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Wednesday, 29 April 1987
Page: 1960

Senator PUPLICK(10.55) —The Senate has before it a package of five Bills-two of them dealing with the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, one of them amending the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act, one amending the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act and one amending the Lands Acquisition Act. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) identified in his second reading speech, in essence, six key features of this package of legislation. The first is that the decisions incorporated in this legislation involve prohibiting mining in the Kakadu National Park area, incorporating about 65 per cent of the lease areas of Gimbat and Goodparla into the park as soon as possible and establishing a conservation zone over the remainder of the lease area so that what he calls a carefully controlled program of mineral exploration and resource assessment can be undertaken.

Secondly, the package of Bills enables the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region to expand his operations in consequence of the expansion of the park area. Thirdly, there is a clear prohibition of any exploration or mining in any part-I stress the words `any part'-of the Kakadu National Park. Fourthly, there is recognition in the Minister's second reading speech, although not in the legislation, of the importance of fully assessing the mineral resources of the proposed conservation zone. Fifthly, there is the introduction of some quite broadly based regulation-making power in the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act to prohibit operations on existing interests which the Minister claims will be used only as a last resort-a claim I find suspect. Finally, there is a declaration that under no circumstances will uranium mining be permitted within the conservation zone. Each of those claims, each of those matters, will need to be tested in the course of this debate.

Yesterday, in leading for the Opposition on this matter, Senator Durack made a number of criticisms of the legislation, and I wish to indicate the centrality of three of the concerns that he has expressed. In the first place, the concept of locking away-that is what it amounts to-an area virtually one-third the size of Tasmania in effect excises it from the Northern Territory, takes it away from the control of the elected representatives in the Northern Territory, devotes it exclusively to a national park and rules out completely any further mineral assessment or mineral development in this area.

Secondly, the legislation in effect provides for an expropriation of people's property rights as far as the Northern Territory is concerned and indeed expropriation of those rights without the payment of any compensation and without the recognition of the need for the payment of any compensation. Normally when property rights or the rights of individuals are expropriated by provision of the Constitution-section 51 (xxxi), if my memory serves me correctly-a compensation claim lies against the Commonwealth. In a High Court of Australia decision some years ago it was held that that is in fact not a section of the Constitution which applies within the Territories; therefore, as this expropriation is made within the Northern Territory, by some quirk of constitutional arrangement the people whose rights have been adversely affected are not able to proceed to obtain compensation for their loss of rights.

Thirdly, as Senator Durack pointed out yesterday, the Government has announced that it is allowing only five years for the program of mineral assessment which it has said is important to its overall scheme of management. Senator Durack quite rightly pointed out that this is entirely inadequate in terms of time, bearing in mind the wet season in the Northern Territory and the limited time within a specified five-year period that that sort of assessment can properly be undertaken.

One of the other Bills that we have before us in this package extends the responsibilities and rights of the Supervising Scientist. Anybody who has read the continuing debate in Estimates Committee D concerning the estimates of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment will see the quite extraordinary extravagance which takes place within the Office of the Supervising Scientist. I refer, for example, to the cost to the Commonwealth of the maintenance of the facilities of the Office in Bondi in Sydney for co-ordinating work which must primarily take place in the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory, the travel costs involved and the duplication of resources. I do not believe that the Government has seriously analysed the need to retain that Office's facilities in Sydney rather than to save costs by, properly, relocating them in the Territory.

Whilst the Opposition is not in any way opposing the piece of legislation which extends the operations of the Supervising Scientist, because we recognise the important role that his Office plays in monitoring and advising on environmental considerations, in particular considerations related to uranium mining in the Northern Territory, nevertheless we think that the Government has to face up to the responsibilities which it has in terms of public expenditure on the work of that Office.

I think it is important to understand that this package of legislation represents a fairly significant departure from previous assurances give by the Government to people involved in the Kakadu area. For instance, when Senator Gareth Evans, as Minister for Resources and Energy, wrote to Mr G. H. Sherrington, Manager-Special Projects of Geopeko, in a letter dated 8 September 1986, Senator Evans said:

You can be assured that I am following this issue carefully with the long term objective of establishing a multiple land use policy for the Region which balances the interests of the mining industry with those of other land users.

It is quite clear that that assurance by Senator Evans cannot possibly be sustained given this package of legislation. Multiple land use policy within the region is not proposed or provided for under this package of legislation. There is not a balance of the interests of the mining industry with those of other land users. In the judgment given by His Honour Mr Justice Beaumont in the case which he decided on 26 November 1986 between Peko-Wallsend Ltd and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment and the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen), His Honour was at some pains to analyse the assurance given to Geopeko and others by Senator Gareth Evans. In fact, the letter from which I have quoted is attached as part of His Honour's judgment. His Honour found that in one of the earlier proclamations concerning stage 2 of the Kakadu National Park the Government had not properly considered or weighed the inherent natural rights of the mining companies and that the companies were entitled to relief in the form of an injunction which he granted in order to require the Government at least to honour not only its own commitments but also the elementary principles of natural justice which ought to be observed by any government when it is dealing with anybody-a mining company, an environmental interest or whatever.

The Commonwealth went to the High Court of Australia to have Mr Justice Beaumont's judgment set aside and on the same date, 26 November 1986, the High Court, consisting of then Chief Justice Gibbs and Justices Mason and Wilson, considered the judgment of Mr Justice Beaumont. The High Court upheld the right of Mr Justice Beaumont to make the finding that natural justice had been denied to the companies. In its judgment it made it clear that Mr Justice Beaumont's decision should be sustained and that the Government was not entitled to avoid the obligations placed upon it by Mr Justice Beaumont in coming to his decision based upon the Government's denial of fundamental rights to the mining companies and other interests involved.

The Government's decision in many ways has been described as pleasing almost nobody. For instance, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 17 December 1986 was headed `Kakadu decision pleases nobody'. The first few paragraphs of the article state:

The Northern Territory Government, the mining industry and conservationists reacted angrily last night to the Federal Government's decision to allow exploration in Stage III of the Kakadu National Park.

With its decision to permit a five-year mineral exploration program in parts of the park . . .Cabinet had sought to frame a policy in line with its recently adopted, pro-conservation stance.

But the package was designed also to appease the economic rationalists who argue that it would be negligent to ignore the possibility of vast mineral wealth.

It appears to have failed on both scores.

The article rightly analyses this Government's decision. It finds that it is a dog's breakfast of a decision, that it pleases nobody fully in the matter and that it is not a compromise but represents the worst aspects of all the arguments put into one package. In the National Times of 14 December 1986, in an article headed `Jackeys versus Kakadu' it is stated:

Prime Minister Bob Hawke has proposed a compromise on the logging of Jackeys-Marsh in Tasmania-a move that could help offset Opposition to mining in the proposed Stage Three of Kakadu National Park.

This exposes that in the last couple of months the Government, in its environmental decisions, has attempted to portray itself, all of a sudden, as concerned about the environment. As Senator Collard pointed out, the Government came to the realisation that it was in substantial danger of losing part of the green or conservation vote and it took a series of decisions based upon the political expediency of the moment rather than upon a proper balance of the correct multiple land use policies which Senator Gareth Evans said he would put in place and the environmental considerations which ought also to be borne in mind. I shall shortly say something about the plan of management submitted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in relation to stage 2 of Kakadu to illustrate that precisely.

The Government has stated that it needs to undertake a great deal more work and research to try to find the prospective mineral resources of Kakadu National Park as if there were no data available on this. Senator Estimates Committee D has been told on a number of occasions that that is precisely the case-the Government really does not know the situation; there is a great deal of work to be done. This is merely an excuse by the Government for putting the decision further and further down the track. I have here a lengthy and detailed report entitled `Kakadu-Its Mineral Potential' by D.A. White, a consultant based in Canberra. In dealing with the mineral resources of the Kakadu area the report says in part:

About 182 mineral prospects were discovered during a short exploration period in the late 60s and early 70s in a 20,000 square kilometre area in the eastern one-third of the Precambrian Pine Creek Geosyncline that was subsequently occupied in the late 70s and early 80s by the Kakadu National Park and its extensions in the Northern Territory. Some of the pre-Kakadu prospects that have been partly drill tested in the extremely brief period have a total metal content value of about $34 billion.

The Government's legislation now proposes that that will be effectively locked away on the claim that it will take five years to re-do all of this work in order to try to demonstrate what the mineral potential of that area is. So we can see both the economic irresponsibility of the Government's decision and the attempt to fool the people of Australia into believing that this five-year exploration program is needed, the evidence for which is not currently before the Government; on neither of those tests can the Government's case be sustained. The Assistant Director of the Australian Mining Industry Council, Mr Murray Hohnen, in a statement reported in the newspapers earlier this month, said:

It's economic and geological insanity to try to shoe-horn 100 years of exploration into five.

That is exactly correct. That exposes once again just how insubstantial the Government's plans and claims are about what can be achieved within this five-year exploration period that it has decided to try to set up. There is no doubt that this five-year arrangement is an absolute con trick. We know of the enormous importance of mining to the economy not just of the Northern Territory but of Australia as a whole. For instance, we know that the value of Northern Territory annual mineral output will pass $1 billion for the first time in this calendar year. In an article in the Weekend Australian of 18-19 April 1987, Mr Barry Coulter, the Northern Territory Minister for Mines and Energy, dealt in detail with the value of minerals known to be in the Kakadu area. His estimate, which I have no reason to disbelieve, is that there is a value up to the figure of about $100 billion in uranium, gold, copper, lead, palladium and diamonds. In his remarks, Mr Coulter very much supports what the White report had to say, which estimated $34 billion as being in the pre-Kakadu situation, that is, from some exploration evaluation that had taken place up to 10 years ago. Mr Coulter said in the article:

It's just crazy to pass up an opportunity to make substantial contributions to the wealth of all Australians through sensible mining of Territory resources.

Of course, that is absolutely correct. As I have said, one of the other matters referred to by Minister Cohen in his second reading speech touched specifically on the question of uranium. He said:

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.

He went on to indicate that the Government is prepared to allow only the Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs uranium mines to proceed. It is interesting that the Minister should mention Roxby Downs in his second reading speech because, as Senator Jessop well knows, that was one of the classic trade-offs that the Government got itself into. It said that some uranium was good and other uranium was not good; what made it good was the imminence of a State election or the imminence of some political decision that had to be made in relation to South Australia, the Northern Territory or some forthcoming Federal election. The Government's decision about whether uranium is good or bad depends on where the uranium happens to be located and the political climate that has to be addressed at the moment the decision has to be made.

It is quite correct to say that uranium is very much at the heart of the decision made in relation to mineral exploration in the Kakadu area. It is not a question of just conservation and mining in general; it is very specifically related to this Government's fixation about uranium mining-that fixation deriving not from any serious or sensible belief in the Government's mind about whether uranium mining is good or bad. The Government either has a view on that or it does not. It either believes that we should not mine uranium because it is morally incorrect and morally reprehensible to mine uranium, or it believes that we should be an active participant in the nuclear fuel cycle, along the lines recommended by Professor Slatyer in his report that he undertook on behalf of the Australian Science and Technology Council. But, no, the Government wants to have it both ways. It wants to be part of the nuclear fuel cycle. It wants to have Nabarlek, Ranger and Roxby Downs, but it does not want to have other uranium mines-not because it has a view about uranium but because it has a view about the short term politics of particular arrangements.

I come to the question of whether the Government has been entirely frank and honest with people in the way in which it has proceeded to make these restrictions on the development of stage 3 and the Gimbat and Goodparla leases, which are central to this piece of legislation. If we look at the document entitled `Nomination of Kakadu National Park for inclusion in the World Heritage List', which was prepared by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service in May 1980, and which was the document that formed the basis of the original submission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the world heritage listing of Kakadu, one can go through the document in some detail without finding any significant reference to what is to become of Gimbat and Goodparla, and without finding any clear indication of what will happen to those pastoral leases. I put it to the Senate that that was a deliberate attempt to mislead people about the long term implications of the Government's whole policy in the Northern Territory and in relation to Kakadu.

Senator Zakharov —The document referred to stage 2 only.

Senator PUPLICK —I now turn to the document entitled `Information (in the form of a nomination) provided to the World Heritage Committee regarding Kakadu stage 2 on 17 September 1986'. If Senator Zakharov is worried about what governments had in mind sequentially, if she looks at the 1986 document she will see that on page 14 the submission indicates that the Australian Government intends to proclaim additional areas of the Alligator Rivers Region of Kakadu National Park. The document then goes on to discuss in detail what is proposed for stage 2 of Kakadu National Park. In this document, presented by the Australian Government to UNESCO dated September 1986, there is no attempt to indicate the sort of regime now being put in place for stage 3. Let us bear in mind that 17 September 1986 was about the same time as the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Gareth Evans, was writing to people saying that the Government's intention was that there would be `a multiple land use policy for the region which balances the interests of the mining industry with those of other land users'. In other words, within a period of 10 days, we had Senator Evans telling the mining company that there would be multiple land use and a balance of its interests, and we had a submission to international bodies which in no way sought to contradict or set at nought the assurance given by Senator Evans. Yet now, within the space of a couple of months, and for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with environmental considerations but a great deal to do with political considerations, we have the interests of people being set at nought, the expropriation of their rights, the denial of natural justice and absolutely no compensation being provided for people adversely affected.

The Kakadu National Park plan of management, dated 1986, which I have previously criticised as being environmentally deficient, makes a number of references to the mining industry and the way in which mining should be regulated and allowed to proceed within that area. A section on page 122, under the heading `Objectives', states:

The main objective is to protect the Park's resources from exploitation.

I presume that that could be taken by some to be a statement related purely to the question of mining. However, the resources of the park are to be exploited-by the tourist industry, by the arrangements entered into with the Aboriginal communities and by the five-year pseudo investigation of the resources of the area. There is to be exploitation.

The park should not be regarded as having no economic value because it has economic value in terms of tourism. Honourable senators who have taken part in the debate and defended the Government's proposition have made a great deal of the fact that there is more to be earned by tourism than by mining. Yet anyone who knows anything about the operation of national parks, whether in this country or anywhere else in the world, knows that the most destructive single element for a national park is the tourist. That is well known. Indeed, countries such as the United States of America have had to create wilderness areas designed specifically to keep out tourists. They do not want people like Senator Sanders trampling over the wild flowers and causing the sort of destruction that he causes every time that he trundles around a national park, wherever it might be. They know full well that the protection of the natural environment occasionally requires that people such as Senator Sanders be kept out of it.

Yet such people as the honourable senator are prepared to stand up and say that there will not be any exploitation of the national park, while knowing full well that there will be exploitation by the tourist industry. Damage will be caused by tourists and by the development of the tourist industry. The only people on whom they want to pick for their short term political gains in this matter are the mining companies which, as I said, have been very poorly treated and, indeed, substantially misled by the assurances given to them in writing by Senator Evans. At least Senator Evans was honest enough to make an evaluation of the ecological, aesthetic and spiritual value of stage 3 of Kakadu National Park, which he described in glowing terms as `clapped out buffalo country'. Anyone who has been to those areas knows that, with one or two minor exceptions such as UDP Falls and other small places, Senator Evans's description is absolutely correct. The honourable senator, who is, from time to time, in trouble for speaking his mind and giving accurate descriptions of his feelings, should be commended for having properly identified the nature of stage 3 of Kakadu, with which this legislation deals.

The Opposition is, therefore, opposed to the package of Bills that has been put forward, for the reasons that I have indicated. The conservation arguments being put forward by the Government are bogus. The short term political gain that has persuaded the Government to take this course of action should not be allowed to deprive Australia of the opportunity for the proper exploitation of resources in the area, which ultimately will be to the benefit of the living standards of all Australians.