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Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1825

Mrs KELLY(10.20) —Tonight I want to talk about a new attraction that Canberra will have by 1988-the Australian Opal and Gemstone Museum. This museum will be the contribution of one opal mining family to Australia's heritage-the family of Mr John Benny, whose presence I acknowledge here tonight. I have with me some samples of the wonderful exhibits that will be on display in his museum. Whenever a particular piece of opal was considered to be exceptional because of its size, shape or colour, it was added to the Benny family collection. After 20 years of successful opal mining by that family, this is the best collection of opals in the world. The specimens set out before honourable members are a very small part of the collection. Few Australians will have seen opal as fiery and colourful as these samples of Australia's national gemstone.

In addition to the gemstone collection, the museum will feature the history and lifestyle of miners in the opal fields, and all stages in the transformation of gemstone rough into elegant jewellery, which honourable members can also see here. A longer term objective that will be promoted by the museum is the development of a viable and prosperous gemstone processing industry in Australia. Despite the brilliance of these gemstones before honourable members, the fortunes of many of the miners and gemstone processors in this country are very low and there are a number of problems to be overcome.

We know that Australia produces 95 per cent of the world's precious opal, but we do not know what quantities of opal are actually mined in this country. We know that about 85 per cent of the opal that is mined in this country is sold at the opal fields to overseas buyers, who take it out of the country. Most of the opal passes through Hong Kong, where it may be cut and polished at one of the many opal processing houses, or it may be exported for processing elsewhere. How much opal rough is exported? We do not know. We can only speculate. However, the average parcel of rough opal sold on the opal fields is about 1,000 ounces. It sells at about $1,000 an ounce and a parcel of opal rough would realise about $1m.

Early this year there were 35 overseas opal buyers on the South Australian opal fields and another five who visited regularly throughout the year. If a buyer is purchasing for an opal processing organisation in Hong Kong or elsewhere, he would require at least 10,000 ounces a year in order to supply an opal processing plant. That would require 10 purchases of opal rough at a total cost of $10m. If all 35 overseas buyers made similar purchases, Australia is supplying opal rough to the value of $350m to overseas organisations.

Statistics from the Australian Mineral Industry Quarterly indicate that the export value of opal rough in 1984 was only $8m. This figure is obviously ridiculously small when it is compared with the estimated opal production for that year of $44.5m. The estimated opal production is arrived at after considering all the data available. However, when we try to find out what data is available, it is patently clear that the figures are really no more than educated guesses because opal sales are not recorded, export licences are not required and there is no requirement for those involved in the sales to provide any information that could be used statistically.

What is the added value after processing the opal? An ounce of opal rough will produce 60 carats of gem quality opal at a retail value of $60 to $100 a carat. Its retail value would range from $3,600 to $6,000. If high quality opal is present in the parcel, as it usually is, the high quality opal would retail for as much as $1,000 per carat. That is how much we are losing to this country. The facts of the industry are: Australia is a mine for world supplies of opal rough; the amount of opal rough shipped out of the country is not known; opal processors in Australia are going out of business because they cannot obtain regular supplies of opal rough; and Australia is, in effect, donating its opal rough overseas and the processing of that rough provides an added value on the retail market of between 200 and 400 per cent on the initial cost of the opal rough. I would like to congratulate the Benny family on attempting to keep these opals in Australia and I wish Mr Benny well in his exercise of establishing an opal and gemstone museum for Canberra and Australia.