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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 100


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(8.38) —The Government does not accept these amendments on the grounds that they are either undesirable or unnecessary, or both. Let me explain in regard to each of them why that is so. The first amendment requires the Minister to table in Parliament all reports submitted by the proposed Safety Review Committee. What that overlooks is that a great many of the reports that are required to be made under the legislation for essentially technical reasons may clearly not be of sufficient importance or interest to justify tabling and, as a result, it has been a matter for discretion by the Minister.

An example which I have just been given by the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission is an operating malfunction within, say, some indicator system which has been prompted by an alarm mechanism or something of that kind and which has required the replacement of the piece of equipment in question, but in circumstances in which there have been no safety implications whatsoever; there has been no conceivable question of any actual hazard being caused to any individuals. The reason for the notification requirement is to ensure in this sort of instance that over time, if any pattern of malfunction builds up, that can be subject to appropriate technical redress. It is not a matter of covering up any particular safety incident that genuinely does involve a hazard to individuals.

I have made it perfectly clear during my tenure of this post that when such issues do arise, or may be thought to arise-I refer, for example, to the question of the tampering with the water effluent pipe that arose a couple of times in the last year or so, which created negligible additional radiation in the water outlets but which may have been thought to have raised a safety issue-there has been no question of doing anything other than making an appropriate public release about it and getting the matter into the public domain. Equally it would be quite irresponsible for any government to behave otherwise. But these things can reasonably be left to ministerial discretion without the sort of mandatory requirement that would be inappropriate, given the nature of the reports that often occur in this subject area. The second amendment relates to essentially the same point.

The third amendment would have the effect of excluding former members or staff of ANSTO as well as existing members from forming the majority of members of the Safety Review Committee. We see this as being unduly restrictive in the Minister's capacity to appoint the best qualified persons to be members of the SRC. It seems also to reflect somewhat adversely on the character of former members of ANSTO staff by implying that they might somehow put loyalty to their former employer before their professional integrity. That is something we do not see as appropriate or a legitimate inference that should be allowed to be drawn. Further, as it is expected that contract appointments will become more common within ANSTO, this amendment could prove to be particularly difficult in its practical effects. It would be ridiculous to prohibit the appointment to this Committee of a person who had been employed by ANSTO in some capacity or other for only a short period some years before. That situation is likely to arise in the future under the increasing use of contract employment.

As to the requirement that there be some kind of local representative appointed to the Safety Review Committee, again we do not see this as being necessary to ensure that the interests of the local community, as perceived by at least some people in that community, are protected. If a person had the appropriate qualifications and if that person were also a local resident, obviously that nomination would be given very serious consideration. But the functions of the Committee are all about public safety as well as safety within the confines of the Organisation. The members of the Committee would be in breach of their statutory, not to mention moral, obligations if they did not have regard to public safety considerations. It is an over-reaction by the Democrats to their perception of what they think the problems are rather than being anything that is required either practically or from any common sense approach.

The final amendment seeks to prevent a member or former member of ANSTO staff being the chairperson of the Safety Review Committee. Again, similar considerations apply. As I indicated earlier, it could unnecessarily limit the capacity of the Minister to appoint someone who is manifestly the best person for the position. This is particularly inappropriate again in the context of the point I made a moment ago about the increasing incidence of contract employment which is likely in one way or another in the years ahead to operate to wipe out the capacity to serve, if this amendment were adopted, of just about anyone who has had practical experience in the particular matters that the Safety Review Committee is being established to oversight.

I can understand the spirit in which the amendments are offered, and certainly we have been happy to go along with the general approach of the Democrats in beefing up and giving a role, viability and a degree of independence to the Safety Review Committee. We have had no difficulty with any of those things. But I think that these extra layers of obligation and automatic reporting requirements, not just in the Commission's or Organisation's own domain but with all the majesty of a report to parliament, are going further than is required by the nature of the problems to which this clause is directed.