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Thursday, 19 September 1974
Page: 1251

Senator DURACK (Western Australia) - I move:

That the Atomic Energy (Prescribed Substances) Regulations as contained in Statutory Rules 1974 No. 39, and made under the Atomic Energy Act 1 953- 1 973 be disallowed.

The effect of these regulations is to prohibit the working of any prescribed substance or to prohibit the acquisition, production, treatment, possession, use or disposal of any such prescribed substance except in accordance with a licence issued by the Minister for Minerals and Energy (Mr Connor). The prescribed substances under the regulations are broadly those from which uranium oxide may be extracted. In the course of this debate I will refer simply to the necessity to obtain a licence from the Minister before anybody anywhere in Australia, whether it be in a Territory or in a State, can work a mine or even do any exploratory work for uranium or acquire, produce, possess or dispose of ore bearing uranium. The Statutory Rules were promulgated on 29 March this year. They were tabled in the Senate shortly afterwards. The delay in bringing this matter on was occasioned by the dissolution of the Parliament. We are now approaching the expiration of the time in which the regulations may be disallowed and I believe this matter should be disposed of today or in the next day or so.

The power under which the Minister seeks to operate under these Statutory Rules is contained in the Atomic Energy Act 1953. It has been amended on a number of occasions since that year. The Act goes back to the immediate postwar years when Australia first passed an Act in similar terms in 1946 under the then Chifley Labor Government. The object of the Act and the wide powers given under it were, of course, at that time dictated very much by the strategic character of uranium as to its use in the production of atomic weapons and the great concern which was held at that time in respect of that subject. The Act itself was coloured by views as to the great strategic importance of uranium. So this matter goes back to 1946. In effect, the Act gives to the Commonwealth the property in uranium anywhere in Australia. This broadly means the same as in relation to control over all minerals in Australia, whereby the Crown is the owner of the minerals by and large, although there are some exceptions. This Act simply gives to the Crown, in right of the Commonwealth, the ownership of uranium.

The power that the Minister seeks to arrogate to himself under these regulations has never been sought before. He pointed out in the explanatory note which accompanied the regulations that there have been significant discoveries of uranium in Australia, particularly in the Northern Territory, in recent years and because of its economic and strategic importance the Government is concerned that the development of the uranium resources in Australia should be undertaken on a coherent and rational basis and with due regard to developments in the world market for uranium. As I said, the way in which the Minister purports to carry out that policy is simply to pass these regulations which say virtually that no one can touch uranium or do anything with it without a licence from the Minister for Minerals and Energy. For many years uranium mining has not been free of legal rules and restraints. Companies have explored for uranium and developed uranium mines. We are familiar with names such as Rum Jungle and Mary Kathleen. They are well known uranium mines that have existed in Australia. Rum Jungle has now been exhausted. But all the companies that have explored for, found and developed uranium mines have done so under well recognised, well known and well established mining laws under either the Mining Ordinance of the Northern Territory or State mining laws. We are not questioning in any way the proposition that there ought to be control over the right to mine and the way in which one mines uranium, or indeed any other mineral. Moreover, the Commonwealth Government has adequate powers in regard to the national interest as far as mining, including the mining of uranium, is concerned under its export control powers generally and under regulations that have been made under those powers. Those powers are quite adequate and they relate specifically to uranium in the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act to which I have referred. Of course that Act deals with many other matters and certainly includes provision to grant the Minister power to obtain or issue licences. It is interesting to note the reasons given by the Government for the introduction of this Act when it was first presented as a Bill in 1953. It was introduced by the Liberal Minister for Supply at the time, Mr Beale. He stated that the uranium deposits in Australia should be vigorously and promptly exploited for defence and industrial purposes. The Atomic Energy Commission had been set up to supervise generally the prospecting for and mining of uranium, and so forth. However, Mr Beale emphasised very clearly that the purpose of the Government in passing this legislation was to provide broad control only. His purpose was to encourage private enterprise to explore the mineral resources of the Northern Territory and, one might also add, the uranium mineral resources throughout Australia. Indeed, that had been done.

As a result of exploration for uranium over the years under titles which had been obtained under State and Northern Territory mining laws great reserves of uranium have been found. In fact, they have been found to such an extent that they represent probably 20 to 25 per cent of the world's known uranium resources. Putting a figure on it, it is about 250,000 short tons but one should give or take some tens of thousands of tons. Great exploration work has been undertaken by private explorers and companies who have carried out this enterprise with initiative. It is pretty clear that there is vast potential in Australia for uranium reserves. In fact, with encouragement by the Government there could be a much greater increase in Australia's known reserves and there would be if we had a government which encouraged and which did not inhibit- as seems to be the negative policy of the present Minister and the Government- the exploration for and development of uranium energy resources.

As I have said, the objective of the statutory rules to which we are objecting and the disallowance of which we are seeking is rather obscure. The reason given by the Government as to why it wants these powers is to plan a coherent and rational policy for the development of Australia's uranium resources. But since the Labor Party has been in government and even now after 2 years in government the Minister has not indicated his policy or the Government's policy in regard to any of these matters. We in Opposition are not seeking to take away proper government control and supervision of mining for uranium. I have emphasised that adequate laws already exist in the Northern Territory and in the States under which people and companies seeking to explore for and to develop uranium must obtain exploration licences and licences to develop mines. They can do so only in accordance with the laws governing mining development generally in the State or Territory. In addition, there are these overall powers which the Commonwealth Government has to ensure that it is able to carry out what are conceived to be national policies. So really one might well ask oneself why the Minister for Minerals and Energy is seeking to get a very wide power under these regulations. Under the regulations, despite the title one may have acquired under the State or Territory laws, now he will not be able to work a uranium mine or effectively carry out exploration with a licence. If one drills a hole and gets some substance containing uranium one will be in possession of it. If, in the Government's eyes, one happens to be unlucky enough to obtain a successful drill hole and to be in possession of some uranium one will not be able to dispose of it without the licence of the Minister.

These regulations give vast power to the Minister for Minerals and Energy. He is able to come in and take over complete control not only of the development and working of the uranium mine but also the exploration for uranium. If the powers were held to be legally valid- we are not concerned with that here- they would override completely all existing rights and titles which have been acquired by persons or companies under State or Territory laws. That is the broad effect of the regulations. One may speculate as to why it is necessary and why the Minister believes he wants to have this power. It hardly seems to be necessary to provide a control on uranium because clearly the Government already has that control, as I have indicated. However, it may be of interest to note that the regulation was promulgated on 29 March of this year. That was at a time when the Government's attempts to establish its Petroleum and Minerals Authority were clearly doomed to failure in the Senate. As we have frequently debated the powers the Government has obtained under that Act the Senate will remember them. It may be that at that time the Government thought that the Senate would not pass that legislation and that is why it was necessary to ressurect this old power which is contained in an Act which was first passed in 1946. At least that would give the Government some sort of powers in relation to uranium which, apparently, the Government would not have over minerals generally throughout Australia.

However, probably a more likely explanation is one which I consider even more sinister and serious. It is this: The Senate will remember that just prior to this time it became clear that Queensland Mines Ltd held a relatively small but very rich deposit of uranium in the Northern Territory on an Aboriginal reserve, in an area likely to be designated as a national park. Queensland Mines was prevented by the

Government from obtaining the right to mine because of the Government 's policy in relation to the protection of the rights of Aborigines. I do not want to get into any debate about that here. In fact, as we in the Opposition have already said in a policy which was recently issued by Mr Snedden, we fully accept the recommendations of the Woodward Committee in relation to Aboriginal rights and interests as far as mining is concerned. I am speaking now only in relation to what Mr Justice Woodward recommended in relation to mining.

The difficulty which the Government faced and still faces in relation to this policy regarding Queensland Mines is that long before the policy was established and long before the Woodward Committee was set up Queensland Mines obtained titles to explore for uranium which it found at Nabarlek. It had entered into contracts with overseas purchasers in relation to its uranium. The company was in a most embarrassing position. Of course, the Government was also in a rather embarrassing position as a result of the fact that at that stage the company could not mine the uranium and could not fulfil its contracts. So the Government conceived the idea that the way out of this problem for the Government I suppose it was not such a good way out for the company- was to give Queensland Mines Ltd access to other deposits of uranium which were the subject of exploration by other companies under other titles and rights to explore. As a result of their exploration initiative and great expenditure of money, those companies had found other deposits of uranium.

The company that was to be the bunny in this exercise was Peko-Wallsend EZ which had found large deposits of uranium at a place known as Ranger in the Northern Territory. The Government decided that the way out of the dilemma in which it was placed was to give Queensland Mines access to the deposits at Ranger. These deposits were discovered by the Peko-Wallsend company and one would expect that that company enjoyed the right to mine them. Mr Whitlam actually wrote to Queensland Mines and indicated that this would be a way out. He stated that the Commonwealth felt that it would authorise the access to uranium desposits owned by the Commonwealth. In that respect, it was relying on the general ownership power contained in the Atomic Energy Act to which I have referred. He mentioned specifically that he had in mind that Queensland Mines would be given access to the Ranger deposits. That letter to the chairman of Queensland Mines was written by the Prime Minister on 27 March. This regulation was promulgated on 29 March. So I think that probably the genesis of the regulation was to overcome this dilemma in which the Government found itself.

The Government is now trying to dress up its action. I suppose we could dignify its action by describing it as some sort of Robin Hood exercise, but I would think it was more of a bush ranger exercise. It is now trying to dress up its action in these grandiose terms by stating that the purpose of this regulation is to have a coherent and rational plan for Australia's national resources, in this instance its reserves of uranium. What could be more likely to inhibit any search for uranium? What would be more likely to inhibit any sort of mining exploration or any attempt to find new sources of fuel and energy which we so desperately need for this nation? What is more likely to inhibit this search than taking away from the finder the fruits of his enterprise, initiative and his large capital expenditure?

The Peko-Wallsend company has spent over $4m on exploration in this Ranger area. It has found a very large deposit- approximately 100,000 short tons of uranium ore. Perhaps it is not of the highest grade, but it is a very economic deposit of uranium ore. I was up there recently and it is very clear that there is a great uranium deposit in that area. This includes not just the deposit that has been proven at Jabiru by PekoWallsend. There are other large deposits nearby which have been found by Pancontinental Mining Ltd, and I noticed only today it has doubled the size of its estimated reserves from 24,000 short tons to something like 50,000 short tons. There are other significant deposits of uranium in and about this area. It is quite clear that a great uranium province has been discovered there.

But this uranium has been discovered only because of the incentive which had been given to exploration by the Liberal-Country Party coalition government over the years it was in office, together with the assurance that if a company did take the risks and spent millions of dollars on this enterprise, such a company would then receive a title to mine and develop the fruits of its exploration and initiative. What could be more inimical to this being achieved in Australia than the type of activity and attitude of this Government which I have just indicated? In addition to that, we have the fact that Mr Connor, the Minister for Minerals and Energy, and the Government generally do not indicate to the mining world or even to the Parliament or the nation what the Government's mining policy is or what its fuel and energy policy is. We have been waiting for nearly 2 years now to have such a policy unfolded. The Government is still silent. I hope that when the Minister replies today he will indicate, though I doubt that he will be able to do so, that this Government has a policy in relation to the exploration for minerals and attempts to increase our known energy reserves and in particular, of course, our reserves of uranium with which we are concerned in this debate.

This is a matter of desperate urgency in relation to energy resources generally. We see here an attitude by the Government that a company cannot be allowed to mine in a certain location but it can go and mine on another property upon which another company has spent $4m in exploration work. We see the attitude that the explorer for minerals, the man who has spent the money and who has shown the initiative, does not have an assurance that he will have a title to the property. That same attitude of mind is revealed also in relation to the exploration for oil and gas because it is the same attitude that the Government has taken in regard to the Woodside-Burmah area. But that is by the way. The fact of the matter is that this attitude of mind is one which is quite inimical to the development of exploration for fuel and energy. Furthermore, as I have said, no clear policy of any kind has been established in this regard.

I have indicated broadly what our reasons are for moving this motion for disallowance of these regulations. As I have said, the regulations appear to be designed to establish the Federal Minister for Minerals and Energy as the one and only authority in Australia to control the whole area of uranium mining from the exploration right through to the development of the deposits. We in the Opposition have a very great interest in the establishment of a policy in this area as we have in the establishment of a policy in regard to fuel and energy resources generally. We believe that although there is a need for national supervision and national guidelines for such a policy, we also believe, that the way in which to encourage the exploration for such energy resources is to give incentives, encouragement and assurances to private industry, the private explorer and private investment to be active in this area. I believe that that is one of the major differences between the Opposition and the Government in this regard.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Senator DURACK - Before the suspension of - the sitting I had turned to the question of the Opposition 's policy in regard to uranium mining. I spoke generally about our policy in that regard and indicated that the Government singularly lacks any policy on the subject except simply a negative blanket on all export and virtually all development of the resource. The Government seems to be groping at the moment for some sort of policy for the redevelopment of the Mary Kathleen uranium mine, but that is a very small mine and represents a special problem. What we would expect to see is some broad positive policy from the Government in regard to the need to expand our exploration for uranium and the upgrading and increasing of what are already very significant reserves of it. But it is such an important energy resource that we as a nation ought to be encouraging the development of it.

We also believe that part and parcel of such an interest in the development of and exploration for uranium would be to permit some reasonable export of uranium oxide or the ore in its yellow cake form. We believe that if exports were permitted, and that would have to be under strict quality control, it would greatly encourage and enhance exploration and the investment in exploration. We know that this has been a significant factor with other mineral resources. We have only to think of what happened in the case of iron ore. In the 1950s it was believed that Australia had very limited reserves of iron ore, but when the embargo on its export was lifted it was rapidly proved that we had vast, almost limitless, resources. As I said, there are indications already that Australia has tremendous potential in this regard. We believe that permitting limited export, under strict conditions as to where it would go and what use could be made of it, and subject to other Australian national interests such as maintenance of the already existing levels of Australian ownership and control of the companies that have found it, would have a very salutary effect on exploration for this important resource.

In conclusion I would like to summarise our argument. We believe that these regulations firstly are quite unnecessary. The Minister has the power to maintain Australia's national interests through his control powers in respect to export and other matters. These extra powers are apparently sought by the Minister for somewhat dubious purposes and they will have the effect of overriding all existing rights that have been acquired under State laws and under the Northern Territory mining laws. We believe that for those reasons these regulations should be disallowed by the Senate.

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