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Monday, 22 October 1984
Page: 2110

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(3.34) —I think we ought to be clear right at the outset that this matter of public importance is not about any threat to the future of Australia's environment from this Government but rather the threat to the Australian Democrats' position from Midnight Oil and other elements of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. What an extraordinary mixed grab-bag we have heard of familiar Australian Democrats single issues. What an extraordinary combination of single minded approaches to issues which, as important as they may be in themselves, conspicuously, regularly and routinely ignore the kinds of constraints and realities within which any government has to operate. Moreover, they are approaches which conspicuously ignore-I think this is the fundamental defect of everything we have heard from the Democrats today- the fundamental differences in approach on these issues between the major parties. To attack, in the way that Senator Mason has done, the bona fides and the performance of the Labor Government in areas of environmental protection, uranium mining and nuclear armament and disarmament is to fail fundamentally to appreciate the massive differences which exist in the approach and in the sensitivity of the two major parties in this country. Although it would be impossible for any political party or government operating in the real world to come close to satisfying the miscellany of obsessions, prejudices and enthusiasms that beset the Democrats on this occasion, I think honesty would have obliged Senator Mason to acknowledge, in the context of the appeal he made to the Australian electorate today, that the Australian Labor Party comes infinitely closer to sharing the basic values that underline the concerns that Senator Mason has expressed than our political opponents.

I find offensive the suggestion that there has been some fundamental resiling by the Labor Party in government from commitments that it had in relation to the environment and those related matters before it came into office. Our concern for the environment, properly so-called, could hardly have been more dramatically or graphically expressed than in the campaign we fought and won to save the Franklin Dam just 18 months ago. It is grotesque to suggest that that commitment was other than total or that there has been any resiling from it subsequently. It is the case, in the context of the Daintree, that we have had another set of Democrat and conservation pressure group enthusiasms at work in an entirely understandable way, given the beauty and significance of that wilderness area. But to assimilate those two causes in the way the Democrats have so glibly today and on many previous occasions is completely to ignore again the nature of the legal weapons available to the Commonwealth to deal with matters of this kind and to fail to appreciate the very significant differences in the practical situation that confronted the Government in looking, on the one hand, at the road building exercise in the Daintree and, on the other hand, at the complete and permanent despoliation of the environment that was involved with the Franklin exercise in South West Tasmania.

These are issues to which I have addressed myself-Senator Mason is aware of it- in my capacity as Attorney-General in advising the Government on the legal options in this respect. It is also the case that those options were very limited indeed in the context of the Daintree and the Queensland rain forests. That has not stopped the Government, however, from pursuing very actively and very vigorously a policy to try to preserve the beauty and the significance of that area. It is the case that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has written to the Premier of Queensland offering to hold discussions on a package of proposals for the conservation of the wet tropic forests of north-east Queensland which includes of course the Daintree and Downey Creek areas. It is the case that the Queensland Government has, in its preliminary response, been somewhat less than enthusiastic about responding to that overture by the Commonwealth.

But it is very early days yet and we remain optimistic that this is a problem we will be able to solve particularly in the context of our larger approach to the whole question of rainforest conservation which, as Senator Mason ought to know, has led us to establish a working group comprising a broad representation of rainforest interests, including government, industry, unions and conservationists, developing, as it has been, policy options for the Government to consider and advising on the kinds of measures that are open to us to initiate and actually to implement, as distinct from talking about them from the luxury of the cross benches which is the Democrats favoured perch from which to view the world with rose-tinted, trendy, single-issue glasses. It is a perfectly understandable viewpoint to be adopting and it is a perfectly understandable perch to want to be sitting on in the context of an election campaign. But it is not a perch which deserves to be taken particularly seriously by those of us who have to wrestle, in a way in which governments mercifully have never had to nor will they ever be likely to, with the hard realities of government and policy implementation in a world that is full of constitutional and other constraints that make life difficult in terms of bringing in the millennium overnight.

There are a dozen or more other major initiatives which this Government has taken in the environment area which deserve to be put on record on an occasion like this. I will state them briefly. The first is the enactment of the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act which came into force on 1 May 1984 enhancing, as that does, the protection and conservation of wild plants and animals in Australia. I refer also to the extension of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to include 98.5 per cent of the total region, the introduction of regulations prohibiting oil drilling in the parts of the region not included in the marine park and the development of that in the context of cost-sharing and management arrangements with the Queensland Government, which came into effect in November. This demonstrates that all is not lost in terms of negotiating with that Government over time on matters of environmental significance. We have established the national tree program especially utilising the links afforded by the community employment program with some $25m-worth of expenditure having been committed and over 2,500 jobs created in that exercise. We declared Stage 2 of the Kakadu National Park in February this year. We established title in the Aboriginal people to the Uluru National Park subject to lease-back arrangements, an act which I hope even the Democrats will acknowledge was one of some political courage given the political environment we have had to deal with and still have to deal with in the Northern Territory.

We proclaimed and brought into force the sea dumping legislation in March this year. We established an Environment Contaminants Division within the Department of Home Affairs and Environment to develop the functions of the proposed environment contaminants authority. We introduced controls on interstate trade of protected fauna through a memorandum of understanding signed in July this year among all State and Territory governments to get national control over that particular unhappy trade. We have agreed on a draft with the Council of Nature Conservation Ministers for the prevention of cruelty in kangaroo harvesting. We introduced more fundamentally a national conservation strategy for Australia and had that tabled in the Parliament on 6 December. We reaffirmed our opposition to sand mining on Moreton Island in February this year and we have made it clear that, if it needs policy implementation through the refusal of export licences, that is exactly the course we will follow. We have supported voluntary conservation groups by massive increases in their funding-78 per cent in 1983-84 and a further 34 per cent in the 1984-85 Budget. We have established a States assistance program to assist the States in the management of parks and reserves of major significance and in wildlife management in the context of national parks generally. We have established a flora and fauna survey under the auspices of the Bureau of Flora and Fauna commencing with the first publication in September 1983.

So the list goes on. Were the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment, Mr Cohen, in this place today he could point in a great deal more detail to the very proud record that this Government has established and continues to chalk up in terms of its response to environmental issues. On occasions it has been a necessity that any government confronts to do things less quickly, less dramatically or less comprehensively than we might like in an ideal world. But the suggestion that by our neglect, inattention or lack of enthusiasm, we are somehow putting at risk future generations of Australians by our lack of active support for environmental issues is a palpable nonsense.

The Democrat excursion around the world proceeded then to touch inevitably on the Government's uranium policy. It is well known, as the Minister for Social Security, Senator Grimes, was saying before-although it does not seem to be a message that has yet penetrated the Democrat consciousness-that a wholly different set of arguments are appropriate to the uranium debate, depending on whether one is talking about the use of uranium for peaceful energy purposes or for the creation of weaponry. I refer also to the consistent position that this Government has adopted through its Party policy and through the comprehensive and interlocking set of safeguards measures that it has made part and parcel of any trade in uranium in which we as a nation engage. We have demonstrated our commitment to that distinction in doing our utmost to ensure that if uranium is to get into the world's fuel cycles from Australian sources, it does so subject to the kinds of conditions which make us a greater international contributor to environmental sanity than anyone else who is able to make a practical economic contribution in that respect. It ought to be appreciated-if it is not already- that current Government policy, as it relates to uranium, in any event restricts mining to the two existing mines in the Northern Territory, Ranger and Nabarlek, and if commercially viable, the proposed mine at Olympic Dam or Roxby Downs in South Australia. It is not an open slather policy. It never has been and is never likely to be. Our sensitivity to the environmental implications of uranium getting into hands that may be less careful about what they do with it than our own, has been demonstrated by our recent decision not to permit exports to France until that country ceases testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific region.

The rather larger preoccupations that the Democrats then have with defence- disarmament and nuclear weaponry-came to the fore as the final stage of their contribution to this debate. In relation to that there is again a very great deal one can say, did one have the time, to demonstrate that it is the Hawke Labor Government which is contributing meaningfully and substantially, in a way that is never likely to be the case with our opponents, to the processes of disarmament, nuclear proliferation and world peace. It is a travesty of an argument for the Democrats to put forward-in the context of this barely veiled attack on the present Government-claims that we are being less than wholly enthusiastic and less than wholly dedicated in our approach to these fundamental issues of life or death which make the rest of the environment debate pale into insignificance by comparison.

In the context of our approach to these issues I think it needs to be put as follows, as briefly as I can in the time available: The Government accepts that the risk of nuclear war is low, for the moment, and will remain so. This is because, and only because, both super-powers are fully aware of the risks of nuclear war, and there is no prospect that either of them could hope to gain sufficient military capacity as to attack the other without facing massive retaliation. That is the risk assessment on which we proceed. I do not for the moment underestimate the risk of accidental nuclear war and the whole rest of the awful panoply of things that can flow from the present overheated and overarmed international atmosphere, but that is the basic strategic reality against which planning and Australia's approach to disarmament and the world arms race proceeds. It is a premise based on an appreciation of the force of the role that nuclear deterrence plays in avoiding nuclear war. That is not to say that we believe a better way cannot be found than a system based on mutual terror. The consequences of nuclear war would be so horrendous that we have to strive to find alternatives. It is in that context and against that background that realistically we are trying to achieve nuclear arms control and disarmament . We have renounced the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Australia. We have renounced the stationing of nuclear weapons on our territory. We are committed to do all that we can to bring about an end to the nuclear arms race and the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The major disarmament initiatives of this Government have been many. Our efforts to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime, including the vigorous pursuit of a comprehensive test ban treaty, have been our sponsorship in the South Pacific Forum of a South Pacific nuclear free zone; our efforts to achieve a complete ban on chemical and biological weapons; our support for efforts to prevent an arms race in outer space; and our ratification of the environmental modification treaty.

The whole question of our approach to defence facilities in this country and the question of visits by nuclear ships is one that has been debated on many occasions in the past, and I cannot do more, in the very short time available to me, than to say that we undertake these forms of defence co-operation with the United States of America because we believe it is in Australia's interest to support a stable system of mutual deterrence between the super-powers, not as an end in itself but while the search goes on, for a better way through arms control and disarmament. This co-operation in no way limits our national ability to make independent judgments and to adopt independent positions. We have made it perfectly clear, for example, that the basing in Australia, on a permament status, of US warships of combat forces, would not be acceptable.

Given the concerns raised by this matter of public importance-with which the Government obviously does have some degree of sympathy, against the background of this matter and against the background of those concerns-let me finish by spending just a moment or two on this amazing proposal which is now being put forward on the part of the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Sinclair), on behalf of the coalition it seems, that Australia acquire nuclear powered submarines. Let us ask ourselves: Why does the coalition propose that Australia acquire such submarines? The coalition's policy in this respect is obviously a recipe for disaster; disaster in terms of defence policy, disaster in terms of budgetary policy, as was made clear by the Leader in Question Time today, quite apart from the questions of environmental policy which are in the forefront of this debate. As far as the Government is aware there are only four nations with nuclear powered submarines, and these are four of the five nuclear armed nations-the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and France. Only a proportion of the submarine fleets of these countries are nuclear powered.

The chief role of nuclear powered submarines is to remain under water undetected for prolonged periods. Nuclear powered submarines are used for and armed with, accordingly, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and that is their function. What I ask the coalition and subsequent speakers in this debate to explain is whether they are proposing that Australia acquire submarine launched nuclear warheads. There would appear to be only two alternatives; two possibilities: Either the coalition has no idea of what it is talking about, which is quite possible but not highly likely, or it is proposing a back door nuclear armament policy for Australia, a course that was proposed by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen over the weekend. If the coalition's policy is, as it seems to be, one of nuclear proliferation and nuclear escalation in which Australian armed forces would in the future play a role, this is lunacy of a kind we would unfortunately only in recent times come to expect from a coalition so obviously bereft of ideas and capacity to manage the Australian economy. The obvious reality is that nuclear powered submarines cost far more than conventionally powered submarines. They would require completely new infrastructure to maintain and overhaul the reactors which would power them. There is a whole series of questions. That gives rise as to whereabouts, which State of the nation, it is proposed that those facilities be located. There are questions, questions, questions but very few answers in anything we have heard from the other side, other than answers which lead one to believe that this is an irresponsible Opposition, confirming everything we have been led to suspect over the last few months.

Finally, the reality is that the Hawke Government is committed to the care and nurturing of our environment in a whole series of ways, which it has been possible for me only to very sketchily outline considering the extraordinary amount of territory I have had to cover in the short time available. We are committed now, and for future generations. The Democrats' attempt in this debate to shore up their Green vote, so to speak, overlooks the determination and success of the Labor Government and it also ignores, in a way that is really quite indefensible in the context of this election campaign, the dangers that are posed to Australia by the Opposition and its threadbare policies and worse that it brings to this particular area of the national policy debate.