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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1031

Senator COULTER (10.28 a.m.) —I also oppose this package of petroleum bills for reasons which, to some extent, parallel those raised by the opposition. I would like to raise some rather different issues, which are the primary reason for our opposition. Our preferred position would be that, as these bills have been put as a package, the government should be told to go away, rethink them and come back again. If the opposition chooses to try to dissect this integrated package and pass those bits which do not deal with the further imposition of a penalty on explorers to support AGSO, we will support that.

  However, I would point out to the opposition that the amalgamations bill, which seeks to amalgamate a number of other charges, also seeks to replace those charges with a charge which will be set by regulation. Therefore the extent of that charge is not spelt out in this legislation, so there is a potential for a backdoor imposition of the fee which we are jointly choosing to knock out.

  I point out to the opposition that that is a potential danger, although I hope that when the regulations come in we will pick it up. I point out again that, as it would know, regulations have to be passed or dismissed in toto. We do not have the option of disaggregating the individual charges if they are presented in that way in the regulations. So there is the potential for a hole there in pursuing the path which the opposition has outlined. If that is the way it chooses to go, so be it.

  Australia, like many other countries in the world, has laid claim to the continental margin. It has entered into various international agreements relating to the 200 nautical mile zone. This, of course, places a responsibility on Australia to properly look after that area and, in looking after it, to manage it in ways which are consistent with the research work it carries out and with the data that comes from that research work.

  That is a responsibility which is placed on Australia as a nation. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether in fact Australia chooses to explore that area for petroleum or for minerals or to research it in terms of fisheries resources or anything else. It is a fundamental database that Australia is required to establish under its international obligations in terms of good management of that zone. I simply reflect on the words of the Richards report, which clearly enunciated that:

The Review believes that the `public good' nature of AGSO's work should be clearly recognised and that AGSO should not be subjected to higher revenue and cost recovery targets. It is further proposed that AGSO be provided with additional resources—

not fewer resources, mark you, but additional resources, and clearly these are public resources—

to undertake emerging priority work and that rolling, triennial funding arrangements be adopted.

In other words, the Richards committee, if anything, went somewhat further. That public good nature of the work carried out by AGSO has clearly been totally rejected by the government, and that is the sticking point as far as the Democrats are concerned. Of course, the work which AGSO carries out goes far beyond the work of exploring for petroleum or other minerals, and so it should.

  This is the second point that I want to stress. When research work becomes constrained by reason of the source of those funds, then the nature of the research work itself becomes distorted. To ask the continental margins program to become dependent 50 per cent upon funding from petroleum and mineral exploration—not mineral at this stage, but ultimately mineral exploration—would mean that the work in our continental margins would become directed primarily to that source; yet it should not be, it should be quite clearly directed to a much wider range of information.

  Indeed, when the continental margins program commenced in 1985 these were the requirements which were placed on that research work. The objective was to provide geo-scientific advice consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development. Asking this body to obtain half its funds from an exploitative industry which by its very nature is not sustainable in the long term is simply totally inconsistent with the very objective for which AGSO was setting up the continental margins program. It goes on, consistent with this ecologically sustainable development program:

—improve the efficiency and effectiveness in offshore petroleum and mineral exploration;

—support Government decision-making on offshore petroleum and mineral exploration and development;

—maximise and sustain Australia's legal continental shelf claim in preparation for the entry into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea;

—support inter-governmental negotiations between Australia and its nearest neighbours on the delineation of sea-bed boundaries; and

—assist with resource and environmental advice in relation to marine parks and protected areas.

That, clearly, is a much wider brief than simply assisting by way of fee the petroleum and mineral exploration industry in our continental region.

  There is a further danger in going down this road which has become very evident in recent days. There has been a great deal of debate in the last couple of days on the funding of the CSIRO divisions of agriculture and their dependence upon levies and other sources of private funding. Once people lock their research work into a requirement to get that funding, of course when that funding dries up—as it has in the case of agricultural science because of the downturn in many rural industries—and the government does not continue to support that research, the research work gets cut. This is precisely the time when we need more money to go into that research, not less. I see that Senator Panizza is nodding his head.

  Mr Acting Deputy President, I ask you to consider the situation in which half of our funding for the continental margins program comes from petroleum and mineral exploration. The imposition of this very hefty fee leads such people to disappear and, with them, may well disappear the very funding which we need for a proper continental margins research program. That, in itself, is a course which is fraught with great danger.

  I also invite honourable senators, if they did not see the program, to get hold of a copy of the SBS Dateline program which was shown last Saturday night. It featured a young student doing an honours degree in science in Tasmania who researched the environmental consequences of the Mt Lyell mine and pollution of the Queen and King rivers in Tasmania. The point I want to stress is that the publication of that research work, which was passed by her supervisor, by the head of her department of environmental studies in Hobart, which was given a first-class honours degree, was then threatened by the Mt Lyell mine. I do not know whether the Mt Lyell mine in any way supports the University of Tasmania. If it does not, the situation is even worse, because for 16 months, evidently, according to that program, the university refused to publish that honours thesis, under threat from that private source.   How much more likely is it that we will not see the publication of very important public information if it is funded directly from those private sources? It is another extremely powerful reason, I believe, why this public-good research work must be publicly funded, with the information it produces coming directly into the public domain and owned by the public. Of course, if the petroleum industry, after the information is available, chooses to buy some of that information, it is perfectly at liberty to do so.

  I think one of the previous speakers indicated that the petroleum industry bought $1.5 million worth last year. That is its right, but it is still public information, it remains public information, and anybody else can get access to it. That is the way it should be done.

  I want to pick up and stress a point that has already been made: the size of these fees is sufficiently large as to discourage small Australian companies. It is possibly not likely to impact adversely on very large multinational companies which will come in and exploit our continental shelf. But in terms of smaller companies which may have only $200,000 to invest, these fees, which could run to $100,000 for a licence, would be a sufficient impediment and they simply would not explore.

  Leaving aside the question of whether we want this sort of exploration to go on under this sort of regime, I do not think we should be putting in place a regime which encourages large multinational companies to come and utilise Australian resources while at the same time discouraging smaller Australian companies from doing the same thing. It is for these reasons that the Democrats are opposed to this measure. We would prefer to throw out this whole package of bills and tell the government to go away and have another think about it.

  I would ask the opposition to point out the possible dangers when amalgamation is dependent on the setting of the ultimate fee by way of regulation. If it thinks about the way regulations are allowed or disallowed in this place, it may reconsider its position. However, if it chooses to go ahead with the amendments it has proposed, we will support those amendments.