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Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Page: 250


Mr SNOWDON (Lingiari) (16:30): It pains me to say that my purpose in getting up this afternoon is one that causes me a great deal of discomfort—not the address-in-reply but what I am going to be talking about. It was not my intention in this address to comment on question time today, and the abysmal performance of the Prime Minister and the absolute disdain shown by the opposition towards the community of Gove and the surrounding region. That was not my intention. My intention was to be here at the address-in-reply and do what others have done in this place: thank my community for their support, thank all those hardworking volunteers who worked on my campaign, and thank my wonderful family—my partner, Elizabeth, and our wonderful children—for their contribution and great support; without our families, as we all know, politicians are nothing. And frankly, I am disappointed that I cannot spend the time I wanted to on that rather than having to talk about this other matter.

What we have seen this afternoon is an absolute disrespect for the people of Gove and the surrounding communities—one that has been perpetuated by the behaviour of this government since the announcement was made on 29 November by Rio Tinto that they were going to curtail their operations at the Gove refinery as of February this year, with that curtailment to last until the end of July, at which time it would be finished and effectively the plant would go into mothballs: care and maintenance. They were given eight months from go to whoa.

This afternoon I asked the Prime Minister—as did the Leader of the Opposition—a question. The question was based on the simple fact that at the gathering at Garma last year the Prime Minister made this undertaking:

Why shouldn't I—if you will permit me—spend my first week as prime minister—should that happen—on your Country?'

That is a very clear statement. Yet, from listening to the Prime Minister this afternoon, he would have you believe it was something entirely different—which of course it was not. He was no doubt seeking to ingratiate himself. That is fine. But he did say this thing. And we heard at the Close the Gap ceremony this morning of his intention to spend a week in north-east Arnhem Land—he said 'eastern Arnhem Land', but I am assuming it will be north-east Arnhem Land—sometime during the course of this year. And I think that is terrific. Good on him. But don't come in here and show your complete disdain for people who heard what you said by trying to tell them you said something different, because it is clear that you did not.

Also this afternoon, something I found really intriguing: not only did the Prime Minister say that he had spoken to Rio Tinto on a number of occasions, but he simply has not bothered to talk to the people of Gove. There was no conversation with the Gove community action committee, elected representatives out of the Gove community, who came together after the announcement on 29 November to try to cause some reaction from government around the issues—which are immediate to them and obvious to them—of the impact of this proposal to eventually put this plant into mothballs.

I know personally people who have written to the Prime Minister seeking a response from this government about this particular thing. They are deafened by the silence. Now, I certainly do not blame the government for the decision by Rio Tinto to curtail its operations; I certainly do not blame the government for that. I do blame the Northern Territory government for that. That decision rests squarely at the feet of the current chief minister, Adam Giles. Why does it sit at his feet? Almost 18 months ago an agreement was reached between the Commonwealth, the Northern Territory and Rio Tinto to supply gas to Gove so that the Gove alumina refinery could generate its electricity from gas rather than the fuel oil they were using. This would have an immediate long-term impact on reducing their production costs and making it more competitive. This agreement was reached in full knowledge by the Northern Territory government through its then chief minister, Terry Mills. It was done also as a result of a negotiation and agreement by the Commonwealth through the avenue of the then resources minister, Martin Ferguson, that the Commonwealth would underwrite the cost of the pipeline to Gove. We did not expect to have to pay anything; this was just insurance against the investment. Sadly, in February of last year Terry Mills was on a trade mission to Japan, and while he was out of the country there was a coup. Adam Giles brought together the small number of members of the CLP, the Country Liberal Party in the Northern Territory, and they decided they were going to replace Terry Mills as the chief minister. Once they had made that decision, the die was cast, because clearly Adam Giles had no interest in living up to the deal that was agreed to by the former chief minister, Terry Mills.

So, over a period of time, despite the current minister for industry going to Gove after the election and guaranteeing the supply of gas to Gove as a result of the agreement reached between the Commonwealth under Labor, through Martin Ferguson's good offices, and Rio Tinto and the Northern Territory government, the Northern Territory's now chief minister, Adam Giles, said he was not going to live up to the deal. He welshed on the deal. Rio Tinto had made it very clear that if they could not get this deal to get the gas cheaply to Gove it would have a tremendous impact on their current and future operations at the refinery and they may have to curtail refinery operations.

Through subsequent events we know that discussions had taken place with Commonwealth agencies around possibilities should the curtailment take place. These discussions took place up to 12 or so months ago. It was clearly on the cards then, and on 29 November this year Rio Tinto dropped the axe. They told the community and the world at large that this operation would no longer be. Sadly, and to the disgrace of Rio Tinto, they did not—as Toyota have done—give notice of a number of years so that people could find another job. They gave them eight months. The Prime Minister has said he has spoken to Rio Tinto on a number of occasions. Has he asked them why they are in such a rush to close down the plant? Has he asked them why they are not prepared to spend a longer period in transition, say two years, to give the workers and the community time to adjust and look for new opportunities on the Gove Peninsula? You would think he would ask that, but I do not think he has done so and I am sure that the Northern Territory government has not done so.

Again today the Prime Minister said he had spoken to Rio Tinto and they had guaranteed the jobs of Yolngu people on the mining operation in north-east Arnhem Land. The mining operation will continue. Rio Tinto have cast-iron agreements with the traditional owners, principally through the Gumatj and the Rirratjingu. The company will live up to these agreements, because the mining operation will continue. But instead of employing 1,400 people at Gove, 350 people will be employed. We are losing more than 1,100 jobs, and that is not including the indirect jobs that will go from small businesses needing to relocate, close down or go bankrupt.

This is an immediate thing. It is not prospective, not happening in 2016 or 2017. It is today, but we have not heard one positive message from the Prime Minister or any minister. They have not deigned to visit the place. The Northern Territory CLP senator, Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, was all over the place like a damn rat before the election. I was there during the election period and he was always there seeking people's support. He will know as a result of the election that he did not get that support. The bottom line is: he is a senior cabinet minister in this government, but since that announcement was made on 29 November he has been nowhere near the place.

The Prime Minister talks about preserving the jobs of Aboriginal people, Yolngu people, on the mining operation in north-east Arnhem Land, and we understand why. It is because agreements are in place. I took from what the Prime Minister said today that he has received a guarantee from Rio Tinto that they would guarantee jobs for those Yolngu people who work at the refinery. Rio Tinto's performance in employing Yolngu people at the refinery has been poor, so there will not be many of those jobs. As a direct result of these decisions, it is as if an economic cyclone has hit Gove and ripped the guts out of the community. It is happening today—as we speak, it is happening.

I said they are losing more than 1,100 jobs in the town of Nhulunbuy. It is estimated by the company—the only ones to have done a socioeconomic impact assessment, because the Northern Territory government certainly has not and neither has the Commonwealth government—according to the Northern Territory Chief Minister, that as a result of these decisions the population of Gove will go from 4,000 to 1,200. Gove is not a bad size for a small town supporting infrastructure, services and small businesses. I say to the Prime Minister: you are proudly advocating your intention to visit north-east Arnhem Land, but you will be visiting a ghost town at Gove. The communities you are going to visit, the Yolngu communities, rely as much as non-Aboriginal people do on the services provided by the Gove community.

Small businesses currently provide them with supplies and transport connections to Darwin and elsewhere. They rely on these services as much as the people of Gove do. They rely on the volunteers who work at the tennis club and the football club. They rely on having access to the tackle shop—we met the tackle shop owners last week. As a direct result of the decisions taken by Rio Tinto and this government's lack of support, the tackle shop, which is a little family business paying rent of $11,000 a month, now has a turnover of $300 a day. This business is sliding rapidly towards bankruptcy, as are other community based small businesses that are not directly employed as subcontractors by Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto have a social licence to operate. The community and I expect them to give a longer transition period and invest a lot more money into the transition. We do not know what job opportunities exist, because the Commonwealth has not deigned to provide any resources.

There is—this is for the edification of members and those who might be listening to this—a task force which has been set up. There are three members from the Gove Community Advisory Committee, including one Yolngu representative, one federal government representative, one Northern Territory government representative and one NLC representative. There have been three meetings. At the first, a senior public servant from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development was requested to seek a Commonwealth structural adjustment package. We have not heard anything.

At the second, he joined by video link and said he had requested a structural adjustment package. At the third meeting he did not attend. Someone else attending in his place by video conference and said, 'I'm sorry I'm late. I haven't read any of the papers.' And, of course, there was no structural adjustment package. That person indicated that there was no inclination or enthusiasm by the federal government to provide any federal support. That is where we left it—just a referral to Centrelink.

We know what needs to happen here is that the Commonwealth government, through the Prime Minister and the other senior ministers who have a relationship, through their portfolios, to this issue, ought to be up at Gove. They should have been there in the first week of December. They have not been near the place.

At the last meeting of this task force the Yolngu representative, Timmy Djawa Barrawanga—a person I know—said to the Commonwealth representative on a phone, 'Come here and help us. I am crying here. We plead with the Commonwealth government to send someone here to see that we need help. This is happening to us now.' There was no positive response from the Commonwealth.

I am disgusted by this behaviour. What is it, if it is not the right of a member of parliament to stand up and talk about what concerns their community? This afternoon we tried to move an MPI which would have given me the opportunity to debate with the government the issues to do with Gove and the lack of jobs around this country—jobs which are being lost as a result of closures.

We were refused the opportunity to have that debate. They do not even want to talk about it. What an indictment that is! How sad it is that this government cannot even be bothered to talk about these issues in the parliament. They cannot be bothered to debate these issues. What does it say about people on that side of the House who come from regional electorates? We know what the member for Murray has said. She has been dealt a really low card by this government in terms of the treatment of her community—likewise, myself—but the changes at Shepparton are prospective. The changes in Gove are immediate.

Why is it that there has been no structural adjustment package? Why is it that there has not been any attempt by this government or by the Northern Territory government to look after the jobs of those workers or the prospective jobs that may have been there in the longer term had the refinery stayed open a little longer? There are many young people in that community who want jobs. But those jobs are shifting. They will not be there. We have third generation non-Indigenous people—balanda people—living in North East Arnhem Land, who have been in Gove for the last 40 years. They are being forced to uproot themselves and move. It is a national disaster but, listening to this government, you find that they have no regard for it at all.

I can tell you that the people of Gove are insulted. They are grossly insulted by this behaviour. One of the business representatives said to me recently that people invested on the advice of Rio Tinto in February and late May last year that there were decades of prosperity ahead. They are finished—gone—despite the positive words from Rio Tinto and the then Northern Territory government.

The region will suffer as services diminish. 'We hear about closing the gap,' this person says. 'Well, in East Arnhem Land the gap is widening as their commercial sector is destroyed.' That is the truth of it. There will be a small number of jobs in the mining operation, but once that refinery closes down, and the contractors to that organisation no longer have jobs, the contractors will go and small businesses will close. The multiplier effect is immediate and long term. I want this government to do something reasonable for the people of Gove and the surrounding community. I want the Prime Minister to get onto the phone to those communities and say, 'We are prepared to help you.'

I first got elected to this place 26 years ago. I have never, ever seen such disdain by a government for a people in this country. (Time expired)