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Tuesday, 8 November 1983
Page: 2377


Mr LIONEL BOWEN (Minister for Trade)(3.22) —Again the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) has ventured into this area of uranium. He has written a couple of letters proposing matters of public importance on this subject, but usually, it is worthy of comment, these matters are left to the Leader of the National Party (Mr Anthony) to raise. On the last occasion a debate on this subject took place the Leader of the National Party led for the Opposition. We have had a number of discussions of matters of public importance on this subject in recent weeks. The most significant thing about all those discussions of matters of public importance was the Opposition's decrying what is wrong with Australian Labor Party policy. Today, apart from some aberration by referring to a crimes commission and all sorts of other matters which do not seem to be very relevant to this issue, the Leader of the Opposition seemed to be suggesting that there is a problem for this nation in the export of uranium.

Let me make the position very clear. As far back as 16 September the honourable gentleman suggested, amongst other matters, that Roxby Downs and a capital gains tax were married. He was attempting to show that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) had misled the nation. It is sour grapes to suggest in the House today, following the decision of the Government yesterday in its Caucus, that something has happened which in any way will affect the uranium industry to its detriment. Let us look at what the Labor Party has done. I will quote from the Sydney Morning Herald, which I know usually does not advocate Labor policy. It states that Labor's policy and decisions yesterday permit the continued operation of the uranium projects at Ranger and Nabarlek, which they do. It continues:

Roxby Downs . . . can be developed along with its massive copper reserves and its subsidiary gold reserves.

That is the key to Roxby Downs. It continues:

A number of other uranium projects, most of which are of questionable economic viability . . .

Is that not the issue? We have heard today a diatribe of abuse against the Labor Party because it has a democratic process whereby anybody can assemble and express his views. The issue has come out very clearly in the democratic process : There are two existing mines in operation and they should be allowed to continue, subject to other matters which I will mention shortly.

I come to the nub of the question which has always bedevilled Australia. It is the tragedy of Liberal-National Party philosophy. In fairness to the Liberal Party, I suppose that it can be said that it has always abdicated the field of resource development and left it to the good old National Party. In the recent election in Queensland the Liberals were thrashed almost to extinction and are no longer a viable political force in that State. The resource mentality of the Premier of Queensland is to sell our resources to any other country rather than keep them in Australia for Australia's economic benefit and gain. But we do not hear any complaint about that from the Liberal Party. In fact, it is so weak and inept that one wonders whether it will survive. We hope that the Leader of the Opposition survives. We want to see him at the next election. It will guarantee our return to government. That position is very evident at present. A fair amount of time was taken up in referring to the Australian Labor Party and its problems. We do not have any problems, but we think the Liberal Party has immense problems when it comes to issues such as those raised today, because it has never had a policy relating to uranium. In fact, it has been mentioned by the honourable member for the Northern Territory (Mr Reeves) that the Liberal Party has no policy on uranium and it is left to the National Party to talk about it.


Mr Connolly —You have said it twice.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —I have said it twice and I will say it a third time in this way : Let us look at the policy to which the Liberals have acquiesced by silence. It was a policy espoused by the Leader of the National Party in this Parliament as Minister responsible for resource development. That policy was to open mines which held certainly another 300,000 tonnes of uranium reserves. Those mines did not include Roxby Downs. As a matter of interest for the Leader of the Opposition, who forgot to mention it today, the Leader of the National Party never gave approval for Roxby Downs to go into the market place, because the mine had not reached that stage. It has not yet sought approval to go into the market place.

The two existing mines which are the subject of keen debate in the Labor Party- Ranger and Nabarlek-have 100,000 tonnes of unsold uranium. Is it not intelligent for a Government of this country to look at the sequential development of resources such as this? There are many questions still to be answered in respect of reprocessing for plutonium and high level waste disposal but, as the Prime Minister said, it is important that Australia continue to be a participant in the peaceful use of uranium for the generation of electricity. Again, our obligations are to ensure that if the world needs energy of this type-I emphasise the word 'need'-we at least play our role and guarantee that the cost of energy to developing countries is not excessive and that those countries have an opportunity to get energy at the same resource charge as any other country. Also, as the Prime Minister has said, under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons we must have a definite regard to disarmament issues but it is important that all states to the treaty have the right to the benefits not only of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy but also of the peaceful use of nuclear medicine. These matters, of course, have to be weighed in the context of the massive diversion of nuclear fuel into weapons. There has been a legitimate and strong debate in this country as to how we can effectively guarantee that there will be no proliferation of weapons and no pollution of the world by high level wastes-for example, the Pacific Ocean being used as a dumping ground. At the same time, we need to look at the legitimate needs particularly of the Northern Hemisphere because of its climatic considerations and its shortage of coal to ensure that it at least has access to fuel.

The Nabarlek and Ranger mines still have 100,000 tonnes of uranium unsold, and the peaceful use of Australian uranium in this decade is predicted to be of about that quantity. The maximum we could expect to sell in the next 10 years would be 100,000 tonnes. To try to find contracts for an additional 10,000 tonnes a year-that is what we would have to do-would be quite a sizable task, because there are a number of other suppliers of uranium in the world. We do not have the market to ourselves but at least we are expected to play our role in terms of committing part of Australia's uranium to peaceful uses of nuclear fuel .

The argument has been put today that we are preventing economic development. The development that was allowed by the National Party with Liberal Party acquiescence was the commitment of at least another 300,000 tonnes to the fuel cycle. Where the markets were nobody can tell us. At present the spot market price for uranium is $23 or $24. The economic development in Australian terms would require a price of about $36. What was the strategy? Roxby Downs would add another 1.2 million tonnes of uranium. Where were the uranium developers in Australia going to find markets?


Mr Connolly —Let them go and look for a market.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The honourable member for Bradfield says: 'Let them go and find a market'. Let us look at that policy of 'let them go and find a market'. Let us also bear in mind that a number of these other mines were foreign owned. The market would have been there for them, but what would have happened to the Australian producers in that situation? They would not have survived, and everyone knows that.

We now have an intelligent understanding of the present position in Australia. The two existing mines have been allowed to remain in the market and to continue . They have obtained contracts at fair prices. Such contracts are very difficult to get. But with 100,000 tonnes still in reserve and still unsold, of course their obligation is to find markets because they have enormous commitments. For example, one corporation owes over $300m, having had to borrow that to get the mine started. It needs contracts at the prices I mentioned, not only to give some reasonable return but also to repay its indebtedness. How in the name of fortune was there to be an effective development of Australian resources in the energy area with a plethora of uranium mines being allowed to open with no consideration of what the markets would be? My friend opposite says: 'Let market forces work that out'. When market forces work that out there is blood on the floor. People perish.


Mr Howard —That is a terrific statement, isn't it?


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —It is a terrific statement. As a former Treasurer, the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard) would know that because he approved a number of them. At present the situation in the coal mines is that as a result of the oversupply of coal, our coal mines will now be able to supply 40 per cent less coal to Japan than last year. I invite the honourable member for Bennelong to go to those mines the development of which he approved and suggest where they will sell their coal. They will not sell it. They will close. Coal is a finite resource; it cannot be replaced. Seven new mines were opened but there is no market for them. There is massive unemployment in Australia. We have enormous problems resulting from his stupidly saying: 'What does it matter if the mines close'? They will close. There are no markets--


Mr Connolly —You have no foresight.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —No foresight? The Opposition looked at this with blinkered vision. It had its eyes closed. It fell into the trap. Because the Japanese said that they might need more coal, the Opposition when in government decided to open more mines. We should look at that sort of decision in relation to uranium. If the forecast is for 100,000 tonnes in the next 10 years, why in the name of fortune would one open up resources for 1.5 million tonnes above present supply? That is the argument.


Mr Howard —But that was not the basis of your decision yesterday.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —It is the basis of our decision, and it was the basis of the Fox Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry that sequential development is also important.


Mr Howard —You are not adopting Fox; you are wandering away from Fox.


Mr LIONEL BOWEN —The honourable member can have his time later. The development of Roxby Downs is to proceed on the basis that it is making a commercial decision, in relation to copper and gold deposits. Following yesterday's decision, the Government will look at the whole question of uranium, particularly future contracts. It will do it on the basis of an inquiry to be conducted by the Australian Science and Technology Council, under the personal direction of its Chairman, Professor Ralph Slatyer. It will produce a report not later than May next year. It will examine in particular our safeguard arrangements and our bilateral and multilateral agreements. It will examine the opportunities for Australia through the conditions of its involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle to advance further the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, the adequacy of existing technology for the handling and disposal of waste products and the ways in which Australia can contribute to the development of safe disposal methods. It has been recommended that a permanent commission be established to address on an ongoing basis the full range of issues relating to the nuclear fuel cycle, to monitor Australia's position in that cycle and to report regularly to the Government and the Parliament.

They are positive measures. We will have some intelligent appraisal on a scientific basis of what Australia's role can be in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. For the Opposition to raise this issue, for about the fourth time this session, with a diatribe of abuse and no knowledge at all of the problems facing this industry, is ridiculous. It is counterproductive for someone of the stature of the Leader of the Opposition. There is no uncertainty about our policy.

The sad part is that the Opposition is upset because we have allowed Roxby Downs to go into the marketplace and we have allowed two mines to continue. Apparently it is disappointed because we did not allow another 300,000 tonnes of uranium to come on to the marketplace when there is no market for that fuel. I emphasise the point that at all times we have been consistent. For once the Sydney Morning Herald is quite right; it suggested that we have a viable policy. The Northern Territory clearly knows where it is going. South Australia clearly knows the position. The other people who have been venturing and speculating ought to understand now that there is no market for their uranium. They probably will not have a market for the next 20 years. That is the position. Our guarantee is--


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.