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Thursday, 19 September 1974
Page: 1263

Senator WRIEDT (Tasmania) (Minister for Agriculture) - The debate in which we are engaged concerns a motion to disallow certain regulations; but it has ranged over a much wider area, seemingly embracing not only the Government's policies in respect of uranium but also, as one honourable senator said, our total approach to the world energy crisis. I would not have thought that was a subject for debate during the course of discussion on this motion. Nevertheless I shall answer one or two of the points that were made in that respect. Senator Durack is to wind up this debate. Therefore I simply wish to state the position of the Government in respect of these regulations. I shall concentrate my remarks on the reasons why the Government has sought these powers.

But before doing so I point out that during the course of the debate there were several references to the Government's approach to minerals and energy. The Minister for Minerals and Energy (Mr Connor) has made many statements which clearly set out the case for the Government in respect of its policy on minerals and energy generally. I draw the attention of the Senate to the statement which was made by the Minister on 7 August this year when he introduced in the House of Representatives the Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill. He summarised the functions of the Authority by saying the functions would be: . . to explore for, and to develop, Australia's petroleum and mineral resources, and to assist in implementing the Government's policies of promoting Australian ownership and control of our natural resources and resource industries.

The Minister also referred to specific provisions in the Bill which provided for assistance to be given by the Authority to those Australian mining ventures which, having discovered a mineral resource of definite potential, are unable to finance the further exploration and development necessary to complete the economic viability of their discoveries. The first and most important consideration of this Government in respect of our resources is to make sure that they remain under Australian ownership and control as far as that is practicable. We do not intend to allow a repetition or a continuation of what we have seen over the years, whereby those resources have passed into the hands of people who do not live or have their primary interest in this country. I believe that that is a policy which is supported by the overwhelming majority of Australians. As has been spelled out, it is not, in the case of the Petroleum and Minerals Authority, a nationalisation of our resources. It is an instrument which the Australian Government can use for the benefit of the Australian people.

I refer now to the comments that were made by Senator Carrick in respect to matters of world trade. This, of course, is well beyond the ambit of this debate. I do not think the matters he raised were anything new. The world has been aware for at least 12 months now of the enormous change in the trading benefits which have been accruing to countries in the Middle East- the petroleum exporting countries. I think those same OPEC- Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries- countries are taking a responsible attitude. They realise the change in the financial resources which are accruing to them. About a week ago they met again to consider the question of increases in the price of oil. The proposed increases were deferred, if my memory serves me correctly. But this is not a matter which will be easily solved. We should not assume that because of this great shift which is taking place there will be necessarily some great cataclysmic disaster in the next year or two. We have a responsibility as a government and, it is quite true, as a country to see whether we can help those countries wherever possible with their energy problems. Ever since this Government has been in office the Minister for Minerals and Energy, Mr Connor, has stated on numerous occasions that Australia wants to be a reliable source of supply to those countries which require our mineral resources at prices which are fair and reasonable. That has been the whole basis of his approach to the export of our minerals. Who would deny the need for the Australian Government to keep complete control in the years ahead of our vital resources, especially uranium?

I turn to uranium enrichment about which something was also said. Again I refer to the comments of Senator Carrick. He asked for information about the Government's policy in respect of such matters as uranium enrichment. Enrichment is a highly technical area. I would have thought that he would be conversant with the references to enrichment which are contained in the report of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. I shall have to read from the 1972-73 report because the subsequent report is not yet available. The honourable senator will find on page 49 and subsequent pages what the Commission is doing in relation to uranium enrichment. I shall read the introductory paragraph to that section because, in view of what has been said, I think it ought to be placed in the Hansard record. The report states:

Uranium enrichment studies have been carried out by the Commission, in association with others, over the past year. These studies have been made against a background of intense international negotiations for the commitment of the first units of new enrichment capacity in the Western world and growing fears that a shortage of capacity will occur, at least in the early 1980s. Power generating utilities overseas are already committed to building nuclear power plants for which fuel could become scarce, and some countries are concerned at the implications of a shortage of fuel at a time of increased reliance on nuclear power for base-load generation.

So it is quite misleading to suggest that this Government is not fully conscious of the need for proper research and study into uranium enrichment at this stage. Obviously, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission is keeping fully abreast of developments in this area overseas. I think the Government's concern and preparedness to keep abreast of developments should also be mentioned. Negotiations took place in Japan last year. At the ministerial talks initial discussions were held with the Japanese concerning the possibility of enrichment facilities in this country. In only May of last year the Commission became a member of the Association for Centrifuge Enrichment. So much for the general questions which have been raised during the course of this debate. I want to deal now specifically with the disallowance motion which has been moved. This Government lays great emphasis on the need to approach the development of Australia's uranium industry in an orderly and coherent manner. Such an approach demands a degree of governmental guidance which was lacking prior to December 1972, particularly in the light of the last minute approvals by the former Government of the export of uranium at unsatisfactory prices.

The greater part of the Australia-wide reserves is contained in the uranium deposits of the Northern Territory. The Government decided that development of these Northern Territory deposits should not proceed on a haphazard and unregulated basis but in the way legislated for and contemplated by the national Parliament. The Government was reinforced in this decision by its determination to ensure that deliveries of uranium were made as required under the export contracts, principally with Japan, which were approved by the previous Government. To this end holders of approved contracts for the export of uranium from deposits in the Northern Territory were, earlier this year, offered access to designated deposits owned by the Commonwealth pursuant to section 35 of the Atomic Energy Act. Contrary to what Senator Durack said during the course of his remarks, section 35 refers only to the territories of the Commonwealth. Senator Durack referred to Queensland Mines Ltd which is one of the companies which holds export contracts approved by the previous government. That company was offered access to the Ranger deposit because it told the Government that further delay in approval to mine the Nabarlek deposit would produce a frustration of those contracts.

In 1953 the then Menzies Government introduced a Bill for an Act for the stated purpose of bringing together in one piece of legislation all matters associated with the provision of atomic energy. In doing so that Government, through its responsible Minister in each chamber, expressed the belief that it had produced a fair and powerful piece of legislative machinery to shape the future of Australia in this important field of uranium and atomic energy. That legislation which has been subjected to only minor amendment in the intervening years was supported by the present Government when it was in Opposition. That legislation now stands on the statute book as the Atomic Energy Act. During the course of his remarks Senator Durack also appeared to be arguing that it was in some way improper for this Government to have recourse to certain aspects of this legislation because of provisions which exist in territorial legislation. The logic of this argument is obscure particularly when it is recognised that the territorial legislation was in existence under the Menzies Government. Back in 1953 that Government decided that it was nevertheless fitting, right and proper to legislate in the national Parliament in terms of that Act. Among other things Part III of the Act lays down provisions for the control of substances of atomic energy significance. In essence this part of the Atomic Energy Act reenacted the provisions of the Atomic Energy (Control of Materials) Act 1946 which was amended by the Menzies Government in 1952. In 1953 that Act declared uranium and other prescribed substances situated in any territory of the Commonwealth as being the property of the Commonwealth. In other words, the Menzies Government embraced the necessity for a clear enunciation of the Crown's title to uranium in the territories.

Section 38 of the Act, which appears in Part III, then makes provision for the control of prescribed substances by way of licence issued by the Minister pursuant to regulations made under that Act. A broadly similar licencing provision is to be found in the 1946 Act. Thus it is manifest that the Menzies Government accepted, adopted and preserved the concept of controlling the exploitation of prescribed substances by way of a licensing mechanism as was conceived in legislation introduced by the Chifley Government. Against that background it is incorrect to claim that the making of the Atomic Energy Regulations- they are the regulations we are debating- is in any way improper. The regulations are expressly consistent with the wording of the Act and obviously do not exceed what the Parliament had in mind. Thus they are not to be objected to on that score. They preserve the distinction to be found in the Act between the defence power, which is relevant to the power elsewhere than in the territory, and the territorial power.

It should be noted that it is the existence of that very distinction in the Act which refutes any suggestion that the control provisions, including those relating to the making of regulations, are there solely for defence purposes. If that is not so, the Menzies Government surely would have drafted its 1953 Act in a different way. As a corollary, it should be noted also that, again consistent with the Act, the application of licences in the States can arise only in circumstances where it is necessary for the purpose of the defence of this country. The position then is that no valid ground exists for the seeking of the disallowance of this regulation because it is an essential part of the legislative framework for the development of these uranium reserves. The current reserves are conservatively estimated at about 130,000 short tons.

Senator Durack -230,000 tons.

Senator WRIEDT - They are conservatively estimated at 130,000 short tons. If we bear these facts in mind, we have to accept that all the matters referred to by the Opposition are incorrect. Or course, I was surprised and disappointed that

Senator Hallshould seek the vision that he referred to in his remarks. I would have hoped that that vision would have been apparent to him by the very actions which have been taken by this Goverment. I regret that he sees the intentions of the Government as being detrimental to the interests of this country.

Senator Steele Hall - I do not see them. That is the problem. I suspect they may be detrimental, but I do not see them.

Senator WRIEDT -I regret that the honourable senator has that suspicion in his mind. I agree with his comments about the lack of leadership that has been shown by the Opposition in this area of mineral resources, atomic energy and uranium deposits. There was a lack of leadership when honourable senators opposite were in Government. Recognising that fact and the fact that we are giving this leadership, I would have hoped that the honourable senator would support the Government in obtaining the necessary powers and ensuring that, in fact, we can exercise the needed control over the export and the development of uranium in this country.

I think that there was no justification for what appeared to me to be an attack on Senator Hall by Senator Carrick. That may have been a matter of misinterpretation. But I think the indication by Senator Hall that he will support the disallowance motion is most unfortunate. I would have thought that, of all the mineral and energy resources of this country, no substance would have been of greater importance than our uranium deposits. This Government has never attempted to exercise overt power or an unreasonable power in developing those resources and maintaining control over them in the interests of the Australian people. Irrespective of what happens to this motion, we will not be deterred. We will not be diverted from our objective of ensuring that the resources of this country remain in the hands of the Australian people and are used for the benefit of the Australian people.

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