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Thursday, 18 May 1972
Page: 2791

Mr GORTON (Higgins) - May I say at the beginning how pleased I am that this debate is taking place on this Bill of such significance to the nation. I am glad that the Parliament is now considering it. I perhaps, if I may be permitted to say so, have more of an individual interest in this Bill and in what it can do for Australia than anybody else in this Parliament, for it was the Governor-General, during the time when I was Prime Minister, who in his speech from the throne said:

My Government will introduce legislation forthwith to establish an Institute of Marine Science at Townsville. . . .

It was the view of my Government that it would serve Australia's national and international interest to have the legal position resolved. In order that this could happen my Government would ask the Parliament to pass legislation to assert and establish what the Commonwealth conceives to be its legal rights.

That speech was given by the GovernorGeneral but it was written by me. It was written with the full authority of the Cabinet. I feel some personal responsibility for having made to the Parliament the statement of intentions of this kind. The state ment in the speech was, as has been pointed out before, borne out by the interim report of the Senate Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources which, after considerable investigation, said:

That, notwithstanding the advantages to the national interest which the legislation and its underlying conception has produced, the larger national interest is not served by leaving unresolved and uncertain the extent of State and Commonwealth authority in the territorial sea-bed and the Continental Shelf.

The report is signed by I. J. Greenwood, the present Attorney-General in the present Government. There has been a subsequent and wider Senate report and that, too, repeats the findings of the previous occasion. So, there is a strong body of opinion - there always was, and it is still continuing - that it is not in the national interest that this matter should remain unresolved and, as has been pointed out, the object of this Bill is solely to resolve that which at present is unresolved. There are good reasons for this, some of which have been advanced by speakers on both sides of this House and others which I hope to advance at a later stage.

However, I do not believe that it would be right for me not to point out that, although the Opposition now claims that this is a matter of high national politics - I agree unreservedly that it is a matter of high national politics - and although members of the Opposition say that the BiD should have been passed long ago, it is nevertheless true that by this stage this Bill would have been law, the case would have been tested in the High Court of Australia and the matter would have been resolved if the Opposition had not abandoned the concept of high national politics embodied in the Bill in order to seek some small, petty, temporary political advantage by moving a censure motion because it knew that there were 2 or 3 dissatisfied members on our side. I think that it is wrong to suggest that the responsibility for this Bill not being passed rests on the Government. That responsibility must be shared on the record by the Opposition and I think that the fact should be brought out. Indeed, as the Opposition acted then, so I think there was an attempt last night to act again in the same way. I hope that those sorts of approaches will not continue on either side of the House, because it is a matter of high national politics. Let us not play around with this matter, seeking to achieve some temporary political advantage .me way or the other by House tricks.

We have heard some of the reasons why this Bill should be passed and why it is necessary to resolve matters. I think the honourable member for Moreton (Mr Killen) referred to the question of fisheries. This obviously is of great importance to Australia's future and to the .preservation of the food supplies around Australia's coast. Is this to be under the control .rf one government from low water mark to 3 miles and of another government from 3 miles out to the end of the continental shelf, or is it to be under the control of one government for 12 miles, if the width of the territorial sea were opened, and then of another government out to the limits of the continental shelf? What kind of division is to occur, unless the matter of sovereignty is resolved one way or the other?

As has been pointed out, we are approaching an international conference on this matter and fisheries is one significant matter which will be discussed. But there are others. There is the conservation of the seabed. It may well be that some company wants to mine - it could even be mining already - some dead coral reef somewhere off the coast of Queensland or Western Australia and bring the aggregate ashore. Who knows what the destruction of a reef - even a dead reef - will do to the currents that flow around in that area? It could change them. It could, therefore, throw out of balance the whole ecological structure of that area. If damage is done to an area, say, in the Great Barrier Reef, the damage is done to the whole of Australia and not just those who compose the Government of Queensland.

We are worried, as all countries are worried, by the pollution of our sea waters. That pollution comes not only from the effluent from rivers which flow into the sea but also from the dumping of oil and waste by tankers which pump overboard the oil not required. Are we to be protected against that kind of damage by attempting to get 7 different kinds of law or 7 laws from 7 different parliaments? It is sometimes suggested that we could achieve uniform law on this matter - uniform law under which prosecutions could be launched, with uniform penalties. So we could, after enormous expense of time; but how long will it remain uniform when any one of those governments can amend the law at any time and make it not uniform? If a tanker which is close to the border between New South Wales and Victoria pumps large quantities of oil into Victorian waters and the oil floats to shore and pollutes the beaches in New South Wales, what a Gilbertian situation it would be to try to discover who had the right to prosecute and who had the right to gain damages. Surely there should be one national law protecting the nation's shores against pollution and one responsible authority which can be held responsible by the people for what it does or does not do.

Other questions also have been adverted to. Who is to decide where the boundary of the continental shelf between Australia and an independent Papua New Guinea lies? If the States' claims that they have sovereignty over the territorial sea and the continental shelf - this is what they do claim - should turn out to be true, we would know who has the responsibility and I would hope that the people of Australia would seek to change it. However, at the moment, we do not know. If it is suggested that the Commonwealth has the right to decide that boundary, that decision could be contested until the matter was resolved one way or the other in the only way it could be - in the High Court of Australia.

I am given to understand - I cannot say whether this is completely accurate - that the Parliament of Western Australia has passed an Act proclaiming the sovereignty of Western Australia over the territorial sea and continental shelf off Western Australia. There is at this moment some discussion between Indonesia and, I understand, the Australian Government - certainly between Indonesia and a government in Australia - as to just who has the right to issue permits to drill for oil and in what areas. Will this be able to continue when one State claims that it has a sovereignty? Is this not a matter which should be resolved, if there is an unbroken continental shelf stretching between Australia and any of the contiguous countries near Australia? If we go to the international conference and the territorial sea boundaries are changed from 3 to 12 miles, from 3 to 20 miles or whatever it may be, we must know that our representatives who are at that conference are speaking for this nation with the authority of national law to back them up in what they say and that there can be no question of whether they have or have not the rights.

These are many of the reasons why this legislation should be passed and why this matter which is unresolved should be resolved. But what reasons have been advanced for not passing the legislation?

In the whole of the time since this legislation was brought down I have not heard one reason or one argument advanced which says that the national Government should not have control of the. seas around Australia. Nobody has put forward a case saying that that would be wrong or injurious. There have been no arguments that I have heard along those lines. The reason for not putting the matter on the statute book is quite clearly a desire not to disturb the susceptibilities of State governments. I do not write that desire off as being something which we should ignore altogether but that is the only argument that T have heard: Do not let us disturb the State gov.ernments on this matter. I believe that at some stage it will be necessary for this Parliament to decide whether the national interests which have been adumbrated by speakers on this side of the House and on the other side of the House are sufficiently strong to require us to take the step even if it might upset for a while some members of some State governments.

I am told that there should be negotiation. There is room for negotiation after sovereignty has been established, just as there was room for negotiation and agreement over the question of the treatment of Aboriginals after the Commonwealth received sovereign power over Aboriginals in Australia. I am told that the High Court cannot in any case pass a judgment on this matter until after the next elections. All that means to me is that it will take a long time for the High Court to reach a judgment. Whenever any legislation is passed it will take a long time for the court to reach a judgment, therefore the sooner the legislation is passed the better because it will mean the sooner we will come to that res olution to which we must ultimately come. We are told now by the Government that it needs more time, for negotiation with the States in order to try to reach agreement in part or in whole on matters put forward in this Bill. Those negotiations are going on in the Attorney-General's group, the minerals group and ultimately, I understand, between the Prime Minister and the Premiers.

If I do take leave to doubt whether the question of sovereignty can ever be resolved by negotiation - and I do take leave to doubt that as I do not believe it can - nevertheless if the Government says it wants more time at least to narrow down the field of disagreement to the utmost point, then I believe the Government should be. given the time for which it asks. This is another reason why I am glad that this Bill has come down now, because it can be debated now. It will not be concluded now because the Government wants extra time. That extra time I think we should give to the Government but we should not permit the Bill to be shelved indefinitely. We should not permit it to go into the limbo of forgotten things. Time for negotiation of course, but a continuing interest in the Bill itself in the parliament and ultimately passing the Bill is necessary. That is the course which I would propose should be adopted. Of course, give time, to the Government for negotiation but seek to ensure that the Bill is hot completely forgotten and that in this Parliament we hear from time to time of the progress of such negotiations.

I have only this to add: There have been, as I pointed out at the beginning, 2 occasions on which this matter of high national politics was sullied by an approach which was petty, politics, an approach seeking to use dissatisfied people on this side of the House, an approach seeking and hoping that some of us who now wish this Bill to be passed, subject to time being given to the Government, could be induced to help the Labor Party in this House and to give it headlines in the newspapers. For my own part I would wish to say this: Though I attach the greatest importance to this Bill and though I attach the greatest importance to its becoming law and though I think the national interests will not be served until it does become law, yet I attach even more importance to a Liberal-Country Party coalition remaining in Government. I think the national interest will be better served by the Opposition not coming into government and that is a matter which goes not only to this Bill but to all the Bills and all the actions which a Government should take.

There is no point in seeking to try to get some small advantage which might help an Opposition come into Government because in the fields of defence of Australia and in the fields of the good government of Australia and in the fields of having a government which is not controlled by outside bodies and in the fields of having a government which is not controlled by militant left wing unions, this is the most important thing but it does not obviate the requirement that we, being a LiberalCountry Party in government, should continue in government but should also seek to serve the national interests and consider these matters as they have been put and consider this matter as it has been put, and carry it to a conclusion, subject to the Government's having a reasonable time and being able to make reasonable arguments in return to those of us who wish this Bill to become law. The ultimate purpose of myself is to see that this LiberalCountry Party Government remains in power. A subsidiary purpose but none the less an important one is to seek to persuade it to take actions such as this which are in the national interest and which many of those in the present Government agreed were in the national interest. I hope therefore that this will happen.

The reason why this morning I moved a contingent notice of motion that in the Budget session at some stage this debate should be resumed was that this does give time - months - to the Government to carry on the negotiations which are being carried on and we will then be able to discuss the matter again in the light of those discussions with the States, and be able to have told to us what the position then is. That will prevent the matter just not being discussed at all in the Parliament for the rest of this session. What will happen when it is discussed must depend on the circumstances at that time but I believe the discussion itself is vital and I would hope that the Government itself believes that the discussion, carrying on and reporting of these negotiations is also of great significance. I commend the Bill and trust that it will in time become law.

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