Michael Gunner

The long-suffering voters of the Northern Territory haven’t suffered enough, it seems.

The issue of unconventional gas extraction, or fracking, is causing major rifts within the barely constituted Gunner Labor government. In September, Michael Gunner declared a moratorium on fracking in the Territory pending an inquiry into the issue, but we hear many within his own party are at odds with the Chief Minister over the issue, and the tension threatens to spill over into all-out factional warfare.

The wording of the 2015 NT Labor conference motion pushed by the Left is clear about what they intended to implement in government:

“Territory Labor will implement a moratorium covering all unconventional gas prospecting exploration and extraction.”

But that is not what came to pass. The government policy currently being implemented is a “moratorium on hydraulic fracturing of unconventional gas reservoirs” and an “inquiry to assess the future development and sustainability of the use of hydraulic fracturing for the oil and gas industry”.

The concern of opponents of these policies as they stand is that they don’t accurately reflect the 2015 policy motion as passed, and some Labor members believe that’s not by accident.

They argue there are several fracking activities that are continuing that would be halted if the policy were implemented as intended and promised at September’s election.

I’ve been advised that senior figures within Gunner’s office are connected to, or supportive of, the unconventional gas extraction industry. These staffers are said to believe fracking is safe and are thought to complete the review as quickly as possible to continue unconventional gas extraction in the Northern Territory.

Within the Right, however, the weakening of these core commitments has divided some backbenchers, and the NT Labor Right convener is said to have grave misgivings about unconventional gas extraction.

It’s rumoured that the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) had a hand in drafting the terms of reference and the flimsy moratorium, given the almost approving press release the group published on the day of the government’s announcements.

The previous CLP Giles government was supportive of the industry, and staff within the Department of Environment — save for the sacked department head — remain in place. (They are believed to have been used in the rushed drafting of the terms of reference.)

There is a power struggle within the Gunner government, though it is trying desperately to not appear disunited so early into its first term.

The issue revolves around the fact that while the NT Left control the NT Labor conference floor with 60% of the delegates, members of the Left performed badly in preselections and only make up about a third of the caucus and cabinet.

The Right-controlled government appears reticent to implement, in full, the Left policy taken to the election.

Left unions the Community and Public Sector Union and Maritime Union of Australia are working behind the scenes to make their displeasure known, and there is reportedly unanimous dissatisfaction within the Left around the implementation of this policy.

Naomi Hogan from Lock the Gate NT has serious misgivings about the process thus far.

“They’ve decided to make the focus on the act of the frack when it’s the action of the drilling that has been found to cause environmental concerns,” she said. “Disappointingly, there is no formal process of community consultations. Just a web page people can visit.”

It’s her understanding that the limitations of the draft terms of reference and moratorium mean landholders will still need to handle land-access agreements with shale gas companies, which can still conduct surveys, clear land and conduct core hole drilling and testing.

“The NT Labor policy was clear. A full moratorium on all unconventional gas extraction activity and an inquiry into all unconventional gas extraction activity. This hasn’t been delivered and is a broken promise by the new Gunner government,” she said.

She says she thinks the Gunner government is using voters’ lack of technical knowledge around the issue and a rushed process to get away with breaking key election commitments to “stitch up” the community.

It should also be noted that former federal resources minister and ACTU President Martin Ferguson — now chair of the advisory council to APPEA — lambasted NT Labor for the election commitment, and former NT chief minister Paul Henderson, who has worked for and consulted with oil and gas interests, has been seen entering the Chief Minister’s office.

In the longer term, after years of division with NT politics, the question is, does this spell more instability as the Right-controlled government seeks to overturn policy imposed on it by a Left-controlled branch?

NT Labor has a caucus meeting in coming days, and this is a question surely on MPs’ minds.

Lock the Gate NT will be planning community action on the first day of Parliament, sitting next Tuesday, by which time the short online consultation on the draft terms of reference will be completed.

There is no deadline for the completion of the inquiry, but there is pressure from vested interests to complete it promptly.