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Monday, 5 March 1984
Page: 412


Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(9.54) —I speak on behalf of the Opposition on a relatively uncontentious measure, the Liquid Fuel Emergency Bill 1983. I express the view that if we do get another liquid fuel emergency, the people of Australia are likely to regard that as possibly more significant than the matters we have recently been debating. In fact, we would all hope that the matters which are the subject of the treatment of this Bill are ones which will not arise and that we will not have the sort of emergency which this Bill is aimed to meet.

The Bill before us is an important step forward in planning for possible future fuel supply shortages in Australia. To an extent this is a quite unfashionable subject because, of course, we have had some relative success in petroleum exploration in Australia recently with the very promising discovery at Jabiru and good discoveries at the Cooper and Eromanga basins. Of course, there has been a fall in the price of oil charged by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries in the face of world oversupply. In general, the attitude to liquid fuels is that the shortages which were very much a feature of the 1970s and the ever-rising prices which were reflected in the 1970s have eased and no doubt there has been a lessening of the level of community concern which existed about possible fuel shortages.

The legislation which we have before us arises from the work of the National Petroleum Advisory Committee. On behalf of the Opposition I wish to acknowledge the work of that Committee under Sir Frank Espie and the recommendations made which are substantially reflected in the legislation. I thank them for the work which Senator Sir John Carrick and State Ministers at the time got them to do on our behalf. Notwithstanding the changes in the world oil market, the fact is that there is still potential for very considerable disruption to our oil supplies, although Australia is better placed than many other countries. Australia is about 65 per cent self-sufficient in oil and that means that if there were interference with external supplies, the blow would be cushioned by our national reserves.

The fact is that there is a continuing possibility of interference with external supplies. Of course, it is possible that there could be interference with the supply of oil from within Australia itself. I suppose the vulnerability of our own reserves lies mostly in the fact that they are substantially off-shore. Notwithstanding the great care which is taken in respect of the security of the installations it is always possible that something could go wrong. It is also possible, of course, that something like industrial disruption on a wide scale could put us in a situation of very real difficulty. I suppose that the present relatively relaxed position in Australia-indeed, I suppose the people who market petroleum would say that the position is one in which there is too much fuel and the market too competitive-would acknowledge the wisdom of policy over recent years. The policy of the previous Government in establishing import parity pricing has I think been substantially successful in increasing the level of exploration in Australia and our level of self-sufficiency and in giving us a situation which is satisfactory, although a great deal of effort needs to be done in the future to maintain that self-sufficiency.

What we have before us now is a very substantial piece of legislation which gives the Federal Government the power to interfere massively with the market situation, to intervene to ensure that where there are shortages or where there is some emergency which gives rise to a shortage in fuel that emergency can be dealt with by government direction. As I said, that is a matter which arises from the recommendations of the Committee under Sir Frank Espie. Notwithstanding the fact that one could argue that the legislation is unduly intrusive and draconian in the measures which it would allow government to take, the Opposition proposes to support it, in part because it has a sunset clause. We will have a chance to look at it over some years. We also support the legislation because there has been a genuine attempt to bring together all the elements of the industry and to arrive at a common agreement as to the appropriate measures to be taken. The Government introduced this legislation a long time ago. It was proposed that it should be passed last year. I suppose that the one thing which this legislation has done for me is to demonstrate that we should never pass any legislation through this Parliament quickly. I say that meaning no disrespect to the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Walsh), his Department or anyone else concerned with the legislation. It has been my invariable experience that if Parliament actually delays legislation and takes a close look at it, either through the medium of a parliamentary committee or otherwise, inevitably the legislation is amended. Defects are discovered, matters which have not been anticipated are raised, and it is found that the legislation is in some way defective.

The changes which I understand the Government will suggest to this legislation at the Committee stage are changes which, I think, are to the good. The Government, in response to representations which were made both by the Opposition and by industry, did show that it was prepared to make changes and to take into account the issues that had been raised. I acknowledge the receptivity of the Minister for Resources and Energy, his office and, further down the line, his Department to the points which the Opposition has raised over the last half year or so. I also acknowledge the receptivity that all of those people have shown to some of the concerns which have been expressed by the industry.

I do not know whether it is necessary at the second reading stage of the debate to go into a great mass of detail about what we think is wrong with the legislation as it stands at the moment. We were concerned, and we expect those concerns to be removed by the amendments which will subsequently be moved by the Government, about the fact that Parliament was to be allowed only five sitting days to consider the regulations made by the Minister under the Act and that only this limited time was to be available to us to consider regulations which could be matters of very considerable complexity. We put the proposition to the Government that where it was proceeding in a non-emergency situation it would be better to allow the Parliament the normal 15 sitting days we have to consider subordinate legislation to consider any regulations.

In the course of putting those views to the Government it became apparent to us that the whole scheme whereby the regulations under the Act did not come into force until after they had been available for parliamentary scrutiny for a period of five days, could have the reverse effect from the one we originally raised. The Government could be faced with an emergency situation in which it was unable to act because it could not put down valid subordinate legislation which would cover the situation in the absence of Parliament sitting and in a situation in which five sitting days had not elapsed.

It seemed to the Opposition, and I think it was accepted by the Government, that on further examination it was necessary to change the scheme of the Act to ensure that in an emergency situation, where there was some gap in the legislative provision, action could be taken immediately, without waiting for the five sitting days to pass. We found ourselves in the rather odd situation on the one hand of saying to the Government: 'It is highly desirable in a complex situation like this to ensure that Parliament has adequate time to consider these matters. We do not believe five sitting days is long enough and we seek 15 '; and on the other hand saying: 'If the Government and Australia find themselves in the grip of an emergency, if there is a need for immediate subordinate legislation or arrangements to be put in place, we think the scheme of the Act needs to be changed to give the Government power to do that'.

I think I have seen the final form of the amendments which will be put forward by the Government. It appears that the Government has taken into account the very real difficulties which it would have faced under the original legislation and is amending the legislation in a way which will make it more workable, both from the point of view of the Government and from the point of view of the Parliament. The Opposition has also raised with the Government the fact that one of the pre-conditions for the declaration of an emergency had not been given legislative form. It was clear from the second reading speech that the Government did not intend an emergency to be dealt with under the legislation unless the situation was one which could not be dealt with by the voluntary augmenting of supplies by the industry itself. Again the Government has shown itself ready, although it does not believe an amendment in that form to be strictly necessary, to amend the legislation to ensure that what the Opposition sees as an essential safeguard is included.

The final item with respect to this legislation on which there was some dealing between the Opposition and the Government arose out of concerns which were originally expressed, I think, by those in the industry who are potentially affected by it. That matter is whether there is adequate provision in the legislation covering compensation for anybody who might be affected by government action under it. There was some difference of opinion between the Government and the Opposition in the informal discussions which took place as to the extent to which additional legislative provision was necessary. Originally the Government seemed to take the view that any loss which was suffered by industry could be made up by industry or by an adjustment of the price mechanism . In other words, the market itself would look after losses which the industry might suffer. However, the Opposition took the view that in a highly regulated market such as the sort we have with respect to petroleum in Australia, it was quite possible that if not the Federal Government then some State government might by its interference in the market prevent that sort of adjustment occurring. I believe that the amendment which the Government now proposes to bring forward is reasonably satisfactory to meet the sort of concern which has been expressed by industry and the Opposition.

I make all those points because I think that we all devote a great deal of time , mental effort and nervous excitement to the more highly political issues with which we deal in this chamber. I am conscious of the fact that at times I hear from the Australian Democrats that the Opposition is not interested in the more constructive activities that are supposed to take place in this Parliament. I put on record in the context of this Bill, but wishing my remarks to have a wider application, that I believe the Parliament has a legislative role to which it can and should give attention, as well as the political role of making and unmaking governments, which is also such an important part of our work.

The technique which is available to the Senate, and perhaps is underutilised, of sending complicated and non-political legislation to Senate committees for detailed examination, inquiry and report is a procedure we might use more often to good effect. In the pressure of creating legislation within a department, with the pressures under which a government works and the pressures under which legislation committees of Cabinet work, it is very often true that there are quite real defects in legislation by the time it hits this place. There are many checkpoints, but many of them are not effective. For example, I do not believe that the sort of scrutiny which busy Ministers can give to legislation before it hits the Parliament is necessarily very effective in pointing out the sorts of defects which have been the subject of discussion between my office and the Minister's office over recent months. I address myself to the Bill not merely on the basis that the Opposition sees it as at least an appropriate interim measure which provides a necessary instrument for the Government to deal with what we all hope will not occur, namely, a liquid fuel shortage in Australia, but on the basis that we should also look at it as yet another example of the ability of the parliamentary process, or perhaps the sub-parliamentary process, to improve the quality of laws which we inflict on the Australian people.

I do have one complaint, having I hope been reasonably gracious in reply to the Minister's response to matters which have been raised with him. It appears to me , on a preliminary examination of the guidelines which he very kindly sent to me on 18 January, that he has fallen yet again into the hands of the lawyers. I really think that it would take a lawyer who perhaps practised in the field of equity rather than in the field of good conscience to work out what in the hell the Minister is on about in his guidelines. I think they are excessively complicated. I think that they will be difficult for industry to use. I think that the Commonwealth draftsmen need to look at their drafting technique to see whether they can do something which will be a little more intelligible. I am sure that the Minister would like to jump up and say: 'That is all right, I understand all this perfectly. It is just that you are deficient'. But I do not believe that I am the only person who has found these guidelines to be rather complex. I think that it is a pity if in this Parliament we cannot provide laws which are readily usable by those who are subjected to them. I ask the Minister to ask his Department to see whether it can do something about producing a plain man's guide to what I think are a pretty awful set of guidelines.

I should say that in the approach of the Opposition to this legislation there is a very real reservation regarding the enormous powers which the legislation gives to the Government. For the reasons I have tried briefly to explain we accept that on an interim basis at least, the legislation should be in place. We accept that the provision of a sunset clause, which means that the legislation has limited life, is an appropriate way to deal with that reality. We think that the Government is right to pick up the recommendations which have been made by that very expert Committee. I simply say to the Government that we will endeavour to scrutinise the guidelines carefully and to be constructive in this area, which we see as being not an area of policy conflict but simply an area where a job has to be done. All of us ought to try to see that the result is as good as possible.

However I would like the Minister to make it clear to the Senate what I believe is the intention of the Government regarding the legislation, namely, that the provisions of this legislation will be put into operation only as a last resort and after every possible avenue for dealing with the crisis, including the use of the flexibility of the commercial marketing entities and the use of the price mechanism, has been exhausted. Of course, I also ask the Minister to acknowledge that in many situations the substantial direct powers and responsibilities of the States will be the most appropriate source of action in these areas, that is , in other than truly national crises limited State action is likely to be appropriate, rather than the use of this nation-wide legislation. I think that a declaration by the Minister that this is legislation of last resort would be appropriate, given the draconian nature of its provisions.

I hope, too, that the Minister will acknowledge the value of there being some delay where we have very technical legislation of this sort, delay which I know has enabled industry to make very useful representations to the Minister and, I also believe, has enabled the Opposition to make useful representations to the Government. Having said that, the Opposition will support the legislation on the understanding that the Government will be moving the very substantial amendments of which we have been given notice.