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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2048

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(10.30) —I feel a little like a gymnast rising to my feet with my capacity for backflips, as has been alleged by Senator Crichton-Browne. But I think Senator Crichton-Browne's capacity for fiction and oratory outweighs his respect for the facts of this matter and certainly outweighs any kind of sensitivity one might expect to be vested in a senator in this place to the very great values which are being protected by this legislation. The point that has to be made and remade is that the package of Bills before the Senate, the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1987, the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1987, the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Amendment Bill 1987, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1987, and the Lands Acquisition Amendment Bill 1987, will enable the unique natural and cultural heritage of Kakadu to be preserved for future generations.

It is a tragedy that so many of the Liberal and National Party senators who have spoken on this legislation have shown so little understanding as to what constitutes an ecosystem and what is required to protect it. To the extent that they have any willingness at all to acknowledge that there are some parts of the environment, of the national heritage, which deserve protection they would like simply to put fences around individual national treasures and expect that that will be enough protection and let the bulldozers, the diggers and everybody else rip outside that area.

It is disappointing to hear nothing positive from these senators about their willingness to protect our national heritage. I was amazed that Senator Kilgariff referred to Rum Jungle as an example of where mining and conservation have gone hand in hand. Mining and conservation can go hand in hand in certain areas but Rum Jungle, as we all know, was an absolute environmental disaster. After the miners left, the Government had to spend close to $20m in an effort to patch up the damage-I believe, contrary to some people, very successfully-to the river system which flowed from the mine waste. River systems are particularly vulnerable to pollution. The Government will give the South Alligator River system, which flows into those magnificent wetlands to the north, the highest possible level of protection. Mining projects simply will not be allowed to proceed if there is any likelihood that that river system will be damaged. Exploration will take place under strict environment conditions attached to licences issued by the Commonwealth. Mr Cohen has made that clear and I have made it clear in every statement we have made at all stages of this very public debate over the last few months.

The Commonwealth has a responsibility to protect areas of national and international importance such as not only Kakadu but also the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru or Ayers Rock, Christmas Island, Norfolk Island and the South West Tasmanian world heritage area. All members of the Government and all members of the Australian public would be interested to hear that Senator Puplick said in his contribution that he believed that the original nomination of Kakadu National Park for world heritage listing in 1980 made a deliberate attempt to mislead people. I hardly need to remind him that that nomination was made by his own Fraser Government. But then I suppose that the Fraser era is now almost as much on the nose with the current generation of Liberal Party people as is Joh Bjelke-Petersen from the other extreme. It is a tragedy that this once great party opposite should be tearing apart its heritage of commitment to these sorts of values in the cavalier way that was demonstrated not only by the familiar redneck tones of Senator Crichton-Browne over in his cockies corner of the Senate but also by someone such as Senator Puplick who makes a periodic foray into civilised and sophisticated values. Between them they have made a pretty formidable indictment of any kind of consistency, quality of performance, or sensitivity when it comes to environmental matters.

The Bills will enable the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases to be claimed by the traditional owners. Aboriginal owners support a lease-back arrangement to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife. The grant of title to land, successfully claimed, to Aboriginal traditional owners means that traditional ownership will be recognised under Australian law. Despite the snide remarks and the sniggers of Senator Crichton-Browne, who denigrated the grant and the lease-back arrangement from the Aboriginal people in the context of Uluru, the reality is that both Aboriginals and visitors to the park will benefit under the arrangement. Traditional owners in Kakadu, as in central Australia, will play an active role in park management in respect of the area leased back, which will enhance the value of the land as a national park and ensure the protection of both its natural and cultural aspects.

Mineral interests existing at the time an area becomes Aboriginal land will not be subject to an Aboriginal veto on the continued pursuit of those interests. However, new mining ventures on Aboriginal land will require under the existing law and consistently with it a terms and conditions agreement with the relevant land council, as is the case elsewhere in the Northern Territory. Senator Kilgariff has said that Aboriginal communities wish to enter into joint ventures with developers. No doubt opportunities for such ventures will be able to be explored in negotiations over terms and conditions agreements. Land council consent will be required for new exploration licences over Aboriginal land in the conservation zone, in circumstances where Aboriginal land has been granted to Aboriginal people before the leases themselves are issued, except for the Coronation Hill project area, which is effectively being excised at an earlier stage. Private companies will be invited to apply to explore in the conservation zone on titles to be granted by the Commonwealth.

Contrary again to Senator Kilgariff's assertion-he seems to have been misled on a large number of matters related to this legislation-that there was no mention of the Northern Territory being involved in mining at Coronation Hill or in the mineral assessment processes, this was in fact covered in the second reading speech. Northern Territory authorities will be invited to assist in considering exploration applications and in the day to day management of the exploration program, and discussions have already taken place to this end. I understand that already there has been much interest shown by mining companies in taking part in that exploration program.

There have been a number of extravagant claims made about the value of minerals said to be locked up, in the context of the national park itself, in stages 1 and 2 and the new extension in stage 3. Figures of $32 billion, and in one instance $400 billion, are both used. However, the figures that have been provided by the Northern Territory Department of Mines-I am not relying on my own Bureau of Mineral Resources in this respect-reveal that 98 per cent of the known mineral resources of the Kakadu region do not occur inside the current park or the proposed stage 3 of the park. There have been some grotesque exaggerations--

Senator Townley —What value is there?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The value is very much less than that which is suggested in terms of known resources.

Senator Crichton-Browne —What did the BMR say?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Very much less than that on the basis of known information, I can assure the honourable senator. The remarkable growth in tourism--

Senator Townley —You are being very vague about the whole thing.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I have a very boring speech to give in reply and I am going to plough my way through it irrespective of whatever the honourable senator says.

Senator Durack —Give us your own speech about the clapped out buffalo country.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I will come to that in a moment. The remarkable growth in tourism is a very positive indicator of increasing public recognition of the natural and cultural values of the area. There were 101,000 visitors to Kakadu National Park in 1985 and 131,000 in 1986. If the increase in visitor numbers experienced so far this year continues, up to 200,000 may be expected in 1987. Even if the rate of increase in visitor numbers does not increase beyond the levels experienced over the last few years, nearly half a million visitors can be expected by 1991, spending over two million visitor days in the park. Even in the medium term, and certainly in the long term, employment associated with tourism in the Kakadu National Park is likely to far exceed what would be generated by mining and there would obviously be substantial economic benefits from that.

Senator Townley —Rubbish!

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am talking about employment. There is a reference in my notes to quite unfounded statements being made about the absence of natural values in the Gimbat and Goodparla area, which displays a lack of appreciation of the special qualities of the lease areas identified by scientific investigation. Of course a number of unfounded statements have been made by people on this subject. I have heard it said that I myself may have been guilty of a degree of insensitivity in a phrase which seems to have entered the lexicon, certainly it has been a very central part in this debate.

I just want to make it clear for the record that the description of `clapped out buffalo country' was not a reference to the entire Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases but rather to one section of it down the south-west, which I think certainly does justify that description at the moment, although I readily acknowledge that, once the buffalo eradication program which is contemplated for that area proceeds, we can expect it to become unclapped out in the very near future. I am not quite sure what the reverse of that particular verb is-I hate to think. It is an area that is of particular scientific significance, quite apart from its visual attractions, which need a little bit of attention to be realised fully in their present form. But apart from that pastoral area down to the south-west of those leases, which many in this chamber have had a look at, the reality is that many parts of the Gimbat and Goodparla area are scenically very attractive indeed-the Koolpin Gorge area, the UDP Falls, the South Alligator River itself, running up through the middle of it, and most of the escarpment area. The Christmas Creek area, with its Aboriginal caves and so on, is an extremely attractive and ecologically important addition to the present Kakadu National Park. Some 60 per cent of the area is, in fact, composed of land types which are not found in, or which are poorly represented in, the present Kakadu National Park. There are extensive areas of critical habitats for rare species of animals and birds, and the Aboriginal rock art provides a significant added dimension to the rock art in the present national park.

I hope that these remarks, as well as other information brought forward in this debate, will make it clear that the Government's decisions which have been put in place by these Bills do achieve a sensible balance between controlled development and the essential conservation of the magnificent Kakadu region. I commend them accordingly to the Senate.

Question put:

That the Bills be now read a second time.