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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3124

Senator CARR (1.08p.m.) —I wish to raise a concern about the unacceptable delays that have been indicated by the Victorian government in its deliberations regarding the relocation of the Coode Island chemical storage facility. In this morning's Age, under the heading `State did not act on Coode report, says Pescott', it is reported:

The Minister for Industry Services, Mr Pescott, admitted yesterday that the State Government had not acted on a recommendation from the Safer Chemical Storage Taskforce that it proceed with moving the Coode Island chemical storage.

Mr Pescott said a submission prepared by the taskforce for Cabinet—

that is the state cabinet—

in August had not been taken to Cabinet because he had been trying to clear up uncertainty over the taskforce's authority to make recommendations.

This is a matter of great concern in Victoria because of the importance of the chemical industry. It is also reported in today's newspaper that members of the Safer Chemical Storage Taskforce are becoming very frustrated about the Victorian government's indecisions and procrastinations, to the point where Alan Seale, a respected industry representative, has resigned from the task force. The Age report today indicates:

The Government's failure to act on the taskforce's recommendation is believed to be behind the resignation of the chemical industry's representative on the taskforce, Mr Alan Seale . . .

It is also important and significant in the revelations that were put before the Victorian parliament yesterday that Mr Pescott had told that parliament that a letter he had sent to the Minister for Defence, Senator Ray, in May asking that Point Wilson be considered a real option to house the proposed armaments complex had been `written on the Premier's instructions', that is, Mr Kennett's instructions. So it appears that there may be other motives and other factors behind the state government's delay in moving the Coode Island facility.

  The issue of Coode Island has been on the political agenda in Victoria for a number of years. I repeat that the chemical industry is of great importance to Victoria. It employs some 37,000 people. It is a key component in the state's manufacturing industry. It is an industry of enormous political power, particularly within a coalition government. It would appear that its more backward looking sections have increased their power in recent times within the Kennett government.

  It is unfortunate that short-sighted and irresponsible employers seem reluctant to spend money on safety. It is unfortunate that they do not appear to be willing to invest in their own future and that of their employees and their community, which is directly affected by the actions of this giant industry.

  In 1990, the then Victorian Liberal-National party coalition spokesman on the environment said that in government the coalition would close Coode Island and transfer the complex. Two years ago, a chemical storage tank at the complex ruptured, sending a fireball and toxic cloud over Melbourne's western suburbs. Some 50,000 people live within five kilometres of Coode Island. There are houses 550 metres from the storage facilities at that site. I am very familiar with the area; I have been associated with it for a long time. It is a matter of great significance to the people who live next to that facility and of great significance to the people of Melbourne as a whole. As indicated by the fire two years ago, the people of Melbourne were put at great risk.

  The state Labor government at that time established a Coode Island review panel, chaired by John Landy. The review panel undertook enormous public consultations. Some 300 submissions were received. The panel looked at all the options and recommended the relocation of Coode Island to Point Wilson, just outside Geelong. In its 265-page report, it recommended a process whereby an interim task force would be established and replaced by a statutory authority in 1992. The cost of relocating Coode Island was estimated at approximately $200 million—$100 million in public funds and $100 million in private funds from the chemical industry.

  The state Labor government pledged to move the chemical complex by the year 1996. Based on the Landy report, two years were assigned for planning and two years were assigned for the relocation of the tanks. At the time the chemical industry also supported the move. Because the lease on Coode Island expires in the year 2000, it made good sense for the chemical industry to take such measures. As that time is now rapidly approaching, it is of major concern to significant sections of that industry. It is important that some certainty be provided to that industry.

  The progressive elements of the chemical industry and the Victorian Labor government at that time were committed to the world's best practice in the chemical industry. They were very keen to pursue the relocation plans and to protect the $195 million worth of chemical imports Australia receives each year.

  The conservation movement has also strongly supported the relocation of Coode Island. At the time of the last Victorian election, the public and, in particular, the voters of the western suburbs of Melbourne also believed that the Liberal Party supported the relocation of Coode Island. Unfortunately, events since the October election have made people seriously doubt that commitment.

  In May, the Victorian Minister for Industry Services wrote to the defence minister, Senator Robert Ray. As I indicated, he supported the proposal that the Commonwealth ammunition complex be built at Point Wilson. In today's newspaper he has indicated that he did that on behalf of the Premier of Victoria, Mr Jeff Kennett.

  Mr Kennett indicated in parliament yesterday that he did not ask Mr Pescott to undertake that action. That is the sort of contradiction one gets used to in the Victorian parliament these days. It is important that I indicate that Alan Stockdale has also suggested that the actions of Mr Pescott were unauthorised in the way he approached the Commonwealth government seeking support for the ammunition complex to be placed at Point Wilson.

  Three months ago the Victorian government, in what can be described only as a stalling tactic, employed Alan Oxley to conduct a review of the Safer Chemical Storage Taskforce secretariat. Mr Pescott now claims that the task force recommendations were made without authority. I understand that the Victorian government is sitting on that review and has not released it to the public, not even to the task force chairman. Mr Pescott claims that the delay in presenting the cabinet submission is a result of what he describes as jurisdictional problems. It seems to me that there are serious doubts about the minister's motive.

  The Safer Chemical Storage Taskforce prepared a detailed cabinet submission three months ago. It is believed that this submission recommends proceeding with the new facility, and puts the cost to the government of Victoria at some $50 million. That is half the original estimate of the government contribution to the relocation of the storage facility. Clearly, this is a significant retreat for the Victorian government, but not significant enough for the current Victorian minister.

  I believe that this submission has not been proceeded with because the Victorian government is stalling on fulfilling its earlier commitment to the Victorian people to relocate the Coode Island facility. The relocation of Coode Island will not only eliminate the enormous risk the facility poses to the people in Melbourne's western suburbs but also be a boost to the Victorian economy. The complex will be built, owned and operated by the industry and will create many much needed jobs for Victorian workers. The chemical industry has a major responsibility to the people of the western suburbs of Melbourne. It has a responsibility to all the people of Melbourne. The 1991 Coode Island fires highlight just how much that responsibility means to the people of Melbourne. Recently, $17 million has been spent on upgrading fire facilities at Coode Island, and this is to be commended. But it is not in itself an excuse to maintain the facilities at their current location.

  The Kennett government must stop equivocating and act on the task force recommendations. It must release the Oxley review and make a clear public commitment to the relocation time frame and to provide the $50 million public contribution that is needed to secure that relocation. The Kennett government prides itself on what it believes to be its decisive decision making. It has been very quick to sack thousands of public servants. It has been very quick to close down hundreds of state schools. It has rushed through legislation without adequate public consultation and debate. It undermines traditional liberal democratic cultural values. It undermines an independent judiciary. It undermines an independent public service. It sacks judges. It sacks statutory appointees. Yet on an important issue such as this it is unable to come to a clear decision. This delay is sending quite considerable conflicting signals to the community. I think the people of Melbourne are entitled to ask why.

  Mr Kennett, the message from Canberra is very clear. Senator Ray, the defence minister, has put it very bluntly. He is a man who has no trouble getting his message across. Yet it would appear that that message has been lost on the Victorian government. He made it clear on radio in Melbourne in September that he is waiting for an announcement from the Victorian government, and that message is very simple: if the government of Victoria is prepared to move Coode Island, it should announce it publicly. Once that is done, the question of Point Wilson will not be an issue in the relocation of the arms dump. Why has that offer not been taken up? Why is there a delay? I think the people of Melbourne are entitled to ask those questions and they are entitled to receive an answer.