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Friday, 16 June 1989
Page: 4234

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(10.52) —We are debating the Resource Assessment Commission Bill 1989, which comes to us as a result of the internecine machinations that have been taking place in the Australian Labor Party and more particularly in Cabinet in recent months, and as a result of particular and direct conflict between Senator Richardson and Mr Kerin and, to a lesser extent, Senator Cook. It is as a result of the conduct of this Government that the Bill is necessary in the first place. I observe that the major industry bodies have given their tacit but, I suggest, reluctant support to the legislation. They are of the view that the only way that the economic rationalists in the Government are going to start to win some of the arguments is to have the arguments on the table, to have them examined as objectively as possible by the Resource Assessment Commission, but that very much depends on the composition of the Commission-and I will come to that in a minute.

Clearly, industry is gravely disturbed-perhaps from Australia's economic point of view-by the pyrrhic victories that Senator Richardson has been having to this point over the more sensible and economic rationalists in the Government. We have on one side those who are making hard-headed, brutal and crude decisions as to what is in the best interests of this Government as distinct from what is in the best interests of the country pitted against what one might describe as the political realists on the other side, those who are able to make measured judgments about what is good and necessary for this country.

That was highlighted in the Wesley Vale pulp mill debate. Some members of the Government understood the intrinsic virtue and the economic value of the Wesley Vale project but Senator Richardson and others were concerned primarily with votes and what was in the best interests of this Government. A fundamental economic base has been lost to Tasmania and to Australia as a result of the interference of the Federal Government, using a head of power that the founding fathers never conceived would be used by any government for that purpose.

Clearly, the Resource Assessment Commission will become the chief decision maker on all major resource development projects. It will be but another layer of bureaucracy imposed upon those who are trying to get on with the job of developing the abundance of natural resources with which God blessed our country. I rather wonder, for instance, whether the massive iron ore projects in the north-west of Western Australia would ever have got off the ground if in those days we had had a Resource Assessment Commission. It was only as a result of the diligence, efforts and dedication of the Western Australian Government at the time that those projects went ahead. They went ahead in spite of the Federal Government, which was saying that they could not and should not go ahead because Australia had limited iron ore reserves. Of course, once they got the go ahead and started to exploit and explore more they discovered, because of the incentive provided to them, the enormous reserves of iron ore in this country.

We have seen what this country offers to us even when the Government has limited control over the resource potential. We only have to look at the Kakadu region in the Northern Territory where the Federal Government has retained the management of those resources. We have seen the uranium industry in which Australia has 30 per cent of the world's known low cost uranium reserves but 10 per cent of the world market. We can compare that with Canada, which has 10 per cent of the world's known low cost uranium reserves but 30 per cent of the world market. Why is there that imbalance? It is because the Federal Government intervenes, imposes its will and seeks to make commercial decisions which are better made by industry at the coal face.

We have the Government telling us that we can sell uranium only at a floor price which is above the world market price. Inevitably, we miss contracts. We now find that Energy Resources of Australia Ltd has had inflicted upon it for the renewal of its uranium contracts floor prices that are above world prices. This means that potentially we will lose $1.1 billion worth of contracts, because this Government knows better than the marketplace! I fear that that will be the result for others now that the Government has taken the final quantum step of seeking to legitimise its involvement in resource areas and those areas that are fundamentally and historically State responsibilities.

I repeat the point made by Senator Michael Baume in his address when he referred to the heavy emphasis on the legalistic nature of this Commission. It is certainly no reflection on Judge Stewart when I say that I think he is an inappropriate appointee as Chairman. He has a fine background in those areas where he has experience and knowledge, but in no way does his experience relate to making judgments on and balancing the resource demand imperatives on the one hand and conservation considerations on the other. At the end of the day the composition of this Commission will be fundamental to its decisions, deliberations and determinations. I note that clause 11 determines-as is not unusual in these types of commissions:

The Commissioners shall be appointed by the Governor-General.

That simply means that they are Government appointments. If, in the scales of the deliberations, the Government has, as I suspect it will, a heavy emphasis in its appointment of commissioners on people who have a known concern for the environment, we can expect that the decisions will be distorted to that extent. I would have thought that under the circumstances somebody much more appropriate than a judge should head this Commission.

Clause 16 (1), when referring to resource matters being referred to the Commission, states:

Where the Commonwealth Government or a Commonwealth authority may, in the exercise of its powers, make a decision in relation to a resource matter, the Minister may, by written notice to the Chairperson, require the Commission to conduct an inquiry into the matter.

That clause states `may, in the exercise of its powers'. The Minister for Justice (Senator Tate), who is at the table, would know better than most that there is a difference between the exercise of powers which are visited upon it daily and the exercise of those powers which it seeks to pursue by redefining and reinterpreting the provisions of the Constitution, which this Government has done over the last six years.

Section 51 of the Constitution is a good example. The external affairs power was never intended, never imagined and never proposed to relate to conservation and the environment. How could our Founding Fathers, when they were drafting those words, have ever imagined that an external affairs power could be used by a government in the future to take unto itself residual powers previously intended for the States in respect of conservation? So, when the Government talks about `in the exercise of its powers', it is really talking about powers by pursuit-powers that it has taken unto itself as a result of its own endeavours and extending the Constitution to the very limit.

My other concern in terms of logistical problems with the Commission is that there will be another gap between companies looking at projects and ultimately being able to make decisions. I am reminded of the Western Mining Corporation's often repeated example of Kambalda, where I think two State government agencies were required to grant approval for the mining of nickel. I think that in the State Government alone about 35 agencies are now required to give approval before a project can commence. Operators will now have imposed upon them the Resource Assessment Commission, which no doubt will be directed to give consideration to and make deliberations in respect of all major resource projects. Because of the inevitable backlog of work, there will be a considerable delay between the time a company decides to commence a project and when approval is given to it.

I am absolutely stunned when I see the Australian Democrats amendment that the Government has agreed to. It is absolutely breathtaking in its audacity. In part, it states:

(3) If the Chairperson considers it appropriate, a person who gives evidence to, or produces documents at, an inquiry may be:

(a) paid such remuneration as is prescribed for the performance of work involved in collecting and preparing the evidence or documents . . .

Can honourable senators believe it? It continues:

or (b) reimbursed such expenses, or compensated for such losses, as were reasonably incurred in collecting and preparing the evidence or documents;

or both.

That is an open cheque for every looney organisation in this country to spend a fortune constructing their arguments against the exploitation and development of every single project in Australia at any given time.

Senator Messner —It will create a whole new profession.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —It will. A whole new industry will spring up, a whole new industry of these out of work, won't work types, running around the country at taxpayers' expense spending enormous amounts of taxpayers' money in an unlimited way, doing research into whether or not projects ought to be allowed. One can imagine the industry that will spring up. Every time a project is about to get off the drawing board, whether for uranium, oil, bauxite or gold, there will be pressure on the Federal Government through this minority, this lobby group-albeit vocal, effective and articulate-upon the Resource Assessment Commission to take it as a term of reference. At every turn the whims and the wishes of these groups will be accommodated by this Government as they have been in the past. The Government has turned itself inside out to attract their vote. Once a term of reference is given to the Commission, all these groups will immediately get on to these projects, studying and examining them, developing arguments in a subjective fashion-to which we have all become accustomed-to persuade the Commission that the project ought not to go ahead for some environmental reason.

The Government has agreed to this amendment. I see Senator Sanders sitting over there smiling and nodding approval at the acquiescence of the Government to this amendment.

Senator Messner —Do you think he will get one of the jobs?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I think Senator Sanders has been writing the terms of reference for his next career. When we had before us the resource rental tax legislation the Democrats voted with the Opposition against the legislation-for quite different reasons. Then Senator Richardson went to the Democrats-Senator Sanders, to wit-and said `What will it cost us to get our legislation through?'. Senator Sanders said `What about $5m to study and examine the potential for wind-driven energy resources?'. We are spending $5m of taxpayers' money trying to develop windmills to generate electricity in this country. That was the price of getting the Government's resource rental tax legislation through-bought for a dollar; politically paid off.

Senator Boswell —Senator Button is ashamed of that.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I do not know about that. I doubt it. Senator Button is able to accommodate all these agreements.

Senator Boswell —But he is embarrassed about it.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I should hope that Senator Button is embarrassed about it. I would be disappointed if he were not; but I have had many disappointments from Senator Button over the years.

The last matter I want to touch upon is the question of States rights. Perhaps I am a quaint, anachronistic relic of the past by concerning myself--

Senator Button —I agree with that.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Senator Button agrees with that. Perhaps because I am concerned with the matter of States rights, State responsibilities, the devolution of power and the transfer of decision-making back to the people, I am an anachronism and a relic of a bygone era. But I say to Senator Button that the people of China are finding out that people power has virtue. This Government has finally made the quantum leap. It has finally discarded the pretence of being virginal. It has now plunged headlong into areas that, as I say, historically, intrinsically and inherently, have been intended for the States and were written into the Constitution in those clear and precise terms. The Government has stopped pretending. The facade has gone. The curtain has gone up. It no longer pretends that it has tripped over a head of power that requires it to consider these matters. Government members are now saying `We will legislate to formalise our interference in State matters'.

At the end of the day it begs the question. We know where Mr Hayden stood in respect of States rights; presumably he still does, although he is not able to exercise a view about it. We know where the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, stands in respect of States rights. We know where the Australian Democrats stand in respect of States rights. Essentially, they all reflect the view of this Government-that is, that we ought not to have State governments, that the federal system ought to be abolished, that all power ought to be centralised in Canberra.

Senator Boswell —They came a gutser on that at the referendum.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —This Government, in the face of overwhelming opposition, as we are seeing in the polls, is persisting in going down the road of economic disaster to the detriment of itself and to the agony of the country. Only the polls can turn the Government ignominiously out of office and keep it out forever. In the meantime we are afflicted with the Government.

Senator Button —They just might not turn you in, though, Senator. That is your problem.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I do not believe that States rights is simply a slogan. There is something fundamental and human about the belief in the devolution of power and the transfer of power nearest to the people to ensure that decision making is made and implemented in areas where it is most effective. This Government has adequately demonstrated what happens when we have a centralised decision making process by a government in Canberra, insulated, isolated and removed from the daily affairs of men. It is inevitable that those from Victoria, such as Senator Button, and those from New South Wales will not understand the subtlety of State responsibilities because those two States combined have more members in the House of Representatives from outer metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney alone than the total representation of the less populous States. So it is natural that they are insensitive to the concerns of people from the less populous and more remote States.

We see this Bill, which, sadly, is going through in such a short time, as redefining and reshaping State and Federal responsibilities. The Bill before us deals exclusively with Australia's resources in whatever form they might be. The Bill sets up a commission to examine resources and competing interests, to examine whether exploitation of those resources collectively or individually is the best economic decision for Australia. The Bill has been set up to weigh all those things-if one is an altruist. The Bill does not once mention States or State governments. It does not accept, acknowledge or respect the sovereign responsibilities of the States. There is no provision in the Bill that requires cooperation or consultation with the States. The Bill enshrines for the Federal Government all responsibility for all decisions regarding the examination, development and exploitation of Australia's resources. I find it absolutely stunning that this Government has become so remote, so aloof, so arrogant and so detached from reality that it no longer even has a pretence or a facade of purporting to cooperate with the States. It no longer even acknowledges or recognises their rights.

As a lawyer, Senator Button would know that the Constitution, in terms of its separa- tion of powers, quite explicitly-not implicitly-provides that the resources and the resource potential of each of the States are exclusively a right for and responsibility of the States. There is no provision in the Constitution for any second-guessing or determination in respect of any matters affecting the resources of the States. But this Federal Government is using High Court decisions-the decision in the dams case is the benchmark, the watershed, in respect of the matter-to give it powers to interfere. As I say, this legislation is born out of the imbroglio that this Government has got itself into in terms of its domestic, in-house politics, the competing and conflicting debate that goes on regularly between the economic rationalists like Mr Kerin compared with the political hardheads like Senator Richardson. We now have before us this piece of legislation to resolve a domestic problem. It is not derived, determined or arrived at for the good of Australia, for the good of the economy or for the good of its people. It is arrived at as a mechanism, as a source or as a form of settling a dispute. It is what one might call a makarrata between--

Senator Boswell —Senator Cook and Senator Richardson.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —Between Senator Cook and Senator Richardson and Mr Kerin on Senator Cook's side. It is not a piece of legislation that is designed to enhance the well-being and welfare of ordinary Australians. It is a crude and blatant instrument to find some peace between the warring factions of this Government.

The various industries-the mining industry, the oil industry and the farming industry-have all inextricably been sucked into this debate. So far, they have been doing pretty badly. Senator Richardson has been winning most of the battles. At the end of the day, looking at where the votes are, it is the noisy, radical minority groups that have been winning the battles and losing the war for Australia. The industry has lobbied me, and presumably most of my colleagues, to support this Bill, not because it wants it, not because it thinks it has any intrinsic virtue and not because it thinks it is in its best interests, but simply because for the moment it is its best bet. At least it believes that it will be able to--

Senator Sanders —Why aren't you supporting it then if they have lobbied you?

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I am sorry I am so obviously inarticulate. I have spent 25 minutes explaining why I am opposed to it. I am setting out for the benefit of the Senate why, as they say in the vernacular these days, the industry is between a rock and a hard place. The reason the industry is supporting the Commission is that it judges that, at least if there is a commission, it has got half a chance of having its argument heard. It perhaps has some forlorn hope-I do not know; I hope not-that if a commission is set up it will be able to put its arguments up with equal weight, force and influence to that of the environmentalists who right now, because of the votes they carry in their bags, are winning all the battles. The industry judges that with this Commission it will all be out on the table. It will be heard in equal measure with the conservation lobby. At the end of the day, the economic rationalists in the Government hope that the Commission will deliver unto them logical and reasonable arguments in support of these projects which, so far, have been falling over the edge in the desperate scramble and in the dying days of this failed Government, which hopes it is going to survive.

The Government has prostituted Australia's resources, the welfare and the best interests of this country in a desperate last grab to survive in office. That is why I suspect that at the end of the day we will end up with a half Senate election so that the Government can postpone the election day until November 1990. I was going to say that the Government hopes to God that something will turn up, but it cannot do that because we have a Prime Minister who is an atheist. He hopes to somebody that something is going to turn up, that something around the corner will come along and that something will happen to the Opposition. At the end of the day, we are all afflicted with the Resource Assessment Commission Bill. We are moving that it should be sent to a committee to give that committee the opportunity to consider a number of matters which we believe go to the heart of our concerns about the Bill. We have two amendments that Senator Austin Lewis will be moving in the committee stage. One touches upon the States rights responsibilities--

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Burns) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.