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Friday, 26 May 1989
Page: 2858

Senator RICHARDSON (Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories)(2.19) —Senator Boswell will get an explanation. Later on, depending upon time constraints, I will try to cover his continued allegations about my misleading of the Parliament. I have done this here before at some length.

Senator MacGibbon —What? Misled the Parliament?

Senator RICHARDSON —I have explained it, Senator. The difficulty is that it does not matter how many times something is explained to Senator Boswell; it takes him a long time to understand explanations.

Senator Puplick —What about credibility?

Senator RICHARDSON —When it comes to credibility on the environment, Senator Puplick's is nil. No doubt that is something we shall identify and get a little closer to in the coming couple of weeks. I return to the subject of Christmas Island. I begin by agreeing with some of the words of today's proposal. I would not want to be seen disagreeing with Senator Boswell all the time. I agree that successive territories Ministers have not fulfilled their responsibilities in regard to the operations of Christmas Island. That is a certainty.

Senator Boswell —Hear, hear!

Senator RICHARDSON —When Senator Boswell hears their names he may not say `Hear, hear'. There is no question whatsoever that Christmas Island--

Senator Boswell —It is the streaker's defence.

Senator RICHARDSON —God forbid that Senator Boswell would ever be a streaker! Looking at Christmas Island today I would have to acknowledge immediately that it is an island that has faced, and will continue to face, some serious difficulties. It is not the first isolated mining community that, after a mine has come to the end of its life, has faced those difficulties. It is 2,600 kilometres from the nearest major city. It has, admittedly, spectacular flora and fauna and some magnificent rainforest but its soils are poor and the rainfall is very slight. In a couple of recent years rainfall has been below average. It has no beaches. So its attractions to those outside, especially as the ore deposit is diminished and depleted, are very small indeed. Christmas Island began its life as a phosphate mine near the end of the last century-1887 is a date that comes to mind. From that time until the mid-1970s it operated as a colonial outpost. Marg Neale, a former resident of Christmas Island, wrote a book, which was launched by Mr Holding, in which she said:

In Australia at the time the political cry was `It's time for a change' and the public issues of the day revolved around racial equality, wage justice, conservation and environmental protection. These sentiments echoed resoundingly at the polls with the election of the Labor Government in 1972. Meanwhile, in this part of Australia, guest labour was still imported from Asia on $1.20 per day, no unions existed, and mining went on relatively unchecked in the unique rainforest and nesting habitats of many rare and endangered species.

That is a pretty damning indictment of previous conservative governments. But they were not the only conservative governments since the--

Senator Boswell —I am not interested in that; I am interested in 1989.

Senator RICHARDSON — Senator Boswell, as a member of the National Party, is basically interested in the 1950s but I will take him beyond that.

Senator Boswell —Well, you have only a quarter of an hour.

Senator RICHARDSON —If I had a month I would not be able to explain anything to Senator Boswell. As I said, Senator Boswell is very slow on the uptake. Australia assumed sovereignty for Christmas Island in 1958. (Quorum formed) As I was saying before the quorum was called, since Australia resumed responsibility for the island in 1958, a succession of Ministers managed to ignore totally the plight of the islanders. If one looks at the list of those Ministers who ignored the plight of the Islanders, it is not a bad little list. Mr MacKellar, Mr Peacock, Mr Wilson, Mr Ellicott and Mr McVeigh all failed to come to grips with what was going on in Christmas Island. But I will at least give Mr Ellicott the credit for setting up an inquiry into what was happening on Christmas Island; at least he was concerned enough to do that. We had the Sweetland Commission of Inquiry into the Viability of the Christmas Island Phosphate Industry. The difficulty was that, having set up the inquiry, the Fraser Government chose to ignore its findings and implemented none of its recommendations. As usual, it was left to a Labor government to clean up the mess. Since we came into office, that is exactly what we have attempted to do on Christmas Island.

In 1984, the then Minister for Territories and Local Government, Mr Tom Uren, announced a package of measures to bring Christmas Island into line with mainland Australia. That meant normal social security and health benefits to Christmas Islanders; wage rates were to be determined applying the same principles as applied generally to Australian wage earners; the Government owned mining company, the Phosphate Mining Co. of Christmas Island Ltd, would shed many of its non-mining functions; local government would be introduced and municipal charges would apply.

It is interesting to note that those in the Opposition who continually preach the doctrine of user pays being the only way for us to go in the future always seem to balk when any user has to pay. While the Union of Christmas Island Workers was formed and became very active in only comparatively recent times, it got the Christmas Island workers' conditions way in front of those on the mainland and they were enjoying subsidies available to no-one on the mainland. The Government simply sought to rationalise that situation.

There has never been a policy of the Government to depopulate the island. But it must be remembered that to close a mine which has operated on the scale that this mine had-quite obviously, it was the major employer and the only possible major employer on the island-and replace it with an operation that will employ fewer people-this operation, from memory, will employ less than 100 people when it recommences-obviously is not the answer. One cannot sustain all of the Islanders on such a reduced operation. There is no great secret about that. Obviously, when the phosphate runs out, there will be problems for the island. To try to deny that is just nonsense.

The question that follows is: What do we do about it? It should be mentioned here that a lease for the resort casino site was signed last week while my colleague, the Minister for the Arts, Tourism and Territories, Mr Holding, was visiting the island. The project is on schedule. It has a June-July this year commencement date so it will commence in the next few months, and we look forward confidently to the opening of the resort casino towards the end of next year. That casino will employ about 100 people during the construction phase. It will employ a couple of hundred people during its operating phase. The Minister for Employment and Education Services, Mr Duncan, has taken an active interest in the Christmas Islanders and their plight and is making sure that there are training programs available to ensure that they get the great bulk of those jobs. Again, that is the proper thing for this Government to do.

Currently about 10 organisations are interested in refurbishing the existing accommodation on the island and, hopefully, that will commence soon. In addition there will be associated resort activities which will employ more people, such as game fishing, scuba diving, and nature walks; and there will be more restaurants and shops, and so on. That is one of the options-not the only option-which the Government sees as being the right way to go for the future of Christmas Island.

Senator Boswell and I have one other thing in common-neither of us has been to Christmas Island. I do not pretend, therefore, to be an expert on it. Nonetheless, I have read quite a bit about the place in recent years, especially in recent weeks. I am sure that Senator Boswell is aware, as I mentioned earlier, of the vast array of unique attractions in terms of the flora and fauna of the island and its rainforests. We would like to make sure that tourism exploits those features. Hopefully, that will play a large part in the island's economic future.

Recently I referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts and its reference to inquire into tourism in the Cocos and Christmas Islands. As well as those initiatives in the tourist field to make sure there is a future for Christmas Islanders, my colleague the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Kerin, has before him now a draft memorandum of understanding for the establishment of a commercial tuna fishing industry on Christmas Island. In addition, my Department is exploring other ventures in which we can involve ourselves on Christmas Island to make sure that there are even more local employment opportunities for Christmas Islanders. There are some problems on the question of fishing boundaries, which I am sure Senator Boswell will be aware of; nonetheless, we are proceeding down that track.

The Government has also, through its recent customs and excise legislation, extended forum nation status to Christmas Island as well as the Cocos Islands and Norfolk Island. This provides for a preference to the islands under which goods manufactured on the islands which meet a 50 per cent local labour and materials requirement will receive duty-free entry to the Australian mainland. This Government has taken a whole series of steps to undo the decades of neglect that the islands suffered under successive conservative administrations.

Last week the Minister for the Arts, Tourism and Territories, Mr Holding, visited Christmas Island. Fortunately, there were some developments which give us cause for renewed hope for the islands agreement.

Senator Puplick —Not a word about the assessor's report.

Senator RICHARDSON —I will continue to ignore Senator Puplick. That has been pretty easy for the last couple of years. The Minister spoke to Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (ANPWS) personnel and the Union of Christmas Island Workers (UCIW). What comes through from the Minister's discussions is that debate on the island about its own future is well in advance of Senator Boswell's remarks today. Negotiations are proceeding on the island between the Union of Christmas Island Workers and the Elders consortium about the future of mining on the island. Those negotiations proceed amicably and are close to fulfilment.

I should also refer to what the Government has done in terms of the environment on Christmas Island. I mentioned how rich Christmas Island is in native birdlife, including endemic species and subspecies. There are plants and reptiles-an amazing abundance of native life. The Abbott's booby bird now nests only on Christmas Island and is in danger of extinction. I have also mentioned here in the past just how precarious that became as a result of the storm last year.

Senator Puplick —We will get to the Boobook owl in a moment.

Senator RICHARDSON —No, the storm last year and I have mentioned that in the Parliament.

Senator Boswell —This is the most pathetic thing you have ever done.

Senator RICHARDSON —I think I have got a better show than Senator Boswell. I mentioned that the storm, which destroyed so much of Christmas Island, had made the prospect of maintaining numbers of the Abbott's booby bird even more difficult. Now we have a national park which covers 60 per cent of the Island and I hope we can consider adding more as time goes by. There is tremendous opportunity on Christmas Island in relation to the rainforests, which are quite magnificent.

I want to turn back to Senator Boswell and his continued allegations about misleading Parliament, the role of the liquidator, et cetera. I have done this repeatedly in here but I suppose I ought to do it again. Senator Boswell has as his main informant Mr Booth, who did not win the tender. That has upset Mr Booth. He saw the opportunity to make some money; he is not making it. That apparently has caused him some concern and he has found a ready mouthpiece in this place. The difficulty is that the liquidator rejects what Senator Boswell has had to say. The difficulty now is that, even when I set aside the procedures that are in train to make sure that Senator Boswell's concerns are taken into account, he has neither the grace nor the intelligence to accept what has been done. A meeting will be held next Thursday between Mr Holding, the liquidator and Mr Booth. No contract with Elders will be signed until Mr Holding and I have had an opportunity to discuss what comes out of that meeting. The liquidator is strongly of the opinion that the figures Mr Booth has given Senator Boswell, which he has used in this place to compare the two proposals, are wrong and relate to an earlier Elders proposal, not to the one that is now under consideration.

Senator Boswell has attempted to whip up an enormous storm in a teacup which goes nowhere. Because he is a senator and a front bencher, he is entitled to consideration. I have made sure that no steps will be taken until his claims are investigated. But after next Thursday's meeting, when I get a report from the liquidator and from Mr Holding, I will come back into the chamber and one of two things will happen. Either I will apologise to Senator Boswell and say, `No, we got it wrong'; or alternatively, I will say something very different and he will be the one doing the apologising. In that case he will be the one standing up and saying, `I got it wrong; I am sorry'. Mind you, that is what he ought to say. Whether or not he has the grace and intelligence to do that after next Thursday remains to be seen. I, for one, anxiously await the results of that meeting.

Senator Boswell —The Minister just does not know what is going on. That is the problem.

Senator RICHARDSON —If Senator Boswell is going to stay on the front bench he will have to lift his game.