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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2350

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (1:28 PM) —I listened with interest to the contribution made in this debate by the honourable member for Wentworth. It was certainly a well constructed and well thought out contribution. I have not had the opportunity of hearing the honourable member for Wentworth in this place debating these issues before. It is not an area that perhaps is a native one to a lot of members in this chamber. I found his comments on the issue of the regulatory arrangements quite interesting. There are a lot of regulatory agencies that are involved in this issue of space launches, and I think it is a worthwhile suggestion that he makes that perhaps we ought to look at a structure within government that rationalises to some degree the processes by which companies approach government and get their particular proposal considered.

The agencies that he mentioned are, of course, very important agencies. However, that is not to say that, in this potentially very important new area of economic activity for Australia, we cannot do better in getting a better set of regulatory arrangements. Having said that, I think there is a legitimate criticism of the government in the way that it has handled the Asia Pacific Space Centre proposal. It is a carbon copy of how things ought not to be done, and I will be speaking a little more about it later on in this debate.

The Space Activities Amendment Bill 2002 is an extension of the original Space Activities Act 1998, which established the legislative framework for space launches conducted in Australia and for overseas launches where Australians have an ownership interest. The amendment bill is necessary for the ongoing development of the legislative framework that surrounds the launching of space vehicles in this country. The major amendments made by the bill have already been canvassed in this debate. They are: the legislation caps at $750 million the amount of insurance required to be procured by proponents for each launch, and it provides for the Commonwealth to accept liability for third-party Australian nationals above the insured amount for up to $3 billion. It has already been noted that the Commonwealth is already liable for damages to foreign third parties under United Nations conventions—an issue which was canvassed in detail by the previous speaker in this debate.

Another amendment in this bill tightens the safety test being applied to commercial applicants for instruments by making provision for a test of risk that is `as low as is reasonably practicable' instead of `sufficiently low', as is the current case. The bill also provides for a less onerous application and assessment process and for lower fee regimes for scientific and educational organisations.

All people in this House, especially those of my vintage, have quite a strong fascination for things related to space. We have probably all sat outside on a moonlit night— I was always by myself of course—gazing into the southern skies and outer space and wondering whether there is life out there. I have often gazed at the other place and asked that very question in this parliament! We have all had this strange fascination with space. I grew up in the sixties—as did many honourable members here—and witnessed the first satellite launch and man's quest to walk on the moon. We did not have a television in the early days of my upbringing, but later on when we did acquire one I became a fan of Star Trek, with Captain Kirk and the good ship Enterprise boldly going where no man has gone before. That famous line from Star Trek reminds me of what it would be like tuning in to an agenda session of the Howard cabinet: `Beam me up, Scotty— there's no sign of life down here.'

Space has also been immortalised in song. Of course, we know the propensity of honourable Parliamentary Secretary Entsch to burst into song in the oddest of places: `Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars; let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars'—I think it goes something like that. I think we all have a very strong fascination for matters relating to mankind's quest to go to the stars.

I would like to recall for the House an incident that occurred to me in the early stages of my tenure as the member for Corio. As honourable members would know, the election of a new member always brings out the maddies in your electorate, the people who have tried it on with the previous member. That member has retired, so they try it on with the new member. I can recall the day I was visited by a young man from the northern area of my electorate. Beside the note in the diary where my staff booked him in was the notation `Wants to talk about space launches'. I thought, `Well, here we go! This'll be an interesting one.' I was absolutely fascinated because in came the 17-year-old son of a worker from the northern suburbs. Anybody who knows the physical aspects of my electorate would know that in the seat of Corio is Avalon Airport, which was owned by the federal government and was sold by the coalition to Lindsay Fox. It is a military airfield and it will take the heaviest airfreighters known to man, from the United States and the former Soviet Union.

I note the presence in this House of the member for Corangamite, who on many occasions, I am sure, has been into outer space. Some of his contributions to the debate in this chamber would certainly indicate that fact. We do not know whether it was a case of somebody going up into outer space or coming down from outer space when he made those contributions on industrial relations! But I do acknowledge the member from the other side of the Barwon River in the Geelong region, and he would know what I am talking about here.

To continue: this young man, a 17-year-old, came in and I sat in all seriousness and listened to his proposal to establish a low orbital satellite launch site at Avalon Airport in Geelong. It was fascinating listening to this young man. He was very knowledgable in a technical sense and he had done a lot of reading. He considered this to be an economic opportunity to pursue. I cannot remember his name, but in 1993 this young man was obviously ahead of his time as far as Australia's involvement in these activities was concerned.

The honourable member in the previous debate mentioned the current proposal to build a satellite launch facility on Christmas Island. This project is being sponsored by the Asia Pacific Space Centre. It is a very interesting proposal and one of substantial cost— some $800 million, with $100 million being committed by the federal government. The estimates of demand 10 years out for the product of this sort of launch facility is around $40 billion. Estimates have been provided that Australia has the potential to win some 10 per cent to 20 per cent of that market. At the moment, the market is dominated by the United States, Russia, the European Union and by China.

The proponents of this project have selected Australia for some obvious reasons. We are a country with considerable economic and technical capacity and a nation which is politically stable; but I suppose it is the location that has largely attracted this proposal. Our sub-equatorial location is very favourable for such vehicles because it enables them to be launched with large payloads. This proposal offers considerable opportunities for Australia in the design and manufacture of satellites and in the development of communications technology and will provide $15 million for a space research centre that will link in with educational institutions. The jobs projected to be created in the construction phase are 300 to 400, and about 550 jobs when the facility is operational. It will, of course, provide significant stimulus to the air links between Christmas Island, Australia and other parts of Asia.

It is a very important project and one that is worthy of real examination and debate by this parliament. There are particular concerns about this proposal, and I raise them in the context of this debate. I do not raise them in the sense of arguing against the proposal but to alert the parliament to the fact that there are significant environmental concerns with the APSC proposal, especially as it relates to the provision of water supply and the effect of noise on endangered species on the island, which is covered, in the main, by national parks. Very legitimate concerns have been expressed, and it is disappointing that despite the proposal and the ordinance having been introduced here and despite the expenditure that the federal government is making— some $100 million—the government has sought to exclude this proposal from proper parliamentary processes and parliamentary scrutiny.

The government does not have to do it this way; there is another way to engage the community when handling these large projects. At the end of the day, if the government does not pursue another way of dealing with the process and the important issues, it will make it extremely difficult for the parliament to deliver the sort of support that could be forthcoming for such a project and it will make it hard for the proponents of the proposal. It is frustrating for them to eternally have to face conflicts and problems that could have been avoided if the matter had been dealt with in another way.

I refer to a letter I received from the Shire of Christmas Island. The authors of the letter alerted me to their concerns about the `Christmas Island Space Centre (APSC Proposal) Ordinance 2001' and its accompanying regulations. They also sent me a copy of a letter they wrote to the Hon. Wilson Tuckey, the Minister for Territories and Regional Services, whom I shadow in this parliament. The letter makes disturbing reading for a variety of reasons. The shire has expressed some real concerns at the level of consultation on this proposal that has taken place between the federal government and the small Christmas Island community. I commend the shire for the forensic analysis that they have provided of the ordinance. They have raised some very serious matters relating to the conduct of public policy and to the legal and technical ramifications of the ordinance that the government has brought into the parliament.

Their first concern relates to the consultation that took place between the government and the shire and the community over this ordinance. Apparently, there was no consultation in the drafting phase and no notification of the gazettal of the ordinance. This is simply not good enough. I do not care whether it is a small community or a large community, whether it is a big project or a small project, the processes of the national government ought to be inclusive. They ought to include the community in proper consultation and dialogue on the potential problems that might arise either from government legislation that comes before this House or from ordinances and regulations that are promulgated as a result of the activities of this parliament.

It must be very disappointing for APSC, who have spent a lot of time and money on the project, to be part of any unprofessional—and some might say quite amateurish—public policy process. I remind the parliament and the minister of the current make-up of the parliament and the fact that we as an opposition are committed to the pursuit of good public policy processes and good government.

I note that, following the substantial representations that have been made about the ordinance and the regulations, a dialogue is currently occurring between the minister and the community on Christmas Island. I regret that it was not done beforehand by the previous minister who had carriage of this—I suppose we cannot lump it all on the current minister—or by the current minister. There is a dialogue taking place as a result of those representations, and we are going to listen to that dialogue very closely. If we determine that the minister is in good faith negotiating and is attempting to address the very real and considered concerns that have been expressed, then we will be supportive of the government's endeavours to get this proposal up. But we put on notice that there is an avenue available in the Senate for this ordinance to be withdrawn, and we will be listening to the dialogue and its outcome closely to ensure that good governance takes place around this particular proposal.

On the issue of consultation, the shire had this to say:

In the shire's view, to make the APSC ordinance without any reference to the shire of the community for input, explanation or discussion goes against the spirit and intent of the Christmas Island Act 1958. The shire is also of the view that to not consult with the shire goes against the policy and spirit of the established means of consulting island residents about the application of laws to the territory.

It is a small thing, but it is also a very important thing. Governments must consult with communities before they make substantial decisions on these sorts of projects. The shire has detailed very serious matters relating to the exclusion zone and the legal and technical problems that have arisen for them. They have raised serious equity issues about the cost of infrastructure on the island and the process for establishing independence and fairness in decision making about this satellite launch facility.

Let me say in conclusion that I am encouraged by the dialogue that is occurring between the minister and the Christmas Island community. I regret the fact that it did not take place before the ordinance was brought into the parliament. I hope that it will be a productive dialogue and that at the end of the day we will see this facility brought to fruition and these concerns addressed. (Time expired)