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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 3945

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(9.52 a.m.) —I move:

1. That the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations (Amendment), as contained in Statutory Rules 1997 Nos 30 to 33 and made under the Customs Act 1901, be disallowed.

2. That the Senate—

(a)   notes with concern the continued failure of the Government to meet an express election commitment to establish a Wood and Paper Industry Council to drive a wood and paper industry strategy and encourage industry development, downstream processing and investment; and

(b)   resolves that the Export Control (Regional Forest Agreements) Regulations as contained in Statutory Rules 1997, No. 77 and made under the Export Control Act 1982, be disallowed.

It is just over a year since the Senate disallowed the government's regulation to remove the Commonwealth government responsibility for controlling the export of some of Australia's most important commodities.

The arguments that were made by the opposition last year to maintain Commonwealth controls, the arguments that I made in the chamber at that time, I believe are still valid today. I think they are in fact more powerful when they are considered in the context of the Howard government's woeful mismanagement of the environment over the past 14 months. The Senate made it clear last year that it did not support the abandoning of export controls on alumina, bauxite, mineral sands, coal and liquefied natural gas. I must say, since that time, the government has done nothing that would convince us that the removal of export controls is a responsible action.

The opposition maintains its support for export controls at the Commonwealth level for three very important reasons. Firstly, there have been a number of occasions in the past where the Commonwealth powers over export licences have led to improved prices offered for our exports. That is true particularly for coal. At various times, previous resources ministers have secured better returns for Australia's minerals by refusing to approve licences until the industry obtained a better price.

Secondly, the opposition believes that there is a very important role for the Commonwealth government in resource planning. In our view, it is not in the national interest to have these matters and responsibilities entirely in the hands of the states. There must be some level of input from the Commonwealth government. While we concede that export control powers are a clumsy mechanism, we do believe that they are better than no mechanism at all. Until the Commonwealth government develops an alternative means of ensuring that the Commonwealth has a role, the opposition will not support the removal of export controls from these minerals.

Thirdly, the removal of Commonwealth export controls over these minerals has enormous consequences for the management of Australia's environment. It is this responsibility for the Australian environment which I believe the Howard government would be only too happy to relinquish. I would remind the Senate that the Commonwealth's control over the export of mineral sand products enabled the Fraser government to ban sandmining developments on Fraser Island in Queensland.

Under this government's policy, the Commonwealth would have no power to step in and act as it did in the case of Fraser Island, unless some other piece of legislation, such as the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act or the Australian Heritage Commission Act happened to apply.

Senator Parer —It does.

Senator FAULKNER —In the case of Fraser Island, that is true. It is a world heritage listed property; that is true, Senator Parer. But you have to get your chronology right and you have to get your history right in relation to this.

The point I would make to Senator Parer is that they are limited in themselves. Both those mechanisms are limited. In relation to the Australian Heritage Commission Act, it can be effective only if the Commonwealth minister or a Commonwealth department or agency is involved and, of course, only if the relevant proposal satisfies the criterion that it might affect to a significant extent part of the national estate. I think most senators would appreciate that it can be very difficult to prove that criterion prior to the commencement of a mining activity.

In relation to the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act, that is also limited, because currently there are only 11 properties that are inscribed on the world heritage list. The World Heritage Properties Conservation Act of course is limited to protecting those areas. When the previous Labor administration moved to use powers under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act, this government—the current government—of course opposed the previous Labor administration tooth and nail.

You see, Senator Parer, you have got real form on this. I must say that it is no surprise that the opposition cannot have any faith in the government in relation to its commitment to protecting Australia's environment. I do acknowledge, Senator Parer, that you, as the Minister for Resources and Energy, are the de facto environment minister for Australia. I do acknowledge that. I think it is unfortunate that the current Minister for the Environment (Senator Hill) appears unwilling or unable to play the traditional role of custodian and protector of the environment in this country.

I made those points in a debate on a similar disallowance motion last year, and they still stand today. The points are still valid. Senators would recall that during the debate last year the resources minister, Senator Parer, made the remarkable assertion that the previous Fraser government's use of the export control powers to protect Fraser Island was, to quote Senator Parer, `an abuse of power'. That is exactly what you said. I would be very interested to hear how the minister for the environment in the Howard government might view the Fraser government's move to protect Fraser Island from sandmining. Would he agree that it was an abuse of power?

Senator Brown —Who is it?

Senator FAULKNER —Senator Hill has that title, Senator Brown. Would Senator Hill agree that it was an abuse of power? Would Senator Hill and other members of the government believe it would be better for Fraser Island to have been developed as a sandmine than protected as a world heritage area? Because that is what Senator Parer believes. That is what you said in the debate last year. It is for those sorts of reasons, Senator Parer—

Senator Parer —It was an abuse of power.

Senator FAULKNER —Why did you say it was an abuse of power? Why?

Senator Parer —Because the original export controls were used as a pricing mechanism.

Senator FAULKNER —This is the problem we have. This is a minister in a government—typical of ministers in this government—without a commitment to protection of the environment. We are being asked to remove a mechanism which is inadequate and, at times, ineffective but which is, in many cases, the only mechanism we have. That is the truth of it.

Senator Parer —That is not right.

Senator FAULKNER —That is the truth of it. And your remarks, Senator Parer, expose a remarkable disregard on the part of this government in terms of your commitment to protecting Australia's environment.

In the debate last May, I did acknowledge that there was a need to develop better pro cesses to protect the environment and to manage the export of these commodities. I also said that the opposition would consider supporting the removal of export controls on minerals only when those mechanisms were in place. I must say that it has been drawn—

Senator Parer —They are not on all minerals. Who took them off?

Senator FAULKNER —It has been drawn to the opposition's attention that export controls on liquefied natural gas spot contract exports from the North-West Shelf joint venture project are causing some difficulties because every spot sale requires a new licence. I am not completely aware of why this is such a problem for the current resources minister, but it relates in some way to Senator Parer's administration of those export licences. I have had some discussions with the shadow minister for resources, Stephen Smith, and he has indicated to Senator Parer and the government that the opposition would support government moves to resolve those difficulties with spot—

Senator Parer —Hello; a minor step forward. What's the difference?

Senator FAULKNER —You really do not have very much goodwill, do you? But he has indicated to you, Senator Parer, as I understand it—

Senator Parer —He has put out a press release.

Senator FAULKNER —That is good. I hope you have had an opportunity to read it. Mr Smith has indicated to Senator Parer that, in relation to resolving the difficulties with spot contracts from the North-West Shelf gas project, we would be happy to work with the government to see if there can be an improved mechanism in relation to the administration of export licences there. But we do not believe that the blanket removal of liquefied natural gas from Commonwealth export controls is the appropriate way to resolve that difficulty in relation to LNG on the North-West Shelf. I want Senator Parer to understand that that is the situation and to be absolutely clear that we do not believe that removing LNG from Commonwealth export controls is the appropriate way to proceed.

It is inappropriate for this government to request that the Senate relinquish its powers over the export of important commodities without the government first implementing alternative mechanisms to ensure that the environment is protected and without proposing alternative mechanisms for resource planning. Until we see those alternative mechanisms to ensure the environment is protected, resource planning is undertaken and the prices our mineral exports receive on the world market are as high as possible, we will be absolutely unwilling to remove these export controls. In the absence of any alternative mechanism proposed by government, the Senate has little choice but to reaffirm the position it took last year. It is for that reason that I am proposing to disallow these regulations.

Export controls on minerals are important for environmental and economic reasons, and they should be maintained. The government's determination to abolish these controls is based, in my view, on mainly sectional interests. It is not based on the national interest. I would urge the Senate to reaffirm its commitment to the export controls. I commend this disallowance motion to the chamber.