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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 6072

Senator IAN MACDONALD (11:25 AM) —As my leader, Senator Minchin, has mentioned, the opposition will be supporting the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008 and I am pleased to say that the bill is actually a completion of work started by my Queensland Liberal colleague the Hon. Ian Macfarlane MP, when he was the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources. This particular bill before us today is a result of the processes started by Mr Macfarlane some years ago. We are pleased in the coalition to see the bill finally receiving parliamentary approval.

Australia is the world’s second biggest producer of uranium, which generated something like $658 million in export revenue in the 2006-07 year. It provided jobs for some 800 Australians, mainly in remote Australia, and there are opportunities for considerably more employment in the uranium industry particularly in Northern Australia. This leads me to inquire of the Australian Labor Party just what their position is in relation to uranium exports and uranium mining. As I have mentioned, there are already a considerable number of jobs created and supported by this industry. But I am confused, as I think are most Australians, as to what is the government’s position in relation to uranium mining.

I thought that, rather than wait for an answer in this chamber, I should have a look at the website of the minister who I guess would be responsible, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, who is the Leader of the House and the member for Grayndler. On his website is a statement entitled ‘Labor Party policy: uranium’. As I read down it I saw that, at paragraph 68, it says:

In relation to mining and milling, Labor will:

prevent, on return to government, the development of any new uranium mines …

I thought this, perhaps, might be out of date, but it is off the current website of the minister. I heard Senator Farrell’s speech on this and he was saying that the Labor party no longer has a three-mine policy. It is now, as I understand it, a four-mine policy. I am always very curious as to why there is a three- or a four-mine policy in place. Is uranium from three mines good uranium while uranium from a fourth or fifth mine is bad uranium? I simply cannot understand why a party, which now, regrettably, is in government in both Australia and in most of the states, will allow mining of uranium from some areas but not from other areas.

In reading the Labor Party policy on uranium, which, as I say, I extracted this morning from Mr Albanese’s website, I am even more confused. The Labor Party policy goes on to say, at paragraph 69:

In relation to exports, Labor will:

allow the export of uranium only from those mines existing on Labor’s return to government …

As I understood it, when Labor returned to government, they increased the number of mines that could be exporting uranium. The environment minister, Mr Garrett, who spent a lifetime opposing uranium and uranium mining, and singing songs about it, making millions of dollars from songs that he sang about how awful uranium was, just recently actually approved an additional uranium mine. I am not sure what South Australia has over Queensland, but it does seem to me that there is a bit of favouritism from the Labor Party when it comes to uranium mines. They are quite valuable, Senator Conroy, are they not? They create a lot of jobs as I indicated. Am I wrong, Senator Conroy? You are shaking your head.

Senator Conroy interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—Order! Senator Macdonald, please address your remarks through the chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am interested in Senator Conroy’s formal interjection, but why, Senator Conroy, is this Labor Party policy on uranium on Mr Albanese’s website as of this morning? It seems rather curious.

The Labor Party is one and indivisible, as I understand it. I am told there are no factions, there are no different branches; it is just one indivisible party. Why is it then that the Labor Party, in its South Australian configuration, approves uranium mining and yet, in my own state of Queensland, the Labor Party refuses to allow uranium mining? This is in spite of, and flies in the face of, calls by the Labor member for the state seat of Mount Isa, Ms Betty Kiernan, to allow uranium mining. It also flies in the face of calls by the former Labor Party minister for mines, Mr Tony McGrady—who is now a lobbyist, as I understand it, for the uranium industry—for an extension of uranium mining in Queensland, and therefore in Australia.

I draw the Senate’s attention to a report in the North West Star of 7 May 2009, when all of the mayors representing the shires between Mount Isa and Townsville met in a group, which is called the Mount Isa to Townsville Economic Zone, MITEZ—they are part of that economic development zone. They all called for the Queensland Labor government to allow for uranium mining in Queensland, because, as those mayors rightly pointed out—and they would know, because they are the leaders of these shires—there is a considerable amount of uranium in North Queensland, and they would like to share in the prosperity that South Australians get in being able to mine uranium in the state of South Australia.

I am entirely confused. The head of our nation at the moment is Mr Kevin Rudd and the Treasurer is Mr Wayne Swan. Both of them come from Queensland, and I would assume that they are members of the Labor Party in Queensland that seems to be totally opposed to the mining of uranium. Yet Mr Rudd is the leader of a government which has just allowed another mine to operate in South Australia. You can understand, Mr Acting Deputy President, the cause for my confusion on just what the Labor Party policy is. I would indeed hope that someone might be able to explain it later in the debate.

I notice that Senator Farrell, in his contribution to this bill before us, did say that the opposition had misrepresented the Labor Party’s view and that they had changed their position. And yesterday in an interjection the government leader, Senator Evans, indicated to me that when he was the shadow minister, because he was a good shadow minister, he had changed the policy too. Why then is the Labor Party policy on uranium, which I extracted from no less than Mr Albanese’s website this morning, so different from what we are hearing? And why is Mr Garrett, who we all know has been a lifelong opponent of uranium, suddenly signing approvals for increased uranium mining and export from Australia?

I agree with the mayors in the north and north-west of Queensland that, if it is good enough for South Australia and the Northern Territory to mine uranium, why not Queensland? Senators may recall many years ago that Australia’s first uranium mine was at Mary Kathleen, up in the north-west mineral province of Queensland. It provided a lot of jobs for a lot people and a lot of wealth for the state. It eventually shut down because it ran out of resources, but since then a lot of companies have done a lot of exploration work. I should indicate here, although I do so in my senators’ interests, that I have some shares—not very valuable ones, I regret to say—in companies that are exploring for mining, but I do not want the thought that I might profit from any expansion of mining to be relevant. One might say that the companies I have shares in are much underrated. Notwithstanding that, it is a valuable resource and it is plentiful in Australia.

I understand from evidence given to the Senate inquiry into this particular bill that there is an ability to increase Australia’s uranium production from its current level of around 10,000 tonnes per year to some 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes per year by 2030. Will the Labor government permit that, or will they not? Will the Labor Party, in their iteration as a Queensland government, of which Mr Rudd and Mr Swan are two members, allow that or will they oppose that? Where does the Labor member for Mount Isa stand? Her electorate contains many potential sources of uranium for mining, production and export. I know the old Labor Party provision that if you cross the party line you are out on your ear. One wonders what Ms Kiernan’s future is in supporting that. Or perhaps she only just did that before the state election, when she knew that a lot of the unions, miners and workers out in her electorate did in fact think that it was a pretty good idea to have a look at more uranium mining because it meant real jobs for Australians and it meant real wealth for that part of the country.

I would hope that someone might be able to assist me in just indicating where we are going in Australia with the uranium industry, particularly whilst this government is in charge. I can understand why the Queensland government is distracted and at odds and sods over its uranium policy. I suspect the Queensland government is perhaps more focused at the present time on some of the issues, which some call graft and corruption, happening in Queensland at the moment. We are all aware that a loyal member of the Labor Party, Mr Gordon Nuttall, was recently jailed for bribery offences. But I am horrified to see in today’s paper that, according to the Australian, one of the people who allegedly paid him the money has just today been awarded a Queensland government contract for a prison, I might say, up in the north—the Lotus Glen prison. Perhaps he has been given instructions to fix it up so that Mr Nuttall can serve out his time in a better constructed and better appointed prison. But how could that possibly be? I know that a lot of people say a lot of funny things happen in the state of New South Wales in relation to the Labor Party government, but could this be happening in my own state of Queensland? We know former Labor leader Keith Wright is still in jail, we know that Bill D’Arcy, a Labor member of parliament, is in jail for matters and everybody knows that Mr Nuttall is there on bribery convictions. But surely the Queensland government cannot be awarding contracts on a non-competitive basis, according to the Australian, to a man who was actually a part of the payment of money to Mr Nuttall.

Senator Stephens — Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the legislation we are currently debating. I do not think that Senator Macdonald’s ramblings about Queensland state government issues are relevant to the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008. I think there is a matter of relevance.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—Senator Macdonald, I simply remind you of the question before the chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I can understand why my colleagues opposite might be a bit sensitive about these issues in Queensland. But the point I was making was that the Queensland government, I would hope, would be able to give us a clear lead on what it intends to do with the huge uranium resources in our state of Queensland. I was surmising that perhaps they cannot because they are distracted with these other things that are happening in my state of Queensland, which are somewhat beyond belief.

As I indicated earlier, I support this bill, and the coalition will be supporting it. As I conclude, I make a further observation in relation to the bill: where mining occurs on Aboriginal land, the Commonwealth is obligated under the Aboriginal land rights act to make payments to the Aboriginal Benefits Account from the Consolidated Revenue Fund of amounts equivalent to royalties. This payment would be in addition to payments to the Northern Territory of amounts equivalent to the royalties collected by the Commonwealth from uranium in the Territory. I raise that simply to say that that is a system that does—I think appropriately—work, in relation to mining. But it does raise the wider issue of royalties and where they end up. In both Commonwealth and state areas around Australia a lot of the nation’s wealth comes from mining—and therefore from royalties, company tax and income tax—generated in the north of Australia. It often seems unfair to me that the considerable amount of wealth that is raised in the north of our country, particularly in remote and regional parts of Northern Australia, is not returned to those people in the form of infrastructure in Northern Australia. We who live in Northern Australia, and particularly in Queensland and the Northern Territory are aware that governments never seem to recognise where the wealth of their states comes from. A lot of the wealth of Queensland originates in the north-west mineral province but the wealth ends up in the south-east corner of our state.

I think it is time that we as a nation had a closer look at this. I am delighted that Mr Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, is addressing this issue in Western Australia by ensuring that some of the wealth from the north-west of Western Australia is actually returned into regional Australia, providing an equitable and fair distribution of moneys. I would certainly think that the Queensland government could well take a leaf out of Mr Barnett’s book in providing back to North Queensland and Northern Australia some of the very considerable wealth that flows to the state capital and, indeed, the national capital from the wealth created in those areas.

I am pleased to have been able to contribute to this debate. I am pleased that the Labor Party will have, by the passage of this legislation, completed the work commenced by my colleague the Hon. Ian Macfarlane some years ago when he was the resources minister. I am pleased that we are rationalising the payment of royalties in the Northern Territory. It appears that Mr Albanese will not be able to help me, but perhaps someone who is yet to speak from the government side could explain to me in pretty simple terms just what the Australian Labor Party’s policy is in relation to uranium, both across Australia and in my own state of Queensland. I know that I and many workers and other people in the north who understand the benefits of uranium mining would be very pleased to get a significant and definitive statement from the Labor Party on what the future of the uranium industry in Australia is.