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Tuesday, 11 September 1973
Page: 766

Mr CONNOR (Cunningham Minister for Minerals and Energy) (Minister for Minerals and Energy) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time. In introducing this Bill I remind all honourable members that it is completely identical in all respects with the measure which was introduced by me in this chamber on 10 May 1973 and which was carried in this House by vote on decision without amendment on 17 May 1973. It was introduced into the Senate on 22 May 1973 and its consideration was there adjourned, by vote on division of the Senate, until after the first day of sitting of the Senate after 1 August 1973. As an interval of over 3 months has new elapsed, during which the Senate has failed to pass this measure under the terms of section 57 of the Constitution, the Bill is being introduced so that it may be again passed by this House without amendment, and returned to the Senate for its further consideration.

The objective of the Bill, as announced by His Excellency the Governor-General in his Speech at the opening of the Twenty-eighth Parliament is to remove any doubt about the exclusive right of the Commonwealth to sovereign control over the resources of the sea bed, off the coast of Australia and its territories, from low water mark to the outer limits of the continental shelf. The Bill, in addition, provides the legislative framework to govern the exploration and exploitation of the mineral resources, other than petroleum, of these submerged lands. By the reintroduction of the Bill, the Government demonstrates its determination to adhere to its policies, as announced before the last election, and to which the Australian people gave their stamp of approval on 2 December last. I do not propose to explain further the provisions of the Bill, as these have been fully covered in my second reading speech delivered in this House on .10 May last. The current stalemate over this Bill has resulted in a truly Gilbertian situation, in which members of the former Government have frustrated and delayed the passage of legislation which virtually in all respects repeats their own proposals of 1970.

The announced support of the Liberal Party Conference for Parts I and II of the Bill is not acceptable to the Government. It is merely a repetition of the tactics used in 1970 when the Bill as introduced, without a mining code, would have been merely declaratory without imposing obligations or providing for their enforcement. The States and other bodies, interested in the preservation of the present stalemate would merely stifle a metaphorical yawn and" state how interesting the academic situation was, and continue unimpeded their present conduct. Honourable members of all parties will recall that the Government when in Opposition gave full support to the Territorial Seas and Continental Shelf Bill introduced by the former Government in 1970. Despite that support the former Government, after debating the measure, deliberately moved and secured an adjournment of the debate. It lacked the courage and foresight to pass this vital legislation. The Government's views on the matter can hardly be better expressed than by the speech of the former Minister for National Development who, when introducing the Territorial Seas and Continental Shelf Bill in April 1970, on behalf of the Acting Minister for External Affairs said:

The Government's view is that it would serve Australia's national and international interests to have the legal position resolved as soon as practicable.

If the Opposition had the courage of its convictions it would support this legislation instead of conniving with certain of the States to frustrate the Government's wishes in this most important matter. Passage of the Bill will open the way for any doubts or issues to be challenged. This is precisely the Government's intention, as stated by me in my second reading speech on 10 May last, when I said:

If there are parties - individuals or governments - who would dispute our right to take the course I now propose, let them challenge this legislation in the Australian courts.

I repeat the invitation and the challenge. With the advances of marine exploration technology, there have been amazingly rapid developments in the capacity to search and exploit offshore resources to depths which were considered impossible, in the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Continental Shelf. Already there is a drilling vessel off our coast, capable of operating in water to a depth of over 1,500 feet. Major exploration interests are already preparing to drill in depths of 4,000 to 6,000 feet. The Australian Government negotiates and ratifies treaties with adjoining national states. It is responsible for the bathymetric survey of the continental shelf. It has the undoubted responsibility for the defence of the superjacent waters, the control of navigation and the apprehension of smugglers and wrongdoers in these waters.

The conspiracy, based on petty parochialism to frustrate consideration by the highest tribunal of our land of these matters is the measure of the backwardness and the foolishness of our little Australians. The present situation is an intolerable one, where certain sovereign States claim the right to prevent Australia's own High Court from adjudicating in Australia on an issue of sovereignty which is the sole concern of the Australian people and their nation. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gorton) adjourned.

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