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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 3969


Senator COOK(12.12 p.m.) —I have a problem with this amendment. If we are legally bound, I do not think we can then move an amendment to a bill which tries to escape that legal binding by any international agreement. My problem arises in the first place because no-one is able to identify what that international agreement might be and in which way we are specifically legally bound. That is the first point in explaining my dilemma.

The second point is that there is a degree of legality and justice here. One of the amendments that we will come to shortly, time permitting, is an amendment lodged by the Labor Party which concerns offshore vessels for oil rigs. I remember starkly when I had your responsibilities many years ago the Piper Alpha catastrophe in the North Sea when an oil rig was engulfed in a fire ball and blew up killing quite a number of people. As a consequence of that event, we reviewed offshore regulations for safety in Australia for offshore oil rigs and promulgated a regulation requiring a vessel to stand off an oil rig as a safety precaution in case there was a need for an emergency evacuation of that rig.

In Australian waters you can take the North West Shelf or the Bass Strait as examples where there are oil drilling platforms offshore. That is a safety requirement. I know the North West Shelf better than Bass Strait, so I would like to hold the example there. If a foreign owned fishing vessel calls into the port of Dampier and collects diesel fuel under this international agreement—that we have not yet sighted and are not clear about—it would get the rebate, but the operator of the oil rig requiring to send a vessel out to stand off the oil rig for safety precautions under Australian law would not.

That is the legality of what we are talking about. My question is: is that justice? Is that fair? It strikes me that it is not. My dilemma is that I am not going to do anything that internationally would put us in a situation in which we could be accused of trying to escape our lawful obligations. Of course that would be wrong. If we are bound, we are bound, and then I think I am bound, ergo, to vote against the Democrats' amendment, no matter what sympathy I have with it. It would be an irksome task for me to do so, given what I think is a perceived lack of justice here if we cannot accommodate the Australian vessels in offshore positions whereby they are also required to be on station for safety purposes.

I do understand that it is quite a complicated and costly, to quote Senator Murray, bureaucratic process to get on the shipping register in order to qualify. I understand that that is complicated. To go to that argument for a minute, there is no reason why, in the face of that knowledge that we now have, we could not contemplate a further amendment to grandfather in or provide some way in which bona fide fishing vessels, which were not on the register but, nonetheless, operating in the appropriate way, could access this rebate. If we accept the terms that they have to be on the register, it is difficult. But, if you find a way of overriding that, it is less difficult. It is a question of what is fair at the end of the day.

Coming back to the fundamental point for the Labor Party, if there is an international convention or agreement, we will vote with the government—that is, if we are bound by it. If we are not, I think this matter is then at large and we should consider our situation.