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Monday, 25 March 1985
Page: 825


Mr CONNOLLY —by leave-I join with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment (Mr Cohen) in complimenting the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation on its report entitled 'Australia's Participation in International Environmental Organisations'. I note, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you were a member of that Committee and of the Sub-Committee which carried out this most worthwhile work. I should say in commencing, however, that I am rather dismayed that it has taken nearly two and a half years for the Government to respond to this report. It is not a difficult report. It did not involve any great re-analysis of existing government policies but merely a restatement in a number of areas on what they were meant to be. Nevertheless, as a report it has focused our attention on the need to see Australia's position in relation to the various United Nations and other international environmental organisations and agencies with which we are associated. The purpose of this inquiry was in fact to investigate the role and effectiveness of Australia's participation in those organisations. With due respect to the Minister, I do not feel, on hearing his response, that the Government has really taken seriously the comments made by the Committee because there is very little evidence that apart from saying 'Yes, everything is marvellous' the Government has considered aspects of Australia's participation in these organisations which deserve further examination.

The report made the important observation that the emergence of environmental protection as a major area of public policy both on a domestic as well as a world-wide scale is relatively recent. It cites the late 1960s as being possibly the commencement of this world-wide trend towards an appreciation of the fact that the environment in which we live influences not only our own generation but certainly those which will follow. Therefore, all governments have a role to play, as members of the United Nations, in trying to maintain an overall world environmental strategy which will be for the long term benefit of the human species and in fact all forms of life on this planet.

The Committee also made the point that many of the issues being considered were inherently international because of their global ecological scope; that local scientific data is often scarce and therefore there is a need to share information; that consultation between nations helps to overcome the differing environmental policies and approaches which nations or people may have in these matters; that there is a need for relationships between environmental, economic, social and political factors to be acknowledged and understood to a greater extent both nationally and internationally; and that more immediate bilateral problems were effectively forcing action by industrialised nations, in particular in Western Europe where trans-frontier pollution is becoming a critical problem. It is worth noting that in the last year or so the European Economic Community has attempted to get all members to agree to a convention for the reduction of atmospheric pollution, but unfortunately it has failed to get the co-operation of a number of states, including the United Kingdom. I think this demonstrates in a very real measure the major problems one faces at the international level in trying to get domestic problems into perspective in this field.

The Minister also made some observations in relation to the problems of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the destruction of the ozone layer, the contamination of the oceans, the control of hazardous chemicals, the protection of endangered wildlife and so forth. I think it is rather strange hearing this coming from a Minister of this Government which has put in place what must go down in history as the most inconsistent uranium policy ever known. I think it is worth noting that a large segment of the Australian Labor Party, both in this Parliament and elsewhere, seems to find uranium to be a matter of great concern, essentially because it fears its potential as a pollutant on the one hand and as a means of destroying humanity on the other. It is just as absurd to suggest that iron ore should not be mined because tanks or guns can be made with it just as cars, bridges and other things can. To a large degree the same principle applies to uranium. I think it is worth while noting that the generation of 1,000 megawatts of electricity at a 70 per cent load factor requires the mining and use of 5 1/2 million tonnes of brown coal, 2 1/2 million tonnes of black coal, over 1 1/4 million tonnes of fuel oil or over one million tonnes of natural gas. Yet only 180 tonnes of uranium are required to generate the same amount of electricity. We must consider whether the destructive influences of having a significantly higher level of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere caused essentially by the use of fossil fuels, both coal and petroleum products, are preferable to the continuation of a sustainable level of uranium mining and the generation of what is in fact one of the cleanest forms of energy known at this stage. Nevertheless, as I said, this is an inconsistent approach which has been developed by this Government and will certainly change with the fall of this Government.

I now refer to a number of the recommendations made by the Committee which have been referred to by the Minister. The report noted that the Government should review its support for the United Nations Environment Program. Again, it is a matter of some regret that in the Minister's comments it is quite clear that this was not done. I draw his attention to page 6 of the Committee's report which, in paragraphs 33 and 34, states:

. . . It is, nevertheless, rather poignant to observe that the following comment was included in the CSIRO submission:

'International programs sponsored by UN agencies and other supranational bodies are generally poorly conceived, badly managed and politically motivated, rather than soundly-based technically and scientifically.

It went on to suggest:

. . . but given that Australia is the 10th largest contributor to the Environment Fund, the Government must ensure that it maintains constant vigilance of the aims and objectives of UNEP and be prepared to speak up at UN General Assembly conferences to ensure the effective continuation of this worthwhile program.

I strongly suggest that we should have a more effective role to play in the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly which, as I recall, is responsible for budgetary matters concerning the efficiency and effectiveness of the manner in which our funds are spent by United Nations agencies. But this was merely an identification of the problem by the Committee which was not appropriately addressed by the Minister in his remarks. He simply said: 'Yes, my Department has reviewed the nature and activities of UNEP and Australia's involvement in that program will continue'. The report was not questioning Australia's involvement in the program but rather the manner in which the expenditure made by Australia and other countries was being utilised for various global environmental issues. It is not just a case as the Minister said of the Government continuing to participate actively in this program. The question is rather: Are we prepared to examine in detail the objectives of the various undertakings under UNEP and the manner in which public expenditure is being utilised for that purpose?

The report referred to a similar problem in relation to Australian participation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Environment Committee. The Minister made the point, for which I have some sympathy, that because of Australia's geographical position in OECD terms, along with possibly New Zealand and Japan, we are the most far-flung members. The rest are either in Europe or in North America. Consequently, a higher cost is borne by Australia if we wish to be adequately represented at OECD functional meetings. Nevertheless, the OECD does have an environment committee and a number of sub-committees which cover areas which are of relevance to developed countries such as Australia. In that context, if we want to be a full member of the OECD, it is clear that we should play a more effective role wherever we possibly can, including membership of the OECD Environment Committee.

Another recommendation made by the Committee referred to continuing government support for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and consideration of increased funding of non-governmental organisations to permit attendance at IUCN conferences overseas. This has been a fairly moot point in recent years. But I make the point that the Fraser Government to the best of my knowledge was the first to permit non-governmental organisations to be represented on Australian delegations overseas. I should note also that this is a practice which has been continued with success by the current Government.

The fifth recommendation is that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment should table annually a report on proceedings and findings of international conferences of an environmental nature, indicating the Australian response to recommendations. This recommendation is of some relevance to other recommendations on the dissemination of information in Australia and also the role which the States should play in the determination of policy in relation to the environment. As all honourable members would recall, as a result of the decision in relation to the Tasmanian dams affair, the Opposition and the Government found themselves diametrically opposed in regard to the handling of environmental issues of this type. It is the strong view of the Opposition that the States must be brought into negotiations through international bodies for the establishment of treaties which will require obligations of a domestic nature which will have an impact upon State law. This is something which the Government, of course, finds some difficulty in living with. This point is in the Minister's comments on the ninth recommendation which were as follows:

In November 1983 the Prime Minister advised Premiers that the Government endorsed the Principles and Procedures-

that is, those relating to co-ordination between the Commonwealth and the States-

subject to certain important modifications. These modifications were designed to ensure that ratification of treaties was not unduly delayed and that Australia would not be seen in the international arena as attempting to use its constitutional structure as a shield to avoid or limit its acceptance of treaty obligations.

Nevertheless, the point needs to be made that many treaties do have a federalism clause included in them. It has always been the practice of previous Australian governments to ensure that our ratification of treaties is subject to the fact that the Australian Constitution does not leave in our hands all power and that many international treaties require the co-operation and support of State governments if they are to be applied within domestic law. Consequently, the observations made by the Minister in that context do not adequately take into account the realities of State involvement and the arrangements instituted by the Fraser Government to ensure that the States were brought into the pre-negotiating stage and, on some occasions, even the negotiating stage, to ensure that there were no difficulties in the implementation of international agreements. There has been a tendency on the part of socialist governments in Australia for many years to go around the world big-noting themselves, signing treaties willy-nilly, regardless of whether they will be applied. If this Government wishes to find itself in the same situation as that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and other communist governments, so be it. But I see no purpose, and neither does the Opposition, in signing Australia's name to treaties unless we will be able to apply them in relation to domestic law. This is not just a small issue which can simply be passed over; it is a matter of very fundamental importance.

I refer now to the twelfth recommendation of the report, which was that the draft national conservation strategy for Australia should be tabled for consideration by Parliament. The Minister went to some length to make the point that a national conference was established. That is true. He also ignored the fact that the whole concept of the national conservation strategy was developed by the Fraser Government and that that conference had already been set in place before the change of government. Nevertheless, I agree with him that an effective and useful conference was held involving the States and non-governmental organisations as well as other Federal and State authorities and bodies to achieve some consensus on this matter. But the important thing is that the twelfth recommendation quite explicitly stated that the draft national conservation strategy should be tabled for consideration by Parliament. I regret that, in the two years since that conference took place, this Minister and the Government have made not the slightest attempt to have a debate in this Parliament on the introduction of the national conservation strategy, or on what it means for the development of Australia. As we pointed out at the time of that conference, it is essential that all bodies-environmental organisations, miners, farmers, industrialists as well as State and local governments-should be involved. Surely the Federal Parliament of this nation equally has a role to play and a right to have a point of view in matters such as this.

My final observation is related to the question of Australia's involvement in the Antarctic. This was the final recommendation of the Standing Committee, which asked that Australia should continue to support our involvement in Antarctica and provide sufficient resources to enable our high standing in relation to the Antarctic Treaty to be maintained in the future. It is worth noting that the Labor Government has in many ways severely compromised Australia's vital interests in Antarctica. For example, our scientific activity has been severely handicapped by a number of budgetary cutbacks, in particular the 3 per cent real reduction in the expenditure of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in the 1984-85 financial year. Australia now has the same level of annual investment in Antarctica as it had in the mid-1960s. Consequently, the level of Australian scientific activity could be seen to be in steady decline. Professor David Caro, the Chairman of the Federal Government's Antarctic Research Policy Advisory Committee, said that there seems to be no accepted national policy on the Antarctic. He added that the $30m per year currently spent was so inadequate as to be a 'waste of money'. These are real issues which have been raised by the Committee in this report. I am frankly rather unimpressed with the level of consideration which has been given by the Government to these matters. It was not simply a case of having to go through the forms of the House to give a response. This House deserves a response of substance. I regret that in this case it failed to receive it.