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Wednesday, 10 November 1976
Page: 2568

Mr MILLAR (Wide Bay) -Today the Minister for the Environment, Housing and

Community Development (Mr Newman) announced the decision of the Federal Government on the report of the Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry. I would not attempt to disguise the fact that to the people most widely concerned in the Maryborough area this decision constitutes nothing short of a tragedy. One acknowledges immediately the Government's need to maintain its credibility as a government that is sensitive to its responsibilities to the environment. But in the end the question devolves upon the wellbeing of people. It seems to me that to contemplate such action at a time when there is a desperate need to keep people in productive employment is almost indefensible.

I should say immediately that the people of the Maryborough area are not by any stretch of the imagination barbarians. There has been a suggestion and argument and counter-argument that opinions polarise to those who are enlightened and sensitive souls and those who derive some practical and material benefit from sand mining on Fraser Island and who therefore are obtuse and insensitive to the environment. The reverse is the case. The people of the Maryborough area have lived with Fraser Island from the time this country was discovered. They have developed a regard and an affection for the island and, in the process, have acquired an intimate knowledge of its characteristics. Nobody in Australia is more concerned with maintaining that island as he knows it than are the people in the area immediately affected.

This island, which is of 160 000 hectares in area, is subject to mining leases covering 1600 hectares and constituting approximately 9 per cent of the total area. But, more significantly, within that area of leasing there are known mineral deposits that have been earmarked for mining amounting to only 1 per cent of the island. Fraser Island is 80 miles in length and up to 12 or 14 miles in breadth. It is not as most people- well meaning people in many cases, I concede- have been brainwashed into believing it to be, that is, a glistening coral atoll that can be wiped out before lunch by a D8 bulldozer. It is a great piece of Australiana, admittedly. But 80 per cent of the island, ignoring its unique technical characteristics insomuch as it is a great sand mass- some acclaim its uniqueness on that score- is to the eye of the beholder nothing more than drab, dull, grey Australian scrub. On the other hand, there are localities that are quite unique and a joy to behold. It was never intended that those localities be disturbed in any shape or form by mining activities.

I say again that the overall consideration is the wellbeing of the people of Australia- in particular, the people of Maryborough and the surrounding area. As I have said, to take this action at a time like this is a luxury that this country cannot afford. Arbitrarily to stop sand mining on Fraser Island without providing the Parliament with an opportunity to debate the serious consequences inherent in the decision is to surrender the function of the Parliament to commissions or committees. Those bodies may or may not have the competence and objectivity necessary to protect the interests of affected people or the rights of the respective States.

I feel that I am bound to make some comment on the competence of the Commission of Inquiry. I hasten to say that I claim not the slightest competence to assess in turn its technical competence, but it is a firmly held belief in the Maryborough area among those who gave evidence to the Commission and who observed its proceedings that there was substantial bias by the Commission. Because I am not in a position to make such an assertion, I make it clear that personally I do not impugn the integrity of the Commission. But I would suggest to this House that one must accept the possibility that the members of the Commission, having an expertise arising from their long association with the environment, associated in turn with their professions, must have subconsciously at least an inclination or a predisposition to maintain the environment. Under such circumstances it is not inconceivable that, manifesting a very common human trait, they may warp logic to their own subconscious desires.

It is the place of this Parliament to assess the contents of the report and to subject them to such debate and examination as to satisfy the representatives of this Parliament that they can in truth vindicate the Government's action in coming to a decision such as this. It is true that the Government, in making the announcement regarding the decision, has with unquestioned sincerity indicated its resolve to minimise, if not completely offset, the injury suffered by the people who will be most seriously affected by this decision. But in their present form the proposals -tentative proposals, I would hope- as outlined by the Minister are grossly inadequate. They can do nothing to reassure those people who must be consumed with apprehension this evening as to their future. It is doubly tragic that only 2 years ago the same district suffered the loss of its shipyard, notwithstanding the most extravagant promises and assurances from the previous Administration that, if necessary, it would go it alone to maintain a shipyard in production. That was a traumatic experience for the community, but, because of the introduction of sand mining, the members of the community gradually regained their confidence. There was a new spirit in the community. Now- a short 2 years laterthe community has been devastated by this decision of the Government.

We require more positive proposals from the Government. We require specific indications of the extent to which it will compensate those affected so that it may be recognised immediately what the future holds for the people of the affected area. It is not good enough just to talk about the National Employment and Training scheme, retraining and relocation. All of those things could have the same effect of tearing the heart out of a living community. People moved into this area confident that the mining activities were proceeding with the endorsement of both Governments. I draw to the attention of the House the fact that they were endorsed by both Governments. Those people may reasonably have expected some security of tenure in their new environment. Now their commitments to buy homes and their plans for the future are all at risk. There will be massive depression if this situation is not remedied within this community. There will be a depreciation of values and, over and above all, there will be a growing conviction in their minds that governments and societies in this country comfortably remote from the areas of impact of such decisions are quite indifferent to the outcome.

We must have positive proposals about the future of the timber activities on Fraser Island. For over 100 years the timber industry, a foundation industry of the Maryborough district, has harvested timber from Fraser Island. The people in this industry have done this with such rare skill and expertise on this Island that during the furore of this present debate the Island has been described by the conservationists as a gem or a jewel. This industry supports quite substantially the wellbeing of the district. What is its future in the national heritage? What assurances are to be given to the Maryborough area, indeed to Queensland as a whole, that there will not be another intrusion on the wellbeing of the district as a result of increased ambition by those who have a disproportionate and unqualified commitment to preserve the environment regardless of other considerations? This must be spelt out. The enthusiasm of the conservationists is in direct ratio to the distance that they are situated from the scene of major impact.

The role of the States is significant. In this case a previous environmental report commissioned by the Queensland Government and on which the mining was initiated has been swept aside. It would appear now that the ability of the States to determine and manage their own development will continually be at risk of Federal intervention because of environmental issues. It is not inconceivable that in a volatile political situation or for pecuniary advantage a committee's report could be used for purposes inconsistent with the spirit of the committee. I suggest that State governments should carry the responsibility for environmental impact studies. Recently great discontent was expressed by New South Wales coal mining interests about the unfair advantage Queensland had because of its open cut mining techniques. The New South Wales interests could not compete with this modern technique of extracting ore from the ground. A government or a committee which had a bias or an interest towards New South Wales- I mean New South Wales no mischief in singling it out for this example- could well turn around and bring in a report suggesting that the methods of open cut mining in Queensland were barbaric, and that such operations should be closed down on environmental grounds. It could force the interests concerned to mine underground. This is one possibility that must be borne in mind.

It is disturbing that this is the first time that a Government has broken a contract or an arrangement relating to a mining activity in this country. This Government has applied the environmental protection impact study retrospectively. It has moved in and said, in effect: 'It does not matter that we gave an undertaking before; we have changed our mind; you can suffer the impact of the reversal of our decision and be left to your own devices'. Clearly this must erode confidence in all concerns that have a mind, both in their interests and this nation's interest, to engage in mining activities. It is highly erosive of the confidence essential for the creation of wealth in this country so that we can afford all our laudable programs for social welfare, education and health out of our earnings and not further deplete our capital. We delude ourselves if we say that we can maintain the environment of certain sections of this country when we live under the threat of a total breakdown of our economic and social structure.

This decision seems to be a gross inconsistency. The States have a role in federalism and it must be extended to give them confidence and authority in respect of their own development. Does any honourable member seriously suggest that individuals in one State or another are less sensitive to the environment or are of a lower intellectual standing? Is there a difference between an Australian in Western Australia and Tasmania? What nonsense it is to suggest that the environment of Queensland must be protected by the overlording role of the Federal Government. There are 300 people facing immediate unemployment.

Mr Sullivan - For Christmas.

Mr MILLAR - Yes, for Christmas. There are another 700 people throughout the infrastructure of this industry who will face unemployment. It will be some considerable time- weeks or months- before finally we will be able to determine where this cancer, this malignancy, will stop. How do we embark on a program of compensation to afford relief when it is not immediately possible to identify all the people who will be affected?

This Parliament has a heavy responsibility to the people of Australia. There is no question or doubt that Fraser Island requires careful attention. A management plan is an essential prerequisite. I hope that the Federal Government and the State Government can get together to facilitate that objective. As the honourable member for Wide Bay I will devote myself to achieving that goal after having first attended to the urgent requirements of people who suffer the impact of this Government decision. At present there is a direct economic benefit of $6.42m per annum. (Extension of time granted.) I thank the House for granting me an extension of time. I will not unduly delay the proceedings of the House. The tragedy of this decision is compounded by the precipitate haste with which it is to be implemented. I would have thought that the Government's credibility in this area would not have been diminished if it had said, having decided on balance that it was vital to the national interest to restrict mining on Fraser Island, that the mining operations would be phased down over a reasonable period in order to afford people time to adjust properly to the circumstances. That would have been a logical decision.

I think the Federal Government must indicate clearly that it will bear the full burden of caring for the welfare and the relocation of anyone whose livelihood is at stake as a result of this decision. Of course, such rehabilitation must be under joint State and Commonwealth Government review, resisting at all times the demonstrated inclination of Federal Governments to become dominant in such a situation. I would have thought that assurances could be given to the rnining companies to the effect that they could seek relocation and work in other nonsensitive areas and thus maintain economic viability in the district. Following determination of that new location, perhaps some assistance could be given to them to relocate and thus maintain employment in the area. Over and above all that, any agreements must be in conjunction with the State Government.

The rest of Australia just has to realise that over $270,000 in monthly income for the Maryborough district comes from the activities on Fraser Island. Certainly everyone acknowledges that consideration must be given to environmental issues. However, at this stage, when the nation is struggling to achieve economic stability, the Government should be doing its best to convince the people of Australia that it is sincere in its ambitions and that they can confidently put their trust in it knowing that their best interests are being served. This decision comes not only as a shattering blow to the Maryborough area but also it raises serious doubts in the minds of many people who looked to this Government to give them the sort of government they deserve.

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