Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 31 March 1987
Page: 1789

Mr DOWNER(5.12) —It has become fashionable in Australia nowadays to criticise the achievements of the Fraser Government, to denigrate the work that that Government did over the seven and a half years it was in office. One of the great tributes to the Fraser Government that any member of this House should make is the work it did with stage 1 of Kakadu National Park. I think just about every member of this House would concede that the achievement of the Fraser Government in Kakadu National Park is one that future generations will thank that Government for. But what that Government did in the case of Kakadu stage 1 was really quite different from what is being proposed in the legislation before the House today. The Fraser Government opted for the multiple use plan so that Kakadu National Park stage 1 could be exploited-I use that word in a positive sense-for the benefit of Australian tourists. As the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell) pointed out, there is little point in having a national park if no one is able to visit it. There is little point in encouraging tourists to a national park if there are no facilities there for them. The Fraser Government recognised that and it allowed tourist development in the Kakadu National Park. It also allowed some mining development in the park. I want to make one or two points about that mining development. Of course, I do not take the view that mining in national parks should be allowed to proceed willy-nilly without any controls or regulation whatsoever. I think everyone in Australia would agree that that would be an irresponsible approach. But if mining is properly regulated and managed the benefits from mining that can accrue to ordinary working Australians as well as the benefits that can accrue to everybody else through the tourist potential of national parks can be reaped jointly.

The Fraser Government set up the Fox Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. The report of that inquiry outlines a plan for uranium mining in Kakadu. That has proceeded very fruitfully, as I am about to explain, to the benefit of all Australians. Honourable members on the other side may, for their present political convenience, deny that that mining has been beneficial to Australia but in 1982 the present Treasurer (Mr Keating) said of the Labor Party's then stance on uranium mining, which was to abolish it: `If the ALP does not change its uranium policy Australia will lose its AAA rating'. The tragedy is that the Australian Labor Party has not significantly changed its uranium policy and we all know that Australian has lost its AAA rating, although not only for that reason. It is for a number of other reasons as well, primarily caused by the policies of the Government. Uranium mining is very important to Australians because of its effect on the economy. At a time when our balance of payments is in a crisis that is the worst in Australia's history, it is important to remember that uranium exports generate some $400m of export revenue a year, money that frankly Australia just cannot afford at this stage to do without.

Uranium mining in Kakadu stage 1 has been concentrated at the Ranger mine run by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. It is interesting to see how the Australian community as a whole has benefited from that activity over the past four years. In that time it has generated $1 billion of export income. It has generated for the Commonwealth Government $210m in income tax receipts. On top of that, the Commonwealth has received a further $60m in income tax receipt from the employees who work at the mine. The Ranger project has generated something like $220m profit for ERA and out of those profits it has been able to maintain a viable business which has employed 400 people. Finally, it is important to point out that the Northern Territory Government has benefited to the extent of $52m in royalties from this project. These have been paid to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Benefit Trust Account. Again, it is a clear benefit to the Aboriginal people from this mining activity and it is a benefit that the Aboriginal people well recognise.

The tragedy of this legislation which has been brought before the House by the Government is that it opposes this sort of enterprise. It opposes intelligent mining in Kakadu stage 2. It opposes the enormous opportunities that ordinary Australians could gain from any mining in that area. In this debate we have heard it quoted ad nauseam that the value of minerals, particularly uranium, in Kakadu stage 2 is in the vicinity of $32 billion, a figure used by the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones). Some say the value could be as high as $400 billion but let us stick with the lowest estimate. One can see, even with that figure, how very important it is to Australia that this kind of mining activity be allowed, giving due consideration to the importance of the environment.

One can only wonder at a time of economic crisis, when our economy is in a state as serious as that of war, as the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) keeps telling us, why the Government has stopped further mining activity in Kakadu stage 2. The answer is not rational. It is a cheap political answer. This has been pointed out by other speakers on this side of the House. The Government has been concerned about losing the votes of the so-called greenies, the environmentalists. In order to try to shore up their votes, and to placate the Left of the Australian Labor Party as well, the Government has decided to say no to a proper multiple use plan for Kakadu stage 2 and stage 3 even though it knows that a multiple use plan is the logical and rational solution. It knows this only too well. How much damage, after all, is mining doing in the Northern Territory today in Kakadu stage 1 compared with other activity? The words of Leslie Kemeny of Sydney University sum this up. He wrote recently:

More than 10 years ago the Whitlam Government bulldozed through the Northern Territory one of the finest highways in Australia-the Arnhem Highway-right into the heart of the Kakadu National Park.

. . . . .

Its environmental impact is some 10,000 times greater in magnitude than all the mining activities of the Northern Territory put together.

From this we can see that the argument about uranium mining and the enormous damage any other mining as well as uranium mining can do to the environment is vastly and deliberately overstated in order to achieve not rational objectives but simple political objectives. In intro- ducing this legislation the Government has not only pursued policies which, in economic and environmental terms, are frankly irrational but also it has done so in a way which is threatening the very integrity of Commonwealth governments in Australia.

I take the instance of Peko EZ. It has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in what is now the Kakadu stage 2 area with a natural expectation that it would be able to mine the area but with sensitivity to the environment. The Government has said: `You may have spent all that money, but that is just too bad. We will give you no compensation for that. We will just ban your activities'. In a country such as Australia, where we have traditionally operated by the rule of law and with-again I use the word-rational policies, one cannot expect companies to invest in and build up our country if one is going to treat them in that rather despicable way. It is not only the companies which have been treated in a despicable way by this legislation but also the Government of the Northern Territory. Not all that long ago we had a great deal of rhetoric from the Government about consultation on World Heritage listings. We had the establishment of a group called CONCOM-the Commonwealth and State Council of Nature Conservation Ministers. As a result of a meeting of CONCOM a paper called `Australia and the World Heritage Convention' was prepared by the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment in February of last year. In the paper the Department wrote:

The Commonwealth Government writes to the State and Territory governments inviting them to submit suggestions. Any suggestions for world heritage listing brought forward by other than a State or Territory government to be referred with supporting information to the relevant State or Territory government for comment prior to examination by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Government has indicated, however, that it will not take unilateral action to nominate areas for World Heritage Listing without the agreement of the State or Territory concerned.

It has done just that in this instance. On 16 September last year the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment wrote to Mr Coulter, the Minister for Mines and Energy in the Northern Territory. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment said in his letter:

Should the Commonwealth decide to pursue world heritage listing of the former stage 2 area your Government will be consulted in accordance with the CONCOM agreement prior to any approach being made to the world heritage secretariat in Paris.

That Government was not consulted at all. On the very same day, 16 September, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment and the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) were party to putting out a statement in their joint names which said that they would pursue the listing of stage 2 on the World Heritage List. No State or Territory government can take the Commonwealth Government seriously if it is treated in that contemptible way. The mining companies have been treated with contempt and so has the Northern Territory Government. It is not surprising that there is tremendous opposition to this legislation when it has been introduced in this extremely irresponsible way, and in a way which damages the reputation of the Commonwealth Government-at least for as long as the Australian Labor Party holds the reins of government, which may be for only another month.

There is a further point I would like to make about this legislation, a point which has not been raised by other speakers. The Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Amendment Bill relates to the Office of the Supervising Scientist. I am surprised by this legislation, particularly as there has been some small controversy over the operations of the Office of the Supervising Scientist in recent weeks. This Bill amends the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act 1978 to confer on the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region the function of providing advice on environmental aspects of the exploration and resource assessment program, the adequacy of environmental control mechanisms in the conduct of exploration within the conservation zone and environmental aspects of mining at Coronation Hill or any other areas exercised from the conservation zone for the purpose of mining operations. Put simply, the Bill will expand enormously the role of the Office of the Supervising Scientist-a role that was rather narrowly defined by the Fraser Government.

This concerns me because the Office of the Supervising Scientist is another example of a burgeoning bureaucracy for which Australian taxpayers and, as far as this office is concerned, Australian uranium exporters, are paying dearly. It is a bureaucracy which runs on a budget of about $5 1/2m, a budget which, in the 1984-85 financial year, leapt up by an additional 15 per cent. The Government said recently that it wanted to reduce the size of this bureaucracy and of expenditure. I am glad to have heard that, but the reductions the Government has announced are grossly inadequate and suddenly I have discovered that the Government is to expand the role of the Office anyway. So I suspect that the reductions will be short lived. The Office of the Supervising Scientist employs about 77 people. The Supervising Scientist asked for another six people in this financial year and for another four in 1987-88. It is a simple case of Parkinson's law working its way through a small bureaucracy for which ordinary Australians are being made to pay.

These staff members do not all work in Jabiru where one would expect them to work. Twenty-seven of them are employed in Sydney. That is an extraordinary surprise, as the operation of the Office of the Supervising Scientist is confined to the Alligator Rivers Region. It is to be expanded a little beyond that now by this legislation, but nevertheless it is confined to that region. As the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb) recently pointed out, these 27 staff members are very cosily ensconced on the twenty-fourth floor of the Triple M Tower in Bondi Junction from where they doubtless get a beautiful view out over the ocean. Where cuts have been proposed, as they have by the Government-cuts of 12 in the number of staff-it is interesting to note that the cuts are not to take place in Sydney, which is outside the geographical operation of the office in any case, but at Jabiru where the operation is supposed to be concentrated.

As I have made perfectly clear, the staff in Sydney are obviously geographically remote from Jabiru. Not surprisingly, they travel to and from Jabiru so they can conduct their work, yet at the same time they live in Sydney. This matter has really surprised me. One would expect the Office of the Supervising Scientist to be based at Jabiru where it operates, but it is not. This point was put by Senator Puplick in a Senate Estimates committee hearing fairly recently to the Supervising Scientist himself. In reply to Senator Puplick's question, the Supervising Scientist said:

The implication in your question is that you would expect that the research institute would operate better if everybody was talking to each other and all were located in one place. That certainly is true.

Why will those people not operate out of Jabiru? Why are so many of them concentrated in Sydney in luxury office suites? If it is too difficult to move them to Jabiru, why not contract out the work rather than get those people to fly, at enormous expense to the taxpayer, upwards and backwards to Jabiru from the luxury of Sydney? This sort of travel to Jabiru is small beer compared to the wide travel vote of the Office of the Supervising Scientist. Its staff travel all over Australia. They travelled to every single capital city over the last financial year, including Hobart, which seems to me to be slightly removed from the problems of the Alligator Rivers Region. But they have not confined themselves to Australia. They have been to Greece, to Sweden, to France, to Singapore, to Australia, to the United Kingdom and so on, where apparently they have been presenting papers of one kind or another in order to advance the cause of scientific discussion. The simple fact is that, whilst that is nice for them to do-no doubt the scientists feel that there is some justification for travelling around the world at taxpayers' expense to tell the world what they are doing--

Mr McGauran —Self-indulgence.

Mr DOWNER —As the honourable member for Gippsland points out, it is an indulgence. It is an indulgence which Australia can no longer afford, and it is the sort of indulgence that must be brought to an end. Some honourable members opposite will try to justify this sort of activity, this sort of extravagance. One can always make an argument in favour of some form of public expenditure. Some honourable members opposite will try to claim that I am opposed to the Office's existence. I am not opposed to the existence of the Office. What I am saying is that the Office should run on a shoestring at a time when we are suffering from what the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) calls the economic equivalent of war. We always hear justifications for such projects, but we never hear a word spoken in defence of the poor taxpayer who is suffering so severely at the moment. Farmers on the west coast of South Australia, who cannot make ends meet because of an economic crisis brought upon them by the Government, are now being told by me that scientists, at taxpayers' expense, are going to Greece, Sweden and France and that they are ensconced in comfortable offices at Bondi Junction at their expense. How can the Australian Labor Party justify that sort of extravagance to people on the west coast of South Australia who, frankly, cannot make ends meet because of the Government's policies?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Rocher) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.