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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4059


Senator SANDY MACDONALD(7.50 p.m.) —The Senate Select Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling was set up on 2 May 1996 to inquire into a very important mining activity which has been subject to political restraint under the previous government's three mines policy. It was timely because of an increasing world demand for uranium and the fact that Australia has 30 per cent of the world's exploitable deposits but only 10 per cent of the market.

Senator Margetts, with the support of the Australian Democrats, was instrumental in setting up this inquiry. She expected the committee to do two things. Firstly, she expected the committee to travel the country, providing her with an opportunity for those who oppose uranium development to spread a mixture of misinformation, half-truths and cliches about an industry that has been vindicated over two decades and which has operated rigorously under the guidelines set down by the Fox inquiry 20 years ago. The Fox review said:

The hazards of mining and milling uranium, if these activities are properly regulated and controlled, are not such as to justify a decision not to develop Australian uranium.

Secondly, Senator Margetts expected a Senate report that she could exploit and therefore have a focus for her ongoing paranoia about uranium.

Unfortunately, everything went horribly wrong. She did not even get TV coverage. Even Order in the House ignored her. Definitely the oxygen of publicity was not provided. It was all very embarrassing. The question is why. Firstly, the anti-uranium agitators turned out to be lacking substance and intellectual argument. I am not in the business of giving them advice, but I suggest they do some research before hitting the campaign trail. Their submissions were poor, and with friends like that you barely need enemies. I cite one Reverend Stringer, from the Uniting Church Social Responsibility and Justice Committee. He was almost a stand-up comic. We had quite a spirited discussion about whether a rock was an inert object.

Secondly, Kakadu is not an environmental wreck. Indeed, there is no more tightly regulated mine in the world than Ranger. Its impact on the surrounding environment is minimal. Its impact, at considerable expense, is mainly confined to itself.

Thirdly, there was never an attempt to rebut the positive case put by the supporters of the uranium industry, which includes the employment opportunities that the industry provides, and the royalties to, among others, the Northern Land Council and Aboriginal groups generally. I cite an example. We went to Cotton Creek, which is a very isolated community in Western Australia, near Newman, where there was a group of very proud Aboriginal inhabitants who had some legitimate concerns about mining, but not particularly about uranium mining. Senator Margetts said, `Look, we're here from the Greens and we're here to help you.' The old Aboriginal elder said, `Look, we'll call you. Don't you bother calling us.'

Of course the other advantages of the uranium industry are the financial returns to Australia generally, the balance of trade advantages—at Ranger alone it is estimated there will be another $12 billion export income in the life of the mine—and the contribution, of course, of nuclear energy in addressing the world's greenhouse problem.

The fourth reason why Senator Margetts's little plan did not come to fruition is that on the health and safety issues this industry has a good record. Our industry is already well within the world limit of 20 millisieverts of uranium exposure in a year.

The anti-uranium agitators have not only long given up the tedious task of building their views on research facts and impartial analysis, but also—perhaps even more serious in this particular case—have resorted uninhibitedly to unfounded scaremongering. A particularly appalling instance of this distasteful tactic may be found in paragraph 5.2 of their dissent. In that paragraph, the dissenters alleged that the incidence of childhood leukaemia in children of mine workers is 10 times the national average. This statistic falls well and truly within Disraeli's dictum of lies, damned lies and statistics.

Anyone seeking to verify this statistic or place it in context must run an obstacle course. The course leads back to a claimed report of the South Australian Health Commission. But anyone trying to track it down is in for a long and fruitless search. Why let truth and honesty get in the way when compared with the prospects of frightening ordinary working Australians? It goes without saying that neither Senator Margetts nor Senator Lees questioned officers of the South Australian Health Commission about this report or its relevance to the mining community at Roxby Downs during the public hearings of the committee. This is but one of the shameful aspects of their posturing.

Fifthly, the anti-uranium proponents can find no hole in our strict international safeguard undertakings. The only chink in the international regulatory regime at the moment is Iraq, and Australia does not—nor will it ever, I suggest—sell uranium to Iraq.

Senator Margetts seems to start from the premise that there is only one place for uranium, and that is in the ground. She should try to develop some arguments rather than using the tired, embarrassing, unfulfilled cliches of the 1960s and 1970s, because she appears to be typically somebody who works from emotion and then seeks evidence to support her opinion. She really does appear in this instance to be in a very depressing time warp.

Senator Margetts apparently has a layman's understanding of the industry, which I understand is the raison d'etre of her party and her movement. As we approached Ranger for the first time, I got the distinct impression that she thought that the piles of sulphur—essential for sulphuric acid necessary for the leaching of uranium oxide from the ore bearing rock—were yellowcake. She appeared very excited until it was explained to her what it was. I have to say that her refusal to get out of the bus at Ranger to inspect the site was one stunt among many.

Senator Lees hardly put in an appearance at either the hearings or two of the three site inspections. Perhaps she already knew all about the uranium industry or had made up her own mind. Clearly, it was the latter. This is an example of political humbug of the worst kind. The Democrat performance was that of a grandstand appearance. Unfortunately, their side had already slunk off the field of play with the depressing Greens.

I would like to congratulate the chairman of the committee, Senator Chapman, for his forbearance and tolerance—Senator Margetts attempted to make the committee unmanageable. Congratulations also to John Nethercote and his assistants. This is a considerable intellectual effort that will be read by all interested in the industry. I appreciated the opportunity to serve on the committee with Senators Bishop, Reynolds and Chapman, all with strong and legitimate views on some of the ways that the industry can be improved. It was a pleasure to get to know them better under what were difficult, but often amusing, circumstances.