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Friday, 16 June 1989
Page: 4224

Senator MICHAEL BAUME(9.55) —I strongly support the principle of the Resource Assessment Commission Bill but I have some problems with the content of it, particularly now that the Government has done a pretty sordid deal with the Australian Democrats to make this Bill, it seems to me, much less effective and certainly much more subject to absurd pressure in its amended form. The deal done with the Democrats underlines the need for this otherwise sound proposal to be subjected to the detailed scrutiny of a Senate committee. There is no doubt that the significant changes being imposed on the Bill by the Australian Democrats as part of the deal to get it through will disadvantage those projects that should proceed and disadvantage the structure of the proposed Resource Assessment Commission (RAC). Some of us took the initial response that the Resource Assessment Commission proposal must be a good idea because Senator Sanders in particular initially vehemently opposed it. If Senator Sanders opposes something it is per se clearly of benefit. I quote from Senator Sanders's press release earlier this month on the Resource Assessment Commission Bill:

It is obvious that the RAC would be of great benefit to the developers in their efforts to rip off Australia's environment. The Opposition has always supported the developers rather than the environment. It looks like they are running true to form.

Senator Sanders pointed out:

. . . the RAC would enable the Government to side-step difficult environmental decisions by referring them to a Commission.

This is the same Senator Sanders who has just given a speech in support of the proposal.

Senator Sanders —We did a deal.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —That is absolutely right. Senator Sanders did a deal which damages the fabric of the legislation. He said:

Not only will the RAC protect the Government from public pressure, but the RAC itself will inevitably be development oriented through its Commissioners being appointed by the Industries Assistance Commission and the Australian Science and Technology Council.

Quite frankly, the amendment that the Australian Democrats have moved does not change that part of Senator Sanders's objection. For him to come in here and say, `We have done a deal' which makes the Bill acceptable to him means that we have to examine very closely indeed the vehement original objection which has now been replaced by his endorsement. That is one of the reasons why it is absolutely vital that this legislation which, as I have said, was sound in principle and which in fact embraces quite a few of the policy thrusts of the coalition's resources policy, must now be sent to a Senate committee to find out, apart from anything else, why Senator Sanders is so happy about it. All Australians should twitch every time Senator Sanders comes out in strong support of something, particularly something that until very recently he has strongly opposed. Those changes must be examined.

There is no doubt that the industries involved are in favour of a Resource Assessment Commission, and sensibly so. They have been mucked around and the people of Australia have suffered the financial consequences of a succession of irresponsible, unfounded and unsustainable attacks on almost every development without those attacks being presented and judged in any competent forum. One can hardly call the Cabinet room of this Government a competent forum, because that is where the decisions have had to be taken.

This Commission will require those people who make these mad protests, and whose volume of noise has been the prime factor in influencing decisions, to come before a skilled forum where their case will be examined by people who know what they are doing. The bluster and nonsense we continually hear from Senator Sanders and his friends in this place will be tested in that forum. I hope the volume of noise and of political expediency which has been so prominent in the past will no longer be a factor. The Resource Assessment Commission will simply be an adviser to the Government, which can then continue to take its politically expedient decisions as it does. But at least the case will be argued, as with the Industries Assistance Commission, on the public record for people to see just how expedient the Government has been in making a decision which is not in line with the recommendations of the RAC.

To give an indication of the sort of support for the principle of the thing, it is evident that the National Farmers Federation, for example, has consistently sought a formal balance in the way land use decisions are handled by the Government. It welcomed the decision of the Government to establish the Resource Assessment Commission. The same goes for the National Association of Forest Industries and the Australian Mining Industry Council (AMIC).

Frankly, the key point is that Mr Kerin and Senator Cook, the two Government Ministers having resource portfolios, had to do something to create order out of the chaos being created by Senator Richardson in his sudden discovery of the joys of being green. Knowing Senator Richardson's background, his motivation is no doubt closely connected to his capacity to count the numbers. Senator Richardson is renowned throughout Australia as a very competent political animal. He has recognised the political reality of the need to attract votes from those people who quite genuinely are concerned about the environment. But on the other side of that coin Mr Kerin and Senator Cook who are responsible for Australia being able to survive the economic crisis it is now in-and that task will be difficult-have recognised that there is a clear need to reduce the impact of electoral environmental policies on issues of national economic importance so that they can be discussed and decisions taken in a rational and coherent way which examines the sometimes hysterically false, but nonetheless on the surface plausible, case being put up by people like Senator Sanders, who are much more full of noise than fact in so many of the matters that they raise.

As the National Farmers Federation said, clearly the Bill does not stem from Senator Richardson's office. It certainly does not reflect the hand of the environmental movement which widely attacked it. The Australian Conservation Foundation and other conservation groups did not even accept an invitation from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to attend a review of the draft legislation. There were some problems with the legislation even before the Australian Democrats made such a mess of it in this deal with the Government. Clearly, there is an attack on States rights--

Senator Crichton-Browne —You're not wrong.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —Senator Crichton-Browne says, `You're not wrong'. Many people take the view, as I certainly do, that it is absolutely vital to maintain States rights, not for any historic reason but because of the simple practical fact that it is vital to divide power in Australia and not let it be concentrated in one set of hands. The old axiom of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely is as apposite now as it was at the beginning of the century. It is notable that when States have powers in a federal structure there is a diminished prospect of centralised power being used improperly and dictatorship emerging. It is notable that after the war the Americans imposed a federal republic structure on West Germany to ensure that power would not be centralised in one set of hands. I must say that there are some people in this Government I would not like to see with absolute power.

Senator Crichton-Browne —A little bit is dangerous for them.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —Even with the little they have they are dangerous enough. The discussion about whether or not there should be States rights must be seen in the context of whether Australians want people such as Mr Keating to have absolute power over all governmental activities in Australia, or whether they would rather have perhaps a slightly less efficient system under which power was limited and those politicians who sought to exercise that kind of absolute power-sometimes, one feels, not necessarily for the benefit of the people of Australia-were prevented from doing so. Every member of this Parliament should recognise that there is a real need to preserve and protect the institution of State governments to ensure that power is spread and not allowed to collect in too few hands, enabling it to be exercised to the disadvantage of Australians in an authoritarian way. So often we see that governments around the world-for example, the Government of China-have centralised power: no effective State system and no splitting up of the power. For instance, in Australia the police are under the control of State governments but the Army is under the control of the Federal Government.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Bill impinges on the rights and powers of the States. I believe it is wrong that the Bill does not require at least consultation with the States on this matter because, after all, the States do have and must have the right to determine the use of their resources. There are some problems in that area. That is another matter that the Opposition proposes, quite properly, to refer to the Senate committee.

The Opposition is concerned about the confidentiality provisions. We do not think that they have been coped with adequately. That matter will be dealt with at the committee stage of the Bill. There is one thing I would commend in view of the fact that the Government's organisations have behaved so appallingly in reporting to the Parliament-that is, the Bill requires that the Commission prepare an annual report and that the Minister table the report within 25 days of its receipt. That is a much overdue change for the better and I hope that the Commission will meet that obligation.

The Resource Assessment Commission Bill does not even recognise the primary role of the States in land use questions, let alone allow them a role in referring projects for inquiry, or even helping in the selection of special commissioners and consultants. The States, therefore, are concerned that the terms of reference could be loaded. The Bill imposes yet another layer of bureaucratic delay on resource industries. Nonetheless, the thrust of the legislation is to the advantage of the resource industries in the sense that they can discuss these matters in a clear forum and a balanced and non-emotive assessment of land use issues in such a forum is certainly, as the AMIC pointed out, far preferable to the ad hoc approach which has prevailed under this Government in recent years. The Mining Industry Council says that there have been:

. . . outrageous claims in relation to environmental impact, without any risk that those claims will have to be justified before an independent scientific inquiry.

That was evident in the Wesley Vale pulp mill debate. AMIC says:

This has resulted in a series of increasingly important setbacks for the resource industries, including exploration rights in Kakadu Stage I, Stage II and most of Stage III; the Queensland Wet Tropics World Heritage Listing, and the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests decision. Areas currently under siege include the Kakadu Conservation Zone, the New South Wales Southern Forests, the Nullarbor and the Kimberley.

AMIC considers that the prospect of balanced land use decisions reflecting multiple land use philosophies and the concept of sustainable development would be enhanced by the establishment of the Resource Assessment Commission. I agree with that, provided that the Commission's behaviour is rational and it is staffed by Mr Kerin and Senator Cook and not Senator Richardson.

Senator Crichton-Browne —It is only this Government that makes this Bill necessary in the first place.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —As Senator Crichton-Browne says, it is only the behaviour of this Government that makes it necessary to introduce such a Bill. As AMIC points out, the behaviour of the Government in the last few years has created the tensions and uncertainties that make the Bill necessary. The Opposition, as I said, is concerned about questions of consultation with the States and confidentiality of evidence at the request of the witness. AMIC says it supports these amendments. It should, because they are sensible and would improve the working of the Bill. The Australian Democrats change of heart on this should be a matter of major concern to all Australians because they had indicated clear opposition. Their motive for opposing it at that time was undoubtedly, as AMIC says:

. . . their awareness that the intellectual capacity and effort needed to establish conservation arguments within the context of better mechanisms is far greater than that involved in gaining media exposure, organising demonstrations and making extreme and unchallenged claims.

That is one of the reasons I strongly support the principle of this Bill. One would hope that environmental issues, when they affect development, would be discussed in an environment in which rational and coherent behaviour would predominate, rather than the argument of the demonstration, the noise, the extreme and the unchallenged claims which simply cannot be sustained.

Another point with respect to the requirement for such a Bill is that it is always open to the Government to initiate an environmental inquiry under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act. That Act contains none of the safeguards provided for the Resource Assessment Commission. There is no doubt that the Commission is a better way of dealing with the matter than the legislative arrangements presently available to the Government.

Finally, I wish to deal very briefly with the amendments proposed by the Australian Democrats which are absolutely ludicrous. For example, there is no definition of the word `sustainability' in the Bill. Sustainability is a matter of such substance that Senator Sanders directed our attention to a book in which it is defined. When Senator Sanders gets around to defining sustainability in the legislation so that it has some binding effect, we could look at his amendments with a little more equanimity. We have no idea what is meant by that. We have no idea of what is meant by an `equitable' distribution on return of resources. The questions raised by these amendments are so great that they must be referred to a committee for this legislation to be coherent. For example, the amendment says that a person who gives evidence to or produces documents at an inquiry may be paid such remuneration as is prescribed. I ask who will prescribe it and, further, why is the word `reasonable' excluded from that part of the amendment. The word `reasonable' appears in the second part where it says that a person should be reimbursed such expenses, or compensated for such losses, as were reasonably incurred'. There need be no reasonableness about the remuneration prescribed.

There is a real risk of an open-ended cheque-basically an employment cheque-to be given to environmentalists to generate a profession of objecting to proposals. Those professional objectors will be paid for by the taxpayers of Australia. It is absolutely incredible. Already the Government provides multi-millions of dollars to the conservation movement in one way or another--

Senator Crichton-Browne —Which some of them have used to campaign against their own party.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —That is right. Some of the money has been washed through other conservation bodies and appears in campaign funds for elections, being used against the Opposition. In recent cases I understand that it also has been used against the Labor Party. It seems absolutely ludicrous that we are generating a profession of paid agitators who will receive a benefit by objecting to development projects in Australia, projects which are in the best economic interests of the people of Australia and which will, under this proposal, be subject to proper scrutiny. Why the Government should have agreed to allow for the payment of professional stirrers is beyond me. Surely there are better ways of making certain that the environmental case can be presented effectively rather than by this pay-off deal which has been done with the Democrats in order to pass this legislation without it being examined closely. This is an absolute disgrace.

I am disappointed that at this stage the Commission does have the appearance of being excessively legalistic. I have no derogatory comments about Mr Justice Stewart who will chair the Commission; the problem seems to be that a judicial appointment to that position is not necessarily an appropriate one in this area. To my knowledge Mr Justice Stewart has no professional expertise in resource matters. I would much rather have seen the appointment of a chairman who had general expertise in the resource use and planning area. As the chairman will be required to provide continuity between inquiries, it clearly is a vital appointment. The appointee needs to be more than impartial and experienced in the conduct of judicial inquiries. The chairman should be seeking to bring consensus. We have seen the outcome when there was not consensus in the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests Commission of Inquiry. The minority and majority reports meant that the Government was given very little guidance. The Government has to think more effectively about what it is trying to achieve with this legislation.

I conclude my remarks by saying that I strongly support the concept of the Resource Assessment Commission. I regret that the Labor Party has now so destroyed the integrity of that proposal by accepting the Democrats amendments to it that the matter should be sent to a committee for examination, even though that would cause delay in the passage of the legislation. It is such an important issue that we should be concentrating on getting it right, rather than on getting it through, no matter what the cost. That is the approach the Government has taken-getting it through no matter what the cost-by doing this deal with the Democrats. It has damaged the fabric of this legislation so significantly that Senator Sanders and his colleagues who totally opposed it at the outset are now prepared to support it. That is sufficient evidence to dramatise the importance of the Opposition's amendment referring the matter to a committee.