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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 862


Mr COBB(9.03) —Tonight we are debating the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill. This legislation will allow an increase in the export duty on uranium exported from Australia, which previously stood at the level of 11 cents a kilogram before 19 April 1986. The Bill will permit an increase in that level from 11 cents a kilogram to 80 cents a kilogram which, when one does the calculations, is an increase of roughly 7 1/4 times. That is an incredible increase and one wonders what the Prices Surveillance Authority would say if it had authority over this area of increased charges. We are told that this extra tax will collect another $2.6m over and above what is collected now. We are told also that this extra money will go to pay half the costs of those environmental monitoring and research activities of the Office of the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region which are associated with mining of uranium in the Alligator Rivers Region in the Northern Territory.

Before I come to the almost unbelievable story of the Office of the Supervising Scientist, it is pertinent to relate a little background on the two mining companies involved. The first is Energy Resources of Australia Ltd-ERA-which owns the Ranger mine near Jabiru. This mine is surrounded by, but is not part of, the Kakadu National Park. The other mine in question, the Nabarlek mine, lies to the east and is run by Queensland Mines Ltd. It conducts the milling operation there from its uranium ore stockpile and exports the uranium it produces. It is pertinent to look at the contribution that ERA has made to the Australian economy through its Ranger mine. If we look at some of the figures over the past four years--


Mr McGauran —They are extraordinary.


Mr COBB —They are. That company has earned over $1,000m in export income for Australia just from one relatively small mine. It has paid in excess of $210m in income tax and has made a profit of a little over $220m. From that profit it has paid a dividend of roughly $175m. Throughout that time it has employed approximately 400 people, and it currently employs 380 people. Let us add up the taxes that it has paid. In the last four years it has paid company tax of $210 million. It has paid dividends and the people who have received those dividends have paid tax on them which works out at approximately $60 million. Of the wages that have been paid, the wage earners have paid about $7m tax in the last four years and on top of that the company has paid a royalty to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account amounting to something like $52m since its inception.


Mr Peter Fisher —Incredible.


Mr COBB —Yes, it is incredible. If we total all that, we find that the company has shelled out $329m in taxes and so forth. By any standards that is an extraordinary contribution to the nation. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a table showing the details of the payments to the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account by ERA and Queensland Mines Ltd.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

NT ROYALTY EQUIVALENTS-PAYMENTS TO ABORIGINAL BENEFITS TRUST ACCOUNT

Mining company

Year

Amount $

$

Energy Resources of

Aust. Ltd (uranium)

1981-82

1982-83

1983-84

1984-85

1985-86

1986-87

(to 30/11)

1,784,701.01

10,276,308.77

11,981,471.76

11,454,176.86

11,424,483.70

5,025,522.36

Total

51,946,664.46

Queensland Mines Ltd

(uranium)

1981-82

1982-83

1983-84

1984-85

1985-86

1986-87

(to 30/11)

1,834,807.63

1,099,122.02

1,409,581.43

1,559,990.65

1,696,487.39

2,378,266.15

555,758.94

Total

10,534,014.21


Mr COBB —I thank the House. The table also shows that Queensland Mines Ltd has paid a royalty to the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Account of $10.5m in that time. On top of that these companies have been paying 11c a kilogram on every kilogram of uranium exported, and that is now to go up to 80c a kilogram. Last year ERA alone exported 2,810,000 kilograms of uranium, and with world demand on the increase there is no doubt that these figures will increase not only for ERA but also for other uranium mining companies in Australia.

Last year there were 374 nuclear reactors operating in the world. They produced something like a quarter of a million megawatts of electrical generating capacity. Last year 150 more stations were under construction and another 116 were being planned. It has been estimated that by 1995 the world's nuclear generating capacity will double. Already, the United States of America, the major user of electricity, produces something like 16 per cent of it from about 100 nuclear plants. That fine socialist country, Sweden, already produces in excess of 50 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power plants.


Mr Tim Fischer —France produces 70 per cent.


Mr COBB —France produces more than 65 per cent-indeed, close to 70 per cent, of its power from nuclear stations and the amount is rising. Japan, another major user, already produces 26 per cent and that is destined to increase to 35 per cent by 1995. People might ask why there is such expansion in the world's demand for nuclear energy. The reasons are fairly simple and can be summed up by saying that it is the safest of all forms of energy despite what we hear. It is also the cheapest and cleanest form of energy. The alternatives, such as wind energy and solar energy, usually produce too little and are too costly, even though they play an important part in producing 1, 2, 3, or 4 per cent of energy needs. The other alternative is coal, and in many countries it is just too dear. It is too dirty for the more highly populated countries because of the acid rain and the greenhouse effect that it produces. Also, interestingly enough, coal produces more radioactive wastes when it is burnt and releases fumes into the atmosphere.

The world is going increasingly nuclear and Australia is being left behind in the technology stakes. I am not implying that Australia should build a nuclear power station; it would be uneconomic because we have massive coal supplies close to the surface and near the population centres. But certainly we should be looking very closely at commercial uranium enrichment which would be worth millions of dollars to Australia by adding value to the relatively raw product that we now sell. I think it is safe enough to say that the coalition will support such a venture when it returns to government after the next election. We will also encourage research into the technology of the safe disposal of nuclear waste and we will certainly remove the restrictions on other uranium deposits being developed in Australia. I refer to deposits such as Jabiluka, Koongarra, Yeelirrie, Beverley, Honeymoon, Ben Lomond and Lake Way which are the main ones. Under a coalition government there would be no more of this jobs for the boys type approach, or mines for your mates agreements whereby only new uranium mines like Roxby Downs get the go ahead when it is needed to save an ALP government in a State election, which is what happened in South Australia. By not allowing Jabiluka to operate means that Australia is losing hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of dollars. Jabiluka of course is in the Northern Territory and there we have a Country-Liberal Party government.

This rather inconsistent and nonsensical standard set by the present Federal Government in determining who mines where and who mines elsewhere cannot be substantiated and will certainly go when the coalition returns to power. The potential markets are there and the demand will double in a few years. We should have as many companies as possible out there on the world market seeking to sell. But this new tax on exports of 80 cents a kilogram that we are debating tonight will cut into the profitability and will lessen the chance of new investment in this area and new mines being opened up and developed. The present Labor Government policy says that it is good to mine here but it is evil to mine there. Australians are completely bewildered by that and the sooner that attitude goes the better. It is costing thousands of jobs and it is holding back decentralisation. It is estimated that if the four mines in the Northern Territory could be opened up-we are running two now-they could be earning something like $10,000m by the year 2000. It is criminal and almost traitorous that other countries such as Canada and South Africa are filling Australia's share simply because of this Federal Government's policy.

Let me get back to what this new export tax is supposed to be spent on; namely, a quaint body called the Office of the Supervising Scientist. As I said earlier, this body is there for a whole range of functions concerned with the monitoring and protecting of the Alligator Rivers Region from the effects of uranium mining.


Mr Barry Jones —It was set up by the Fraser Government.


Mr COBB —Yes, the Fraser Government did have some faults-I am the first to admit it. It also set up the Human Rights Commission and look at how that has burgeoned. That is another area we will be getting rid of when we get back into power.


Mr Downer —Blown out by three times by the Labor Party; that's good.


Mr COBB —Yes. When one first hears about the OSS one expects three, four or five scientists to be employed. It might even have a secretary in a little office in Darwin. But I was absolutely astounded when I picked up the report of the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region and saw just how the Office has grown. Imagine my surprise when I saw that there are 76 on the staff.


Mr Hicks —How many?


Mr COBB —Seventy-six.


Mr Peter Fisher —Where do they live?


Mr COBB —That is a very pertinent question: Where do they live? One would expect them to be living in Jabiru or Darwin. But as we heard earlier in this debate they have offices in Sydney with 27 staff. The Darwin office has one person in it-one person out of 76, but there are 27 in Sydney. The report says:

The Sydney staff visit the Northern Territory regularly.

I bet they do. It is interesting to look at the address of the Office in Sydney. It is located at the Triple M Tower, Bondi Junction. What is more, it is on level 24.


Mr Cadman —With a view to the beach.


Mr COBB —With a beautiful view to the beach, as the honourable member for Mitchell says. I give some credit to the Labor Party in that it has looked at the horrific number of staff and is thinking of cutting it back, but it was thinking of making a reduction of three-quarters from the people in the field. Hardly anyone in Sydney is touched at all.


Mr Cadman —How many would that leave in Darwin?


Mr Hicks —Half a person.


Mr COBB —Yes, perhaps half a person. Those who work for the OSS can enjoy Sydney life while not being denied the pleasures of travel. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard, if it is within the guidelines, a table of the places that the staff of the OSS have visited in the last two years. It is quite a revealing table.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Darling) —It does not meet the guidelines, so it cannot be incorporated.


Mr COBB —I thank the House for its consideration. It is very interesting to go through some of the places that have been visited in the last two years. They include every capital city of Australia-Sydney a number of times; Melbourne a number of times; Lucas Heights; Adelaide is not left off the list; Hobart of course-one would have to travel to Hobart to inspect things relevant to the Alligator Rivers Region; Perth, of course; the national capital, Canberra, is not to be missed; and of course various interesting country centres, such as Townsville with a lovely climate, and Jarrahdale in Western Australia-I am not sure whose electorate that is in. Why restrict it to Australia? Looking at this table, I think the motto of the OSS is: `Join the OSS and see the world'. I see that it has been to Athens, Sweden, France, Singapore, Vienna, Great Britain, Vienna again, and it had various visits to establishments in Europe. I think it travels more than the whole of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation put together. Perhaps the OSS should be rechristened the SOS as far as the Australian taxpayers are concerned.

It is nothing more or less than a bureaucracy gone mad-empire building of the most blatant and wasteful kind. I read in the report that even in 1988-it is going from strength to strength-it has planned a diamond jubilee celebration of international communication on radiological protection, of which the officer is a secretary- general, in Sydney at the Opera House. That should be interesting.


Mr Hicks —Who is paying for all this?


Mr COBB —The taxpayers, of course, and these efficient uranium mines to date. It is interesting to see some of the papers it has put out. One is on the workshop on thermoluminescence dating, presented in Britain at the University of Sussex.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Parkes will refer to material only if it is related to the Bill, not this material in particular. I am allowing some flexibility, but I am bringing it to the honourable member's attention to keep the matter relevant.


Mr COBB —It is in the annual report of the OSS.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Certainly.


Mr COBB —Another one was presented in Athens. Honourable members may wonder what the OSS was doing there. It was presenting a paper on the mobilisation of aluminium from a tropical flood plain and its role in natural fish kills. It related to a conceptual model. Another paper was on advances in the knowledge of Australian chironomid lavae since 1961 and was presented to the Australian Society for Limnology at Lorne in Victoria. Another one is the international conference on low levels measured of long-lived radionuclides in biological and environmental samples. That one had to be presented in Sweden. Here is another report-this is a beauty: Use of plastic enclosures in determining the effects of toxic trace metals added to Gulungul Billabong. It is good to see our money being spent well. Another one is the development of techniques for quantitative sampling of macroinvertebrates in densely covered macrophyte areas of Magela Creek. Another one is on the diet and feeding habit of frogs.


Mr Cadman —On these fishing trips?


Mr COBB —Indeed! One is on the underwater light climate of billabongs of the Alligator Rivers Region-something quite essential, no doubt. Lastly is a paper on the terminal stratification and the distribution of dissolved oxygen in billabongs of the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory. The list goes on. There are pages and pages of this stuff, showing how it has spent its money. No doubt these are nice things to do; they are interesting and, as a scientist, I can appreciate the worth of them. But I doubt very much that the farmers at Molong who yesterday saw their machinery sold from under them because of high taxes and a falling economy that is forcing up interest rates would approve of this. They would be enraged. No wonder the deficit has trebled to $101 billion in the last three years.

It is also interesting to read in the annual report the research program for the last year. I see one on fish movement. I rang a fellow in the Northern Territory and said: `What do these fellows do?'. He said: `They sit on a rock near the stream and watch the fish go by; they count them'. Quite frankly, I did not believe it until I read the report, but it is true. The office also put out a report on the role of termites as geomorphological agents relevant to the long term containment of uranium mill tailings. I am sure that is relevant. Lastly, there was a report on the flora of the Alligator Rivers Region which was done under a community employment program grant of $60,438. That amount of taxpayers' money was allocated to employ some people to go along and compile a checklist of plants in the Alligator Rivers Region and, to quote the release of the Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations (Mr Willis):

The project will provide the participants with valuable work experience which should greatly enhance their prospects of future permanent employment.

I am sure it will. The people employed under that program have been unemployed for over 9 months.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! I point out to the honourable member for Parkes that we are debating the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill.


Mr COBB —I see you are having difficulty finding the relevance of this to the Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker; I had difficulty myself. What really alarms me about the OSS is that it appears that it is hardly needed at all. The Northern Territory has 34 pieces of legislation relating to this Bill, including Aboriginal land legislation and conservation and environmental assessment legislation, and all the OSS is doing is duplicating that. Under the rules and regulations, the Ranger mine has to employ monitoring staff, and it has been successful in doing that. Their employees only receive less than 10 per cent of the international permitted levels and the background radiation in that area is no higher than world-wide levels. So that monitoring has been successful, and this body is only duplicating it. Clearly the functions of the OSS need reviewing and, as it stands, I can only conclude that it is a blatant waste of money; it is a rort being carried out using taxpayers' money and it should be pruned severely. It is symptomatic of the ills crippling this country, and as soon as the coalition returns to government and does those jobs the better it will be for Australia.