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Monday, 1 June 1998
Page: 4340


Mr KERR (9:30 PM) —I welcome the tone in which this debate has been conducted. It is an opportunity for both sides of the parliament to respect the achievements that each have contributed in their way to the making of this legislation. The honourable member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr Brereton) set out the record of the former Labor government and its substantial achievements. In giving credit in relation to this matter, I am sure the work of Gareth Evans would be respected by all sides of the House.

There is no doubt in my mind that the world is now a substantially more dangerous place as a result of the testing of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan. That might be thought to be a truism and might be thought simply to be a piece of self-evident rhetoric, but it does have domestic consequences. It has domestic consequences because much that we still do in Australia gives mixed messages about where we stand regarding the nuclear cycle. That is particularly the case with regard to the stance of the present government with respect to the nuclear industry.

The Australian Labor Party while in office operated a three mines policy—that is, it recognised that existing uranium producers would be allowed to continue—but it was responsive to concerns in the Australian community not only about the threats to human health and the local environment that mining and milling of uranium posed but also about the generation of raw materials which are useable for nuclear weapons manufacture and which demand the enforcement of effective controls against diversion and which also challenge the global community in ways which only now are becoming so obvious.

There are some who appear to be far too sanguine about these threats, and I instance the editorial of today's Financial Review which I regard as a singularly ill-judged comment in respect of this issue. In respect of those two tests the Financial Review said:

. . . the nuclear rivalry between Pakistan and India may not necessarily be such a dangerous and destabilising development for South Asia.

It further stated:

If anything, nuclear weapons have contributed significantly to world peace.

It continued in this vein, arguing:

Though there is no established causal relationship between nuclear deterrence and peace, there is certainly a strong correlation between the two.

If that piece of fatuous logic were to be carried to its logical consequence, then the world would be much safer by giving Saddam Hussein the facilities to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. The world would be much happier, were that the case, if we released those controls—the existing safeguards—on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The argument that stability in a global context is enhanced by the wider access to nations having the capacity to develop and to utilise nuclear weapons is such an appalling misjudgment that it demands comment in this House.

There are some issues where one might expect there to be a little sympathy for countries such as India and Pakistan—not sympathy regarding their actions but sympathy in relation to what they would perceive from their point of view are the double standards that others impose upon them. They would see that some, such as the Financial Review and other commentators, have regarded possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of the `big five' as contributing to global stability while arguing that the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of other nations diminishes the likelihood of stability and international peace. That, at best, I think can be described as an unfortunately Eurocentric or first World view of where the balance of peace ought lie.

There is no case to be made for the fact that the world is a safer place because a number of nations possess nuclear weapons. The history of the world over the last 50 years has been one of continual sporadic outbreaks of significant war. The possession of nuclear weapons by the big five has not prevented major conflicts which have had significant regional and international consequences. One only needs to look at the disintegration of countries within Africa, the civil wars that have existed in Europe, the conflicts that occurred in Vietnam, to give the lie to the simplistic idea that the possession of nuclear weapons by a group of nations who in some sense can act as the international policemen gives a guarantee of peace.

This analysis underpins the stance of the former Labor government when, whilst building on the treaty to prohibit the testing of nuclear weapons, also introduced into the international dialogue discussion of the total abolition of nuclear weapons through the Canberra Commission on Disarmament that was sponsored by the previous Labor government. It also underlies the work of the international community which is seeking to eliminate stockpiles of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction which have no place in warfare. I note the presence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Downer), who carried through the work of the former government in relation to landmine issues and secured a comprehensive agreement to ban the use of landmines.

All these are important initiatives which go to eliminating from arsenals of the global community weapons which give rise to the possibility of such destructive behaviour that we as a civilised community rebel against. It cannot be the case that the possession of nuclear weapons is plausibly seen as a guarantor of peace. The instances of testing by India and Pakistan show clearly how simple it is for countries which at present may wish to adhere to nominal agreements that they will not develop nuclear weapons to move beyond that.

What is the size of the nuclear club now? We know that two nations have emerged from the covert possession of that capacity: India and Pakistan. What other nations possess that covert capacity? Some, I think, would argue that Israel is certainly amongst that group of nations; others have suggested that South Africa may be. I do not wish to speculate, but it is certain that for some time there have been more than five nations with that capacity.

With a growing acceptance in the reality of international politics that those weapons do exist, so too the international community must develop a growing response not merely to limit the testing of nuclear weapons but to move to their ultimate abolition as weapons of war. As long as those other nations can look to the big five—and now potentially the big seven—developing and refining their nuclear capacities and enhancing their stature as nations having possession of that capacity, that power and that authority that flows from it, so too will others seek some form of equivalence.

It is not too strong to say that there is also now a potential trade in fugitive nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union. When the former Soviet Union broke into its now constituent nations, that nuclear arsenal was intended to be possessed by the larger Russian state. But those weapons still remain—now in sovereign territories—outside Russia, and there is no little evidence emerging that some of those materials are beginning to be the subject of diversion. So we are now seeing a world which is increasingly unsafe; a world in which those who are concerned to prevent catastrophic events in the international scene have greater reason for concern.

Even if it were the case—and I do not accept it—that possession of nuclear weapons by a handful of states has prevented the wholesale hostilities between large empire nations and that the consequence of sporadic civil and regional wars were increased as a consequence of that, one really needs to undertake some kind of serious risk analysis. The risk analysis I would put to this House is as follows: assuming that you do have a greater capacity for sporadic, cross-border, minor wars—what do you lay against that, against the possibility of a nuclear contagion being set loose by a country that develops and uses nuclear weapons and plunges its region, and potentially the globe, into a nuclear winter?

It certainly is a tragedy whenever conflict emerges, whenever violence is sought as a recourse to human activity and conflict. But it is more than a tragedy if that conflict is manifested by the use of those kinds of weapons of mass destruction. They can set at risk not merely the survival of the government but the survival of whole regions, continents and, potentially, the stability of the global environment. An article that was written, surprisingly, by the Sunday Mail was much more sensible in its reflection on the Indian-Pakistan circumstance, saying:

We now face the chilling scenario of the sabre-rattling between these two arch antagonists developing into a nuclear war which would be almost impossible to confine to the region.

An article in the Canberra Times stated:

The horror of a nuclear exchange would not be confined to the sub-continent. The Chernobyl disaster showed just how extensive nuclear fallout can be, even from a site where remedial action is undertaken almost immediately. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would bring a different order of fallout as well as terribly destructive changes to weather patterns, particularly in the northern hemisphere.

The combatants themselves would, of course, be devastated, with large areas virtually inhabitable.

The article concluded:

Just when it seemed the nuclear terror was behind us forever, those who returned it to centre stage will not easily be forgiven.

But I do not share the views of the editorialist of the Financial Review . I think they are irresponsible and serve their readership very poorly by their platitudinous, relaxed and comfortable attitude to the expansion of the nuclear club by two new members who are nations with histories of enmity and whose peoples have responded to the explosions with outbursts of unconstrained nationalism and passions of a kind which foreshadow very poorly the possibilities that may emerge.

On this issue the Australian Labor Party takes on a position which is strong, consistent and definitive. We have argued consistently that we should seek to restrain reliance upon nuclear weapons, firstly, by banning their proliferation and setting a framework in place which would be the basis for their ultimate removal as weapons of war.

Second, we have put in place in our platform a commitment that no new uranium mines will be opened after our return to government. That conflicts with this administration which, since its election, has sought the helter skelter development of nuclear industries. This government has been urging the expansion of this industry to the sacrifice of all other considerations, including that of the environment.

Before the last federal election, when the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) was asked on a national television program about his views regarding the possibility of mining uranium at Jabiluka, which is a site excised from but inside the Kakadu world heritage area, the Prime Minister said, `I would have thought that environmental concerns alone would rule it out.' Acting no doubt upon that assurance, the Australian people would have been relaxed about the prospect of this government coming to office and not proceeding with that particular proposal.

But within days of coming to office the tone was changing and within months the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Parer, had given the green light to this government's approval of uranium mining at Jabiluka, notwithstanding that there had yet to be put in place any environmental assessment process; notwithstanding that the Aboriginal people, who are the traditional owners of that site, remain implacably opposed to it; and notwithstanding, as we now know only too well, the risks that must always emerge with the expansion of the nuclear industry of possible diversion.

The Labor Party, on this issue, has had a consistent, strong and honourable role throughout the debate. Whilst tonight we welcome the government's bringing forward of this legislation, we say to this government that there are yet further measures that you must pursue and undertake to reassure the Australian public that your words are not simply the reactions of a government that says one thing at one particular time to satisfy demands from the community and then does another at a later stage.

It is, above all, an issue which our children are concerned about. Whenever you travel throughout this country and address concerns of young Australians, one of the issues they put before you is their concerns about the global arms race. I guess those of my age—and most of us in this parliament are my age or older—have come to accept the apparent reality of these tensions and the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of a number of states. We have learnt to live within that framework.

But we have become far too complacent. The Australian community expects more of us than that we will now introduce sanctions and other measures against India and Pakistan. They expect us to move down the road of facilitating the work of the Canberra Commission. They expect us to give international leadership of the kind that the member for Kingsford-Smith (Mr Brereton) spoke about when he detailed the work over more than a decade of Labor in government as it built international momentum towards disarmament.

It expects that the Minister for Foreign Affairs will not resile from those difficult tasks—they are difficult and they do involve our dealing with powerful and influential friends who will not welcome those interventions—but they are tasks which Australians, particularly young Australians, demand of us. It particularly behoves us as we address what may emerge in the next election to look at the commitments of both parties with respect to the uranium industry. Thus far, no new mines have been approved by the present government. Let us hope that that is the state we are at at the next election because, unless compelled by all steps having been taken such that we must regard mining of uranium as being an existing process, a future Labor government will not allow any new uranium mines to open. That sends an unambiguous message to the world on where we stand on these issues that are so significant to us and future Australian generations.