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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2768


Senator ALLISON (3:17 PM) —It is typical that all the Minister for the Environment and Heritage can do is attack the opposition over Ranger but, whether the minister likes it or not, the mining of uranium at Jabiluka has now become a matter of great international importance. Here in Australia the issue is not just about the environmental consequences of putting a mine in the heart of Kakadu National Park and a world heritage area but also about our relations with indigenous traditional owners of this country generally and the Mirrar people in particular, who do not want to see this mine on their land. It is also about the integrity of the World Heritage Bureau and of ICOMOS.

It is also about a huge amount of taxpayers' money being squandered on defending the indefensible on the world stage, and over the past week this issue has also become one of accountability and the ability of the Senate to scrutinise the actions of the executive. A great deal is at risk here, all for the sake of a uranium mine which even the miners are getting less and less interested in pursuing.

Uranium is in plentiful supply, and there must be easier ways of making a living than picking a fight with the majority of Australians, who do not want Jabiluka to go ahead. This is all for the sake of a nuclear industry which is also on the decline, which cannot deal with its dangerous waste and which is already pointing the finger at Australia as a potential dumping ground for that waste.

On Monday this week, the parliament asked that all government documents from October last year relating to Jabiluka be tabled in the Senate. Senator Hill tabled 44 documents and a tabling statement in which he said he was:

. . . not tabling certain documents dealing with Australia's relations with other members of the World Heritage Committee and certain internal advice provided to me by my portfolio. The release of such documents could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth, or they are internal working docu ments the release of which would be contrary to the public interest, or they are subject to legal professional privilege.

Of course, the minister and perhaps senior bureaucrats in this department who have determined that this is the case are effectively shutting the Senate out of any reasonable access to the documents. They are documents which, I might say, are crucial to understanding whether or not the government is using inappropriate and nasty tactics and wasting $1 million of taxpayers' money in supporting this mine, interfering with ICOMOS and, in stopping the World Heritage Bureau, putting Kakadu on the endangered list.

So that we might be in a better position to judge Senator Hill's assertions, I asked the minister on Tuesday to provide a full list of documents which were withheld, together with a short description and his grounds for refusing to hand them over. He provided that list yesterday, a very short list of 13 documents. Of course, these were not all the documents, only the ones the department had put forward. It would be impossible to determine whether the withholding of documents is justified from these descriptions, even if we accept that the stated reasons are proper grounds for the secrecy.

Very significantly, the minister dropped as one of his original reasons for refusal the ground of legal professional privilege. Perhaps he had to drop this excuse because, in the meantime, he had professional legal advice on the matter. Advice from the Clerk of the Senate to the Democrats would suggest that this was indeed a wise move on the part of the minister. That advice stated:

The mere fact that documents are the subject of legal professional privilege is not a ground in itself for their non-production; usually the claim rests on apprehended prejudice to parties in potential litigation. The cost of searching for supporting documentation may be outweighed by the public interest in the matter concerned.

It is clear that the minister provided his grounds for not complying with the Senate's order and then he changed the grounds, without explanation, to other grounds. This would suggest to us that the grounds are, and always were, a construct—if the grounds do not turn out to be legitimate, change them to some which might be. There is no way that shifting grounds should be accepted by the parliament, in my view, a parliament which prides itself on its ability to scrutinise the workings of the executive.

But, leaving aside questions of what are and what are not proper grounds for refusal to disclose, the question that remains is: how do we know the minister is telling the truth? Yesterday I offered the minister a compromise: appoint an independent person acceptable to both sides of parliament to examine the documents and verify or otherwise the legitimacy of those claims. It is only then that we will know what level of interference there is in ICOMOS and whether this government is really sending bureaucrats around the world with the truth and the facts—as the minister so often likes to say—or whether this is an exercise in inappropriate and subversive pressure on member countries. (Time expired)