House debates

Thursday, 6 June 2013


Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2013; Second Reading

12:40 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science, Technology and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to lend the opposition's comment on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2013. A bit of history is always instructive. The Woomera Prohibited Area is our most important military testing range, established in 1947 as a long-range weapons testing facility by the UK and Australia under the Anglo-Australian Joint Project, which wound down in the seventies.

By way of geography, the Woomera Prohibited Area is located in South Australia, 450 kilometres north-north-west of Adelaide. It is 127,000 square kilometres in size—just under half the size of New Zealand, to give some scope. It is the largest land range in the world. It has a centre-line of about 600 kilometres. Its centre-line is comparable to that of England. It is remote, as I know from having been there in 1993 with the 3rd Battalion, dealing with a particular demonstration as part of Operation Easter of Peace—I remember it well. It is unequalled in size globally.

The Woomera Prohibited Area has a very quiet electromagnetic environment. It is an ideal test and evaluation site for Australia, its allies and its partners. It is still utilised extensively by Defence. Yet, in the eighties and nineties, it is fair to say its relative use declined and it was opened up to non-Defence users, introducing the resources sector. The majority of it is South Australian crown land. It is covered by pastoral leases and mining tenements granted by the South Australian government. The Woomera Prohibited Area overlaps a major part of South Australia’s potential for significant minerals and energy resources. It includes 30 per cent of the Gawler Craton, one of the world’s major minerals domains, and the Arckaringa, Officer and Eromanga basins for hydrocarbons and coal. Olympic Dam is adjacent to the prohibited area and of course is part of the same geological formation. Some estimates are that in the next decade $35 billion worth of iron ore, gold and other mineral resources are potentially exploitable from within the Woomera Prohibited Area, noting of course BHP’s reticence to move forward in terms of Olympic Dam; however, let us take it as read that there is a potential.

In 2010 the government announced the Hawke review, to make recommendations on the best use of the Woomera Prohibited Area in the national interest. Dr Allan Hawke AC did the review, released in May 2011. The significant judgement underpinning the framework is that the South Australian government and Defence are key stakeholders. The review investigated how to use the Woomera Prohibited Area in a way that ensured that its full national security and economic potential was realised. It recommended that Defence remain the primary user of the area, quite rightly. It also acknowledged that exploitation of the Woomera Prohibited Area's considerable natural resources would likely bring significant economic benefit to South Australia and the nation more broadly. I do not have a problem with that, although if BHP is not moving on Olympic Dam it is a fair stretch to say that the Woomera Prohibited Area is going to save the South Australian economy. However, the review proposed that the Woomera Prohibited Area be opened up for resource exploration and mining to the maximum extent possible within the primary use of defence for Australia’s purpose. It is an important distinction the coalition wishes to make that the primary purpose of this area is for defence of Australia and its interests. The government has noted that implementation of the review and operation of the new legislative scheme require continuing close cooperation between the Defence and Resources portfolios, a statement of the bleedingly obvious. It also requires cooperation between Commonwealth agencies and of course South Australian government entities and broader stakeholders.

It is important to note that once you give up Defence land, you never get it back again. This is the world's largest weapons test range. In terms of long-range missiles, it has a straight centre-line of 600 kilometres. There is nowhere else in the world where Australia, its allies and partners can, over land, test modern weapons over that range. If Defence's capacity to achieve that level of technology is given up, Australia and its allies will never get that type of land back again. Defence's use remains of the primacy.

This bill is designed to provide a framework—coathanger legislation, if you will—which provides certainty for all users of the Woomera Prohibited Area, Defence and non-Defence alike. It is designed to provide greater certainty over access arrangements. It allows users to make commercial decisions with some assurance as to when they will be required to leave the area because of defence activity. Importantly, the legislation will ensure the Woomera Prohibited Area remains first and foremost a national security and defence asset. I am pleased to see that is front and centre in the legislation. Ensuring that defence and national security remain a priority of the highest order is appropriate, sensible and welcome.

The fact that there will now be, to use the government's term, a 'coexistence scheme' which will allow other non-Defence users to access the Woomera Prohibited Area may be acceptable if the appropriate steps are taken to ensure the area remains available and suitable for testing of defence capability. This is a unique capability that we possess and it is of the highest priority that we retain that capability. At this point, it is important to note that the bill will not alter the current arrangements as they apply to Indigenous landholders or pastoralists with an established presence or to existing mining operations. The provisions of the bill and new coexistence scheme will apply to new users—a line in the sand, if you will. Existing users will have the option of voluntarily joining the coexistence scheme established by these measures.

Given the Woomera Prohibited Area contains recognised traditional owners and significant Indigenous sites, it is appropriate the bill regulate how non-Defence users who gain access to it treat and protect those sites and comply with all relevant native title and Aboriginal heritage laws. The coalition is very comfortable with that. The bill ensures that Indigenous groups with current statutory and access rights expressly retain these rights and will not need to re-apply for permission under the bill. We support that; it is sensible. These are important points which we expect the Senate to examine in some detail when the bill is referred to have committee. But, on the surface, we accept it.

It is also important to note that the bill sets out the broad framework for the new coexistence scheme within the Woomera Prohibited Area. It enables the creation of new security provisions and powers, general rules, offences, penalties et cetera. It details how the new scheme will operate. This is contained within the rules which are currently open for public consultation. The rules will be jointly agreed by the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Resources and Energy. They will, I gather, be amended by regulation as required—and such regulation will be disallowable by parliament, I understand.

We are not opposed in principle to the new management framework for the Woomera Prohibited Area. Given it is highly prospective, given that there is an estimated $35 billion worth of mining development possible over the next decade, it would be churlish at best for us not to welcome it in principle. A draft of the Prohibited Area Rules has been published and written submissions were invited up until 12 July. Due to the ongoing process and following consultation with stakeholders, further scrutiny of the bill would be prudent and there is time to do that—so we should take that time. We do not oppose it. We will certainly seek to refer it to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee to allow stakeholders—including Defence and the national security community—to put forward their views.

This is a one-off area. There is nothing like this in the world. It is a phenomenal piece of Defence real estate. We should not rush into folly. We should take our time if we have it—and we do. Clearly we reserve our right to amend the bill post the Senate committee review. We are supportive of the government establishing an independent advisory board to monitor and report on the Woomera Prohibited Area and to oversee the implementation of the coexistence arrangements. This is important because the area may be utilised by the resources sector but will still be utilised as a strategic asset by Australia and its allies. As such, all care must be taken to ensure we do not do ourselves significant harm for short-term gain—with a longer term lack of gain.

The bill enjoys the coalition's guarded support. We will push it to the relevant committee and the Senate to further explore any unintended consequences or known unknowns. From there the coalition will make its decision and reserves its right in the Senate.

12:50 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some remarks on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2013. The bill, which facilitates mining exploration for between 14 and 70 days per year in the Woomera prohibited area, is being rushed through this parliament. The rush was apparent when public consultation on the bill allowed three working days for initial submissions. On Wednesday, 8 May, the defence minister and the resources minister released the draft exposure legislation to increase access to the Woomera prohibited area to miners. Three working days later, on 13 May, the submission period closed. That is just not good enough.

Lawyers representing the Maralinga people advised my colleague Senator Scott Ludlam last week that the consultation on this legislation has been deficient, despite approaching the defence minister on the issue in July 2011. The minister's second reading speech informs us that it was not until Friday, 24 March 2013, 12 days ago, that the South Australian government hosted a discussion between defence officials and traditional owners of Maralinga Tjarutja and APY lands about the legislation. Under the Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 the Maralinga Tjarutja people have been managing all access and mining issues in relation to the 100,000 square kilometre Maralinga lands since 1984 and in relation to the former nuclear test sites since 2010. After everything these people have endured—literally the use of nuclear weapons and the resulting and ongoing health issues of being exposed to nuclear blasts and the radioactive contamination of their lands—they at least deserve the dignity of consultation over the lands that they have managed under this law for 27 years.

This bill has the capacity to diminish the land rights of these traditional owners, whose interests were not recognised in the Hawke review or the information paper. Another Aboriginal group in the area, the Kokatha people are dissatisfied that protocols in the area are being implemented. They object to the fact that sensitive sites have been disturbed and that activities have taken place in the area without the permission of the local people. It would appear that there are already problems in the handling of the Woomera area and that further opening it up to mining companies would exacerbate them.

Certainly there was a review into this question, led by Dr Allan Hawke, resulting in an 82-page report. However, a three-day consultation period is a joke. The consultation with the traditional owners has been negligent and rushed, and the same can be said of parliamentary scrutiny. Certainly the mining companies have been consulted. The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy is celebrating that $1 trillion stands to be made. Some 83 per cent of the mining industry in Australia is overseas owned and, according to an Australia Institute report, 81 per cent of the profits went abroad. Whether it be the South Australian government's prediction that $35 billion can be made from mining in this area or the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy's prediction, over 85 per cent of this money will not benefit Australia.

The Greens have been consistent in identifying the lack of fairness in whom this mining boom benefits, and this bill will simply amplify the problem. Our mineral resources are finite, and the wealth generated from exploiting these resources needs to be shared appropriately among the community while the opportunity remains. The mineral wealth potential of the area should be subject to a reconfigured mining tax, similar to that originally proposed by Treasury, to fund investments to benefit Australians for generations.

This area has an estimated 75 per cent of Australia's known uranium reserves. If uranium is mined in this area, this bill will amplify the irresponsibility of exporting dangerous radioactive materials. As members will know, Australian uranium was in each of the reactors at Fukushima when the earthquake and tsunami hit, and 160,000 people continue to be displaced from the contamination zones. The genesis of the nuclear disaster that befell Japan started here in Australia, likely from uranium sourced from BHP's Roxby mine, which is very close to Woomera. The implications are massive.

Uranium is very thirsty, and Woomera is in the driest state in the driest continent on earth. Further uranium mining in the area poses particular dangers for Australia's water security. As member's will know, due to the indenture act BHP is exempt from many of South Australia's environmental, Aboriginal heritage and water laws in operating the Roxby uranium mine. For the price of precisely nothing—not one dollar—BHP is legally able to use up to 42 million litres of water per day. This is having a very serious effect on the Mound Springs, the sensitive and unique water springs in the area of Lake Eyre. Further mining will certainly contribute to further impacts, and uranium mining will especially do so.

While the Greens are absolutely opposed to mining uranium anywhere in Australia, we are not opposed outright to other mineral exploration in the Woomera Prohibited Area if negotiations with the traditional owners can reach agreement and if strict environmental guidelines for exploration are also strictly applied inside the Commonwealth area. The Greens believe this bill should be subjected to a thorough Senate inquiry. We look forward to examining its provisions in more detail throughout that process and will seek to ensure that the environment in this area is not further degraded and that the rights of Aboriginal people are upheld.

12:56 pm

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank both members for their contribution. The government of course is very keen to see that this legislation can be enacted by the parliament before the parliament is prorogued at the end of June. Its rationale for wanting to do that is to ensure that there is greater certainty for present and future access users of the Woomera Prohibited Area. I thank the member for Fadden for his in principle support and acknowledge that the Senate will look at the fine detail not just of the legislation but also of the rules which have recently been published in draft form.

I thank the member for Melbourne for his contribution. I will not rise to the occasion to respond to the Greens well-known policy of total opposition to any development which might involve uranium and general opposition to minerals resources development per se. I would prefer to deal with the point of his speech which I think has some merit and does need some response, both now and into the future. It is of course very important, and I acknowledge the member for Melbourne's contribution in this respect, that, as the legislation and the rules are progressed through the parliament, there is appropriate consultation with interested stakeholders—in particular, the Indigenous groups who have a legal interest and a philosophical and spiritual interest in the area concerned.

The first occasion on which the Department of Defence sought to consult with the relevant groups was in 2010, in the course of the Hawke review. Whilst the member may make a point about consultation on the legislation, it is not the case that this is a new issue or an issue where there is any great surprise. There has been consultation and efforts at consultation on the Woomera Prohibited Area, how the government of the day could open up greater access to new users and how the rights of existing users could be preserved. These have been in play, under consideration and in discussion with relevant groups since the Hawke review was established. The Hawke review's time period was 2010-11 and, over the period of the receipt of the Hawke review, the government, initially through me as Minister for Defence and the then minister for minerals and resources, Martin Ferguson, together with the South Australian government, made it clear that we accepted the review's recommendations and we wanted to implement them.

That is the process we are now engaging in. so far as the legislation itself and the rules are concerned, the legislation makes it expressly clear that any existing right that a current person who has access to the Woomera Prohibited Area has will be expressly preserved by this legislation. There is an express reference to the rights of Indigenous communities laid out in the relevant South Australia land rights legislation. Those rights are expressly preserved. There are, of course, in this legislative regime rules that will be published with the authority of the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Minerals and Resources which are disallowable and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. They were published on the same day that I introduced the legislation into the House some two or three weeks ago. They are also the subject of exhaustive consultation. So far as Indigenous groups and land owners are concerned, my advice is that in the course of the next week there will be further consultations on the detail of both the legislation and the rules, as is appropriate. But the primary starting point so far as the Indigenous land holders are concerned is that their existing rights are not disturbed in any way and that is expressly and advisedly made clear by the legislation. Having said that, it is important to ensure that there is good faith and confidence in the consultative processes and mechanisms, and that will occur.

If I could encourage both of my colleagues to encourage their Senate colleagues to understand the importance of this framework legislation. It will clarify the rights of new access holders; it will preserve the rights of existing land holders; and enable greater access to the area itself for the purposes of an appropriate balance between national security, reflected by the testing regime, and the economic interest which will see greater mineral resources development in that large land area. It will provide benefits to the state of South Australia and the people of South Australia, including Indigenous groups and land holders.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.