more are saying that coral bleaching is linked to climate change. What weight does the Federal Government place on the Barrier Reef as an economic activity driver, as a jobs driver here in Australia, in Queensland?

MINISTER CANAVAN: It's incredibly important Steve. I live on the Great Barrier Reef. I live at Yeppoon, we can see the Great Barrier Reef from my street. We all understand here in North Queensland how important it is, and I don't want anybody to go away in Brisbane and think the people in North Queensland don't cherish the reef. We do.

STEVE AUSTIN: But when it comes to the reef and coal mining, coal mining will always win.

MINISTER CANAVAN: No that's not true at all Steve. They can clearly coexist. They have for decades and the Great Barrier Reef has been developed as a tourism mecca over the same period that the Bowen Basin itself has been developed. Now I don't think that's completely unrelated either. The more people we have up here in North Queensland, the greater the population centres, and they need jobs in other sectors like mining, the more people will holiday closer to where they live as well. The only reason the Gold Coast is down the road from you Steve is because you have this big city called Brisbane who wants to go away on weekends somewhere. It's a beautiful place, the Gold Coast, but so is Northern New South Wales. But it's not as developed, because it's not as close to a major center of population. So, they can clearly coexist. Now there's two issues, as I see it, with the mine. One is the local direct impact on the environment. The point to make here is this mine is nearly 400 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef. It is not particularly close. There are many, many mines a lot closer to the reef.

STEVE AUSTIN: But the Abbot Point Coal Terminal is the point where the coal will be loaded off and it's already affecting the reef now isn't it? You've seen the reports on the effect of the sediment from Abbot Point?

MINISTER CANAVAN: That's absolute- If you're referring to those satellite images, they've already been debunked as saying that the evidence that some of these groups are relying on clearly was not the right way to go about it, because they were relying on colours that get changed in satellite imagery.

STEVE AUSTIN: So they were misusing the data were they?

MINISTER CANAVAN: Yeah. So the Queensland Department has already said that in their view, Adani hasn't breached any conditions. That the sediment levels in Caley Valley wetlands, which is the local environmental issue here, it is - as Barnaby pointed out yesterday, the Caley Valley wetlands are a manmade swamp that was created for duck shooting in the 1950s. But be that as it may, the sediment levels in the Caley Valley wetlands are well within the bounds of environmental acceptance, particularly after a tropical cyclone where naturally a lot of sediment comes into the wetlands. They're about a tenth of what the sediment load is in the Fitzroy Basin, at the moment, the mouth the Fitzroy River. So, it's not unusual in this area. So there's no evidence at all that that's had that impact. We have required Adani to bring the dredging they'll do onshore. That's something to protect the local impact of the reef. Under their conditions Adani has to put back 750 megalitres a year into the Great Artesian Basin for the next five years. That will be a good thing for the environment. They have to reserve hectares for local habitat populations of snakes and yakka skinks. They will be good things for the local environment. And on the global issues, on climate change, I did say earlier that if anything this coal, developing this mine will be good for global warming, because our coal is better and it burns more efficiently than Indian coal, which will mean a lower amount of carbon emissions for the same amount of electricity produced.

STEVE AUSTIN: Appreciate your coming on this morning. Senator Canavan thank you very much.

MINISTER CANAVAN: Thanks Steve, cheers.

STEVE AUSTIN: Senator Matthew Canavan is the Federal Minister for Resources and Northern Australia.