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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1725

Mr CONNOLLY(8.46) —The legislative package which we are debating tonight is not only of fundamental importance to the future welfare of the Northern Territory and the long term protection of one of Australia's greatest, if not Australia's greatest, national parks-namely, Kakadu National Park-but it is also of profound importance regarding the approach which this Parliament and the Government ought to take on the development of Australian resources. I find it quite extraordinary that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen), in his second reading speech on the legislation, observed:

We are not `locking up' Australia's resources in this area as some have misleadingly claimed.

On any reasonable analysis of the legislation by anyone who wants to examine its history over the past year or so or by anyone who wants to bother reading of the Minister's activities regarding the manner in which he drew up the conservation package which was introduced into this Parliament in October last year, he would find it very difficult to conclude other than that it is the Government's intention to lock up this substantial area of land against any worthwhile minerals search in the foreseeable future. It is worth noting that exploration activity virtually ceased in stage 1 and what is now stage 2 and soon to be stage 3 of the Kakadu National Park area; in other words, the entire area affected by the watershed of the Alligator Rivers region.

In 1973, when the Whitlam Government's Minister for the Northern Territory, Dr Rex Patterson, advised companies which were operating in the area that a park would be created, they were assured that once the park was established legislation would be put in place which would permit them to carry out further exploration activities in the region. Since 1973 there has effectively been virtually no worthwhile exploration activity in place. In July 1975 we had the Fox Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, which continued for two years. That further limited exploration activity until 1978. In that year, companies accepted a request by the then Fraser Government that exploration be terminated until outstanding Aboriginal environmental issues were resolved. The House will recall that out of that we saw the declaration of stage 1 of the National Park, which is an outstanding area in terms of not only its geomorphological formations and so forth, and the splendid natural flora and fauna, but also the magnificent Aboriginal cave paintings which are found in much of the escarpment area.

Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that the escarpment area also happens to contain probably the world's richest deposits of uranium oxide. The attitude taken by the Hawke Labor Government on the whole question of uranium mining has been somewhat ambivalent. We were told that the Australian Labor Party's policy was that it would not permit the milling, mining and export of uranium except from the mines already in place which had been excised from Kakadu stage 1-the Nabarlek deposit and the Ranger deposit-and, more recently, a further deposit in South Australia. The most extraordinary thing about the last one is that it was developed for other minerals. The mining of uranium was seen only as a mere sideline of the major objective, which was to mine copper and a range of other ores.

In many respects that demonstrates the perfidity, the duplicity, of this Hawke Government in the manner in which it has tried over the years, on the one hand, to pander to the almost irrational fear which the left wing of the Labor Party has on the whole question of uranium mining while, on the other hand, to claim that Australia's economic circumstances are so parlous that, to use the words of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), we are now in a warlike situation. We still find in legislation such as this an emotive attempt once again to close even greater areas of land in Australia to any worthwhile mining development, with the notable exception of parts of what will be stage 3, which the Minister euphemistically called a conservation zone. The regulations which relate to the conservation zone are part of this package of legislation.

I would like to go through the names of the Bills once again to place them on record. We are debating four different Bills. They amend the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act and the Lands Acquisition Act 1955.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill will cover some 4,000 square kilometres of the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases. It is proposed under this legislation that these two pastoral leases, which were purchased by the Commonwealth some years ago, should be included in Kakadu National Park. They are, in fact, the last element of the entire region which is now covered by the Alligator River catchment area. It appears that that is the only reason why they have been included in the area to be affected either as part of the national park or the southern section which will be part of the conservation zone.

It is relevant to place once again on the record that when these issues were debated in the Labor Party Cabinet, and presumably before Caucus, the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) made the observation that in his view much of Kakadu stage 3-as it will be called-was nothing more than clapped out buffalo country. They are his words; not mine. Having visited the area and having driven through it and seen as much of it as I possibly could, I would say that it has been the subject of leasing, cattle and buffalo activity for a long period. No one would dispute that there are some areas, especially in the river catchment area and along the edge of the cliff faces, which need to be fully protected. No one disputes that, certainly nobody in the Opposition. We are questioning the rationale behind the Government's decision to add such a vast additional amount of land to what is already a most substantial national park by any international comparison without adequate analysis, without serious attempts being made to determine which areas of stages 2 and 3 were, shall we say, of primary environmental importance as distinct from other areas which may be of secondary or tertiary importance.

We dispute the whole approach which the Government has taken on this matter because, unlike the Government, we do not believe that it is appropriate to apply a uniform conservation regime over such vast areas of territory without identifying the relative degree of importance. If that is not done it means that we can talk about single use environmental protection. That is precisely what the Hawke Government talks about. But it does not try to define what single use means. For example, we are told that extensive tourism is not inconsistent with environmental protection. We only have to go to see parts of the Great Barrier Reef after half a million or a million visitors have walked all over it to blow that proposition sky high. Obviously, there is a significant impact by tourist activity. Roads, motels and telecommunications and so forth will have an impact. But the Government will say that that is part of the price it is prepared to pay.

Is it not extraordinary that, having identified that single use environment protection is really not worth the paper it is written on, we now find that this Government claims that mining-any mining, or all mining-is by its very nature anti-conservation and therefore anti-environmental protection? It is a matter of great concern to me and to many other Australians that this Government, even when it was in opposition, went out of its way to try to make more and more Australians believe that mining was a dirty industry. One does not need to go very far into the deserts and other parts of Australia to find examples of the old gold rushes of the 1860s, or the Northern Territory in the 1880s, or in parts of Queensland--

Mr Tim Fischer —Or Queenstown.

Mr CONNOLLY —Or Queenstown, to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are significant examples of serious environmental decay because of very stupid short term decisions taken by various mining interests in the past. It is precisely because of that that governments today are perfectly justified in setting in place regulatory machinery which requires the maintenance of appropriate standards. But what we see, and we are seeing it in this particular case, is the unwillingness of this Government to face the fact that Kakadu, as a total land area, probably contains the richest mineralisation on this continent. It is not just uranium. If honourable members opposite wanted to be honest with themselves they would have to admit that we really do not know what is in Kakadu. The reason we do not know is that since about 1974 no one has been allowed to find out. Yet we know from the little evidence that has been gained, from the research that has been carried out by the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy and by various companies, including Peko Wallsend Ltd, which is apparently anathema to everybody on the other side of the House, that the mineralisation is very intense.

I draw the attention of the House to a question I put on notice, No. 4752, to the Minister representing the Minister for Resources and Energy on 10 October 1986. I asked two simple questions: Firstly, what mineral deposits are known to exist within Kakadu National Park stages 1, 2 and 3; and secondly, what is the estimated size and value of these mineral deposits? The Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) in his response said:

My Department is aware of about 150 mineral occurrences, prospects and deposits in the Kakadu region, which are shown on geological maps published by the Bureau of Mineral Resources. Published resource estimates are available for nine deposits in the region. None of these deposits is in the Kakadu Stage I or II areas, although Park surrounds some of them.

He referred to Coronation Hill gold and platinum deposits in the Gimbat pastoral lease and to lead and zinc deposits within the Goodparla pastoral lease. The important thing is that he said that an indication of the value of a mineral deposit could be obtained by multiplying the quantity of obtained mineral by its price at any specific point in time. On that basis alone the Minister claimed in his response:

Assuming the 1985 unit export value for Australian uranium oxide, 1985 unit examine value for gold, lead and zinc, and 1985 refined metal values for platinum and palladium, the value of deposits listed above is about $32 billion.

The figure of $32 billion is an estimate-and a very inaccurate estimate, as the Minister pointed out-because we just do not know what is there. I have seen some other suggestions that the wealth of the region is more likely to be $400 billion. I do not know. The Minister does not know. Nobody knows because this Government has made a determined decision that no one will ever know. I find it quite extraordinary that, considering the circumstances facing Australia today, this Government can be so cavalier about Australia's future that it does not even want to find out.

Part of the legislation before us is a somewhat lame attempt to appear to be conscious of the economic realities facing Australia, which is why in Kakadu stage 3 a proportion of the southern area-the area such as Sovereign Hill containing known mineralisation-is to be excised from the park at this stage and called a conservation zone. The legislation before us goes to substantial lengths to set in place a control mechanism which will determine-we are told for a period of five years-who can use the resources in that area and when they can be used. We are told that the Office of the Supervising Scientist, which has been responsible up until now for observing the effect of the mining of uranium in Kakadu stage 1, will also have responsibility for the remainder of this conservation zone. We are told that the Lands Acquisition Amendment Bill will enable exploration and mining rights to be granted in the conservation zone after the lodgment of a land claim. This is interesting because the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment did not really explain to my satisfaction a possible contradiction, namely, that the effect of the Northern Territory Aboriginal land rights legislation is to give Aboriginal traditional owners, after the land has been granted to them, the right to apply a veto on any further mining activity.

In the Minister's second reading speech there are suggestions that somehow or other mining leases which were permitted and granted in years gone by will not be affected by the fact that this land may be granted through the normal judicial process to Aboriginal land holders if they are able to establish a claim to it. It is quite extraordinary because one cannot have it both ways. If this land is to be under the existing legislation, as one would assume that it is, surely the provisions of that legislation must apply. If those provisions do not apply, the Government is effectively applying a degree of retrospectivity to the granting of leases and exploration rights to companies in years gone by. We are now told that companies have to get the agreement, of the Aboriginal owners, in the event that the land is transferred to Aboriginal ownership and then leased back to be part of the park or part of the conservation zone. As I said, before, I see a fundamental problem there. In fact, I see a contradiction.

The Government cannot have it both ways. Either it will respect the previous rights of owners to mining rights or it will say that those rights will be submitted into the overall right of the local Aboriginal land owners in the event that they are successful. The record in the Northern Territory over the last 10 years or so leads one to assume that there will be claims placed on most of Kakadu stage 3 and that there is a real possibility that those claims will be successful under the Northern Territory Aboriginal land rights arrangements. Therefore, where does the Government draw the line? It claims it is trying to maintain maximum environmental purity. It has virtually opted for a single use land management whereas the Opposition believes most strenuously that much of this area-we have never suggested all of it-could well be utilised for multiple use land management, while at the same time granting an appropriate level of long term environmental security, especially to those areas which need to be protected. But that is not the approach that this Government has taken.

Kakadu is undoubtedly a major park, as the Minister rightly said. He also said that he was determined to see its values permanently protected. When the Kakadu National Park management plan was debated in the other place in October last year, as we debated it here, it was pointed out to the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) by my colleagues Senator Collard and Senator Puplick that at no stage have we ever questioned or doubted the terms of our commitment to the protection of the wetlands, the escarpment areas and the Aboriginal rock galleries. Nothing would be done or advocated by the coalition parties that would put any of those three elements of Kakadu National Park or the Kakadu region in any jeopardy. We made an explicit commitment to protect those absolutely fundamental areas of Kakadu for all time. That is one thing, but to suggest that no exploration can be carried out in this vast and extraordinarily rich region is entirely another thing. Yet that is the approach taken by this Government because once again it is terrified by the evidence it has already received in the polls that the environment movement in Australia is in no sense satisfied with the approach taken by the Minister or by his Government in recent years to the long term protection of Australia's traditional environmental values.

In this particular proposal the land will be managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as is the case with other national parks in the Northern Territory. Again this is something which the Opposition believes time will change. As the Minister is well aware, the Northern Territory has a very good record of environmental protection in its own national parks. We are only talking about some semantic division here because it is only a question of time before the Northern Territory like every other State in Australia will assert day to day management control over the national parks within its own boundaries. The Government has not only refused to accept that as a legitimate future objective but also it has gone out of its way to make absolutely sure that the Northern Territory is not involved in the management of Uluru or, for all intents and purposes, in the management of Kakadu. All it has done is establish a duplication of administrative services at substantial additional costs which have not got us very far at all down the road.

The Minister said in his second reading speech that the Government recognises the importance of fully assessing the mineral resources of the proposed conservation zone. How can he sit there and make a statement like that knowing full well that he has ignored the substantial wealth of mineral resources contained in the remainder of Kakadu National Park stages 1 and 2? How can he seriously say in his second reading speech that he recognises the importance of fully assessing the mineralisation of what is in fact something like 4,000 square kilometres of stage 3 but that he ignores the realities of what the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the Northern Territory Government, the mining companies and every other committed interest group have put to him, namely, that there are, undoubtedly, substantial resources elsewhere in the park which, at least for the benefit of future generations, we ought to know about. As I said before, the Minister, the Minister for Science, in referring to an answer to a question, told us that his Department is aware of about 150 mineral occurrences.

Mr Cohen —Barry Jones?

Mr CONNOLLY —Yes; 150 prospects and occurrences. I am happy to pass the answer to the question to the Minister so that he can see it written down in black and white. The simple fact of the matter is that the Minister is, as usual, speaking through both sides of his mouth at the same time on this particular issue. The opportunity was there for the Government to carry out a legitimate investigation of all areas which it proposed would be included in the national park and it ran away from it. Once again, it abrogated its responsibilities to the Australian people because at some stage in the future there will be enormous pressure on the governments of this country to find out what resources we have across our nation.

Mr Hodgman —Different rules for Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Mr CONNOLLY —No. The honourable member for Denison--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! It may be helpful if everbody behaved. The honourable member for Bradfield should address his remarks exclusively to the Chair.

Mr CONNOLLY —The point is worth taking that the Hawke Labor Government applies environmental controls to both the Northern Territory and Tasmania which it would not have the courage to apply to Queensland or to any other State in Australia. That is the reality. The Government knows that as well as we do and so do the Australian people. The Government seriously suggests in terms of Kakadu stage 3 and only part of it-I emphasise that point-that it will allow a five-year exploration and resource assessment program. It does not say by whom. Its earlier releases suggest it was going to be by the Bureau of Mineral Resources. What about the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy? What about the private sector? What rights does it have to enter into this exercise of resource assessment? Until the Government can sort out the problem of Aboriginal land rights which I have been asking the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding) time and again to face and until it goes away once and for all with the concept of an all time veto on mining on Aboriginal land, how can it possibly come here and move amendments to existing legislation which simply ignore that fundamental fact?

The Government cannot ask companies to enter into extensive and expensive exploratory operations if at the end of the day there is no guarantee that they will have the opportunity to exploit the mineralisation which they may well find. Unfortunately, the regime the Government has put in place has, if anything, created more problems than it has solved. The Government has convinced no one. It has done nothing for the long term protection of Australia's economy, an economy, incidentally, which must have the resources to protect our national estate in areas such as Kakadu. Until we have the wealth to do that we are in very real danger of placing most of our environmental areas in substantial danger in the future because in desperation we will be looking for resources which under better circumstances we could have developed in a scientific and environmentally sensible manner. Instead of that, the Government has fallen for this three-card trick of the one level of environmental protection. It had the chance to go down the road of multi-land use. It could have done that. The Government hides behind the belief that it can have tourist development ad nauseam and somehow or other that does not affect the environment but if it allows anybody to even carry out seismological experiments and so forth that does affect the environment.

I find it very difficult to understand the logic which this Minister has applied. I find it even more difficult to understand how this Government can say that it has made decisions in relation to Kakadu which are in the long term interests either of the region of the Northern Territory or of Australia as a whole. I think it is a matter of the gravest concern. The only exception the Government has made has been to the question of Coronation Hill. Coronation Hill will be mined principally by Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. The Government has obviously been able to make a deal with BHP which it finds satisfactory. But what about all the other companies which may also be interested in developing resources elsewhere, not just in that part of the conservation zone but also on the land to which they thought they had some title in years gone by, land on which they thought they could get some compensation, in the event of the Government making a decision that mining should not continue, for the undoubted expenses that they have gone through to develop those resources? But in this legislation compensation is explicitly excluded. If anybody has made investments in that part of the Northern Territory and Kakadu stage 2 or Kakadu stage 3, under this legislation the Government has now abrogated for all time any responsibility to give these people a fair return for the decisions they made when the land was under direct Commonwealth jurisdiction and when they were advised by a Labor Minister, Dr Patterson at the time that they could expect compensation in the event of these lands being closed. He also said that they could expect to get access to the lands once the final settlement had been reached as to what the boundaries of the Kakadu National Park would be. That is the situation and it is most unsatisfactory.

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