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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2309

Senator CAMPBELL (3.30 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Collins), to a question without notice asked by Senator Campbell this day, relating to the awarding of a tender to the Australian Construction Services for the clean-up of the Maralinga atomic test site.

There are a number of points that need to be made about this. The Maralinga test site clean-up operation is a complex and dangerous engineering project involving the clean-up after the British nuclear tests. It involves handling one of the most dangerous substances on this earth, plutonium. There are a number of world experts in handling plutonium, some in the United States and some based in the United Kingdom. The job that the Australian Construction Services has been awarded by the minister is for the design and planning for a project which could take quite a few years and cost probably over $100 million.

  The Australian Construction Services was selected from a short list of three tenderers. Each one of the other tenderers involved Australian and some overseas components. As I said in my question to the minister, both of those tenderers could be regarded as amongst the best engineering and nuclear safety consortiums on this planet. One certainly requires that level of expertise to undertake such a complex and dangerous project to return Maralinga to what must be considered a relatively safe site for re-habitation, particularly by the former native inhabitants of that region, the Aboriginal people, and anyone else who wanders across the Maralinga lands.

  So it is a crucial project. The handling of plutonium is a very dangerous pastime. One would expect the best engineering brains in the world to be brought into the project. I reflect on no-one in the ACS—the Australian Construction Services—which has been awarded the job. I have raised a number of concerns about the process. Although I am not happy with the way the tenderers were chosen, I had decided to let the issue rest until I read the report in the Canberra Times of 28 June which described the Australian Construction Services under the headline, `Fear-driven ACS riddled with major problems.'

  It described the ACS as being a parochial, fear-driven autocracy. It described it as suffering from factionalism, and from leadership which was perceived to be weak and aloof. The organisation was said to have a lack of direction. It said that the staff were punch-drunk. It even quoted the minister, Mr Walker, as conceding that the report was extremely critical of the ACS. The final line of the article questioned financial estimates, but it did not say which financial estimates.

  One of the crucial things about the tender for the clean-up of Maralinga is the tendered price. Because the minister informed me at estimates committees that price was a crucial element of selecting the final tenderer, the accuracy of the estimates in financial affairs is, of course, a crucial matter. I specifically asked the minister if he read the report. He chose not to answer that part of the question.

  Quite frankly, if I were giving a tender to an organisation to conduct such a complicated and dangerous operation and, a month after giving that contract to Campbell Engineers, Spindler Engineers or someone like that, I read a report about that engineering company, I would call for a copy of that report immediately. I would ask my officers to review that report, and I would ensure that none of the matters within that report went to the technical capabilities of the engineering firm that I had contracted to do the work.

  I have asked the minister to suspend ACS's appointment until a review into both the commercial neutrality of ACS's bid and ACS's competencies and organisational strength has been undertaken by the Auditor-General before any more work gets done. The clean-up operation has had to wait for years and years. A review taking another one or two months is not going to hurt Maralinga's clean-up one bit. Indeed, if the current consortium does it without the full faith of the Australian government and the Australian taxpayer in its abilities, the result could be a very dangerous disaster.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.