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Tuesday, 30 November 1976


Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Leader of the Opposition) - Nothing demonstrates more tragically the inadequacy of the Fraser Government's response to the report of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry than its obvious determination to evade and misrepresent the findings of the inquiry. By any standards the Fox report is a document of momentous significance. It deals in measured terms with great and contentious issues, with fundamental questions of human safety and survival; with matters, literally, of life and death. It has been framed with the utmost care after months of exhaustive inquiry. My Government appointed the inquiry because we wanted the most thorough and informed advice on matters of immense importance to the future of our country and to the future of humanity. I pay tribute in this House to the painstaking work of Mr Justice Fox and his fellow commissioners and congratulate them on the studious, temperate and, in its essence, profoundly humane report which they have given the Australian people. We look forward to their second report. It will complete their work and should give the Parliament and the Australian people a comprehensive insight into the uranium question and the grave issues it raises.

It remains true that even with the first report in our hands, politicians can no more speak with certitude or finality on these issues than the com.missoners themselves have been able to do. The great public debate on uranium, which the commissioners recommend and which democracy and commonsense demand, is only now beginning. It must continue. It must continue after the second report is received. The first Fox report is concerned with two paramount issues- one largely technical, one largely political- which scientists, governments and ordinary people must confront. The Fox report is not mainly about mining; it is mainly about the disposal of radioactive waste and the prevention of nuclear proliferation. As politicians we cannot speak as experts on scientific questions, but we can and must speak, with clarity and conviction, on the ethical and social implications at the heart of the decisions we make. It is for that reason that I commend the emphasis in the Fox report on human safety and survival, and endorse its recommendations for limiting nuclear proliferation and strengthening safeguards in the handling of nuclear material.

Except in the most perfunctory terms the Government has said nothing on these issues. It has closed its eyes to the real message of the Fox report. One might have hoped that this debate, with all its grave and complex issues, would be conducted in a non-political atmosphere. Idealists always hope for such debates but it is in the nature of politics that they rarely happen. The Fox report presents us with inescapable choices. We can act upon the spirit and intentions of the report or we can ignore them. We can face its challenge honestly or we can obscure it and dodge it. We may disagree with certain conclusions or dispute a particular emphasis, but if we take the report seriously there is one thing we cannot do: We cannot remain inactive and inert. The Fox report demands a response; it enjoins action. It does not allow us to be passive. I say on behalf of my colleagues that a Labor government will take whatever action is needed to implement the spirit and intention of the Fox report. It is already clear that the present Government will not.

I began by saying that the Government had evaded and misrepresented the inquiry's findings. I shall document that charge because it reveals clearly not only the dishonesty of the Fraser Government but also its narrow, essentially selfish perception of Australia's responsibilities. The Ranger report contains 16 substantive findings and recommendations. On 28 October, the day it was issued, the Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development (Mr Newman) made a Press statement in which he singled out for emphasis only two of those findings. Anyone reading his statement without seeing the report would have interpreted the report as a firm endorsement of mining. That is how the share market and the industry preferred to view it and it is what the Government encouraged them to believe. The Minister mentioned the first finding of the commission, namely, that the hazards of mining and milling uranium, if properly regulated and controlled, are: 'Not such as to justify a decision not to develop Australian uranium mines'. This he described as: 'The first and major recommendation'. There was no justification for calling it the major' recommendation; it was not in fact a recommendation at all. Then he mentioned the second finding, again misleadingly characterised as a 'recommendation', that the hazards involved in the operation of nuclear power reactors, if properly regulated and controlled, are: Not such as to justify a decision not to mine and sell Australian uranium '.

To present these 2 tentative and cautious statements as a summary of the whole report- to present findings deliberately couched in negative terms as positive and major recommendationswas a distortion of the report and an affront to the commissioners. Yet this was how the Australian people were acquainted with the report's contents. There was no mention by the Minister of the crucial third finding, that 'the nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear war'. There was no mention of the need for the regulation and control of mining mentioned in the fourth finding. There was no acknowledgement of the dangers and hazards identified by the Commission. In ignoring the true spirit of the report, in leaving the clear impression that the future of rnining was all that mattered, the Government has misled the Australian people. The commissioners themselves are plainly anxious at the way the Government was treating them. On 9 November the political correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Mr JusticeFox and his two fellow commissioners are known to be concerned that their report on the Ranger inquiry is being widely interpreted as the go-ahead for the mining and export of uranium, subject to strict control. They have let the Federal Government know privately that they regard this as a serious misinterpretation of their report . . As far as the commissioners are concerned the third finding- that the nuclear power industry is unintentionally contributing to an increased risk of nuclear warcontains their major recommendation: that the questions involved are of such importance that they should be resolved by Parliament.


Mr Chipp - How many are in the Parliament now?


Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) -The next 2 speakers on our side at least. I do not know whether the honourable gentleman is being allowed by his masters to speak.

The Australian Financial Review reported this morning:

Justice Fox and the two commissioners from the Ranger environmental inquiry have attacked the Government over its interpretaton of the Fox Report. In a recent letter to the Minister for Environment, Housing and Community Development, Mr Newman, the Fox commissioners have claimed their first two findings do not amount to recommendations . . . The Government has used these findings to justify honouring existing contracts . . . The Fox commissioners are further concerned that the Government has used the report to support its stated policy for uranium development.

In spite of these facts the Government is still presenting the Fox report as a green light for the mining industry. Its 200-odd pages of closely argued text, its cautious and restrained conclusions, have been swept aside. When the Minister tabled the report he asserted that 'the principal findings and recommendations of the inquiry . . . relate to the development and export of Australia's uranium resources'. That was simply not true. The recommendations and findings are overwhelmingly concerned with the hazards of nuclear development. It is not the sort of report which can be answered with sweeping, airy references to the 'need for the fullest and most effective safeguards'. The report says precisely what these safeguards should be and what we should do about them. The Government must tell the Austraiian people exactly what it proposes to do about them at home and abroad.

I make it clear that the next Labor Government will not feel bound to honour any future contracts entered into by the present Government. Let there be no misunderstanding about the attitude of my Party now or in the future. As a Government we inherited substantial contracts from our predecessors. One-third of the contracts were actually approved after the writs were issued for the elections of December 1972. It is one thing to honour contracts we inherited; we shall be under no obligation, in view of the questionable actions of our predecessors and their misrepresentation now of the Fox report, to honour such contracts in future. My colleagues and I are convinced that, in view of the Fox commission's findings, no new mining development should be permitted unless a future Labor Government is satisfied that the hazards have been eliminated and satisfactory methods of waste disposal have been developed.

It is now clear that the equivocation and duplicity in the Minister's Press statement on 28 October and his ministerial statement on 11 November were intended to reassure the rnining industry and soften the public for the go-ahead for new contracts. The Government has deliberately given the impression that the Fox report is encouraging mining. It is not. Nobody should be under any illusions that mining will be permitted under a future Labor Government. Nor should the mining companies be encouraged to believe that because they are in business under one government, they can expect any future government to guarantee their existence. The least the present Government can do is ensure that all the safety procedures recommended in the Fox report apply to the filling of existing contracts. It must observe the recommendation that no decisions be taken on future mining in the Northern Territory until the second report is received. It must give no further approval to mining anywhere in Australia until the safeguards proposed in the report are implemented at home and abroad.

There is one inexcapable conclusion to be drawn from any fair reading of the Fox report. It is not just that Australia must observe existing international safety procedures- that goes without saying- but that Australia must take some further international action to strengthen those procedures. Repeatedly the Fox report harks back to the importance of the Treaty on the NonProliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It recognises that Australia is well placed, perhaps uniquely placed, to do something to strengthen the safeguards in the treaty. To shirk that responsibility, that supreme obligation, would in my view be a course of criminal negligence when we consider the solemn facts in this report and the dire tone of its conclusions. Time and again the commissioners return to the theme that Australia cannot idly accept existing safeguards; time and again they point the way to an international initiative by the Australian Government. On page 1 78 of their report they say:

We . . . suggest that, whether or not Australia supplies uranium, it endeavours to have some internationally acceptable system established for the disposal of high-level wastes and international supervision of what is done.

And on page 171 of their report they spell out precisely why Australia has a special place in the international nuclear community. They say:

Australia occupies a very special position in the nuclear scene. It is represented on the Board of Governors of the IAEE, and was represented at the NPT Review Conference held last year. It is possessed of relatively large uranium reserves which by now have attracted world-wide attention . . . It has a nuclear research establishment and a small nuclear industry of its own . . . These features may combine, perhaps with others also, to put Australia in a favourable position to take initiatives, or at least to support them.

It is plain that the Government is treating all this urgent and deeply serious advice with the usual Liberal mixture of sloth and complacency. On the need for stronger international safeguards the Minister had this to say:

The Government believes that a strong national safeguards policy for uranium exports should be complemented, at the international level, by Australia's continuing to contribute actively to constructive multilateral efforts. In this context the Government welcomes any international initiatives for strengthening the international non-proliferation regime.

In other words, this Government will do nothing. It will sit back and wait for someone else to take action. Can anyone imagine a more supine response to an international problem from a Government uniquely placed to take an initiative? Such an initiative would fully accord with the attitudes of other responsible Western governments and with every signatory to the NPT. Australia must respond to that challenge. The Fox report has shown us the way. It points the way to a steady, patient, difficult, but none the less urgent course for Australia, one that could well diminish the hazards of the nuclear age, and in time perhaps draw humanity back from the edge of nuclear destruction.







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