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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1817


Mr COHEN (Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment)(9.28) —in reply-Madam Deputy Speaker, I am glad that you drew the attention of the House to the fact that the Hon. Lance Barnard is in the House. I am delighted to see him here. He is a friend, a colleague of long-standing and a great Australian.

I would first like to thank all honourable members who have participated in this debate. We have heard some excellent speeches. I was not able to listen to all the speakers, but I heard some excellent contributions. I was not able to hear the speech of the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis), but I had the pleasure of reading it and it was sheer poetry. I recommend to all honourable members that they read the speech, if they did not get the chance to listen to it. There were some excellent contributions, from the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) and the honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Milton), and there were even some fine performances from the Opposition side. I particularly mention the speech made by the honourable member for Groom (Mr McVeigh). All of those who were in the House last night when he spoke were not only impressed by the quality of the speech but deeply moved by the sentiments expressed in it. It shows that those of us who have had the good fortune to serve as Ministers for the Environment have probably been significantly influenced by our experience. I had three years as shadow Minister for the Environment, and I have been a Minister for four years, and I know that that experience is a very rich one.

I am eternally grateful for the fact that the then Leader of the Opposition, the honourable member for Oxley (Mr Hayden), appointed me shadow Minister, because he made me go out and look at the environment in a way that I had never done before. I was forced to go out and tramp around Fraser Island, the Daintree, Kakadu National Park and the outback. I saw these areas on television and I read about them but it is another thing to experience it. I think what we saw from the honourable member for Groom last night was a reflection of those sorts of experiences. It is very clear to me that a man from the National Party of Australia probably has a different view on the environment from what we on this side of the House have. But he was changed by his experience as Minister for Home Affairs and Environment. I was delighted, as we all were, with his speech. He showed a comprehension, an understanding and a love for the environment and Kakadu National Park in particular. I also want to support him in what he said about Professor Derrick Ovington, who is the Director of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service of Australia. As I said the other night when I was referring to Graeme Kelleher, the Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, they are two great Australians, two outstanding public servants and two men whom I am proud to say I have worked with over the last four years. I agree completely with the sentiments that the honourable member for Groom expressed last night.

I regret to say that Opposition members generally have shown no understanding of what constitutes an ecosystem and what is required to protect it. Last night the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Connolly) repeated what he said in a speech some time ago. He said that the Opposition, if in government, would put up fences-I do not know whether I am adequately describing what he said-to protect those areas in the Kakadu National Park that were of value. He was talking about the rock art of Aboriginal people, the wetlands, the escarpment and so on. I tried to explain it last time, but it seems to me that he and other members on the Opposition side have totally failed to understand how an ecosystem works. We cannot just isolate one part of a national park, one part of an ecosystem and say: `We will protect that'.

A good example of how an ecosystem functions and how parts of that system are interdependent upon other parts is what happened recently in Europe when an accidental release of chemicals from a factory in Switzerland polluted the Rhine River and killed virtually everything in the river for hundreds and hundreds of miles. It was not just what happened in Switzerland; it was what happened all the way down the Rhine River until it reached the sea. That is the point we are making about Kakadu National Park. We cannot put a fence around the wetlands and say: `We will protect that'. We have to protect the headwaters. We have to protect the whole ecosystem that makes up part of the Alligator Rivers system, the Magela Creek system and Kakadu National Park. It is that basic lack of comprehension on the part of the Opposition that makes its argument in this case quite absurd.

The Commonwealth has a responsibility to protect areas of national and international importance. We are not about getting involved in every national park, as they are so-called. The term `national park' is a misnomer because in most cases national parks are in fact State parks. But we are not about getting in and protecting every forest and park in this country. We are about protecting--


Mr Hodgman —You are, in Tasmania.


Mr Connolly —How does this lie with your Tasmanian policy?


Mr COHEN —If honourable members will just wait, I will tell them what I believe to be our obligations. It is obvious that this Government, the Fraser Government and the Whitlam Government before that saw that they had obligations to protect certain great national and international treasures. Is there any question in this Parliament or in this nation that it is not a Federal responsibility to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park? There has never been any argument about that. There are six areas now on the World Heritage List. They are Lord Howe Island, Willandra Lakes, the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park, the South West world heritage area in Tasmania and the New South Wales rainforests. It is our moral obligation as a Federal government to protect those areas when they are under threat. In most cases they are not under threat. Certainly, Lord Howe Island, Willandra Lakes and the New South Wales rainforests are adequately protected by the State Government of New South Wales. We are in the process of nominating the Uluru National Park, which is Ayers Rock, for that World Heritage List. Successive governments, not just this Government-look at the record of the Fraser Government of which the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) was a member, God help us--


Mr Milton —A Minister, too-surprisingly.


Mr COHEN —A Minister, nonetheless. When he was a Minister, the Fraser Government, to its great credit, acknowledged the fact that it had a responsibility to protect the Uluru National Park, Kakadu National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.


Mr Hodgman —We did not declare war on Tasmania like you have.


Mr COHEN —We are discussing the Kakadu package of Bills. I know that it is hard for the honourable member to get across Bass Strait. But for God's sake, he should try to concentrate his mind on some part of Australia other than Tasmania. I wish to God he would recognise that his first responsibility is as an Australian. He should join the rest of this Parliament and become an Australian first, and not a Tasmanian.

The Opposition now says that it wants to return Kakadu National Park and, of course, Uluru National Park to the Northern Territory. I ask the simple question: Why did honourable members opposite not do it during the 7 1/2 years that they were in government? I will tell them why they did not do it. They did not do it for the very obvious reason that they did not trust the cowboys up there who run the Northern Territory. They knew that they had a moral obligation to protect one of the great environmental treasures of the world. They would not let the Northern Territory take it over for that reason. They knew what the people up there would do to it. They would mine it from one end to the other. They would mine the gold in their grandmothers' teeth if they got the opportunity to do it. So we are following on the great traditions of the Fraser Government in protecting Kakadu National Park from the vandals that would destroy it if they had the opportunity to do so. The Northern Territory was invited to participate in the management of Uluru National Park but it declined. This does not give us much confidence in the continuing commitment of the present Northern Territory Government to major national parks. Co-operation has been more positive in respect of Kakadu in that seconded Northern Territory officers have helped to manage the park.

The honourable member for Bradfield asserted that land rights legislation will be applied retrospectively to mineral interests in the conservation zone. That is simply not correct. The Bills will enable the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases to be claimed by traditional owners. Mineral interests which exist at the time an area becomes Aboriginal land will not be subject to an Aboriginal veto on mining. However, new mining ventures on Aboriginal land will require a terms and conditions agreement with the relevant land council as applies elsewhere in the Northern Territory. Land council consent will be required for new exploration licences over Aboriginal land in the conservation zone except for the Coronation Hill project area.

Contrary to what was said by the honourable member for the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth granted the Aboriginals only 7 per cent of Kakadu stage 2. Last night the honourable member for the Northern Territory made some extraordinary statements. But still, that comes as no great shock to us. We have learned to live with his view of the facts, and I will be dealing with that later in my concluding remarks. As I said, contrary to what he said, the Commonwealth granted to Aboriginals only 7 per cent of Kakadu stage 2. This was the area recommended by the Land Rights Commission. Private companies will be invited to apply to explore in the conservation zone on titles to be granted by the Commonwealth. Northern Territory authorities will be invited to assist in considering exploration applications and the day to day management of the exploration program. I understand that already considerable interest has been shown by mining companies in taking part in the exploration program.

There have been extravagant claims about the value of minerals said to be locked up. The Opposition seems completely confused about which parts of the region it is talking about and the basis for its claims. The figures of $32 billion and $400 billion are both used by the honourable member for Bradfield, which just indicates how confused he is. Let us examine the proposition that if we do not permit mining right across the board in Kakadu National Park we are locking the area up. Under the previous Government three areas were excised from the park. They were the Ranger uranium mine, Jabiluka and Koongarra. Nabarlek was outside the area. Two mines proceeded-Nabarlek and Ranger. Why did honourable members opposite not permit Jabiluka and Koongarra to go ahead? They had the opportunity to do so. They were in government for 7 1/2 years. They did not do so for the very simple reason that they knew that if they let these mines proceed the world markets would be flooded with uranium and we would not be able to sell what we mined.

Honourable members opposite talked about, logically, sequential development, not because of any feeling for the environment but because they did not want to flood the world market with uranium. Now this Government has agreed to proceed with Roxby Downs, which is believed to be the largest uranium mine in the world. So we have Ranger, Nabarlek and Roxby. There is enough uranium in this country outside the national park, outside this valuable world heritage area, to provide the rest of the world with uranium for years to come. There are plenty more areas in Australia which could be mined for uranium which are outside one of the most valuable ecosystems in the world. Yet honourable members opposite have talked about locking the area up.

It is like saying that if we mined all the coal in Australia today we could get hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coal. But if we mined it we could not sell it tomorrow. The same sort of nonsense has been talked about Kakadu National Park. Uranium is available outside the area. It may be that 20 or 30 years down the track uranium will be so valuable that a government in the future-the first Gary Punch Ministry or the second Ron Edwards Ministry, or whatever it is-will see a need to mine uranium in that area. But it is not necessary now because there is a finite demand for uranium in the world. Because the resource is maintained for years to come in a national park does not mean that it is forever lost. This Government and I believe that at this stage there is no earthly reason to mine that area. If some future government in 20, 30 or 50 years wants to do it, let it make the decision and put that decision to the people. It is certainly not needed now. To talk about $300 billion, $400 billion or whatever figure one plucks out of the air and to say that that is being locked up now is sheer nonsense because if we mined the whole lot tomorrow we could not sell a fraction of it. Honourable members opposite know it and when they were in government they did not mine it for the same reason.

I remind honourable members opposite that 35 per cent of the conservation zone in Kakadu stage 3 is highly prospective for platinum and gold. The mining companies will be able to explore that area and if it is found to be a valuable national resource they may proceed to mine it.


Mr Milton —Subject to--


Mr COHEN —Exactly, providing they meet the environmental standards. I thank the honourable member for La Trobe. That is quite different from what the Opposition wants to do, which is not only to permit the existing mines of Ranger and Nabarlek, and no doubt Roxby, to proceed; it wants Jabiluka and Koongarra and then Kakadu stage 2 to be mined. It keeps saying that this is only 1, 2 or 3 per cent of the whole area, or whatever it is the Opposition likes to give. This is like saying: `Don't worry, we are only going to take about 3 per cent of your brain'. In the case of the honourable member for Denison that is a lot. The honourable member for Bradfield knows that he was talking nonsense. He knows that if the opportunity were available to mine all these so-called locked up resources we could not sell the uranium. The Government has made information available which indicates that the arrangements for stages 1, 2 and 3 and the conservation zone are a reasonable balance between potential mining values and conservation values.


Mr Hodgman —Claptrap.


Mr COHEN —Has the honourable member ever been there?


Mr Hodgman —I have indeed.


Mr COHEN —That is a great shock to me.


Mr Hodgman —I am looking at Senator Evans's words. `Nothing more than clapped out buffalo country'-that is what he called Kakadu stage 3.


Mr COHEN —On most things I agree with the honourable senator. I do not happen to agree with his definition of the area as clapped out buffalo country or anything like it. I turn to the question of tourism in the area. If there is one aspect of Kakadu National Park that is extremely exciting for the Government it is the enormous increase in tourism to that area. When we came to office there were 42,000 visitors a year going to Kakadu National Park. In 1985 there were 101,000 visitors. Last year there were 131,000. Surveys have shown that tourism to the park this year is up around 150 per cent. We are now in the last stages of the wet. Normally at this stage there is nobody to speak of in Kakadu National Park. Already there are vast crowds of people there. Bookings at the hotels are 60 per cent up on previous years. I am hoping to go there in August-September. I have been told that if I as the Minister do not hurry up I will not be able to get into Kakadu National Park.

The two reasons for this are obvious: Firstly, there is the enormous publicity Kakadu National Park has had over the past six months, partly through this controversy. Secondly, we have to pay tribute once again to Paul Hogan; Crocodile Dundee has been one of the major reasons for the increase, which has only just started. The one problem I am concerned about at the moment is that we were not able to foresee this enormous boom in tourism and I am concerned that we will not have the accommodation available for people if they go there. I am asking my Department to see what we can do about emergency accommodation over the coming dry. Some Opposition speakers have made quite unfounded statements about the absence of natural values in Gimbat and Goodparla. I refer now to the honourable member for Denison.


Mr Hodgman —I never mentioned it.


Mr COHEN —The honourable member just talked about it being clapped out buffalo country. I know he cannot remember what he said 30 seconds ago.


Mr Hodgman —Madam Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order.


Mr COHEN —I hope this is not a frivolous point of order.


Mr Hodgman —Madam Deputy Speaker, the Minister is misleading the House. I did not say it; Senator `Biggles' Evans said it, not me.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Darling) -That is not a point of order.


Mr COHEN —Madam Deputy Speaker, the honourable member for Denison knows that he quoted Senator Evans to make a point. He knows full well that that is a cheap debating point he was trying to make. Honourable members opposite should know that this area contains major scenic places such as the UDP Falls, the Koolpin Gorge and the South Alligator River. The most important aspect of stage 3 is that it is the headwaters of the whole of the Alligator Rivers region. Unless we can protect those headwaters what happens downstream is unimportant. We have to protect those headwaters from pollution, environmental degradation and so on. Sixty per cent of the area is of land types either not found in or poorly represented in Kakadu. It contains extensive areas of habitat of rare species of animals and birds. The Aboriginal rock art provides a significant added dimension. (Quorum formed) (Extension of time granted) If I were to look back on the four years of this Government and its record on the environment I would say that its proudest achievement is what it has done in Kakadu National Park. There is a lot I could say. I thank everybody for the contribution he has made. I repeat what I said about the honourable member for Groom and the speech he made. It was an excellent contribution and even more excellent because it came from a National Party member. I thank the honourable member for La Trobe, the honourable member for Stirling, the honourable member for Throsby and even a member of the Opposition, the honourable member for Bradfield, for the contributions they have made. It is a shame and a tragedy that we cannot all unite and carry on the tradition of the work done by the Fraser Government in preserving this area and making it one of the great national parks, not only of Australia but of the whole world.

Question put:

That the Bill be now read a second time.