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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 1060


Mr COHEN (Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment)(4.53) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The background to this legislation is the landmark decision made by the Government in the latter part of last year concerning Kakadu National Park and the adjoining Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases. Essentially, the decision involved prohibiting mining in the park, incorporating about 65 per cent of the lease areas into the park as soon as possible, and establishing a conservation zone over the remainder of the lease areas so that a carefully controlled program of mineral exploration and resource assessment can be undertaken.

The package of legislative amendments before the House will provide the basis for implementing the Government's decisions. More particularly, it will enable the conservation and heritage values of this beautiful and rich area to be fully protected. The amendments relate to four different Acts: The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975; the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978; the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976; and the Lands Acquisition Act 1955.

The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1987 will enable some 4,000 square kilometres of the Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral leases to be included in Kakadu National Park, and a conservation zone to be declared over the remainder of the lease areas. The Bill will ensure that mineral activities in the conservation zone will be managed in accordance with sound conservation principles. Also to be considered with this Bill is the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Bill 1986, which was introduced last year on 27 November but has not yet been debated. The purpose of the 1986 amendment Bill was to prevent exploration and mining in Kakadu National Park. Since introducing that Bill I have received representations pointing out that the Bill may prevent some essential activities by park authorities and access to mining operations outside the park boundaries. It was not the Government's intention, of course, to interfere with the existing transport arrangements of mining companies operating in the region, or with any other mineral exploration or mining activities currently being conducted outside the park. I intend to introduce an amendment in the Committee stage to make this clear. Regulations giving effect to this intention will be made by the time the relevant legislation comes into effect.

The Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Amendment Bill 1987 will enable the role of the Supervising Scientist to be extended to include the provision of advice to the Government on environmental aspects of exploration and mining in respect of all minerals in the conservation zone. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 1987 will ensure that the Gimbat and Goodparla areas are available for Aboriginal land claim. Any part of Gimbat and Goodparla which is successfully claimed and required for park purposes will be the subject of a lease back arrangement with the Director of National Parks and Wildlife.

The Lands Acquisition Amendment Bill 1987 will enable exploration and mining rights to be granted in the conservation zone after lodgment of a land claim, and allow such interests to be granted if that land should become Aboriginal land. As all honourable members will be well aware, this package of legislative amendments is concerned with an important region, an area of outstanding beauty and grandeur, of great significance to Australians and to the world because of its aesthetic, social, cultural, biological and archaeological values.

Let me summarise the Government's position. There will be no exploration or mining in any part of Kakadu National Park. It will be only in the highly prospective conservation zone that exploration and resource assessment will be allowed, and then only under strict conditions. My second reading speech of 27 November last year recounted the many reasons why national parks in this country deserve the best protection and management that we can provide. Kakadu is undoubtedly a major park and this Government is determined to see its values permanently protected.

The Aboriginal cultural heritage is a most important value of Kakadu. This heritage permeates the area and must be conserved. At the same time the Government will ensure that land claims for all parts of Gimbat and Goodparla have every opportunity to be considered. At the moment, except where specifically provided for in legislation, Aboriginal land claims may not be made over land in a national park in the Northern Territory. The legislative amendments will allow the new part of Kakadu National Park to be claimed. Land in the park successfully claimed will be leased to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife by the relevant Aboriginal land trust, so that the land may continue to be managed as a national park. Honourable members will be aware that experience with stages 1 and 2 of Kakadu National Park, and with Uluru National Park, demonstrates that Aboriginal ownership of the land can enhance the value of a national park.

The Government also recognises the importance of fully assessing the mineral resources of the proposed conservation zone, which is part of one of the most highly prospective, unexplored, mineral provinces in the world, particularly for gold and platinum. Accordingly, a five-year exploration and resource assessment program is planned for the zone. Following the assessment, the Government will be in a better position to take further decisions on its long term future.

In recognition of the legal rights of existing lease holders, mineral related activities at Coronation Hill and on other existing mineral titles will continue, but be subject to the same environmental assessment procedures as new applicants for exploration rights, and will be brought under the same management regime when environmental assessment has been completed. The new management regime will take effect at the time that exploration licences are granted in respect of new interests in the conservation zone.

The regulation-making power in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act to prohibit operations on existing interests will be used only as a last resort if a company does not accept additional terms and conditions which may be required as a result of an environmental assessment. Environmental and cultural values will be protected during the exploration program by conditions attached to each granted title and in regulations under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act. The National Parks and Wildlife Amendment Bill will enable adequate regulations to be made for this purpose.

The Government recognises that the proposed treatment of existing interests in the conservation zone may alter the rights of companies with such interests. However I have given an assurance, on behalf of the Government, that this is not to be taken as a precedent for the treatment of existing mining rights on Commonwealth land generally.

Coronation Hill is the most advanced mining project in the conservation zone and promises to be a major development. The Government places particular importance on the fact that Coronation Hill is rich not only in gold but in strategically important platinum group elements, the supply of which is currently dominated by South Africa and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Any mining at Coronation Hill will proceed only under strict arrangements for the protection of environmental and Aboriginal heritage values. Should the Coronation Hill project area or any other land in the conservation zone become Aboriginal land, a terms and conditions agreement would be required between the Land Council and the miners, as is the situation elsewhere on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

During the exploration program the Director of National Parks and Wildlife will be responsible for the environmental management of the conservation zone, under the guidance of an advisory committee comprising representatives of the Minister for Resources and Energy and me. This committee will co-opt representatives of other relevant departments and authorities to assist in providing advice as required. The representatives will include the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers region, who has been responsible for monitoring and assessing the effects on the environment of uranium mining operations in the Alligator Rivers region for the past eight years. The legislative amendments will enable the Supervising Scientist to advise on the adequacy of environmental controls in the conservation zone, including those for the Coronation Hill project.

I would stress that, although the Supervising Scientist has hitherto been concerned with uranium mining, there will be no uranium mining in the conservation zone. The Government's policy is unchanged-no uranium mines other than Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs will be allowed to proceed. Although not related to the Government's uranium policy, it may be of interest to note that the conservation zone has only a moderate prospectivity for uranium.

The Northern Territory Government will be invited to assist in the conduct of the exploration program. To this end it is intended that the terms and conditions for exploration will correspond as closely as possible to those attached to exploration licences granted elsewhere under Northern Territory mining law. The Government will be responsible for capital and recurrent costs associated with the expanded role of the Supervising Scientist, management of the area by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, and mineral research and resource assessment by the Bureau of Mineral Resources. Economic benefits are expected to accrue through the maintenance of environmental and tourism values.

The Hawke Government has both a proper concern for resource development and sound economic management, and an unsurpassed record of conserving our natural and cultural heritage. We are not `locking up' Australia's resources in this area as some have misleadingly claimed. The Government intends to make a careful assessment of the mineral resources of the most prospective parts of Gimbat and Goodparla, which will be contained in the conservation zone. The Government will also take full account of the other valuable resources upon which it is so difficult to put a dollar value-the Aboriginal rock art which has existed for thousands of years; the great diversity of birds, plants and animals; and the spectacular views of the Arnhem Land and escarpment, its outliers and adjoining lowlands. The rapidly growing tourism industry in the region shows that the cultural and natural values translate, in many cases, into tangible economic benefits that are both substantial and long lasting.

The package of Bills before this House provides a practical way to achieve a proper balance between the conservation and development of all the varied resources of the unique Kakadu region for the benefit of Australians, now and in the future. I commend this Bill to the House.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —I take it that the Minister is tabling the explanatory memorandum.


Mr COHEN —I table the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Connolly) adjourned.