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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1680

Senator O'CHEE (7.20 p.m.) —In the Senate today, I asked Senator Faulkner about the issue of leases at Shoalwater Bay. I subsequently queried his advice by phoning him, and I am very grateful for his assistance in relation to that matter. At the time the leases over Shoalwater Bay were granted—the relevant date is 19 October 1992—Senator Faulkner was not a minister in this government. The leases were approved by cabinet on 15 October 1990 and subsequently granted on 19 October 1992—two years later. The reason for that delay appears to have been that it was not until 13 May 1992 that the federal government managed to enter into an agreement with the Queensland government relating to the issuance of those leases. But that is neither here nor there.

  The interesting thing is that, on 21 December 1992—that is, two months after the government issued the leases for sandmining at Shoalwater Bay—an environmental statement made by the government as part of an early election campaign said:

The Government has decided to conduct a full and open assessment of the environmental and economic values of all Commonwealth lands in the Shoalwater Bay area. This course of action accords with the position adopted in the One Nation Statement for economic and environmental evaluation of areas being considered for protection.

This decision also takes into account the recent announcement by the one mining lease-holder in the area, Pivot Mining NL, to defer mining, widespread community concern about the future of the Shoalwater Bay area and the cumulative impact of multiple mining rights.

One has to ask: what sort of government takes two years to issue a mining lease and then two months to decide to hold an inquiry into the issuance of that lease? Two months is all it took for the government to go from signing and issuing the leases to deciding to hold an inquiry as to whether they should be revoked. That, as you know, Mr President, is an extraordinary—if not unprecedented—situation and certainly one which needs to be queried. That is why I rang the minister for the environment, Senator Faulkner, and asked him to confirm the date, which he was kind enough to do.

  Unfortunately, the minister has provided no explanation as to why the inquiry was announced just two months after the leases were granted. Given that the matter would have had to go to cabinet before the Prime Minister made this statement, it may have been that even less time elapsed between the issuance of the lease and the decision to set up the inquiry. I am also disappointed, but not surprised, that the minister has refused to table the advice provided to the then minister for the environment in February 1990 when it was recommended that the leases be granted. That is because the government really wishes this issue was not here.

  It is very clear that there is something most peculiar about Shoalwater Bay. The decision to announce an inquiry into leases that were issued just two months beforehand beggars belief. The amazing thing is that, even if one wants to be charitable and say that the government was locked into the issuance of the leases on 13 May 1992 when it executed the agreement with Queensland and the two mining companies, it is still only seven months between the agreement to issue the leases and the announcement of the inquiry into those leases. It is beyond me exactly what was in the government's mind.

  I believe that the minister did not answer the question today because he is under riding instructions to be very careful in what he says, because this government is in cover-up mode every time Shoalwater Bay, Graham Richardson or Peter Laurance are mentioned.