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Wednesday, 1 June 1994
Page: 1034


Senator SHERRY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (10.47 a.m.) —I indicate on behalf of the government that the opposition has three amendments and that there will be a further two amendments moved by the government or by the opposition. So there will be five amendments to the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) (User Charge) Bill 1994 which remove the contentious issues that have been raised by all parties here this morning.

  I did not intend to speak for long, but I will respond to a couple of points that have been raised, particularly in respect of the position of the Australian Democrats. Frankly, I am quite amazed by the Democrats' position. They have been gazumped by the petroleum industry. The industry has managed to play on Senator Coulter's purist view of how we should fund research. Senator Coulter's purist view is that the government should fund research and that industry should not have any influence or any particular say in how that research is carried out—even when it is relevant to that industry's particular needs. Based on Senator Coulter's purist position, the petroleum industry has managed to convince him that it should not pay one cent towards the cost of a $20 million program which must be, to some extent, worthwhile and of some value to the petroleum industry. The industry has called Senator Coulter's bluff, and that is what I find fascinating about his position. Senator Coulter is a puppet dancing to the tune of the petroleum industry. I am quite startled that we have the Democrats kowtowing to the petroleum industry in this way.


Senator Boswell —That is dirty pool.


Senator SHERRY —It is not dirty pool. We get a lot rougher in this place. Maybe it is just an interesting convergence of Democrat principles with petroleum industry principles. The industry does not want to pay for something.


Senator Boswell —They don't want it; they don't need it.


Senator SHERRY —That is what they say. We are faced with a program that is costing $20 million on the budget, scarce government resources and the petroleum industry says, `We don't want the program.' We may well have to call the industry's bluff, and that would be very unfortunate because there are two aspects to this $20 million program: it has been adjudicated that 50 per cent, half the cost of the program, is beneficial to the offshore petroleum industry; and the other half has substantial community benefit.

  However, the cost of the program is such, particularly with the leasing of the vessel, that for the program to be sustainable it has to be funded at around a minimum of $20 million. In order for the program to be sustainable or cost effective, the funding cannot really be reduced below that figure. So if the industry takes out its $10 million worth and says, `We're not going to pay one cent'—not one cent towards the cost of geological information in this country, which we are trying to make it pay—how will the other $10 million community benefit be funded? The fact is we cannot fund it, or it will be a struggle to fund it. So the whole program could go under because of the purist view of Senator Coulter who has been gazumped by the oil industry—an amazing position for us to be in.

  Senator Margetts indicated that the Greens would prefer the package of legislation to go to a committee. This matter has been the subject of much debate and the government is certainly not inclined to support that. The five amendments the opposition will be moving effectively delete the charge. We recognise the reality of numbers, with the Democrats on one side with their purist view of research and their very strong pro-green position and with the oil industry and the opposition on the other side squeezing us in the vice, we really are outflanked and there is not much we can do. I am a realist about the numbers.


Senator Murphy —It is a contradictory position.


Senator SHERRY —It is a very contradictory position to be squeezed by the oil industry, the opposition and the pro-green, pro-research Democrats but there are some strange alliances in politics. Obviously we will not fight to the death when we know that the opposition amendments will be carried. That is unfortunate because it puts at risk the whole program. It means, I assume, that the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) (User Charge) Bill will be carried as amended, the other three bills on the red will be defeated and the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Fees Bill will be carried.

  While I am focussing my attention on Senator Coulter and the Democrats, I point out that Senator Coulter asserted that we intend to use a backdoor regulation—


Senator Coulter —May.


Senator SHERRY —Or we may—I am always accurate in quoting you, Senator Coulter—use a backdoor regulatory provision to increase the fees to some astronomical level. That is not going to happen. The minister has written to Senator Colston, who is chair of the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, giving assurances that that is not the intention of the regulatory way in which charges will be changed. I am giving that assurance on the record—because we appear headed for defeat by this vice-like, contradictory ideological approach by the opposition and the Democrats, we will not use any backdoor method to increase the charges.