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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1620

Mr HAASE (5:43 PM) —I am pleased to speak today on the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008. The purpose of this bill is to apply a uniform royalty to all new uranium projects in the Northern Territory. In terms of royalties, this bill will make the development of uranium resources consistent with that of other minerals in the Northern Territory. The bill applies to prescribed substances under the Atomic Energy Act 1953, which, in addition to uranium, specifies thorium or ‘an element having an atomic number greater than 92 or any other substance declared by the regulations to be capable of being used for the production of atomic energy or for research’. Thorium has the atomic number of 90 and uranium the atomic number of 92. The elements thereafter in the periodic table are referred to as transuranic and are generally man made—for example, curium and plutonium—and are unlikely to be found naturally, except rarely in tiny quantities. Therefore the practical application of this bill, as the title implies, is for uranium, which occurs naturally in the Northern Territory in highly valuable concentrations, as it does in my home state of Western Australia and, more specifically, in the vast area of the new electorate of Durack.

In 1978 the Northern Territory was granted self-government by the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth retained ownership of uranium and other prescribed substances as defined in the Atomic Energy Act 1953. Uranium had already been mined in the Territory before that date. The first mine was set up at Rum Jungle in the 1950s by the Commonwealth and there were several after that, developed by various interests. The Northern Territory has one currently operating uranium mine, the Ranger uranium mine in the Alligator River region, enclosed by but separate from Kakadu National Park. Ranger has been operating since 1980, and indications are that it will be operating for many years yet.

Uranium royalties in the Northern Territory to date have been determined on a project-by-project basis. Royalty arrangements have been determined individually for each mine, taking into account a range of considerations, including the state of the market, any existing negotiated non-statutory payments to Indigenous communities, loss or damage likely to be suffered by Indigenous communities affected by the proposal and royalty rates determined for other mines. It is significant that this legislation does not pertain to Ranger, which has an existing and longstanding royalty arrangement in place. However, all new mines in the Territory will fall under this legislation in the future.

The Northern Territory has extensive uranium resources, from the Red Centre right up to the Top End. A range of explorers are currently active, and there is considerable potential for a number of uranium mines to develop in the coming years. In 2005 my colleague the Hon. Ian Macfarlane, as Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources with the Howard government, sought to make some improvements to assist development of the Australian uranium industry. He instituted the formation of a steering committee to develop the Australian Uranium Industry Framework. The steering group was guided by the vision of:

A sustainable, safe, secure, socially and environmentally responsible uranium industry, making a growing contribution to Australia and the world’s energy supply well into the 21st century and assisting in reduced global greenhouse gas emissions.

To this end, the group reviewed the exploration, mining, milling and transportation of Australian uranium to support the sustainable development of our uranium industry.

In 2006 the Uranium Industry Framework Steering Group presented its report, containing some 20 recommendations for the sustainable development of our uranium industry. This piece of legislation that we are discussing this evening, the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008, is concomitant with recommendation 13 of the Uranium Industry Framework Steering Group. Specifically, the recommendation stated:

The Australian Government should establish, in consultation with stakeholders, a royalty framework for the uranium industry in the Northern Territory.

The Uranium Industry Framework Steering Group included representatives from government and Indigenous groups, but the majority were from uranium industry or industry groups. As a result, more than 150 industry and government experts contributed to the development of the Uranium Industry Framework. Therefore, it is to be expected that the industry welcomes this legislation, which is directly based on the strong level of industry consultation initiated by the Howard government.

Going back a decade or two, uranium was made into something of a mining pariah by Labor with the introduction of the now infamous three-mines policy. Companies in the Northern Territory can now have the same expectations and certainty about developing uranium interests as they do for other metals. Companies will pay the same 18 per cent profit based royalty on uranium as they do on other minerals under the Northern Territory’s Mineral Royalty Act. For uranium companies, this is a particularly useful simplification of matters when there is a multimineral or polymetallic resource and uranium occurs with the other mineral resources. Industry is also strongly supportive of this legislation because it pursues the profit based model of royalty payments rather than an ad valorem approach. Companies will pay royalties based on profit rather than revenue, which is a strong incentive for the industry, encouraging investment and development. Companies feel this will help ensure maximum longevity of mines, which in turn means longer term benefits for communities with regard to jobs and the economic and social contributions that come with mining developments.

Whilst it is admirable that Minister Ferguson has introduced this legislation, continuing the excellent work put in by my colleague the member for Groom and the Howard government, I cannot help but note Labor’s confused and ever-changing stance towards the development of Australia’s uranium industry. It is also admirable that the Minister for Resources and Energy and his federal colleagues managed to get past the irrational Labor prejudice that prompted the three-mines policy and then the ‘no new mine’ policy. However, this is still a government that says one thing and does another. This Rudd Labor government says it supports the development of new markets and wants Australia to be the world’s biggest uranium exporter, but I question Labor’s overall commitment because, with all this new-found enthusiasm for uranium, only one Labor member could be bothered to speak on this bill apart from the Minister for Resources and Energy. That member spent some time explaining why he thought uranium mining led the way to the world’s best practice in environmental standards, which I do not for a minute question, but elsewhere in his speech he made the comments that his party had a long history of supporting the development of a uranium mining industry in Australia but had from time to time taken positions opposed to uranium mining. Of course, as these positions against uranium mining occurred when Labor was in power, they were quite detrimental to the development of the industry, as my colleagues before me have pointed out.

Parliamentary Secretary Gray, obviously a keen exponent of the industry himself, is in the unenviable position of being in a party which has supported uranium mining in the past, then decided it was undesirable and set a limit of three mines for the whole country, then said there should be no new mines and now, whilst apparently endorsing the industry on a national level, could only find two members to speak in support of this legislation and has allowed state Labor governments in two states with rich uranium resources to enforce and go to election on uranium mining bans.

I take this opportunity to bring to the House’s attention a particularly blatant example of Labor’s confused and contradictory attitude on uranium and the nuclear power industry. Labor has recently and quietly appointed a well-known antinuclear campaigner, no less than Professor Ian Lowe, the president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, to represent the interests of the general public on an advisory council to ARPANSA, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency. ARPANSA is a federal agency that is charged with responsibility for protecting the health and safety of people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionising radiation, such as X-rays, and non-ionising radiation, such as solar UV radiation. It is not just about nuclear; it is about the sun, and the effects of ionising and non-ionising radiation. ARPANSA is part of the Department of Health and Ageing and falls in the portfolio of the parliamentary secretary and proud anti-uranium mining campaigner, Queensland senator the Hon. Jan McLucas. It makes me wonder if she is also a proud campaigner against jobs for Australians.

A public poll conducted by Essential Research in January this year shows that 43 per cent of Australians totally support Australia developing nuclear power plants for the generation of electricity—that is more than the 35 per cent who oppose it. I will give those figures again: Essential Research, a reputable company, in January this year did a survey the results of which showed that 43 per cent of Australians supported nuclear power and 35 per cent opposed uranium power. That is what the general public thinks.

Professor Lowe was elected president of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2004. The Australian Conservation Foundation states on its website:

Mining uranium in Australia poses serious, continuing and unresolved problems and fails to meet key environmental sustainability criteria.

It does not say that you have to keep your head in the ground because you will glow in the dark if you mention the word, but it is in the same vein. This same organisation is currently recruiting, as part of an alliance, someone to do the job of WA uranium-free campaigner. It is an absolute disgrace. I rest my case. How can Professor Lowe represent the interests of the general public? His responsibility is to advise the CEO of ARPANSA how to move. How can Labor think that he does? Yet he will serve in this role representing the public for the next two years. Once again Labor says one thing and does another.

Minister Ferguson is well aware of the potential of Australia’s uranium resources. This legislation supports the development of those resources, and it was the very first point he made in his second reading speech on 3 December last year:

Australia has over one-third of the world’s medium-cost reserves of uranium, which have the potential to make a major contribution to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. As the world is moving to a low-carbon future, the uranium industry in Australia is forecast to grow rapidly and could add an additional $14 billion to $17 billion to Australia’s GDP over the period to 2030.

I could not agree more about the potential of our uranium resources. But if the minister is serious about making a major contribution to reducing global emissions then he could hardly do better than to assist one of the largest developing economies in the world, that is India, reduce its emissions and increasing emissions into the future. As I said before, this is a government which says it wants Australia to be the world’s biggest uranium exporter, supports the development of new uranium markets and wants to encourage further resources and energy investment between Australia and India. Selling uranium to India ticks all these boxes. It is mutually beneficial for Australia and India, and the mutual benefits are considerable. This is a government which has made any number of positive comments about our relationship with India and its desire to strengthen economic and trade ties. But the government says it will not sell India uranium even though the Howard government made the decision to, believing the appropriate safeguards were in place. And the Rudd government agrees that the safeguards are in place for the US to do so.

This is an absurd and irrational position for the government to take, even more so when you consider the greenhouse emissions which could be reduced. We all know how frequently and in what glowing terms the Rudd government has spoken about reducing carbon emissions. Selling uranium to India would give the Rudd government the chance to make a significant international contribution to carbon emissions reduction. In 2005 the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre in the US, which advises the Department of Energy, compiled a ranking of per capita fossil fuel carbon dioxide emission rates. This is carbon emissions from fossil fuels per person per year. In 2005, sadly the last and best figures we have, Australia was 10th in the world with nearly five tonnes of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emitted per person per year. We are a developed country and we are at the level of five tonnes per person per year. We have a developed economy, as I said.

India is not a developed economy. In fact, you would be drawing a very long bow if you suggested that India was anywhere near being a developed economy. Many subsistence farmers across the rural areas of India use cow dung as a fuel. They are not connected to electricity. They have no access to electricity at all. However, India is developing rapidly. The critical figure that I have not given to the House at this point is that per capita per annum CO2 production in India is about one-third of one tonne. The point I make and bring to the attention of the House, and members will find it alarming I am sure, is that as India moves to become a developed country the per person usage of electricity will go up exponentially. If all those houses and all those lives were hooked up to electricity made with fossil fuel, how on earth would we be able to do anything serious to reduce global greenhouse gases? The use of uranium rather than coal fired power would make a difference to the level of carbon emitted by India as it grows.

The Northern Territory has important uranium resources and this legislation will assist the Australian uranium industry to develop. Selling that same uranium to India is another way for the industry to develop. This legislation is a step in the right direction for the Rudd Labor government and I strongly urge the government to continue on this path—embrace and encourage uranium mining across the country and take every means necessary to foster an industry which has so much potential for our country both in the current economic climate and in the future. As members of this House, it is our job to do the right thing, and that is not necessarily the most popular thing for the Australian public. We are charged with the future of this country and right now we know that there are more Australians out there who are prepared to embrace a future that involves the mining and, possibly, the generation of electricity using Australia’s uranium. We therefore do not need to throw these red herrings into very reasonable advisory committees who are hell-bent on destroying any potential nuclear industry in Australia. We need to be concerned with income, jobs and the balance of trade. It is our responsibility. We need to look at the issues I have raised here and pass this legislation, and let uranium miners get on with the job.