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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5423

Senator CROSSIN (4:39 PM) —In this debate on the Space Activities Amendment Bill 2002, I will begin by congratulating Senator Webber on her excellent portrayal of APSC operations and the contribution that that company may, or may not, make to this country, particularly the Christmas Island community. I will add some further comments about the impact of the newly acquired space industry on Christmas Island, which, as people would know, comes within the jurisdiction of the Northern Territory and for which I am directly responsible as a senator for that area.

As a number of speakers before me have said, the major amendments in the Space Activities Amendment Bill include the capping at $750 million of the amount of insurance required to be procured by proponents of each launch. The bill also provides for the Commonwealth to accept liability for third-party Australian nationals above the insured amount for up to $3 billion. It is a fact that, under the United Nations convention, the Commonwealth is already liable for damage to foreign third parties, so this bill relates to Australian nationals. The bill also provides for a tightening of the safety test being applied to commercial applicants for instruments.

The bill also provides for a less onerous application and assessment process and a lower fee regime for scientific and educational organisations. That provision makes some sense in that the argument here is that scientific and educational launches are usually done on a one-off basis and do not involve the construction of major infrastructure, and, for these reasons, such organisations should not, as this bill would propose, be subject to the same licensing requirements as commercial launches.

It has been stated in the lower house and by Senator Lundy, who is responsible for this area in the Senate, that Labor will not be opposing this bill. However, this bill does raise a number of issues that relate to the proposed space activities on Christmas Island. There are also two questions underlying the intent of this bill. The first question concerns this government's priorities in providing insurance cover of more than $3 billion to a commercial operation in respect of the space industry, when over the last nine or 10 months it has been well known that many organisations around Australia, especially sporting organisations, have been struggling to meet their insurance premiums, especially those related to public liability.

During the last few months we have seen a scenario unfold in which organisations around this country have been trying to get the federal government to actually do something to assist them and relieve the situation of the increased costs that they have incurred. Some organisations have come to the point where they have nearly had to close up their operations and cease to exist because of the increased costs in public liability insurance that they are now forced to meet. Yet this government has declined to provide assistance or do anything about it.

Why is it that we have a government which has refused to listen to sporting bodies, small groups, regional show societies and other organisations in their call for assistance with insurance premium increases, but which can respond to big business, to those who are about to enter the space industry and, in this case, assist with insurance payments in relation to space activities?

The second question concerns a situation where this government has managed to provide $100 million in assistance for this project on Christmas Island. We know this money has been found by raiding the contingency reserve. Last year, the Minister for Finance and Administration, John Fahey, actually admitted that the Commonwealth's $100 million contribution to the Christmas Island spaceport was to be withdrawn from the contingency fund, which was funded at $919 million for 2001-02. The contingency reserve is an appropriation of funds for an emergency. It is insurance against risk and it has long been used by governments on both sides to protect the public finances against any such risk or unforeseen expenses.

But of course this government's budgetary position has been, and continues to be, so desperate that it was reduced to raiding its own emergency fund. In fact, I think it was labelled the `rainy day fund' by our opposition spokesperson Lindsay Tanner at the time. The contingency reserve is to provide funding for unexpected expenses. It is not meant to be money used to fund election promises and it is certainly not meant to compensate big businesses for their commercial activities. It is a sad indictment also of the government that at the same time as it has frozen the R&D Start program it sees it as appropriate to give funding for space activities on Christmas Island to a company which has received nothing but criticism since its inception.

I want to talk about that for a moment, because it again reflects an unusual set of priorities—in fact, conflicting priorities—of this government. The R&D Start program is an important program for this country's future. It is meant to assist small and medium-sized enterprises that are engaged in research and development activities. This government has not been able to find the funds to continue with that program for at least the foreseeable future. In fact, the R&D Start program has had all its applications frozen for an indefinite period—or, as the minister would want us to believe, this is not a freeze; it is just that the government is processing no more applications for the time being. In fact, this government has instructed 115 small businesses to withdraw their applications under the R&D Start program in order that the government not be embarrassed by the large number of applications that will not be processed due to the lack of funds and as a result of this freeze.

The purpose of the legislation before us today, though, is essentially to make it easier for space launch activities in relation to a proposal at Christmas Island. This is a market which is highly competitive, as Senator Webber pointed out, and therefore there must be some question as to whether those activities will in the end be commercially viable. In launching the new $800 million spaceport on Christmas Island in 2001, Minister Minchin at the time said it would establish Australia as a significant player in the satellite launch industry that is currently dominated by the USA, Russia, the European Union and China.

But those in the space industry would say that APSC, the Asia Pacific Space Centre, is in fact targeting a mid-range market for space launches in an area fast disappearing as satellites grow in size and capacity. Executives of the European Space Agency-backed Ariane space consortium warned that APSC is planning to launch satellites that the Americans have already decided are not big enough and that, by the time APSC is operational, satellites will be bigger again. The company also has local competitors, including SpaceLift Australia, which is pushing ahead with plans to launch from Woomera, and United Launch Systems International, which is reassessing its plans to launch from an island off the Queensland coast. However, APSC managing director David Kwon has always maintained that he is confident that the Christmas Island facility would claim critical mass, giving access to about 80 per cent of the market. The company expected to have booked out launch places in 2003 and 2004 by the end of last year—a time line that company stated publicly. But, of course, that time line has now elapsed. It would be interesting to hear from the minister if in fact that has happened.

Let me take this opportunity to once again remind this chamber, as I have done on a number of occasions, that this is the managing director of the same company that bought the Christmas Island resort and announced last year that they would reopen this resort. In fact, a press release put out on 23 June 2001 by Senator Ian Macdonald, who was then the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, stated:

I am also very pleased that Mr David Kwon, APSC's Managing Director, has today announced he will reopen the Christmas Island resort, which means more jobs.

We are now in October 2002 and once again I am not aware of any application for a casino licence before the current minister nor am I aware that there are any plans to reopen this resort other than to make a number of rooms available for people who are travelling to the island on business and who may need a room to stay in overnight. Certainly, there has been no attempt to reopen the resort that people on Christmas Island would remember, either as a casino or as a popular tourist destination. Certainly there has been no attempt to have the resort operating in a way that will provide many jobs for people on the island.

People may remember that, when this government flew to Christmas Island to make the announcement about this space base, there was a severe lack of consultation, as there always is, with people on this island. This announcement was made in August 2001 and this government was criticised for failing to consult the community adequately. The community has been worried, and remains worried, about the negative social and environmental impacts that this space activity will have on the community and the environment. In fact, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 June 2001 by Tom Allard on behalf of AAP entitled `Manna from the heavens as we join space race', it is noted:

... a freelance environmental consultant used by the Asia Pacific Space Centre, Mr Warren Nicholls, said the environmental impact statement for the launch centre was “shoddy”.

`The water supply on the island is a critical issue and if there was any spill either while transporting stuff there or during the launch it could go straight into the water supply—in which case the island's finished,' he said.

Noise from rocket launches was the main threat to fragile species and a noise demonstration by APSC was `hopeless...just a joke'.

He went on to say:

`Where you have so many species that are endemic to the island, you have to be extra careful.'

Christmas Island has been likened to the Galapagos Islands. It has an absolutely unique environmental culture in both its fauna and flora. It is true that the residents of Christmas Island remain quite concerned about the impact of the space base on their island. When I was there earlier this year, concerns were raised with me about the issue of noise pollution from the space base and the impact of hydrozene fuel and what that would mean if it were ever to get into the water on the island. The island residents were not aware of any contingency plan in the event of an accident. On 23 May 2001, a space agreement between Russia and the federal government was established to ensure that there was a formal framework of cooperation between our two countries. But there was no such formal arrangement made between the residents of Christmas Island and this government to ensure that they fully understood and comprehended what the new space activity centre and its operations would mean for them. There have been no open forums or public consultations with the people on Christmas Island. An advisory committee has been set up by the Administrator on Christmas Island and there are a couple or maybe just one representative from the Christmas Island Shire Council on the advisory council. Consultation has been extremely inadequate.

This is a government that still fails to take seriously the views of the elected representatives on Christmas Island through the shire council. This is a government that makes a profound habit of making decisions about developments on Christmas Island without full and proper consultation with the residents concerned. In fact, the Public Works Committee report, which was handed down on 27 August, relates to the further development needed on the island for the space base to go ahead. It made the specific recommendation that the government should undertake better and more adequate consultation with the residents on the island. At the beginning of chapter 3 of the report, it states:

In submissions and at the public hearing, the Shire of Christmas Island, and Christmas Island Phosphates—

which is the major mining company on the island—

indicated that consultations with them had not been sufficient and were concerned that their views had not been adequately addressed.

So there is still a problem on Christmas Island about the lack of consultation between this government, organisations, the duly elected representatives through the shire council and the broader population and residents on the island. This is an issue that I have raised in this chamber time and time again, and it is an issue that is still ignored by the government.

The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Public Works went to Christmas Island and conducted an inquiry into the infrastructure that would be needed to deal with improvements on the island in order to get the space base up and running. The report that the committee handed down some months ago specifically deals with the improvements to Christmas Island Airport—in particular, the extension of the airport runway 460 metres north and 90 metres south. Without the proposed airport upgrade, the Asia Pacific Space Centre's operations cannot proceed. In other words, a longer runway and improved facilities are required at the airport in order to accommodate and maintain what will be needed for this space centre.

On 9 August last year, the Department of Transport and Regional Services referred a similar proposal to the committee. That reference lapsed as a result of the parliament being prorogued prior to the election last year. That reference included the additional port on the east coast and a new link road from the east coast to Lily Beach Road to enable the rockets to be transported up the hill to the southern section of the island where they will be launched. It is interesting to note that neither of these projects were ever considered by the Public Works Committee, as was, of course, the proposed immigration processing or detention centre on Christmas Island. It was a decision by the House of Representatives that that particular public works not be subject to scrutiny and, therefore, once again the community on Christmas Island were denied the opportunity to be consulted about the construction of this centre. Christmas Island has long needed a larger and better airport. There is no doubt about that; and, therefore, this upgrade is most welcome. The airport upgrade will provide improved services for the island community and may encourage the development of tourism, which it has always been said should be a key or major industry for the island economy.

I want to highlight a number of issues mentioned in the report. There is the lack of emergency services at the airport, including fire tenders and the associated vehicle storage facilities. There is a need for the department of territories to approach the Civil Aviation Authority and immediately request that these services be provided at the airport. Finally, I want to acknowledge a recommendation in the Public Works Committee report and endorse the fact that this government needs to consider the impact of the current development on the island. The Public Works Committee has called for a social impact study to be conducted, and that recommendation should not only be seriously considered but also taken up and implemented by the government. There will be a major impact on the local community not only from the operation and development of the space base but also from a whole range of other industries that are developing on the island, of which not least in importance will be the detention centre. This is a small community and there is a need to have a social impact study conducted. (Time expired)