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Monday, 14 October 1996
Page: 4093

Senator WOODLEY(4.14 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

That there be laid on the table, within 24 hours, by the Minister representing the Prime Minister (Senator Hill), any correspondence or documents signed by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) or the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Fisher) relating to the Port Hinchinbrook development.

I want to proceed with this motion despite the confusion about the process that we had on Thursday last. What we wanted to do at that time—and we agreed that this should happen today—was to move to the substantive issue which is under debate. The substantive issue is to do with the responsibilities of the Minister for the Environment, Senator Hill, whether or not he was able to fulfil his responsibilities under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and whether or not he has been compromised in terms of those responsibilities.

I refer to an article in the Townsville Bulletin which quoted the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) as having said that he got personally involved in the decision. Also, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Fischer, told a National Party conference that the government would give conditional support to the development. Both of those statements were made on dates well before Senator Hill had made his determination about the possible adverse effects on world heritage values of the area.

Further information has come to light that either the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister may have indicated these commitments in writing. This is serious and has serious implications under the World Heritage Properties Act as it may indicate interference or influence with regard to the environment minister's responsibility under this act. As you can appreciate, Mr Acting Deputy President, if this were the case, it would be an extremely serious matter and open to legal challenge.

I note that Senator Hill has not denied that such correspondence exists, so I presume that he is accepting the proposition that such letters have been written. He has complained about the trouble we have caused him in having to produce documents. I might point out that in this regard I agreed to three extensions to the time on the original return to order. He only complied with the order at midnight on the day on which he himself had nominated, namely, Tuesday 18 October 1996, and he tabled the documents during the adjournment debate.

Hinchinbrook has been a long running saga of government ineptitude. In reply to Senator Hill's reference to FOI, I have spent some hundreds of dollars paying to obtain other documents, particularly from the Queensland government, under FOI legislation. That is how seriously I take this particular issue. Step after step in the long trail of permits to this day have revealed that there has been maladministration, shortcuts and grave abuse of policy and process. According to a number of pieces of correspondence I have, there have been attempts, particularly by the developer, Mr Williams, to beat government officials into submission. I have no reason to believe that the latest round of approvals is any different.

I indicate to the Senate that last week, when I questioned Senator Hill, he did not give me an answer, particularly about whether or not he was subjected to threats or pressure from Mr Williams. He simply referred to the basis in terms of his statement of reasons on which I based that question.

Let me point out that the developer's energies so far have been directed at removing mangroves and wanting to create an artificial beach and to dredge the Hinchinbrook Channel. This is in spite of the fact that, for the whole of the period under dispute, the developer has had permission, permits and access to the site itself, and nobody could have stopped him from developing that site. There was no problem with it. Yet he has not poured one cubic metre of concrete. All he has sought to do at every point is to impact on world heritage values, to destroy the environment and to attack those who stand in his way.

The developer's actions will impact on world heritage values such as seagrass beds, fish nurseries and dugong populations. Also, the resort would mean a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting adjacent areas of the Great Barrier Reef and Hinchinbrook Island. That increase—this is on the record in many places—would adversely affect these fragile environments.

The reason I am putting this on the record is to show that the minister has serious responsibilities under the World Heritage Properties Act. If these responsibilities have been interfered with in any way—even if it is by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister—that is a very serious matter indeed and one which this Senate has a deep interest in. It underlines the reason for asking for these documents, so that we can know one way or the other.

It is not too late to prevent the damage which is being done in this area. It is still possible to negotiate a much more appropriate development in line with ecotourism guidelines. But to be able to do that, we need to stop this developer from proceeding with the kind of development which he has projected, to make him understand that if he were only reasonable, other reasonable people could negotiate with him a much better development for the environment and also for the town.

But the developer, Mr Williams, has a long history of using bullying and threats to get what he wants. The Senate Privileges Committee declared that he had threatened me, although it said that he would not be sued for contempt because it did not stop me from carrying out my duties as a senator. This afternoon I have been told by another member of this Senate that he too was threatened some years ago by staff of Mr Williams. In spite of those threats, I am willing to continue to try to get an appropriate development for the site for the sake of employment opportunities for the small township of Cardwell which is nearby.

I cannot stress enough to the Senate how important it is to obtain this correspondence from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to add to the picture of how the consents were given by the federal government. The amount of paper would not be anything like that involved in the substantial returns to order so far.

I do agree that Senator Hill, the Minister for the Environment, has provided substantial amounts of documents. But it is not much use if the critical documents are not included. You might as well provide boxes of confetti if the critical documents are not available, and that is what we are trying to get at. It should only be a few letters at the very most. You will note also that I have not asked for incoming correspondence but rather outgoing correspondence in order to make it as easy as possible for the Minister for the Environment.