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Monday, 23 February 2009
Page: 1465


Mr IAN MACFARLANE (7:45 PM) —I am saddened that the member for Brand did not have more time as he went through the various contortions of the Labor Party over uranium. Dare I say that he, and the Minister for Trade beside him, are some of the more enlightened when it comes to this issue in the Labor Party and I will have more to say on that later.


Mr Crean —I’m glad you recognise the calling!


Mr IAN MACFARLANE —I always recognise talent, Minister. As we have heard, the purpose of the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008 is to respond to concerns of the Uranium Industry Framework members. That is a process that I was very involved in previously and one which, as the member for Brand said, establishes and reinforces a framework in which uranium can be mined in Australia in a safe way not only for those immediately handling the ore body but also in terms of its storage, treatment, transport and eventual sale.

The bill also addresses commercial concerns of uranium projects proponents, particularly in the Northern Territory. It seeks to establish a uniform royalty regime of 18 per cent of net value for uranium projects in the Territory, thereby delivering costing certainty to commercial operators in the planning stage. The proposed 18 per cent royalty—and I emphasise that it is 18 per cent of net value— would make uranium development consistent with other mineral developments in the Northern Territory. The bill will also provide the Northern Territory, via the Northern Territory Treasury, the ability to collect the royalty on behalf of the Commonwealth and to provide the Northern Territory judicial system the opportunity to be used if prosecution or dispute resolution is required.

The opposition of course supports this bill. The opposition has always understood that at a time of mining’s importance, it is important to create opportunities, and uranium is no different. Currently, at a time of economic turmoil, for the mining and resources sector in particular, the framework is a way of adding some certainty to what is an extraordinarily difficult situation.

The uranium industry is in fact short of certainty, and that came about in no small part because the party that the member for Brand highlighted had always supported uranium mining but it had on occasions changed its mind slightly, completely, totally, absolutely. As we have seen, with a change of government to the Labor Party comes an added concern from those industries wishing to invest in uranium mining, which, I should point out to the House, which does not always occur in isolation from mining of other minerals. So, whilst the mine mentioned by the member for Brand, that is operated in the Northern Territory by ERA, is a uranium mine, mines such as the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia is in fact a mine that contains a number of other resources, particularly silver and copper. We need to ensure that those companies which are prepared to invest hundreds of millions of dollars—if not billions of dollars, in some cases—have as much certainty as can be provided.

It was also heartening to note that, in his second reading speech, the Minister for Resources and Energy acknowledged the potential for uranium to make an important contribution to abating greenhouse gas emissions. That is something I would have liked to have heard more of from the member for Brand and perhaps the Minister for Trade, who has now left the chamber.


Mr Gray interjecting


Mr IAN MACFARLANE —I would have moved a motion for extra time if I had thought the member for Brand was going to provide an honest opinion of his thoughts on how uranium could be used more, particularly here in Australia, to abate greenhouse gas emissions. But it was enlightening. It is enlightening, it is heartening to see there are some on the other side who, though stifled, though gagged, show glimpses of an understanding of what uranium could do to lower Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the huge issues currently facing Australia, and one which the Prime Minister has continued to highlight in this chamber and wherever he goes, is the importance of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, when it comes to actually doing something about it, with a technology that is already proven, the Prime Minister and many of his colleagues—in fact, all of his colleagues—suddenly go silent or are vehemently opposed to any discussion on the use of uranium here in Australia.

Perhaps the minister for resources, who does show a candid moment from time to time and did so on Fuelwatch, could do the country a favour by sending the cabinet a frank memo in relation to the use of uranium in Australia, as he did on the failure of Fuelwatch, which, as we have seen in recent times, has gone by the way.

The member for Brand spoke eloquently, as he always does, about Labor’s policy on uranium. I could not actually see a fundamental thread of consistency in what he was describing. I would have to say that the Labor Party’s policy on uranium would be better described as ramshackle and an ad hoc mess that fails to recognise not only the greenhouse savings that come from uranium mining but the value of the mining itself. One can never be sure—and certainly at a state level in the future the opportunity remains—but one would hope that the Labor Party does not kneecap the industry again.

We have seen all sorts of variations on policy. We have seen a three-mines policy, which basically said, ‘You can mine as much uranium as you like in three mines, but don’t try and open a fourth.’ That one was changed. We have seen policies where you could have the existing mines but not open any more. Even in the Northern Territory, when I was the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, we saw the then Chief Minister, Clare Martin, decide that she would not approve any new mines—an extraordinary policy, I must admit. I think it was some relief to her then minister, Kon Vatskalis—who I see is now the Minister for Primary Industry, Fisheries and Resources—when I was forced to go to Darwin and explain to the Chief Minister that in the end she did not have to be in the equation and that, as the federal minister, I was happy to approve new mines. Of course, I would give them the money and I would consult with them. But this legislation, with the sands of time, now sees the Northern Territory as a staunch supporter of uranium mining.

That said, I am delighted that we are tonight discussing a framework which will enable uranium mining to be done, as has been said, in a safe and sustainable way. Uranium is an important energy source that will be absolutely crucial in supplying large amounts of low-emission, reliable baseload electricity, particularly for the world’s most populous nations. Evidence suggests that the cumulative carbon savings from nuclear power over three decades to 2030 will exceed 25 billion tonnes—25,000 million tonnes—of CO2, saved as a result of uranium mining. That has to be put into the context in Australia where you see that we have 40 per cent of the world’s known low-cost reserves.

Whilst we have a long way to go in terms of an open and honest discussion of nuclear power and the use of our uranium domestically, I think it is fair to say that, along with the Labor Party, the community at large have turned the corner in their view on uranium mining. I do not dispute the figures presented by the member for Brand. There is certainly the opportunity for those who wish to do so to influence those who are unsure in relation to public perception on uranium mining. Where you have a Premier, a so-called leader, speaking out so vehemently and so strongly against uranium mining, as was the case with the now departed Premier Carpenter, from Western Australia, I think the community does swing back a little, away from supporting uranium. That said, I think that we will see a growing support for uranium mining, a growing support for the sale of that uranium overseas under the strictest of safeguards in the world and, hopefully, an end to the politicking that goes on in relation to uranium mining, at least at a federal level.

There have been some standouts on the Labor Party side in relation to uranium mining and their support of it, although their hypocrisy then lets them down when they support uranium mining and the selling of it to our friends and our trading partners but refuse to consider using it themselves. I will not stray too far into that. But can I say that, in his time, Premier Mike Rann has indicated repeatedly his preparedness to develop uranium in that state and also his preparedness to meet the uranium needs of China’s growing demand. I guess, if I were close to Mike Rann—and I am not close enough to give him advice—I could suggest to him that, if he were in the mood for giving advice, he should go up to Queensland right now before Anna Bligh locks the Queensland Labor Party into a policy that would leave Queensland as the only state with sizeable uranium deposits that will not be exploited, were she to win government.

This is a position not sustained by any scientific fact. Premier Bligh’s position is an ideological bias. It has nothing to do with a real-world understanding of the resource sector or of the uranium industry or of the need to support the resources sector at a time of extreme difficulties. It is estimated that Queensland’s vast reserves of uranium would increase export values in that state alone by $1.9 billion over the next 15 to 20 years. On top of that, it would avoid CO2 emissions equivalent to the beautiful state of Queensland being carbon free for more than five years. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh claims to be concerned about jobs in the resource sector, yet she bans uranium mining and thus puts a distinctively hollow ring to the claim that she is supporting the resources sector. In fact, of course, she is deliberately standing in the way of the development of the mining sector in Queensland.

It is also disappointing, I have to say, that there are so many on the other side of this chamber who support uranium mining but are not prepared to speak out about this ban in Queensland. When you are a national leader or when you are a representative of the community and come to this place, with that comes a responsibility to ensure that you say what you believe in and what you know to be right. I do not think that during this debate—unless we have a sudden regression by one or two members, and I shall not name them—anyone on that side of the House is going to speak against uranium mining. I would suggest that they be honest with themselves, with this chamber and with the Australian people and, having decided that this legislation is worth supporting—and they will all vote for this legislation when the vote comes, as will we—they carry that message to the people of Queensland, particularly to the current Premier, Anna Bligh. We cannot afford to be hypocritical about this. The Labor Party cannot afford to be inconsistent or destabilising on this matter any longer. I know it is a big ask but it is one that is very necessary, and I would urge the member for Brand to carry the message back to his colleagues as to just how important it is to be consistent and forthright when it comes to the importance of the resource industry and every part of it, including the uranium industry.

There are, of course, other inconsistencies with regard to uranium when we talk about the Rudd Labor government. They want us to believe they understand the importance of uranium—the importance of it as a resource to Australia and the importance it plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions—but the real issue is to not watch what Labor say but what they do. One of the first actions of this current government was to overturn the decision made by the Howard government to allow Australian uranium sales to India for peaceful energy-generating purposes. If we are selling uranium to China—supported by the Labor Party and by the coalition—it makes sense to sell it, under the same conditions and the same guidelines and under the same inspection regime as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to a nation of 1.3 billion people or more all aspiring to a better standard of living, all driving demand for more energy and all relying heavily on fossil fuels. Australia cannot pick and choose on this issue. You need to be consistent, and if you are going to abate greenhouse gas emissions there is no better place to start than India. China is already heavily committed to a nuclear industry, and that industry will be supplied by Australian uranium, as are many power stations around the world. But, when it comes to India, this issue is tied to a technicality. India has no record of proliferation. It has no record of selling nuclear secrets or of giving nuclear secrets to rogue states. It has accepted a set of conditions that are as stringent as the conditions we laid down for China, and to refuse to sell uranium to India highlights the fact that the Labor Party still cannot get their minds around the whole issue of uranium. Worse still, it highlights that they do not understand the issue of trade.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Trade has left the chamber, though I am sure he had a good reason, because I would have liked to have asked him what sorts of discussions he has when he goes to India and says, ‘We see you as an emerging nation; we see you as an incredibly important trading partner’—and India is all of that—‘but we will not sell you everything. We are happy to sell you our coal, our diamonds, our natural gas and perhaps our copper or whatever; we sell all those things to China and we sell China uranium as well, but we will not sell it to you.’ I wonder what the reaction of the Indian people is. I can guess that this issue is jeopardising Australia’s entire trade and investment relationship with that country. Not only is it doing that but it is costing Australians jobs. It is costing us export earning opportunities and it is costing us investment opportunities at a time when the resources sector most needs it.

Do not think that this ideological stance will prevent India from getting uranium. They will simply get it from another country, and they will probably get it under terms and conditions far less stringent than Australia’s. I am sure that were we to take a far more realistic approach to this we could not only service that market, create jobs for Australians, reduce emissions in India and ensure that there is a very stringent regime of inspections done by the IAEA but also ensure that the uranium industry develops internationally.

The uranium industry in Australia is an industry which has more potential than it has so far realised. It is an industry that has from time to time suffered, as I have mentioned, from political vagaries. As ERA would point out, it also has to contend with some extraordinary effects of nature. ERA’s mine was flooded a little over two years ago and a force majeure declared. That mine, like most mines in the resource industry, whether or not they are for uranium, has been able to bounce back from that, and it was pleasing to see that ERA posted very healthy production and profit figures over the last 12 months. If the industry is to have confidence and to continue to invest, and if the industry is going to be able to seek out and exploit markets overseas, then we need both sides of this House to take a practical, careful and particular but realistic approach to uranium policy.

This bill goes some way to doing that. I am hoping that, with the passage of this bill and those opposite voting for it, we will see a greater commitment to not only the uranium industry but the use internationally of uranium as a fuel which will lower greenhouse gas emissions and therefore be to the betterment of mankind as a whole. I commend the bill to the House.