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Thursday, 13 February 2014
Page: 325

Senator JOHNSTON (Western AustraliaMinister for Defence) (09:51): I want to thank Senator Farrell for persisting on behalf of his state in what is a very important matter. I share his concerns. Indeed, may I say that I shared his concerns for some long time before the last election. I need to tell him—not in a castigating political way—that the Hawke review was completed in 2011. For two years my predecessor, the Labor Party's defence minister, sat on this file and did nothing. We were to have a hearing in a Senate committee and, Senator, the non-coalition members of that committee deferred the hearing prior to the last election. I hope that this bill will go through on the voices.

I was responsible for referring the legislation to the committee. The reasons I did that will shortly be obvious to the senator when I tell him that there are a number of South Australian potential and current land users on that very large area that are vitally affected by this legislation. Defence has, as you well know, a chequered history on consultation. Senator Fifield, on 12 December, indicated that the legislation was in the process of being prepared in an amended version for the autumn sittings of 2014. The government is taking account of consultation with stakeholders to finalise that legislation. The amended legislation is very close to completion and a number of points of particular concern to the South Australian and Northern Territory governments are being resolved. These are important concerns, Senator. Coming from Western Australia as I do, I want mining in South Australia in a big way. I am surprised and horrified that for generations parliamentarians—

Senator Farrell: Vote for the bill.

Senator JOHNSTON: Well the bill is wrong; the bill is not right, and we have got to fix it.

Senator Farrell: Amend it. Come up with some amendments.

Senator JOHNSTON: We have our own bill, which will do all of that and more. But the point is this: for generations South Australian politicians have sat on their hands, not even bothering to put their hands up to go to Defence and say, 'Hang on, you can't sterilise about one-sixth of our state.' Now, after two years, Senator Farrell, quite rightly, is agitated by the delay. I am agitated by the delay. But the delay started when the previous Labor government just dillydallied after they had the Hawke report—for two years! Let us be honest about this.

The interests of the Northern Territory government and Northern Territorians in Alice Springs and Darwin are very, very important. There is a vital rail link running right through the middle of this reserve. A waiver to the regulation impact statement was granted for the previous government. The bill's terms are substantially similar to the private member's bill under debate; you virtually copied the previous bill. That is fine; I accept that. I do not criticise you in any way because I have a lot of empathy for the role and position you are taking here. But there are important considerations that are not currently in this bill, as I anticipated there would not be when I assisted in referring it to a committee.

The regulation impact statement will inform any legislative or regulatory changes the government intends to make to the administration of the Woomera Prohibited Area. Bear in mind we are talking about one of the world's premier weapons-testing ranges. There is virtually zero electromagnetic interference on this range. It is a national asset of significant importance. Existing access arrangements to the Woomera Prohibited Area have been in place in their current form since 1989 and are administered under Defence Force Regulations 1952. The bill, as drafted, applies to new users seeking access to that area. New users are users who would not have access permission under the Defence Force Regulations at the time the bill comes into force. Those who have existing access permission under the Defence Force Regulations are referred to as 'existing users'. They include existing pastoralists, Indigenous groups—and I pause to say that South Australia has its own native title regime, which is a very important consideration in this that the previous legislation did not seek to address—the Tarcoola to Darwin railway owner and operators, and the four existing mines. These users will continue to access the protected area under their existing arrangements that include leases, deeds and other permissions provided under the Defence Force Regulations.

Indigenous groups and the railway owner and operators have all raised significant concerns, both with me and more generally, about their existing arrangements and their status under any new legislation. Now what we are talking about is a right for Defence to say that for a period of 70 days, and it is unclear as to whether that is consecutive days or groups of seven days or anything else, the railway line should not operate while testing is underway. That is an unsatisfactory circumstance. Alice Springs and Darwin depend—

Senator Farrell: It's just an amendment.

Senator JOHNSTON: Well there is consultation, Senator, with a vital piece of infrastructure like that.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): Senator Johnston, please refer your comments through the chair.

Senator JOHNSTON: Alice Springs and Darwin depend upon this railway line for their perishable and other durable goods. You cannot go forward with a piece of legislation like this unless all of the stakeholders are on the same page, and that is what we are seeking to do here. Defence is continuing to work closely with these existing users and respond to their concerns, which mainly consist of clarifying longstanding and existing working relationships and access arrangements and permission with Defence. The new users have not been prevented from accessing the area. As at 24 January there are 32 exploration deeds, four mining deeds, one petroleum deed, four extracting mineral deeds, one communication tower deed and 1,836 personnel have been authorised to access the area. That is since 24 January this year.

In terms of consultation, since July 2000 Defence has been continuing consultation with the different stakeholders, and they all have different interests and they all want different things. But, Senator, I want to see mining particularly start in this area as soon as possible in an orderly, orchestrated fashion. On 6 August Defence met with the rail companies to discuss range administration. Parties agreed that the rail is an existing user, inclusive of all associated infrastructure, and also agreed to develop a working level agreement covering consultation and notification arrangements. On 26 August the Rail Track Corporation wrote to confirm the understanding and stated that they can work with Defence to identify windows that minimise disruption to the rail operators' business. We need to formalise that in a way that all parties, including the Northern Territory government, can be confident about. On 5 September Defence met with the representatives of the South Australian Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy and Defence South Australia to discuss matters including pastoral leases in the prohibited area and the consultation process.

On 3 December the advisory board met and held discussions in Woomera with the various stakeholders. The chair is Mr Stephen Loosley and the deputy chair is Mr Paul Holloway. The board includes senior ex-officio representatives from the Australian government departments of Defence, industry and Finance; from the South Australian Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy; and from Defence South Australia. The board met with stakeholders including pastoralists, resource companies, and rail operators and owners. Pastoralists and resource companies indicated that coexistence with Defence is working well. The rail company have some concerns about potential future disruption but have a better understanding of how they can work with Defence, and Defence is continuing to work with them to develop communication protocols.

A further Woomera Prohibited Area Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for 18 February in Adelaide. The board is planning to meet with Indigenous groups, conservation WA and the South Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy.

On 6 August Defence and South Australian representatives met in Adelaide with the owners and operators of the Tarcoola-Darwin rail link that bisects the prohibited area. They include the Australian Rail Track Corporation, Genesee & Wyoming Australia and the AustralAsia Railway Corporation. They agreed that the owners and operators of the railway are existing users and that the scope of their existing use includes the railway and all associated infrastructure, and they agreed to develop a working level agreement setting out the framework for consultation and notification arrangements between Defence and railway operators.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation has since written to Defence confirming that they can work with Defence to identify windows that will minimise disruption. The Northern Territory government has raised concerns about the potential for long disruptions to the railway and the impact of that on tourism and freight delivery to the Northern Territory. This is a very important concern. We need to get to the bottom of it and we need to resolve it before this legislation takes effect.

Current arrangements allow the minister to suspend permission to access the railway and Stuart Highway for safety and security for testing of war material at any time and with no limit specified. That is a blank cheque, and that concerns me. We need to know where we stand with these matters from a public policy point of view. These arrangements have existed in their current form since 1989. New arrangements allow for closures of a minimum of 70 days per year. Defence may not necessarily require this entire period every year. The 70 days are set in seven-day windows, in which Defence can plan specific test activities. The windows are forecast annually to allow non-Defence users of the prohibited area to do their own planning with this knowledge. Rail and road closures occur only for as long as is required to conduct the test and ensure safety and security. This will continue to be the case under the proposed new arrangements.

But all of the users need the security of formal documentation. For example, a recent long-range missile test required the suspension of rail traffic through the area for a period of three hours on three occasions over a 21-day period. This was done in close consultation with the operator and did not impact their schedule. By defining set exclusion periods, the proposed measures in the bill will provide greater certainty to non-Defence users for the periods in which closures may need to occur. Continuing positive engagement with the owners and operators of the railway, including the development of a working-level agreement, will minimise the effect that any testing activity may have on rail operations and schedules.

In October 2013 the South Australian government raised concerns about the potential unintended consequences of the legislation for their land management and economic objectives regarding pastoral leases in the area. So the South Australian government itself has raised important considerations with respect to this legislation. It noted that clause 72TB(3)(j) of the bill defines an existing non-Defence user who may continue to operate their current access arrangements as a person who:

(i) holds an existing pastoral lease; and

(ii) is in the Woomera Prohibited Area for purposes related to the lease …

Attaching rights to the person rather than to the lease, as this bill does, is an error. If they attach to the lease, they will run with the lease—they will run with the land—as opposed to the person.

Senator Farrell: Well, come up with some amendments.

Senator JOHNSTON: This is especially relevant to the area designated as the red zone. So the legislation that was put up previously is actually, Senator Farrell, with great respect, flawed, and we need to fix that. But we cannot just fix it unilaterally. We need to fix it in consultation with the land users. Consultation is a very important thing, which the previous government did not understand or do, and we are seeking to do it. This is especially relevant to the area of the red zone.

Senator Farrell: You're not fair dinkum about proceeding with it.

Senator JOHNSTON: Such an approach would effectively preclude the sale or transfer of pastoral leases in this zone—you do not want to do that, Senator, I am sure—to the detriment of both economic activity and the important land management services provided by pastoralists, including maintenance of access roads, water infrastructure, fences, weed control, culling of feral animals, monitoring and fighting of fires et cetera. The South Australian government required that Defence consider whether existing pastoral leases could be maintained under current arrangements as existing users, including in cases where a pastoral lease is acquired or extended. The government is considering that request. These are important issues, Senator, which, may I suggest, need to be ventilated such that the Senate can do its job well and properly and get the right answer in the legislation.

The other important aspect, of course, is the Indigenous people on the land, particularly on the western extremities of the range. Defence has continued consultation with those Indigenous groups. As identified as an existing user, the bill does not apply to Indigenous groups. I should pause to say that the South Australian native title regime grants freehold title to Aboriginal people. That is a very important consideration that must be respected and recognised in the bill. I would suggest to the learned senator that consultation over that is an important consideration. We must have a hearing so that they can express their attitudes and opinions with respect to this legislation. I think that is only fair and reasonable. Indigenous groups sought formal written confirmation of their existing access permission under the Defence Force Regulations 1952, and Defence have provided that confirmation.

In closing, I share the senator's concerns. I want mining in South Australia. I do not want to see one-sixth of the state sterilised by a Defence rocket range without proper protocols, rules and regulations. But the bill put up, after a two-year delay by the previous government, is a flawed bill. I want the Senate committee to discuss the bill to understand all of the parameters, and it will be greatly different to the bill that the senator has copied from the previous government. He is in error here. I share his concerns. I do not castigate him; I am with him 100 per cent on the urgency required here. But this is a complex piece of legislation with a number of land users whose opinions need to be consulted so that we can get the right answer in this legislation and we can go forward with confidence that we have done our job in the Senate properly.