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Sea Country Alliance livid as inquiry ignores submission on new EPA approval process

David Prestipino -

The newly-formed national Sea Country Alliance has expressed concern its submission to the federal government's inquiry on a bill to change the approval process for offshore gas projects was ignored.

The Offshore Petroleum and Greenhouse Gas Storage Amendment (Safety and Other Measures) Bill emerged from federal Labor caucus on 13 February but was referred to a snap Parliamentary inquiry on February 29, which held just one five-hour hearing.

The Sea Country Alliance said its comprehensive submission to the inquiry garnered no response nor opportunity to speak to the committee about its concerns.

"The government and the Greens both claim they want to hear the voice of Traditional Owners," SCA co-chair Gareth Ogilvie said. 

"But when it came to rights in Sea Country, they both tried to silence the voice of the nation's representative Traditional Owner organisations."

The Alliance was established earlier this year after a national meeting of Traditional Owners last November, following increasing flashpoints with government and industry.

Recent federal court decisions and increasing pressure on Sea Country resources - be they oil, gas or wind - had created an environment of uncertainty. 

"Our work now, as an alliance of more than 50 Sea Country rights holders, is to ensure we are at the forefront of decision making about our Country," the SCA said upon formation. 

But not one member of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee investigating the changes to the approval process responded to its submission.

"We speak for most of Australia's Sea Country and yet no one is speaking with us," Mr Ogilve said. 

"It seems this is just another exercise by the government in putting their hands over their ears, because they know they won’t like what is being said.

"This situation is frustrating SCA members' aspirations for their economic participation. 

"Our regions have the potential to be thriving economies but are impeded by reluctance in a system which prevents Traditional Owners from benefiting from economic development."

The SCA said the continued erosion of Traditional Owner rights and the lack of respect for its responsibilities were a concern. 

"Whilst the proposed amendments in this bill largely go to matters relating to occupational health and safety, their volume obfuscates the very real threat in the bill to Traditional Owners in the new s790E," the Alliance said in a statement.

Buried in a bill ostensibly about worker safety were amendments stating that currently approved offshore gas projects would be taken to be compliant, even if they were in breach of environmental laws in the future.

The bill's explanatory memorandum said the new section was needed to "provide certainty to stakeholders" that existing approvals would "remain effective" in the event of changes to environmental laws, in direct response to industry pressure regarding environmental consultation requirements.

SCA national leadership group member and National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe, said it was "galling" the inquiry committee members had ignored their submission.

"With significant legislation affecting the rights of Traditional Owners currently being reformed with the input of peak Traditional Owner bodies, circumventing those voices ... is appalling," he said. 

The SCA submission is available online.

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