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Tuesday, 11 August 2009
Page: 4493

Senator IAN MACDONALD (5:14 PM) —I seek leave to take note of the response of the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government to a resolution of the Senate of 18 March 2009 concerning an oil spill in Queensland.

Leave granted.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

The response from Mr Albanese is nothing short of a disgrace and continues to show the arrogance of this government in dealing with motions adopted by the Senate. A motion was moved calling upon the government to:

… establish a Royal Commission to investigate all aspects of the oil spill and loss of containers containing ammonium nitrate from the vessel Pacific Adventurer on the morning of Wednesday, 11 March 2009.

The Senate motion called for a royal commission to look at, amongst other things:

(a) the response of the Queensland government and its agencies;

(b) the response of the Federal Government and its agencies;

(c) the operation of the ‘National Marine Oil Spill Contingency Plan’;

(d) the apparent delay in activation of the plan;

(e) the apparent delay in other remedial action; and

(f) possible recommendations for a change …

That was a serious motion of this Senate calling for the establishment of a royal commission into what was one of the worst marine oil spill disasters in our nation’s history.

The oil spill should not have happened. There are a lot of questions about whether the ship containing the oil containers should have left the port, whether the cargo was properly loaded and harnessed, what happened when the incident occurred, and how long it took the Australian government to try and find these containers—which, senators will recall, were lost for weeks at a time. There were also a lot of complaints about the inactivity of the Queensland government and how, whilst the Brisbane City Council mobilised resources to try and address the oil spill on the islands of Moreton Bay, the Queensland government did nothing for several days—until a lot of the damage had been done. All of these complaints, concerns and issues should have been seriously looked at. That is why a clear majority of the Senate—perhaps the Labor Party did not support the motion—called upon the government to establish a royal commission.

In response to that request from the Senate, we got a letter, apparently dated 3 August, from Mr Albanese. He says that there are a number of independent examinations of the major aspects of this ship incident. He says the Australian Transport Safety Bureau have been looking at the issue, have issued a preliminary report and are going to issue a further report, which, he says, is expected to be released in the next few months. He also says in his response that, under the Inter-Governmental Agreement on the National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil and other Noxious and Hazardous Substances, there was an independent and comprehensive analysis of the oil spill response in relation to the incident which was commenced in April 2009 and which aims to be completed by the end of July 2009. Obviously, at the date of Mr Albanese’s letter, 3 August, that had not been done, and one wonders when that is going to be issued. Mr Albanese then goes on to say that the Australian Maritime Safety Bureau and the Commonwealth DPP are investigating potential offences of the marine pollution laws and that there may be prosecutions there and also prosecutions against the ship’s master. That is all very interesting, but it does not address the real concern of the Senate expressed in the Senate motion calling for a royal commission into all aspects of this oil spill. There are many, many questions still to be answered.

I notice the Queensland Premier and the minister issued a media release just a couple of days ago lauding some agreement that had been reached with the owners of the Pacific Adventurer on the cost of the oil spill. Under international law, apparently, the company that owns the vessel is responsible for $17½ million. They agreed to voluntarily pay $25 million. The Queensland Premier and Mr Albanese laud this as a great result. It is not that at all. The cost of the oil spill clean-up was far in excess of the $25 million which was recovered. But, typical of the spin that you get from Labor governments both in Queensland and federally, they will now push that aside and say, ‘Well, we’ve got $25 million; that’s the end of the whole issue.’

There are serious questions to be answered which have not yet been addressed—questions like why it took the Queensland government so long to get motivated, to get activated, to address this oil spill. There has been, and I mentioned this at the time, a litany of mistakes and incompetence by the Queensland government in the way that they dealt with that oil spill. Those things really need to be looked at, and not just to lay blame in what was clearly an incompetent operation at the time—hopefully there will not be a similar oil spill in the future, but, if there is, we need to make sure that we get on to it before there is the amount of damage that occurred on this occasion.

The Brisbane City Council, to their great credit, mobilised forces, mobilised people and material, immediately to address the more urgent aspects of the oil spill. But they were left there twiddling their thumbs as the Queensland government agencies simply could not get operational; they did not know what they were doing. It is all of these issues that need to be addressed.

So, having called for the royal commission, the Senate gets this bland letter back from the Labor government simply saying, ‘Oh, there are a couple of investigations, by the ATSB and other agencies, and that should be it.’ If this Senate did not think that it was important to conduct a royal commission into this oil spill, it would not have passed the motion. But the motion was passed by this Senate—and it deserves a better response than we got from the Labor government. It is quite clear from the response that the Labor governments, both the Commonwealth and in Queensland, are really not too concerned about the environmental damage, about the lack of immediate action, about the weeks that it took to find these dangerous containers that were floating around the Pacific Ocean, just off Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Those sorts of things could have initiated an even worse tragedy than did occur. We need to get to the bottom of this and understand why it happened, how it happened; and make sure it does not happen again. That is why the Senate called for a royal commission, and it is disappointing and arrogant in the extreme that the federal Labor government has just ignored the calls of the Senate and given this bland response that we have before us today.

Question agreed to.