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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1921


Senator DURACK(9.27) —The Senate now has before it for consideration what is known as the Kakadu package of Bills, that is, five pieces of legislation which have been introduced by the Government to give effect to a statement made by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) and the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) in about the middle of September last year. The Government's decision on that day marked a major change in its attitude to the future development of Kakadu National Park. It is certainly a decision of very great significance for a whole range of interests in this country.

In the first place, it was a decision to prevent any mining or indeed any exploration for minerals in what has become known as stages 1 and 2 of Kakadu National Park. Until that decision was made and the new plan of management was formulated, although it was a national park and although stage 1 had been listed on the World Heritage List, the plan of management for the area contemplated that, in certain circumstances and by a decision of the Governor-General in Council, mining and exploration for mining could take place in some parts of the area, bearing in mind that there is something like 13,000 square kilometres of country involved in stages 1 and 2.

In addition to ruling out any mining or exploration for mining in that vast area of the Northern Territory, the plan announced by the Government and now sought to be implemented through this legislation today extends the park beyond the area known as stages 1 and 2, and the Government decided that stage 3, except for some portion of it which was then unspecified, would also be included in the Kakadu National Park. That area contains another 7,000 square kilometres approximately.

Subsequent to that decision and as part of the legislative package, the Government has decided to create, under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, a conservation zone of about 35 per cent of that 7,000 square kilometres which is known as stage 3. The purpose of that conservation zone is simply to enable some mineral assessment to be made under the rules and regulations-some of which have not yet been spelt out in detail-to determine the mineral potential of that area. The end result is that we now have by this legislation a proposal that something over 17,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory be included here and now in the Kakadu National Park and in which area all mineral activity, including exploration for minerals, will be prohibited. All existing mineral rights that are being legally held and on which in some instances considerable sums of money have been spent for exploration, will not be allowed to be further explored or even developed.

There is remaining, I think, about 2,500 square kilometres of the 20,000 square kilometres which is to be part of the conservation zone and the subject of assessment of mineral potential under a scheme the details of which, as I have said, have not yet been finalised. But it is very clear from the attitudes of the Government since the middle of September last year that every impediment possible will be placed in the way of the mining industry ever being able to obtain any mining lease or conduct any mining in this area, with the exception of one particular area which is known as Coronation Hill. In this area there has been already considerable exploration by the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd and some associated companies for gold and platinum. That area is subject again to very strict conditions, which the companies may never be able to comply with and so not be able to proceed-at least this is what the Government's statement of intention is at the moment.

The result of this is that we have an area-virtually one-third the size of Tasmania-excised from the Northern Territory, devoted solely to a national park and ruled out completely from any further mineral assessment whatever, much less any mineral development. This particular area of Australia happens to be one of the most highly prospective mineralised areas. Certainly stages 1 and 2 of the Kakadu National Park are highly prospective for uranium, and the major uranium mines that have been discovered so far in Australia, other than Roxby Downs in South Australia, occur in that region. That, of course, involves another major policy decision of the Government: To prevent the development of a number of those mines which have already been discovered and which would have proceeded but for that decision of this Government. In fact, under this policy mining is already taking place at the Ranger mine, which is excised from the Kakadu National Park.

Of course, the Ranger mine is only one of a number of the mines that have been discovered. We have the Pancontinental prospect, which is a major uranium deposit near Ranger at Jabiru. Koongarra has also been excised from the park but exploration is not allowed to proceed. We have already some other prospective areas as a result of the exploration for uranium which has been carried out in the past but because of the history in this region of mineral exploration and of the constant interference by Commonwealth governments since about 1973, we have a situation where mineral exploration for uranium or any other mineral has more or less been ruled out for a period of many years. So there has never been a full assessment made for any mineral at all in the whole of this 20,000 square kilometre area, an area one-third the size of Tasmania, in the Northern Territory. It is a very sorry state of affairs that by decision of this Government, if this legislation is passed and so long as this Government is in power, there will not be an opportunity for proper assessment of the mineral potential of this vast area.

I will deal later in my speech with the impediments that this Government has placed upon development in this very small portion of the park, in stage 3. This legislation will in fact really choke off any interest by the private mining sector, other than in the area of Coronation Hill. The Government itself is allowing exploration in this area to proceed, again subject to very strict conditions. It is impossible really to assess the loss to Australia, and it is a loss of export earnings desperately needed by Australia. That is recognised by this Government continually in the economic rhetoric that we hear from the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and other members of the Government about the problems of Australia's terms of trade and our need to build up export earnings. Yet, at the same time this Government is ruling out the development of mineral wealth of enormous proportion. It is impossible to assess it fully because the area has not been fully explored by any means. The estimates of this wealth, for uranium alone, range from as low as $32 billion up to $100 billion or even more. But that is only an indicative range of the sort of wealth that is being denied Australia. It does not include the jobs that Australians are being denied by this Government because this area has not been fully developed. It is not just uranium that is in this area. Gold, platinum and a range of other minerals are there and could be developed had this Government not made these decisions to deny even the full assessment of this area.

This is the enormity of Australia's loss imposed by a total and sudden cave-in, and even change of course, in mid-September last year by this Government in order to curry favour with the extreme environmentalists who seem to have simply captured the Hawke Government. It is very interesting, and the Senate should be reminded-the Senate may not need to be reminded-that on the very day of this Government's decision in September last year, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment had written and signed a letter to the Minister for Mines and Energy in the Northern Territory indicating that the Government was giving consideration to a multiple land use plan for this great area. Indeed, the former plan of management was a multiple land use plan despite the fact that parts of the area would never be mined or even be the subject of exploration because of their environmental significance and their world heritage listing. Even a week before this decision there was a series of letters written by Senator Gareth Evans, the Minister for Resources and Energy, in which he talked about the Government's plans for multiple land use in this area. But suddenly all that rational approach which was being pursued by the Government at the time was reversed, and reversed by a Cabinet that was not even prepared to stand up for its own better judgment because it was about to face a rebellious Caucus which had been totally taken over by the extreme environmentalists and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) who was so desperate for votes-and is still desperate for votes-that he was prepared to deny Australians the benefits that could be achieved by a sensible and rational multi-land use for such an area.

It is ridiculous that this vast area of 20,000 square kilometres should be locked away. Maybe one-third or even a half may be considered of such significance because of its environment, Aboriginal art and so on, that it should not be mined or damaged by mining. But a vast amount of this area-probably two-thirds of it-was assessed by the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, as `clapped out buffalo country'. That is his phrase, not mine. He rightly assessed it as country which could be useful in providing a buffer zone for the areas that certainly should be preserved because of their great environmental significance. Nobody in the mining industry and certainly nobody in the Opposition has suggested that those areas should be mined. Indeed, in some parts of them no exploration should be carried out. No one would agree to mining some of the wetland or escarpment areas or doing anything which would threaten the Aboriginal rock art of great significance, but it is simply absurd, even being very generous in the degree of protection and buffer zones given to those places, to rule out an area one third the size of Tasmania from any mineral activity whatever, even mineral exploration. The Opposition is opposed to the decision of the Government. Since it was first announced we have consistently opposed it. We have opposed the Government's new plan of management and sought to disallow it in this chamber. We are now opposed to this package of legislation for the same reason.

The legislation has a number of technical difficulties and deficiencies, some of which I shall explore on behalf of the Opposition in the Committee stage of the Bills but in the second reading debate I do not propose to go into those difficulties. I wish to mention some of the major objections of principle. I have already dealt with the major objection; namely, the locking up of this large area. Mr Cohen denies that there is any locking up of Australia's resources. He used the words `as some have misleadingly claimed'. What on earth is it other than locking up when over 17,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory are ruled out from any mineral exploration, much less mining, and when existing mineral rights cannot be exercised by their owners? The rights have not been resumed. Millions of dollars has been spent in assessment already and the owners of those rights are simply not allowed to proceed under this legislation. They are not entitled to and have not been offered compensation in any way.

Here is a classic case of an expropriation of people's property rights by this Government without compensation. If we are talking about the Government's desire to observe international agreements, I would have thought that failure to pay compensation would be a pretty fundamental breach of any basic rights that we observe in this country. Indeed, if the area were not in the Northern Territory, where the constitutional guarantee does not apply, this would be unconstitutional because it would fly in the face of the prohibition in the Constitution of acquisition of property without just compensation.

This legislation will have a serious effect on the mining industry. The industry creates enormous wealth for all Australians, not just for a few shareholders in companies. The history of mining in this country indicates that in modern times the greatest beneficiaries from mining activity have been not so much the shareholders of companies as employees of the companies and those who get benefits from the vast activities of the mining industry. Large numbers of individual Australians as well as Australia as a whole will be the losers because of this legislation.

I turn to the sop that the Government has given to the mining industry in this legislation. A good deal of it deals with the establishment of the conservation zone in stage 3 of Kakadu National Park. The stage 3 area comprises two pastoral leases which are to be resumed by the Government and to be thrown open for claims under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. The conservation zone is to be created in this area under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. The area will be the subject of mineral assessment. It is clear that ultimately there will not be much mineral activity in this area even though it will be assessed as having mining potential. The Government has said that there has to be all sorts of care and protection of this area, not under ordinary exploration conditions but under very special exploration conditions. There will be no guarantee that any particular deposit which may be discovered will be mined because the Government has set out very definitely in a statement that was made by its Ministers on 16 December 1986 that the Government's intention is that ultimately as much of the conservation zone as possible will be incorporated in the park and that only mining projects of major economic significance, not merely economic viability, will be excluded from the park. This was said in relation to the Coronation Hill area. Any proposal to mine a new area will have to run the gauntlet of that restriction; namely, that the project is of major significance not merely economic viability. Such projects will be subject to an as yet very uncertain mining regime, the details of which, as I have said, have not been spelt out. Maybe in the Committee stage we will be able to find out more about it.

The Government is allowing only five years for this program of mineral assessment. This is quite inadequate bearing in mind the wet season in the Northern Territory. It is not clear under whose jurisdiction these mining rights will be given, whether they will be under Commonwealth legislation or Northern Territory legislation. All we know is that the system will be administered by the Director of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, a man who may be a very well-qualified director of parks but a man who, on his past record, certainly has no sympathy whatever for the mining industry. He is not likely to be sympathetic or encouraging to the mining industry to proceed properly with that assessment. He has been given added powers.

The Government has made it clear that it wants a very strict regime with environmental controls observed in this area. Yet it is not even clear from the legislation just what is the relative position of those who are seeking to carry out mineral exploration in respect of Aboriginal land right claims. We know from the history of the Aboriginal land rights regime in the Northern Territory that there has been, I think, only one exploration licence agreed to so far, despite the fact that the legislation has been in force for about 10 years. The difficulties of obtaining any agreement for exploration on what has become Aboriginal land are great. Indeed, this whole area of land is now said to be thrown open for Aboriginal land claims, and the legislation provides for that.

We have here a thoroughly gimcrack scheme set up by the Government for exploration only, with a vague possibility of mining in some extreme cases. That is a further cave-in by the Government to the extreme environmentalists, who have obviously captured the Caucus of the Australian Labor Party and, at this stage, the heart of the Prime Minister. The chance of any effective mineral assessment being made of this area is highly remote.

Many other questions arise about the way in which the scheme of assessment will work, and I propose to ask a number of them during the Committee stage of the Bills. The chance of its ever working, and the Government's intention that it should work, are highly suspicious. This Government seems to be carried away by the importance of what it thinks is the environmental vote. It is very interesting to note the results of recent polls on the attitude of Australians to the very question of mining in the Kakadu region. A Newspoll survey last year asked the question:

Provided areas of scenic and other significance were not disturbed, would you be in favour or against the mining under stringent environmental conditions of any large deposits of gold, platinum or other minerals found in Kakadu National Park?

The answer showed that those in favour were 59.5 per cent, and those against 33.1 per cent. Another Newspoll survey conducted this year asked:

How do you feel about the mining of uranium, if its use is restricted to peaceful community purposes such as power generation?

The response was 56 per cent in favour and 20.6 per cent inclined to favour it, although with a few reservations, giving a total of 76.6 per cent of Australians favouring the mining of uranium for peaceful community purposes. A few people, only 12.9 per cent, were against it. The Government should be thinking seriously about its one and only motive for this legislation-that clearly being to curry favour with, and recapture what it thought were lost votes from, the extreme environmentalists. In relation to both the mining of uranium for peaceful community purposes, such as nuclear power generation, and the specific question of mining in Kakadu National Park, the views of Australians were overwhelmingly against the environmentalists whose support the Government is seeking through this series of Bills.

The consequences of this legislation for Australia as a whole, for our economic interests, for the interests of large numbers of Australians who are being deprived of job opportunities because of restrictions on mining in this area, and for the national interest of Australia as a whole make it highly desirable that this legislation should be defeated and that the Government should return to what it was proposing until the middle of September last year, which was to establish a sensible multi-land use regime in this area. The Government has made a very grave mistake in changing the sensible course that it was then following to curry favour with what is a very small minority of Australians. The Government is being very foolish in making that judgment and this legislation should be defeated.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Giles) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.