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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 854

Mr BRAITHWAITE(8.23) —First, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise to the House for being late for this debate. The Opposition does not oppose the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill. The Bill increases the duty imposed upon exported uranium concentrate mined in the Alligator Rivers Region from 11c per kilogram to 80c per kilogram. Before looking at the more specific aspects of this Bill-I agree that it is a short and simple one-I would like to address the general topic of the Government's uranium policies particularly as they relate to not only the Alligator Rivers Region and the development of uranium mines but also the nuclear industry in Australia.

To say the least of the policies the Government has adopted, as far as an overseas observer or an overseas importer of our products is concerned, they are irrational. For instance, Australia has low cost uranium resources totalling 530,000 tonnes. This is a staggering 28 per cent of the world's total low cost uranium resources, and the Northern Territory possesses 350,000 tonnes of this amount. Yet the policies we have seem to discriminate very much against the Northern Territory as opposed to some uranium-it is classed as good uranium-that is exported from other parts of Australia. However, because these reserves are undeveloped they are classed as bad uranium. One must ask the question: How do importers view our contradictory policies and the procedures that are followed? For instance, as well as this sanction against uranium mining, Australia is faced with a foreign debt that exceeds $100 billion. That has been recognised throughout the country in the last couple of weeks. Yet we have $30 billion worth of uranium in the ground just at existing Northern Territory mines. People see this sanction as being mainly at the whim of a minority of Australian people, at the whim of the left wing of the Government or the Australian Labor Party and at the whim of unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

In fact, when the Mary Kathleen mine was producing, we had the ridiculous situation of the ACTU protesting against the mining and export of uranium while the workers in that area wanted to continue with their task. So there is an inconsistency. Even now I understand that there are always protests by the transport unions and the marine unions against the export of uranium through Darwin. Of course, this gives the impression to people overseas that we are a nation with uncertain prospects and irrational policies. This has led to some countries considering Australia as not reliable for some of its exports.

It is interesting that just this month a mission of 60 business people from Tokyo, Japan, came to Australia for a couple of weeks. They visited all the States during that time. In the Australian of 11 February there was an interesting comment by the head of that delegation. The article states:

The head of a 60-member Japanese investment team touring Australia . . . warned yesterday that assurances given by the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, that Australia's image as strike-prone and unproductive was no longer accurate, would be closely scrutinised.

``There are persistent perceptions in Japan that Australia is a strike-prone country and that the productivity against wage-costing is not so good''. . . .

If so, it was difficult to expect Japanese investors to establish new and lasting links with Australia.

Of course, there is the economic impact of leaving uranium in the ground. On a daily basis in this Parliament we hear about the Budget deficit and about our foreign debt, which has blown out to over $100 billion. We also have to consider the high cost of the interest on that debt as we try to service those extravagances of expenditure. We also have a tax debate going on in this House on a daily basis. Somehow or other the people in Australia who make these irrational policies seem to think that we are quarantined from these problems, that those countries that import our products cannot see our industrial record, our high interest rates, our high debt commitment, our tax penalties and our government on-costs.

At the moment the Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins) is overseas trying to tell the nations with which we would like to trade that their policies on subsidisation are crippling Australia's trade. There is no doubt that they are. The subsidisation policies of those countries are certainly making the terms of trade a lot more difficult and unfavourable for our basic resource exports on which we have traditionally relied. But what the Minister for Trade and those other Ministers who stamp around the world conveniently forget is that the problems relating to trade start on our own doorstep. Our domestic economic policies are a major burden for our exporters and producers in this country.

Mr Campbell —Are you talking about Black Jack McEwen?

Mr BRAITHWAITE —No. I am quite prepared to talk about Black Jack McEwen. The trouble with the honourable member is that he is living back in the 1960s and not in the 1980s. This is basically what we are talking about, and this is what the Government of the day cannot come to grips with. It thinks it is still dealing back in the early 1900s and not the modern 1980s in a competitive world. I suggest that competition in world economies is an important factor. I was rather surprised today at Question Time when the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) and, I understand, the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin), representing the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh), made a pretty concentrated attack on the Queensland Premier-as did the Queensland State Labor Leader-over alleged statements that the Premier had made to the Japanese. I just ask: Where is the quarantine against Australia's problems that the importers who deal with us would be entitled to ask for, particularly after the comment that was made in the Australian this week?

Any nation taking our resources-and of course Japan is very important to us as a user of our energy resources and is a nation whose industry has a nuclear power capacity-is interested. I believe that the Minister for Foreign Affairs launched that attack today to divert attention from the terrible mistake-not a mistake but an act of honesty-by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), who said in the Senate yesterday that interest rates are not expected to fall before 1988. That is really the type of thing that we should be talking about if we are to get our economy into shape and also trade in the world market as we should.

The Bill addresses the problem of a levy and other matters. I want to say that the uranium industry, in relation to which such irrational policies are being adopted by the Government, offers the greatest scope for immediate growth and development and redressing that balance of trade deficit which increases monthly by about $1 billion. The Opposition has always supported, with the health and safety standards with which the industry has had to comply, the mining and milling of uranium in Australia. As I said, it is the safeguards and health standards that were set by the Fraser Government that gave us the certainty of being able to say that we support this mining. The Opposition would remove the veto on the development of new uranium deposits. Those people who say that there is no market in the world because of depressed prices are not really looking at the situation. Australia can fill a gap, even in those markets that may be depressed in price and be oversupplied, because of the nature of the product we can supply and its low cost.

Most importantly, from a trade point of view, Australia should permit the export of uranium-always subject to the existing stringent safeguard agreements that have been put in place. With over one quarter of the Western world's uranium, Australia should be a major force in international markets, rather than the minor player that it is. Our mine production is low compared with possible Australian capacity because of the Government's irrational policies that I mentioned before, particularly in relation to restricting the mining and treatment of uranium. The possible returns from additional uranium exports under safeguards are several times existing earnings. The longer we keep our uranium in the ground the more difficult it will be for our producers, both current and potential, to expand their exports and find and keep the markets that exist at the moment. It always surprises me that for some reason or other in a Budget the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) can put his conscience to one side and sell millions of dollars worth of uranium, yet still restrict the mining of uranium that is in the ground. Australians are being denied one further support to our haemorrhaging balance of payments.

The Bill before the House increases the export duty which has been imposed on uranium concentrate produced in the Alligator Rivers Region since 1980. This duty offsets the special cost of environmental monitoring and research activities by the Office of the Supervising Scientist associated with uranium mining operations in the Alligator Rivers Region. The Office of the Supervising Scientist was created because of the special need to protect the local environment, which includes Kakadu National Park, from the short and long term effects of uranium mining.

On the inspection that I made of the park and Ranger some 20 months ago it was interesting to see the total support that mining had from the members of the tribes given rights over that park and also the way that area is developing under the sharing of the income from that park. I understand now that there is a particular problem, which is subject to a report, about the release of some of the waters from Ranger into the surrounding area. It appears that where uranium mining is undertaken it has the full approval of the mine workers and the people adjacent, who can share in the operation. Again, quarantining the development of further uranium in that very rich belt is nothing short of criminal.

I have to admit that the Office of the Supervising Scientist performs a very useful role. During the visit I met one of the scientists. I was surprised to find that his headquarters were in Sydney and not on the job in the local area. He was probably costing more through travel expenses than the supervising was worth. The Office of the Supervising Scientist on occasions has exposed some of the flaws in the arguments of the conservation movement and it should be paid credit for that.

The increased levy is expected to raise an additional $2.6m. It will recover about 50 per cent of the costs. Perhaps it is easier for us in this place to pass a Bill such as this to increase the Customs levy to pay for the Office of the Supervising Scientist, to pass the cost on to the uranium exporters, than to take a long, hard look at the empire that is being built up in the Office of the Supervising Scientist. Passing on the costs of what might be called cost recovery is yet another levy of this Government and another cost against the production end of industry in Australia.

Mr Campbell —They are lucky they are not in Queensland.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —I am talking about governments in general, but I am particularly talking about this cost which is an on-cost and another penalty that is paid. If the honourable member wants me to expound on that, the fringe benefits tax, the capital gains tax and others are also examples. I would like to know where he stands on those. In his own State and in his own electorate developers of the vast iron ore resources of that area are fighting with costs and with reduced prices for their product. Now they are hit with the additional fringe benefits tax and the other impositions. I suggest the honourable member take more notice of the impact of those government charges in his own electorate instead of flinging his eyes further afield, as some other people are fond of doing, and involving themselves in the politics of other States.

I want to mention the additional cost brought about to the industry through this Office. The Opposition questions the need for the level of resources being invested in the OSS. The Office has facilities in three locations-Jabiru, Darwin and Sydney. I just mentioned that I came into contact with one of the scientists resident in Sydney. It is quite clear that the OSS for some years has been embarked on something of an empire building exercise. Its 1982-83 annual report states:

The Supervising Scientists has consistently maintained that an OSS complement of 80 or so permanent staff, some 50 of them in the research institute, was necessary to enable him to carry out his functions.

The report referred to a permanent staff of 80 people supervising the Ranger project or the Alligator Rivers Region. At that stage the Office had a staff ceiling of 54. The 1985-86 annual report, written in a year when the average operating staffing level achieved was 77.14, bemoans the gap in the research program caused by the lack of staff. One wonders at the use of the word `research' when we all know that the future for uranium industry under this Government is restricted and very bleak indeed. The 1985-86 annual report went on to say that the OSS sought an increase in staff of six for 1986-87 and a further four for 1987-88. So we have to ask the question: Where will all this stop? It is so typical of the authorities, particularly those that have been set up with the encouragement of this Labor Government, to be able to increase staff levels so indiscriminately. In this case, it is being done at a cost to the industry that the Office is intended not to serve but to supervise.

The Government estimates that it will spend $4,485,000 on this Office in 1986-87. The total allocation will increase because of the capital works program, which suffered considerable delay last financial year, with the bulk of this expenditure now taking place in the current financial year. The Government has decided to reduce staffing by eight-in addition to across the board staff cuts of a further 0.5 per cent and a further reduction of four to come in 1987-88. The 1986-87 estimate provides for an average staffing level of 68.75, effecting a reduction of 8.25 staff years on the 1985-86 level. The fact that the Government has seen fit to review the level of staffing of the OSS is conclusive proof that all is not well within the Department. Perhaps it is easy for the Government to make these staffing cuts and let the Supervising Scientist implement them. In this situation we could only have the Sydney office maintained and the Jabiru research institute cut. The question the Opposition asks is: Will the cuts damage the working efficiency of the Office by taking people from the research institute at Jabiru, or will the cuts be made from the staff located, for some reason, in Sydney? We have seen this sort of thing happen so much with authorities under this Government. When financial cuts are made they always seem to affect the area where the real work is conducted, and never seem to affect the empires or the staffing arrangements in centres well removed from the place of action.

Questions have to be raised about that expenditure incurred by the OSS in maintaining its office in Sydney. At the Estimates committee hearings, Mr Fry of the OSS said:

The major part of the cuts will fall on the Alligator Rivers region research institute.

Of the total cut of 12 positions, nine are expected to fall on the research institute and three on other parts of the OSS. Again, the majority is being taken from the research area and not from the administrative side. Clearly the reductions effected in the current financial year are just a beginning-but a lot more needs to be done. We need to see clear research priorities within a sustainable framework. The Supervising Scientist can hardly bemoan a lack of staff for undertaking the research effort when he has such a large complement of personnel situated in, and operating from, Sydney.

It is not only a question of the division of labour between Sydney and Jabiru, but the expense of maintaining so much of the OSS in Sydney when the action is in the Northern Territory. For instance, the increase in payments in the current year for office services, requisites and equipment was caused by the increased rent for the Sydney office. This has occurred at a time when staffing is being reduced and the call by staff on office services, requisites and equipment could be expected to decline. If the OSS finds difficulty in retaining people and has a need for specialist research, it should investigate doing more of its research by contracting expertise for discrete projects. Further expenditure savings could very probably be made by a proper examination of the way the OSS functions.

As I said, this Bill provides an opportunity to mention some of the flaws in the operation of the Office. While the Opposition does not oppose the Bill, we would just like to point out that the effect of it is again to burden industry with another cost-this in an industry which is not allowed to develop to its full potential, to put itself into the world market, which is its proper place, and also to strengthen the economy at this moment.

I go back to the declaration made by the Minister earlier today when he commented on the Queensland Premier's quite properly alerting people within Australia and outside to the problems which exist and which are evident. Everybody in the world would know the comparisons between our country and others as far as interest rates, inflation and currency values are concerned. I thought that the Minister for Foreign Affairs made a rather venomous attack on the Premier's statement which, when read in its full context, says nothing new. It repeats many of the things I have said. For the Minister to react in such a way leads me to believe that perhaps he is out of the country too often on foreign affairs. If he stayed in Australia to observe the effects of the Government's policies on industries such as uranium, he might be able to make such comments.

Mr Peacock —He hadn't even read the Press release.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —No. That is rather critical in the observation because, had he read the Press release and had not reacted to a Dorothy Dix question from his back bench, he would have found out that the Premier was saying nothing that was not obvious and was not new.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! I do not think that the Premier of Queensland has all that much to do with the Customs Tariff (Uranium Concentrate Export Duty) Amendment Bill.

Mr Peacock —Did he call Australia a banana republic?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Kooyong will cease interjecting.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —No; he did not call Australia a banana republic. We were talking about minerals, and I will return to that subject.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Before you were rudely interrupted by the honourable member for Kooyong.

Mr BRAITHWAITE —That is right. Uranium could fill that very vital area which leaves Australia with a burgeoning balance of payments deficit and an expanding foreign debt. Uranium is mined in the most abstract ways, with union pressures all around, and the Bill seeks to impose extra costs on the industry. This Government should not continue to blame the state of the economy on outside or external factors when it is within the Government's power and responsibility to make the corrections. In view of the evidence we have had over the past four years, particularly the evidence on the Government's policies on uranium, I fear that the Government will never be tough enough or responsible enough to implement the policies that are required.

I stress again the importance of Australia increasing its exports of uranium under stringent safeguards. The possible returns are several times existing earnings. The longer we keep our uranium in the ground-and perhaps our heads in the ground with it-the more difficult it will be for producers to develop an industry which could contribute so much to the easing of our trade and foreign debt crisis.