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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1731


Mr EVERINGHAM(9.31) —It was difficult for me to get the drift of what the honourable member for Moore (Mr Blanchard), who spoke immediately before me, was referring to in relation to the McArthur River land claims because, as someone who took part in the negotiations there over quite a period of time, my recollection is that Aboriginals secured a very substantial area of land in the McArthur River area, including a number of islands in the Sir Edward Pellew group. Indeed, part of the land that the Aboriginals succeeded in gaining was occupied, as I mentioned in this House some weeks ago, by another Aboriginal family that had been living on that island for quite some time. It reminds me of a biblical story. This particular Aboriginal family could not succeed in negotiating to get any sort of long term tenure from the new traditional owners, so they are now frozen out in the cold. Frankly, as to the McArthur River deposit held under lease by Mount Isa Mines Ltd, if any reputable company approached the Northern Territory Government or the Department of Mines and Energy with a proposition to develop that deposit, I think the Northern Territory Government would be extremely interested.

I kept putting salt on the tail of Mount Isa Mines for over seven years in relation to the deposit. We had independent consultants assess the work and the reports were furnished to us by Mount Isa Mines which operated a pilot project there for many years. Our independent consultants were unable to fault Mount Isa's contention that the type of mineral, although it is there in large quantities, is simply currently unable to be processed economically because a technology has not yet been found that can handle the treatment of the minerals in an economic way. How that project could freeze other companies out of central and southern Arnhem Land I am not quite sure; that completely escapes me.

As to Kakadu stage 2 and the honourable member's comments that the Aboriginal people would much rather deal with the Federal Government in relation to claims for land and claims over national parks, I can well understand that because the Aboriginal traditional owners lodged a claim over Kakadu stage 2 which was contested by a number of parties. The Aboriginal land claim was unsuccessful as to 90 per cent of the area claimed, but, nonetheless, the Federal Government went ahead and gave the Aborigines title to the land anyway. So it is no wonder that they prefer to deal with the Federal Government because it takes absolutely no notice, when it suits it, of the recommendations of its own land commissioner.

I do not think the Opposition should be seen as negative in relation to Kakadu and the economic potential of the Kakadu and Alligator Rivers region. Recent surveys have shown that the majority of people surveyed-I believe it was a substantial number, in excess of 2,000, in all States and carried out by, I think, the Morgan group-were in favour of uranium being mined provided it was mined subject to a satisfactory regime of safeguards-and that is certainly the case at the moment. So I think we can infer from the result of that survey that the majority of our fellow citizens think that the Government's attitude to the whole thing, especially in this time of economic difficulties for Australia, is a negative one.

But let us look at the most glaring issue of these Bills. That is, of course, that we are asked to debate the package, with nothing more than an assurance from the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) that the acknowledged `unintended' effect of the National Parks and Wildlife Amendment Bill, which will close down all existing and future mining operations outside Kakadu, will be tidied up in the Committee stage. To date the Minister has tried to pass off this mammoth drafting error as though it was an inconsequential slip-but in fact it is a matter of tremendous potential consequence both to the mining industry in the Territory and to Australia's future export earnings. Yet we are expected to place our faith in the Minister to correct this legislative foul-up in the Committee stage-with billions of dollars resting on the outcome.

Even now the Minister has given his commitment to correct the error only insofar as it affects existing transport arrangements for current mining activities. We have no commitment from the Minister on future mining operations outside the park-mines like Koongarra and Jabiluka, both of which are due to play a very big role in Australia's future economic prosperity.

In fact, judging by the Minister's own statements, we can be sure that there is nothing he would like better than to vandalise future earnings from these mines. He is on the record as saying that those mines are `unlikely to go ahead', adding `we would not be prepared to see Kakadu National Park as a mass of mines'. That is the sort of emotive nonsense that we have come to expect from this Minister-an attempt to represent a total mining area of no more than 10 square kilometres within 17,000 square kilometres as `a mass of mines'. This is the Minister we must rely upon to ensure that present and future mining operations are not closed down overnight by accident. It gives one plenty of confidence.

The legislative package extends the present Kakadu National Park to include the pastoral leases of Gimbat and Goodparla. We must conclude that the use of the existing pastoral lease boundaries is for administrative convenience. It can hardly be argued that there is any rational conservation purpose in adopting these boundaries. In fact, there is little of conservation value within the leases that is not already well represented within the existing park. Both Gimbat and Goodparla have considerable potential for multiple land use. Tourist and recreational developments within both leases, impossible under national park status, could alleviate pressures on the park itself. We also know from experience that there is potential for both animal and crop production on both leases. Yet the Government pushes ahead with its ever expanding political park, with no in-depth ecological or economic appraisal of land use options undertaken. The Minister's description on the leases as `an area of outstanding beauty and grandeur' is simply untrue. Let us remember that this is the same area that his fellow Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, described as `clapped out buffalo country'. The use of such words as `outstanding beauty and grandeur' debases both the English language and the Minister's flagging credibility.

Thirty-five per cent of the leases forms this new zone. The other 65 per cent, or an additional 4,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, is to be locked away, giving Kakadu a total area in excess of 17,000 square kilometres and the doubtful status of being the world's biggest political park. No doubt we are expected to be eternally grateful that the comparatively small area of 2,500 square kilometres is to be kept as a conservation zone. The Minister states:

The Government recognises the importance of fully assessing the mineral resources of the proposed conservation zone-

these words of his, I think, are important-

which is part of one of the most highly prospective, unexplored mineral provinces in the world.'

Congratulations, Mr Minister. It has finally penetrated his cerebellum that that is exactly what Kakadu is-a fact often repeated by the Northern Territory Government but till now strenuously denied by this Government. And yet the Minister blithely presses ahead, locking away 17,000 square kilometres, including areas of equally or surpassing mineral prospectivity, without any assessment whatsoever. I ask the Minister: Why can the same principles which he is now seeking to apply to the conservation zone not be applied to the park as a whole? Why can a responsible program of resource assessment, subject to stringent environmental controls, not be carried out? I will save the Minister the trouble of responding. The answer is that this is a political park, a park created out of Labor Government fears that it has lost the greenie vote and the ambitions of a Commonwealth Government instrumentality that should not even be there.

The only fig leaf which the Government can offer to hide its shame is a piece of pure geological fiction. That fiction is that minerals in the park are Labor's nemesis material, uranium, while minerals in the proposed conservation zone are the ideologically pure substances, gold and platinum. Even the resource assessment in the conservation zone is hedged by conditions which may well deter mining. We are led to believe that mining is an evil from which the Australian people must be protected at all costs-and I mean at all costs; certainly at the cost of their economic well-being. A five-year time span has been placed on the assessment program, showing how little this Government understands the exploration process. A bureaucratic monster is being created by the Government to monitor the proposed regime, meaning that those five years will have expired before the industry even gets on to the ground.

With overall responsibility to be vested in the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has a reputation for raising obstructionism to an art form, plus an interdepartmental committee including the Office of the Supervising Scientist, I hold little hope for any mineral explorer's chances of getting a look in within the zone. Moreover, not only will mining companies have to satisfy their own commercial judgment that a mineral deposit should be mined; they will also be required to persuade the Government that their discovery fulfils the criterion of `major economic significance'. In addition to environmental controls, mining companies will also face the often intractable problem of negotiating with the appointed representatives of traditional land owners, since the legislation allows for land claims over the zone.

The only purpose in making the Gimbat and Goodparla areas available for land claim can be to prepare the ground for mining companies to be held hostage to interminable negotiations with land councils. That is because any part of the zone which is successfully claimed and required for park purposes is perforce immediately leased back to the Commonwealth. This unique arrangement simply affords Aboriginals such fleeting ownership as will allow them to lay a claim on mining companies. That is a right not possessed by any other Australian citizen, it is exclusive to Aboriginals in the Northern Territory. Particularly in the light of the Government's outrageous decision to expropriate without compensation the existing rights of miners in the park, which forms part of this package, it will be a brave company indeed that will commit funds for further exploration.

The legislation alters the rights of existing lease holders in the zone, imposing additional terms and conditions. If a company does not accept these new conditions its operations will be prohibited. The Minister gives an assurance that this is not to be taken as a precedent for the treatment of existing mining rights on Commonwealth land generally. But, a precedent is a precedent is a precedent. Miners across Australia should be aware.

In summary, this is a package designed to shore up Labor's greenie vote, a legislative follow-up to the Prime Minister's much derided and taxpayer funded brief appearance before television cameras in Kakadu last November. The irony is, of course, that as recent polls and surveys have shown there are more votes to be won by a government that adopts a rational approach to Kakadu-one that acknowledges that a multiple land use policy is not just environmentally responsible but also the proper responsibility of a government concerned with the economic future of Australia and all Australians. More in sorrow than in anger I say to the Minister and this Government: Do your worst, and the next government, a coalition government, will try to pick up the pieces.