Whyalla Steel Works (Environmental Authorisation) Amendment Bill | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 12:00 :34 ): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Whyalla Steel Works (Environmental Authorisation) Amendment Bill 2015. Let me just make it very clear that I, as an Upper Spencer Gulf member of parliament and also as the shadow minister for mineral resources and energy, and also my colleagues in the Liberal Party of South Australia are extremely supportive of Arrium and extremely supportive of the resources sector in general.

Arrium is one of the most important companies operating in South Australia and is by far the most important company operating in Whyalla with regard to the number of people it employs, and in other ways as well. Arrium employs well over 3,000 people as direct employees and full-time contractors in its two operations, both the Whyalla steelworks business and also the mining it undertakes in the Middleback Ranges. It is incredibly important.

From an Upper Spencer Gulf perspective, while of course there is often friendly rivalry between Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie, we all know that our futures are inextricably linked, that we will swim or drown together. We are all very optimistic that we will do very well in that part of the world, but have no doubt, in Port Augusta and Port Pirie we understand that we need Whyalla to be successful, in Whyalla and Port Augusta we understand that we need Port Pirie to be successful, and so on.

The mining industry and the steel industry are going through very difficult times at the moment. There are enormous challenges in Australia for both of those industries, largely brought about by international commodity prices, but not exclusively. There are industrial relations issues, cost of production issues and a range of other issues which provide challenges to these industries, but more than any other issue is international commodity prices which means that Arrium, as the operator of mines and also the steelworks at Whyalla, is going through very tough times. Not times that it cannot come out of, not times that the government and the opposition cannot help it with, but it is a tough time for anybody who is in these industries at the moment.

I am very supportive of Arrium and what it does. That does not mean in any way that I want to reduce vigilance or impact upon very important environmental protections, and I am sure the government is exactly the same in that regard. Protecting the environment is critically important, so we need to find a way to support Arrium and to simultaneously make sure the environment is protected.

The bill the government has put to us has two key parts. The first part is to extend an existing 10-year agreement whereby Arrium is responsible to what is currently the Department of State Development (before that it would have been DMITRE and no doubt had previous names over the previous 10 years) for its environmental performance. It wants to extend the existing 10 years, which runs out on 4 November of this year, to 20 years, so essentially give it an additional 10 years. The second part of the bill is the insertion of a section which gives the minister the opportunity to request variations through the commissioner to the environmental authorisation. So, they are the two key things we are looking at at the moment in the bill.

I turn to the first part first. I understand that extending the 10 years to 20 years (providing the additional 10 years) gives Arrium certainty and security. I think that it is very understandable that Arrium would want that and that the government would want to give that to Arrium, because it supports Arrium in their business and also, from a government perspective, no doubt they are quite comfortable with the current situation. I say again that Arrium is operating in difficult times. They deserve as much support as possible. They deserve to be given that sort of security if they can demonstrate that not having that security would impede them with regard to their operations or with regard to their attraction for investment and, from my perspective, with regard to their capacity to continue to employ over 3,000 people in Whyalla and the surrounding area.

No doubt the EPA was not expecting this extension. It was not something that anybody was expecting 10 years ago. In fact, I would be quite certain that when this first 10-year period was entered into 10 years ago it was probably considered to be very generous, that 10 years would be more than enough time for Arrium (it was not actually Arrium at the time) or the company to transition to reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency rather than to DSD. Here we are again, being told that the next 10 years will be more than enough time for them to transition from reporting to DSD and changing that to reporting to the EPA.

I have to say that I am actually comfortable with that. There are a lot of questions to be asked and there is more information to be gathered before it would be possible for the opposition to form a position on that issue, and I think that asking those questions is very important. As the shadow minister and as a local area member of parliament, I am comfortable with that, but it is a very big thing to essentially rule the EPA out of this work for 20 years, and I am looking forward to receiving a briefing from the EPA on what its view on that is.

The second part is with regard to the additional flexibility that the government wants in its ability. I will read a short sentence from the minister’s second reading speech:

The Bill also inserts Section 20 to set out provisions for Schedule 3 of the Whyalla Steel Works Act to be updated to reflect variations in the environmental authorisation at the request of the Minister.

It seems to me that on the one hand the government is providing more security and more certainty to Arrium by extending the 10 years to 20, but it is also potentially taking some security and certainty away by inserting that clause. I do not doubt that if I was the minister I would want to do that as well, so I can really understand where that is coming from for a whole range of reasons, and it may well be that it is not only the environmental authority that the minister could request a change to.

The opposition’s position on this bill is to not oppose it in this house and to reserve our final position until it is debated in the Legislative Council. I say very clearly to members of the government, to you, Deputy Speaker, to the industry and to Arrium that it is very unfortunate that we cannot give our unequivocal support to this bill today. I believe that we will provide that support. I would like to give it today, but I do not have the right to speak on behalf of all of my party. The reason that I cannot give my support today is that the information required to make that decision was not provided to the opposition in a timely fashion.

There would be a lot of things going on in the background in government that I would not be aware of. There might be very good reasons for that; there might be very bad reasons. There might be completely unacceptable reasons for that to have happened, but whatever the reason is it is unacceptable to have received for the first time a copy of the bill at nine minutes past 11 yesterday morning when the bill was to be debated at 11 o’clock yesterday morning. No rational person could think that it would have been possible to organise an opposition party room meeting to form a position on that bill in the two hours between 9 o’clock and 11 o’clock that morning and to put a position forward. I think it is a great shame that we cannot put a position forward, and I think it is the government’s responsibility wholly and solely that we cannot put a position forward at the moment.

I say again that I am comfortable with the bill, but for the opposition to have been able to gather to take a position required the government to provide this information in a timely fashion. There might be reasons why it was not possible, but the bottom line is that the information was not provided.

I am also waiting for some information to come back from Arrium. I do not think for a minute that that information will do anything other than support my personal view that this is going to be good legislation that is good for Arrium, good for the state and good for Whyalla and the Upper Spencer Gulf. But, nonetheless, I have not received that information either and, as I said before, I am waiting for a briefing from the EPA.

The EPA have been good enough to say, ‘Yes, we will do that. We need permission from the minister for environment to provide that.’ I understand that is the process. I have asked if we can have that as quickly as possible. I have not had confirmation of when the time is. I have asked for it to be immediately if possible.

They are the things that need to be done for the opposition to actually put forward complete support. I would have hoped that we could do it in this chamber. Unfortunately, it is not going to be possible. I am very optimistic that we can do that in the Legislative Council but, of course, I rely upon my colleagues’ support for that.

The opposition is very supportive of the Arrium company. The opposition is very supportive of the resources industry and the opposition is very supportive of Whyalla and the Upper Spencer Gulf, and I look forward to working through the committee stage of this bill with government and opposition members. I look forward to receiving the information that I still need so that I can put a position forward to my colleagues in time for the bill to be debated in the other place.