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Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Page: 1635

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (Minister for Resources and Energy and Minister for Tourism) (6:53 PM) —in reply—I appreciate the contributions by a number of members on both sides of the House to what is a very serious debate. The contributions of members have been wide-ranging, in a lot of ways beyond the scope of the bill. Whilst I do not intend to respond to each of the contributions, especially those by members of the opposition, I will make a few comments in passing. Firstly, in terms of history, it is interesting to note that throughout the period of the Howard government the number of uranium mines in Australia remained three. There was no expansion of the industry, with the exception of a relatively small mine in South Australia. The real expansion of the industry has actually only come to the fore in more recent years because of the question of supply and demand. The reason for that is that one of the benefits of the post Cold War period has been the use of old nuclear warheads to supply resources for the operation of nuclear reactors throughout the world for civil energy purposes.

So let us get a few facts right about the nature of the debate about uranium mining in Australia. In recent years there has been a significant increase in exploration in Australia because there has been growth in the international demand for a primary source of uranium, of which Australia is potentially a major producer. In accordance with that, I note that during the course of the previous parliament the House Standing Committee on Industry and Resources, to its credit, conducted a major inquiry into the state of the uranium industry in Australia. The report of the inquiry received cross-party support and made a number of practical recommendations about the potential expansion of the industry in the foreseeable future. Those recommendations have been taken up by government and, perhaps more importantly, by industry for the purpose of facilitating the expansion of the industry. Obviously, some of the intentions of the companies involved in the industry have now been set back as a result of the impact of the global financial crisis. I say to the House that, as the Minister for Resources and Energy, I will be doing everything I possibly can to work with the representatives of uranium mining in Australia and with state and territory governments to facilitate the expansion of the industry in Australia. I am aware of a number of proposals to go beyond exploration to production, including in the state of Western Australia, as a result of an indication from government that we will do everything possible to facilitate the expansion of the industry in Australia.

Having dealt with a little bit of history—because some of the criticism of the current government has no factual basis; it simply goes to the nature of supply and demand for uranium over the previous 12 years—let us deal with the issue of nuclear power. The government accepts that in some countries, which are not as rich in energy capacity as Australia, nuclear power is a fact of life. I also make no apology for the fact that Australia historically has had a policy that goes to us as a nation being very careful about whom we sell our yellowcake to. That policy is about making sure we have a framework in place to guarantee that we as a nation mine with safe hands and put in place appropriate international protocols, and bilaterals between Australia and those countries that decide to purchase our uranium, which guarantee that our uranium is used with safe hands for civil energy purposes in those countries. The Australian government makes no apology for that.

On the question of India, obviously under the existing Australian government policy framework it is not permissible for us to export uranium to India. That aside, I acknowledge the international processes that have been put in place by the United States, through the global Nuclear Suppliers Group, for the purpose of facilitating greater international monitoring of the use of uranium in India for civil energy purposes. The advances as a result of those considerations by the international community, which have now opened India up to more international accountability than ever previously achieved, are to be applauded. They represent a step forward in the international community’s attempts to guarantee that uranium is used only for civil energy purposes and not for the purpose of nuclear armament. The Australian government has no intention of changing its policies with respect to the existing policy framework, which is clearly aimed at guaranteeing that, at home, uranium is mined with safe hands and that internationally it is used only for civil energy purposes. That will continue to be a debate between us and the opposition. It is not a blinkered view of government when an alternative view could potentially see some supporting the sale of Australian uranium to, for example, Iran—and that is not on.

We must have an appropriate policy framework which guarantees, in what is a sensitive industry, that our uranium will only ever be used for civil energy purposes. I also acknowledge that the development of the industry in Australia must be based on sound environmental requirements. The uranium industry under the current government—and it was the same under the previous government—will continue to be required, as is the case with all mining activities in Australia, to meet what we regard as being appropriate environmental requirements. To do otherwise would undermine public support for not only the uranium industry but mining generally in Australia.

Having said that, I also understand and accept the contributions which pointed to the importance of the development of this industry for Indigenous purposes. In terms of our desire as a government to close the gap, to do something that is economically sustainable for Indigenous communities, our focus is on sustainable economic development, not an ongoing process of government handouts. Successive governments of all political persuasions have now accepted that that strategy failed, that in some ways we have lost a generation from the Indigenous community. My portfolio responsibilities cover mining, energy and tourism, areas often having a focus in rural and regional areas. Our responsibility is to work with industry to guarantee that we engage with the Indigenous community to create as many training and employment opportunities as we can for the further expansion and development of not only the uranium industry but also mining, energy and tourism activities generally.

The member for Kalgoorlie, in his contribution, commented on Mr Ian Lowe’s appointment to ARPANSA. I simply note that Mr Lowe was appointed as a member of the ARPANSA council by the Howard government, then reappointed by the Howard government in 2005 and further reappointed—on the basis of his contribution through those appointments—by the Rudd government in January 2009. So, again, let us get the record straight with respect to Mr Lowe’s appointment.

In conclusion, this bill is directed at applying a royalty regime to all new mining projects in the Northern Territory containing uranium and other designated substances, such as thorium, that is consistent with the royalty regime that applies to other minerals mined in the Northern Territory. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.