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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 865

Mr DOWNER(9.27) —In 1982 Australia's present Treasurer (Mr Keating) said that if the Australian Labor Party did not change its uranium policy on election to Government, Australia would loose its AAA rating. We all know what happened-the Labor Party did not change its uranium policy significantly and Australia lost its AAA rating. We on this side of the House know how important the uranium industry is and the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill is of course fundamentally about that industry. We know that it generates something like $400m worth of exports for our economy at a time when we desperately need to promote our trade. We know also that the uranium industry gives us a window into nuclear politics, ensuring that Australia can play its role in the international disarmament process. But the Government's response to this very important industry is a weak and compromising one. It has closed mines at Beverley and it has closed mines at Honeymoon, and that has cost the Australian community something like $1 billion in investment and in the vicinity of 3,000 jobs.

I understand that although an agreement was reached that I would participate in this debate, the Government side would like fairly rapidly to bring the debate to an end. So what I will do is restrict my remarks to three or four minutes, just as the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb) did, to draw the attention of the House to the operation of the Office of the Supervising Scientist. In regard to the objectives of this Office, one finds that its 1985-86 annual report states:

The functions of the Supervising Scientists are limited by the Act to matters directly concerned with the mining of uranium within the Alligator Rivers region.

It is a body with a budget of about $5 1/2m, which increased by about 15 per cent in 1984-85. At least some restraint has been exercised this year. The simple fact is that it does have a very large budget and it does have a very large staff of 77, which is to be reduced in a full year by some 12 people. The effect of that is, as the honourable member for Parkes pointed out, to cut nine people out of the Alligator Rivers Region Research Institute, which is the raison d'etre of the organisation, and only three out of its administrative headquarters in Sydney. We need to know whether the manpower of this organisation is being properly used and whether the research projects that it is involved in are, in any case, relevant to its terms of reference. There is the broader question: Is this body any longer terribly significant? After all, it was set up largely for political purposes and no similar body has been set up to monitor the other existing uranium mines, in particular the mines at Roxby Downs.

The honourable member for Parkes pointed out that there are 43 staff at Jabiru which is where the office is supposed to be operating. A new administrative building was built there last financial year. Yet, in spite of building a new administrative building, in spite of the work of the office being at Jabiru, we find that some 25 staff are located in Sydney. As the honourable member for Parkes also pointed out, they are in a very fine office on level 24 in the Triple M Tower at Bondi Junction. These people work in Sydney not because it makes sense but because they find Sydney a more comfortable place to live in. I want to quote the words of the Supervising Scientist to a Senate Estimates committee. He said:

The implication in your question-

that is, a question asked by Senator Puplick as to why there was staff in Sydney-

. . . is that you would expect that the research institute would operate better if everybody was talking to each other and all were located in the one place. That certainly is true.

Why are they not all located in the one place? There are many other issues related to the staff which I would like to raise but apparently I am not able to do so tonight. I am disappointed about that. The Government is apparently unaware of the speakers list which has been circulated by our Whip. Many other questions also need to be raised about the relevance of the work of this body.

The honourable member for Parkes pointed to many examples. I just want to point to a couple more before I wind up my remarks. I ask the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) why this body, whose charter is set out perfectly clearly in the Act, is doing things such as inquiring into the ecological modelling of the fish community structure, apparently at Jabiru, in spite of the fact that many of the staff work in Sydney? Why is it studying the shrimp life cycle in that region? Why is it quantifying Aboriginal consumption of bush foods? Why is it overseeing a community employment program project into the flora of the Alligator Rivers Region? Why is it modelling atmospheric transport and evaporation in the vicinity of the Ranger uranium mines? The office is going way beyond its charter. It is a body which strikes me as being grossly overstaffed.

I repeat: I am very disappointed that I am not able to say more about this matter: The office is certainly a very real example of an organisation established by the Government which has fallen outside the scrutiny of the Parliament. It has fallen outside the proper scrutiny of the Minister himself. As a result, this organisation is causing additional costs and additional burdens to be imposed on the taxpayers of Australia, and that is something that I sincerely regret.