Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matters of Public Importance

Uranium Exports

3:43 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received the following letter from Senator Siewert:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

That uranium sales to India are illegal under the treaty of Rarotonga and may encourage the opening of toxic uranium mines in Australia by proponents with little experience and in states with deficient regulatory capacity and experience.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

3:44 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

You can tell at the outset the matters of public importance written by the Australian Greens compared to those that are written by the coalition. This is a matter of great urgency. I want to begin with the international law dimensions because the matter raised does speak directly to the fact that sales of uranium to a country that stands outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty are illegal at international law. Australia is, of course, a signatory to the treaty of Rarotonga. For senators who are not aware, that is the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. It creates a geographical region in which nuclear weapons are banned, but it does more than that. It stipulates that a condition of nuclear trade is full-scope safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Senators may not have been aware that the only way you get full-scope safeguards with the IAEA is by signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; and it is because Australia has these treaty commitments that every Australian government for the last 41 years has upheld the principle of not selling uranium to non-NPT states.

Here is somebody I would not normally quote in the Senate. In fact, this might be the first time I have ever done so. The current Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, said in 2006, from opposition:

As the second biggest supplier of uranium, Australia cannot have one set of rules for some countries and another set for others … Labor calls on John Howard to clarify his support for the NPT and rule out the export of uranium to any state unless and until that state joins the NPT.

What a difference a change of government makes. Minister Ferguson, who has since then been a diligent sock puppet on behalf of the interests of the uranium mining industry, has completely turned that former position on its head. What interesting timing for Australia to be undermining international laws and treaties, just when we have secured a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The same UNSC in 1998, after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, adopted resolution 1172, and it is worth quoting from. That resolution:

Encourages all States to prevent the export of equipment, materials or technology that could in any way assist programmes in India or Pakistan for nuclear weapons or for ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons, and welcomes national policies adopted and declared in this respect;

Some senators might remember the Cold War and the Cold War suicide pact between the Soviet Union and the United States of America and the various alliances that shifted during the period of the Cold War. During that nuclear suicide pact, fortunately, although these weapons were never stood down, the finger stayed off the button. But we still have nuclear weapons targeted on the subcontinent at the enormous metropolises of Delhi, Bombay, Karachi and Islamabad. India and Pakistan are engaged in an active and expanding nuclear arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. What a remarkable contribution to the Asian century it will be to have Australia's name on a piece of paper saying that we do not particularly care about fuelling that arms race.

I understand that senators might be a little uneasy and I know there are many of them inside the Labor Party; I have always suspected there would be a handful inside the coalition, but they are very, very quiet—I am sure they are there. They would be very uneasy about expanding the uranium trade to India.

Senator Mark Bishop interjecting

I can dream, Senator Bishop. You never know. But senators would at least want to know that the safeguards regime is watertight and that—and I suspect there is total agreement in the chamber on this matter—Australian uranium will not end up in nuclear weapons in India or anywhere else. I see some nodding, so I sense that is correct. Tell me, if you will, how a safeguards agreement would cope with the following. The former head of the national security advisory board in India suggested this in 2005—see if this sounds familiar:

Given India's uranium ore crunch and the need to build up our … nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible, it is to India's advantage to categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones to be refuelled by imported uranium and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons-grade plutonium production.

Somebody tell me how a safeguards agreement can be written to prevent the Indian authorities from doing exactly that. Nobody is making eye contact anymore; isn't that interesting.

My colleague Senator Waters will discuss how Campbell Newman, inspired by the sale of uranium to India, swiftly dumped a clear election commitment not to mine uranium in Queensland. The rest of the country is watching with a kind of horrified fascination as Campbell Newman abolishes the Public Service and runs absolutely roughshod across environmental regulations in Queensland. I will leave those comments to Senator Waters. Senator Rhiannon will discuss the dopey reversal of the 26-year ban on uranium mining in New South Wales earlier this year. That was very, very carefully dealt with during the election campaign because it is a nasty thing to talk about. Nobody goes into an election campaign promising to expand exports of a carcinogenic material, apart from Western Australia, actually. So let us go there. I will focus my remarks on what is happening in my home state of WA.

Many people in WA are very deeply concerned about the prospect of Toro. They are a small exploration outfit; they have no cash reserves; they have never actually run a mine; their parent company, OZ Minerals, describes them as a non-core asset. They are proposing to strip mine a relatively small by international standards calcrete deposit across an ephemeral watercourse that runs into a salt lake, Lake Way, in the north-east goldfields. The Western Australian government's Environmental Protection Authority took a look at it, and I would observe that that name was not intended to be ironic—that you would have an environmental protection authority and you would hope that its objectives would be based on protecting the environment, but that appears to have fallen by the wayside. Based on remarkably sketchy and insufficient evidence and the complete absence of some very important pieces of information, the EPA has given it the tick, as we knew it would.

The Barnett coalition government in Western Australia has turned the environmental impact assessment process into a one-way foregone conclusion. Nobody seriously believed that the EPA was going to knock that proposal out on the grounds that it did not satisfy the EPA's objectives. This is a uranium mine that has a proposed 14-year lifespan, but the company can only tell us where it is getting its water from for the first seven years. After that, I guess we just have to hope for the best. In a state with so many mining projects, with fully allocated surface water resources and a very well documented decline in rainfall, that is completely unacceptable.

Minister Tony Burke, in my view, is entirely within his rights to ask the company where it plans on getting the water for the second half of the mine life. He should ask the Western Australian government to do its job so that he can do the job assigned to him under the Commonwealth EPBC Act. He cannot do his job in assessing this project if he is not provided with the information that was required by law. The Barnett government and Toro have failed to do that. The minister does not get to be pro-nuclear or antinuclear, and I think that is kind of sad but I respect that his act says he assesses the project according to the law. It is my view that he cannot do that at the moment because Toro have not presented their proposal in full. The director-general of the WA Department for the Environment and Conservation has stated that there is a significant risk of loss of another individual taxon, probably at both species and subspecies level, of Tecticornia should the project proceed as proposed. So a uranium mine that will leave a permanent carcinogenic hotspot across a salt lake bed in the north-east goldfields may also wipe out a number of listed species. That is fantastic news. I wonder if anybody else would care to address those concerns on the way through.

The Commonwealth environment minister by law cannot preside knowingly over the destruction of species. He cannot preside over the extinction of particular species. So you would think that the proper studies and information would be provided, for example on stygofauna, nominated by the WA EPA as a threatened ecological species in 2008. But, no, we have this headlong rush to get the first uranium proposal up before the next state election. Those are the kinds of imperatives we are dealing with here. It is pretty offensive. Nobody, certainly not Toro, not Colin Barnett or the industry's man in Canberra, Martin Ferguson, appears to give a rat's.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

He is actually a good Labor minister.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

He is one of yours, Senator Cormann.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Interjections are disorderly. And direct your remarks to the chair, Senator Ludlam.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

My apologies, Deputy President. But it is worth noting, isn't it, the number of times that coalition MPs in this place and the other will claim Martin Ferguson as one of their own.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I may be mistaken but I thought I heard Senator Ludlam use the phrase 'don't give a rat's', which I think is bordering on the unparliamentary. We know what the 'dot, dot, dot' is.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The 'dot, dot, dot' was not emphasised, if that is the case. Senator Ludlam is in order.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Does not give a rat's what?

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Fifield, I am not going to debate the English language with you but I do not rule that disorderly. Senator Ludlam.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That is an entirely sensible ruling, Deputy President. In conclusion, I quote a friend of mine and a great campaigner, Dave Sweeney from ACF: 'On a good day Australian uranium becomes nuclear waste and on a bad day it becomes fallout.' Right now that is fallout across Japan's Pacific coast. It has shattered the farming industry and the fishing industry, it has destroyed horticulture and it has led to the evacuation of 150,000 people. I used to wonder how the Australian government would react if uranium from Kakadu and uranium from central South Australia was blasted all across the landscape, forcing mass evacuations, destroying industries and destroying lives. Now I do not have to wonder because I know what the reaction is. People avoid eye contact. They shuffle their feet. They will not discuss it anymore. They pretend it is not our problem, and it is our problem. It is time we got out of this industry once and for all.

3:55 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go again. The Greens, the very bastion of moral purity, once again are telling us what is right and what is wrong: that it is right to have low carbon emissions but that it is wrong to have nuclear power; that it is right to bring the world out of poverty but that it is wrong to give people the tools they need to accomplish this. Once again in a demonstration of bizarre ethical ambiguity the Greens continue to want everything but to give nothing. Alas, what more can we expect from this confederacy of protest movements that is the Greens in the Senate.

Let us give the reality of this situation some perspective. India is a nation where 40 per cent of people live below the poverty line, a nation that by 2025 will outnumber China with a population of some 1.5 billion persons. It is a nation that is growing quickly, as is its energy consumption. It needs the sort of stable and affordable energy that as Australians we take for granted. Currently 40 per cent of Indians have access to electricity for less than 12 hours a day and an estimated 300 million people still lack access to energy there at all. I asked the Greens how one billion people of India are going to meet their energy needs without nuclear power. How will their nation modernise, how will they grow? And how will they do this without pumping hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere? Coal, or maybe wind turbines as far as the eye can see, stretching from Calcutta to Bangalore. Or maybe the Greens just think India should not have electricity at all.

According to the Australian Academy of Sciences, for every 10,000 tonnes of Australian uranium we export we stop the generation of 400 million tonnes of CO2 from conventional power sources. That is quite a remarkable figure. How can the Greens sit here arguing that exporting uranium is wrong when it makes such a huge and clear difference not only to the lives of Indians but to our global environment. No matter how the Greens want to look at it, no matter how they paint it, the answer is the same: nuclear power equals development and the Greens want this stopped.

This is perhaps the ideal example to highlight the failure of the Greens party to celebrate their naive views on foreign policy with reality. It is their stance on issues such as this one that shows why Australia will never accept the Greens as a government in its own right. They just do not have the pragmatism required. It is one thing to want the world to be a better place but quite another to make it happen. If we really want a global clean energy future, not just one for the rich and privileged, we need to acknowledge that for large developing countries, particularly a country such as India, nuclear energy is one of many strategies that must be employed if this is going to happen. Australia can afford the luxury of not using nuclear power but India is not so fortunate.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You pronounce nuclear the way George Bush did.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I always welcome your contributions, Senator Fifield. It cannot be because India has nuclear weapons. We sell uranium to Russia and China, both of which are nuclear powers. Are the Greens afraid that India is engaged in some sort of regional arms race? China is engaged in one of the fastest military modernisations in recent history and yet obviously we continue to engage with China. They surely cannot be worried about nuclear proliferation. India tightly guards its nuclear technologies and has never been found guilty of proliferating those technologies. The Greens' stance only makes sense when we look at it from a pre-2007 perspective when not selling uranium to India was part of an international strategy to bring India into the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But this ended with the US-India nuclear agreement of 2007, which ended the international de facto ban on nuclear cooperation with India. So, although you may not agree with India's decision not to sign the non-proliferation treaty, you can certainly understand their reasoning, which is that it would force the world's largest democracy to abandon their nuclear weapons, despite the fact that the UK, the US, China, Russia and France are all allowed to hold on to theirs, and despite the fact that, on its very own border, Pakistan openly displays its nuclear capabilities. This is a treaty that asks India to have its own national security policy dictated to it by Western powers, and, no, this was not an arrangement that was ever realistic.

Until recently, Australia was the only nuclear supplier in the world that would not deal with India. Not surprisingly, this was offensive to a large trading partner. Last financial year, we exported almost 7,000 tonnes of uranium, with a value of around A$600 million, without adverse health or environmental consequences, but we did refuse to sell uranium to India. We have 33 per cent of the world's commercially recoverable uranium, and we are well placed to capitalise on growing global demand. This is an industry that can provide long-term economic benefits to Australia, including generating employment in regional areas, providing benefits to Indigenous populations and generating export income, yet the Greens still say, 'No, you cannot export to India.'

India's importance to Australia will only grow in the coming years, and a policy of choosing not to sell uranium to India would be an obstacle to developing the strategic and economic partnerships that we want and, indeed, that we need. Make no mistake about it: India will and does have nuclear power, whether the uranium comes from us or from somewhere else. So why not have some say over the process? Why not have some say over the protections and some influence in how uranium is safeguarded? But, once again, the Greens would rather vote for 100 per cent of nothing rather than for 80 per cent of something. That is the reasoning that caused them to vote against the CPRS bills not once but twice in this Senate, and that is the reasoning that saw them stand in the way of any cross-chamber arrangements regarding immigration laws.

The Greens do not think in terms of accomplishing reforms. They would rather Australia had no say, no control and no influence over the nuclear powers in our region. Selling uranium to India is not giving them a blank cheque. Let me be clear: exports will comply with our international legal obligations. But, before any exports of Australian uranium to India can take place, Australia and India need to negotiate and conclude a bilateral safeguards agreement. This agreement would address Australia's stringent safeguards and transparency requirements and would specify that the uranium may only be exported for peaceful, civil nuclear power generation.

The legislative framework in Australia is already in place to cater to this agreement. If there are any specific legal requirements in addition to the legislative framework, these will be addressed in the context of negotiations through our bilateral agreement. The Greens policy on this issue is illogical and it is hypocritical. They seek to damage our wider relationship with India but offer no viable alternatives. They continue with posturing and rhetoric but have no practical solutions.

India is the world's largest democracy, a sobering fact worth remembering. It is a fellow member of the Commonwealth, with a strong philosophical commitment to peace and cooperation. It is a law-governed state, with a free press and a vibrant civil society. It has proven over the decades to be a stable power in an increasingly hazardous region. I not only reject the Greens stance on this matter; I applaud the government for opening our borders and giving Australia a say on nuclear safeguards in India. I also say with some pride that this was a matter that was ventilated and robustly debated at the ALP National Conference. This is a conference that is open to the public—

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Dominated by trade union thugs.

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

a conference that is open to the press and open to the ramblings and raving criticisms of people such as Senator Brandis. It is a conference where the whole country can sit in judgement of our public policy processes and where ALP delegates can freely debate their ideas before coming to a final resolution. It is a process that stands in stark contrast to the continuing secrecy of the Greens and their decision-making processes and stands in stark contrast to the closed conferences and secret cabals that make up the decision-making process of their party, the last secretive party left in Australian public life.

4:04 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

As I have been sitting here, listening to Senator David Feeney, I have been grappling with a conundrum: which is the greater, the depth of ignorance of the Greens or the vastness of the hypocrisy of the Australian Labor Party? I am just not sure, but they are both vast indeed. To listen to Senator David Feeney address the Senate and go through all this pious rodomontade about how terrible the Australian Greens are, this formulaic denunciation of the Australian Greens and all they represent—whilst I might agree, by the way, with every word he has to say about the Australian Greens—omits one inconvenient truth, and that inconvenient truth is that the government of which Senator David Feeney is a member is in office today because of a written agreement, signed, sealed and delivered, between the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens. Just as in the state of Tasmania the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens form a formal coalition government, here in the national capital they form an informal coalition government. So much for the hypocritical pieties of Senator David Feeney.

I rise to oppose the proposition in this matter of public importance because, as I said at the beginning, the only thing that rivals the vastness of the hypocrisy of the Australian Labor Party is the depth of ignorance of the Australian Greens. It was on display again this afternoon in Senator Scott Ludlam's speech on the Treaty of Rarotonga. First of all, one would have thought that if one were going to bring on a matter of public importance debate about the Treaty of Rarotonga, it would be a good start to be able to spell it correctly. But, in fact, the Australian Greens are not even able to spell the name of the treaty which they seek to enforce. More importantly, it would be good as well if they understood what the treaty of Rarotonga stipulated. Unlike, apparently, Scott Ludlam and his flea-bitten cohort of former communists and well-meaning fools who constitute the Australian Greens, I have actually read the treaty. In fact, I have a certified copy of the treaty in my hand. Everything Senator Scott Ludlam had to say about the treaty of Rarotonga in relation to uranium sales to India is wrong. I take those who might be listening to this contribution to the provisions of article 4 of the treaty of Rarotonga, to which Australia is a signatory of course but which applies to the South-West Pacific zone. This treaty was entered into by a previous and more honourable federal Labor government, the government of Mr Bob Hawke. Article 4 of the treaty of Rarotonga states:

Each Party undertakes:

(a) not to provide source or special fissionable material—

which includes uranium—


…   …   …

(ii) any nuclear-weapon State—

and we know that India is a nuclear weapon state—

unless subject to applicable safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Any such provisions shall be in accordance with strict non-proliferation measures to provide assurance of exclusively peaceful non-explosive use …

That is the obligation that Australia assumed when it signed the treaty of Rarotonga during the period of the Hawke government.

Senator Scott Ludlam, you are not right when you say that the prohibition lies on selling fissionable material to non-member states of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is a prohibition against selling material to nuclear weapon states with whom there exists no current safeguards agreement recognised by the International Atomic Energy Agency. There is a safeguards agreement; there will be a safeguards agreement. That is a point that I am sure Senator Mark Bishop, another member of the government supported by the Labor-Green's coalition, will make in his forthcoming contribution, upon which we wait with bated breath.

The substance of this issue is that throughout the entire life of this period of Labor government—this lamentable, corrupt, dishonest, incompetent, wasteful, spendthrift, profligate, hopeless Labor government—for the five years Australians have suffered under this Labor government, there has been nary any attention paid to the Indian subcontinent. Mr Kevin Rudd managed to visit India for one day during his prime ministership—a prime ministership, it must be said in his defence, was foreshortened very suddenly by a steel blade through the back from Ms Julia Gillard, his successor. Lo and behold, late in the piece Ms Julia Gillard, eager to seek photo opportunities, discovered India and visited India.

Mr Howard when he was the Prime Minister did not need to be shown a passage to India. He visited India twice during his prime ministership, for substantial state visits. It was the policy of the Howard government—condemned at the time by the Australian Labor Party—to sell uranium to India, provided a sufficient and comprehensive safeguards agreement was in place. When Mr Howard announced that policy in 2006 he was condemned to the rafters not just by the Greens but by the Australian Labor Party. Fast forward six years and all of a sudden the Australian Labor Party have caught up with where the Liberal Party and the coalition were six years ago and have seen the wisdom of fostering and strengthening the important strategic relationship between Australia and India by selling India the uranium to use for peaceful purposes only that the people of that very large nation so desperately need.

What would the Greens have the people of India do? Would they prefer them to depend on hydroelectric power? Apparently not. Would they prefer that they derive their power from coal-fired power stations? Apparently not. So what would the comfortable,wealthy, middle-class radicals who comprise the Greens do for the people of India? In all of their vanity, conceit and complacency they would leave them poor. There is all this talk about social justice and we hear all of these pieties from the moth-eaten former communists and middle-class radicals, but when it comes to the reality of what they would do for the people of India they would be content to leave them poor.

That is why this is such an important measure. It is why the Liberal Party is so glad that the Australian Labor Party on this occasion have stood up to their Greens alliance partners, have caught up to where the Howard government was more than six years ago and, albeit subject to the intellectual distinction of a Labor Party national conference where a motley gang of trade union thugs and crooks were asked to rubberstamp this policy, have eventually signed off on it.

It is important that Australia nurture and foster its strategic, trade, commercial and educational relationship with India. It is important that Australia sells uranium to the Indian government, subject to appropriate safeguards agreements, so that nuclear power plants can be used to provide electricity to the starving people of India, because at the moment it is beyond the capacity of that state to provide it for all of its people. The hypocrisy of the Labor Party in pretending to be distant from the Greens is only matched by the hypocrisy of the Greens in uttering pieties about social justice while all they want to do is keep the people of India poor. (Time expired)

4:14 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad that Senator Brandis is having fun, but I am sorry to disappoint him: I am neither flea-bitten nor moth-eaten. I am very sorry about that Senator Brandis.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I wasn't talking about you

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Were you talking about me? Scottie?

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! You have the call, Senator Waters.

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Ludlam said, a fortnight ago Queensland's new premier, Nuclear Newman, as he shall now be known, lifted the long-standing ban on uranium mining in Queensland. This actually came as a complete surprise to me and to every other Queenslander, given that prior to the election Mr Newman had assured us that he had no plans to mine uranium—a promise that he repeated as recently as two weeks ago.

Sadly, this was just one of a number of backflips since the election, including the promise that public servants would be safe from mass sackings, that gay surrogacy laws would remain and that there were, likewise, no plans to overturn the wild river laws which limit big mines and dams in our most pristine rivers. The premier also says that he has no plans to allow mining in national parks, so I hope that these 'no plans' are different to the no plans that he had for uranium mining.

Clearly, throwing Queensland open to uranium mining is toxic, dangerous and completely unnecessary in the Sunshine State. We are still the state with the best sunshine, despite the fact that the premier has slashed funding for both small- and large-scale solar programs across the state. We tried this before: 30 years ago we closed our last uranium mine, Mary Kathleen. And it has been leaking ever since. For the last 20 years there has been an informal ban on uranium mining. I say 'informal' because, unfortunately, the state Labor government never had the guts to legislate the ban, and they permitted exploration for uranium throughout those 20 years. Clearly, they should have legislated this ban when they had the chance and stopped exploration for this toxic stuff.

Unfortunately, federal Labor has now also overturned its opposition to uranium mining so we have a unity ticket with Julia Gillard and Campbell Newman on digging up and exporting toxic, radioactive uranium. I am pleased to say that the Greens have always had a clear and consistent position on uranium, and that is that we oppose all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle—and that is nuclear, not 'nuc-u-ler', for the benefit of folk who might have been listening earlier. It is simply too risky, it is environmentally dangerous, it is economically foolish and, frankly, we have clean, green, renewable alternative energy sources that will not make the world's conflicts worse. Perhaps Senator Brandis might like to look up and notice that great energy source in the sky.

Yesterday, Premier Newman announced the membership of his new uranium mining committee—the one whose role is perhaps a little perfunctory, given that cabinet has already lifted the ban on uranium mining. The premier says that he is going to develop 'world's best practice' environmental and safety standards. But this is from the guy who has rolled back most of Queensland's environmental protection laws, so I am afraid that I lack confidence in that statement. Maybe the committee is going to start with doing the economic and employment modelling, which the premier admitted last week that he had not done despite making claims about the jobs and royalties that uranium mining would provide—now shown by his very words to be baseless. Frankly, he is just making it up as he goes along. A cursory look would show that the global price of uranium has tanked in the last five years, even before Fukushima. It is now almost one-third of what it was in 2007. It has dropped from US$138 a pound to US$43.50 a pound, and it shows no signs of recovering.

Nuclear Newman's committee might also look at the fact that Mary K is still leaking after rainfall events after 30 years. Maybe it could look at the impossibility of guaranteeing that Queensland uranium does not fill nuclear weapons? Despite the so-called safety agreements that have been bandied about in this debate, as Senator Ludlam said, there is no way that we can guarantee that our uranium simply does not free up other uranium to end up in nuclear weapons. I would like to put on record how disappointed I am that this federal Labor government is prepared to sell uranium to India, despite it not being a signatory to that non-proliferation treaty, and despite the fact that India has just killed five antinuclear activists—despite Senator Feeney's confidence in India's peacefulness.

Perhaps this new committee could look at how to store nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years? They are going to be pretty busy, really, solving all of the problems that the world's scientists have been unable to solve in the decades that we have been grappling with this problem.

One last thing in the short time that I have remaining to me is my concern that the federal Labor government is going to leave this stuff solely in Premier Newman's hands, given the COAG deal to hand over federal environment powers to the states. What a toxic and dangerous situation that will be.

4:19 pm

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I introduce some remarks of substance in this debate, I really should address the opening comments by Senator Brandis, which coloured the entirety of his contribution. My memory is that he accused my colleague Senator Feeney of a 'formulaic denunciation of the Greens', meaning that every time there is a debate on there is a faux attack on the Greens and that it has no heart and no substance. That is my understanding of Senator Brandis's comments.

Let us test the veracity of that proposition. I think to myself, 'How does one test the veracity of the proposition that the Australian Labor Party has been engaged in a formulaic denunciation of the Greens—a pretend denunciation?' There is a way to do it. Senator Brandis, as we all know, was a member of the front bench of the former coalition government. And since the coalition have been in opposition he has constantly been in a senior position on the shadow front bench. He is one of those key people involved in the internal processes of his party who gives advice, sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected—and properly so—by their leader.

After the last election, of course, the results are known: the Australian Labor Party and the Greens Party are in some sort of arrangement. Whether that be de facto or de jure it does not matter; it is an arrangement where your support is guaranteed on the floor of the House. But, of course, before those negotiations were completed a similar set of identical negotiations was entered into by Senator Brandis's leader, Mr Abbott—with the full knowledge of the frontbench at that time to enter into a negotiated agreement—so that the Greens could be a partner with the Liberal Party if they should be a government. So that is the first test that I suggest we use.

The second test of objective reality, which Senator Brandis also well knows but chooses to ignore, is what is going on at this very moment in this very Territory in Civic, because there is a round of negotiations, engaged in by the eight Labor elected Territory representatives and the one Green elected Territory representative, in an attempt to form a majority government. But, gee whiz, there is also another set of negotiations going on, and I see my Green colleagues at the other end of the chamber nodding knowingly and the coalition ignoring the nodding. We have the eight elected Liberal Party coalition Territory members engaged in a similar set of negotiations, Senator Brandis, so that they can be part of a government, so that they can be in alliance with the Greens in the ACT. Everyone in this chamber knows it, so your description of formulaic denunciation by Senator Feeney really does sound a bit hollow and really does run a bit thin.

Having established that, let me now turn to the substance of the motion that has been brought to us by Senator Ludlam. I will not read it all out, because we know what it says, but when I examine some of the key words—'illegal', 'toxic', 'deficient' and 'capacity'—I am reminded of debates that I was involved in—30, 35 or perhaps 40 years ago when I was starting out as a very junior official—in various forums in South Australia and Western Australia. Always in those days there were debates about uranium—value-adding, export and transport—and those who opposed uranium mining, uranium transport, uranium export and indeed uranium value-adding always used the same words that are in this motion today.

Nothing has changed: fear, threat, possible Armageddon and health concerns, all of which has been addressed over at least the last 30 years by the successful use of technology. The 'solution' then was the same 'solution' as now outlined by Senator Waters: close down the mines, stop the exportation, don't develop, don't share, don't spread the technology and don't participate. Well, it did not work then and it does not work now. Indeed, I remember those debates well. Often I think I was a minority of me in those debates at various forums. But after a while other people started to understand the wisdom, and the minority of me became a minority of some; and now it is a minority of nearly all of us and we, one of the partners in this alliance, do invite the Greens to come forward into the modern age and use technology in a proper safe way to exploit uranium and even perhaps get—instead of US$131 a pound or the US$48 a pound that Senator Waters referred to—thousands of dollars a pound by value adding and having a refined product. Your party is in favour of value-adding and of going up the value chain—and that would be a useful thing. I issue that invitation to the Greens and I know they will give it mature and proper consideration, because they always say they do. But if they do not we are clearly able to forecast their future because of those four that became one a week or 10 days ago here in the ACT; and the same thing is going to happen to three of their senators at the next election because they will be replaced by Labor Party twos or threes or perhaps coalition threes or fours. So the invitation is there, we would welcome you to come forward and we would welcome your contribution.

In this discussion on the export of uranium what are the real issues? What are the real issues involved in nuclear exports to India? What does the Australian government say? We say Australian uranium sales to any country, including India, but particularly India in the case of this debate, are subject to strict framework agreements and guarantees of safeguards and safe handling. These may potentially include safeguards on handling and security of radioactive material, restrictions on re-export and guarantees of use for peaceful purposes.

Why is it important that we engage properly, fully and sympathetically with the government of India on the issue of a safeguards agreement attached to the export of uranium from this country? What do we know? We know that about 40 per cent of the Indian people currently live below the poverty line. Forty per cent in a population of 1.1 billion or 1.2 billion is something approaching 450 million or 500 million people, and it is really inconceivable, given those sorts of figures, that almost half a billion people of India's population live below the poverty line. Over the next decade that population figure is expected to grow past China's and go to a population of 1.5 billion and if the issues of poverty are not addressed that means we will have, on an ongoing basis, almost 700 million people living in poverty in that subcontinent.

With that sort of population growth in India its rates of energy consumption are almost the fastest in the world. The WEO estimates that India's demand for energy may double in the next 25 years. If they are serious about growth and if they are serious about shifting some of those 500 million—or even 700 million—people out of poverty to a reasonable standard of living, the rate of demand for energy will not double but triple. So you have to ask the obvious question: do we say to those half a billion or so people, 'You shall remain poor forever and you shall remain without forever, but your cousins in China may go up the value chain and improve their standard of living while you'—the 500 million or 700 million Indians—'may not'? The absolute critical precondition for those 500 million or 700 million people lifting themselves out of poverty is access to power and access to sources of power generation. With all the goodwill in the world, alternative sources of energy, as currently understood and as currently used and as forecast to grow and improve over the next 25 years, are not going to have an iota of significance in delivering power to those 500 million or 700 million people—not water, not hydro, not coal or all the other alternative sources. So the power to lift people out of poverty has to come from somewhere, and it comes from assistance by countries like—(Time expired)

4:29 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It appears that the Greens need a lesson in geography. We have heard more today about Queensland then we have about India. As a senator from Western Australia, I welcome the fact that after years of dithering, the Labor Party has finally came to its senses on the question of uranium sales. Not surprisingly, as a Western Australian senator, this is particularly interesting to me because, as many would be aware, uranium is poised to become a significant element of Western Australia's resource industry. Western Australia has approximately 211,000 tonnes of uranium located across 30 separate deposits with four projects currently undergoing Commonwealth and state environmental assessment, those four projects being Cameco's Yeelirrie project, the Cameco Corporation/Mitsubishi Joint Venture at Kintyre, the Mega Uranium Lake Maitland project and the Toro Energy Wiluna project. It is worth reflecting on the figure of 211,000 tonnes as large areas of the state are yet to be fully tested by exploration. The first uranium mine is expected to be in production late next year after having been subject to what I would regard as rigorous environmental assessment processes.

Equally, I welcome the Labor government's sudden discovery of India. This government has ignored India for too long, first under Prime Minister Rudd—as we heard from my colleague Senator Brandis—whose obsession with China is well documented, and then under Prime Minister Gillard who has openly admitted she has little interest in foreign affairs. I could be unkind and suggest her ham-fisted negotiations with East Timor and Malaysia over illegal immigration suggest she has little aptitude for foreign affairs either, but that is a discussion for another day.

All the bluster from the Greens and from those in Labor who still oppose uranium sales to India overlook one simple reality: if India does not get its uranium from Australia, it will simply go elsewhere. It may well go somewhere that does not have in place the rigorous safeguards that Australia has for dealing with uranium. Australia has the strictest international safeguard agreement in the world in relation to uranium sales. Are opponents suggesting they would honestly prefer it if India went to a country that does not insist on the same high standards to source its uranium? What would that mean for the safety of the international community? Such opposition is wholly illogical but totally consistent with the head-in-the-sand approach of the Australian Greens.

It is in Australia's interests to help the world's largest democracy achieve its full economic potential. I think we would all rather deal with democracies over authoritarian regimes. Equally, it is in our national interest to pursue trading opportunities with nations that are becoming increasingly powerful in economic terms. India's economy has enjoyed rapid expansion over the past decade—not in the same league as China, but impressive nonetheless.

There were significant structural reforms made to India's economy in the 1990s: floating the rupee, dismantling trade and investment barriers and encouraging foreign investment, paying down India's external debt, and abolishing layers of bureaucratic and regulatory inefficiencies. These reforms unlocked India's economic potential and Australians should applaud it and be excited by it. As a result, the Indian economy grew on average by over six per cent per annum. That growth rate meant the economy quadrupled in size between 1991 and 2008.

Certainly, as is the case around the world, the global financial crisis beginning in 2008 had an impact. India's growth rate slowed, but there are signs of recovery. The Economist Magazine reported that India's GDP expanded at a rate of 5.5 per cent in the quarter ending June compared with the previous year. Granted, that is still at the bottom end of the growth range of the past decade in India, but it was above expectations. There is some reason to believe that this position will further improve as the Indian government implements a range of further economic reforms that will streamline processes and make it easier for development projects to get off the ground, particularly in relation to the new infrastructure that India so desperately needs.

But the lack of private sector investment is still holding India back. And part of the reason for this is that India lacks the capacity for power generation, a capacity that is desperately needed to unleash its full potential. A recent survey by India's central bank found that spending plans by private firms on large new projects dropped by almost 50 per cent in the year ending March 2012. According to India's Ministry of Power:

India needs, at the very least, to increase its primary energy supply by three to four times and its electrical generation capacity by about six times—

to achieve the growth it needs. Yet this will be difficult to achieve through reliance on coal-fired power generation alone. In fact, uncertainty surrounding the supply of coal has recently forced NTPC, India's largest power company, to drastically cut its investment levels.

This represents opportunity for Australia. The World Nuclear Association reports that India plans to expand its nuclear power capacity from under five per cent to at least 25 per cent of its total requirements by 2050. Why is it in our national interests to assist India with its electricity production? Because increasing production will drive economic growth and swell the ranks of India's middle class. A larger, wealthier middle class in India would be a boon for Australia's economy. India's population is increasingly urbanised and sophisticated. India's urban population has doubled in the last thirty years and the rapid development of tech-savvy cities like Mumbai are testament to the country's modernisation. According to the OECD:

India could witness a dramatic expansion of its middle class, from 5-10 per cent of its population today to 90 per cent in 30 years. With a population of 1.6 billion forecast for 2039, India could add well over 1 billion people to its middle class ranks by 2039.

That is an additional one billion people who will be demanding higher standard products, better quality food, and better educational opportunities, and people will be looking to travel and holiday overseas. All of these things represent a massive opportunity for the future of Australian exporters. By helping India to meet its need for power generation now thorough uranium sales to India, we will help to boost India's growth rate, lift millions who currently live in poverty out of the mire, and gain a potential one billion new consumers for Australian products and services The economic opportunity this presents is so obvious even Wayne Swan can see it, yet once again the Australian Greens come into the chamber and complain.

Ever the enemies of progress here in Australia, the Greens now want to try and impose their backward economic policies on other countries as well. The Greens, who claim to be concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, air quality and cutting pollution, want to prevent India reducing its reliance on coal for power generation. The Greens, who pose as the great humanitarians in this parliament, want to prevent the economic development that will lift millions and millions of Indian citizens out of poverty. The Greens actively seek to deny to those living in poverty a higher standard of living—all so that they and their dwindling band of supporters in comfortable, middle-class suburbs can feel morally superior. It is shameful.

The Liberal Party welcomes the Gillard government's belated decision to sell uranium to India—a process that John Howard had the foresight to initiate when he was Prime Minister, in the face of Labor's bitter opposition. By ensuring that the export of uranium to India is undertaken with appropriate safeguards in place—the most stringent safeguards of any nation in the world—we can play a vital role in assisting India to meet its full economic potential, build on the already significant trade relationship we enjoy with India and, most importantly, help those in India who want to provide a better lifestyle for themselves and their families to achieve that objective, simultaneously creating new customers for Australian goods and services.

4:38 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I congratulate my colleague Senator Ludlam for this important debate to oppose the growing support of state and federal governments for an Australian uranium industry. Listening to the speakers from the coalition and Labor, you would think this was just about some other trade issue. What we are talking about here is uranium, one of the most dangerous substances that we have. It is so well documented how dangerous it is. Not one of the speakers from the other parties has at least acknowledged the tragedies that have occurred when uranium mining has been imposed on communities. That at least should have been part of this debate, not the superficial carrying on that we have seen.

When we listen to Senator Brandis thunder about hypocrisy, those words need to be turned back on that senator himself, because he was really there describing his double standards. Surely at some point he should have given attention to the radioactivity that we are dealing with here—the radon gas and how it results in the cancers, the tumours and so many illnesses, and how water and land are poisoned and can never be used. That is what we are talking about here, and that is why it is so important that we have this debate. There are the risks to workers and the risks to people who live near where uranium has been mined, has been used in power plants or is being used in nuclear weapons that have been tested. The damage has been enormous, and it is very disgraceful that the people who are backing this industry do not at least acknowledge the tragedies that have unfolded for so many communities.

Senator Brandis and his colleagues that have gone on this tirade should at least think of the Navaho people. When the Navaho people heard that a uranium mine was going to be opened up, they welcomed it. They thought that they at last had work. What they now have is the cancers, the tumours, the illnesses and the sores. Their stock is poisoned. Their lives are effectively ruined. They were never informed by the US government of what could befall them.

We have seen this tragedy closer to home, in Australia. The word 'Maralinga' is now known by many people in Australia—unfortunately, not because it is a very important spiritual place for the Aboriginal people who made their home there for tens of thousands of years but because it became the site of a large number of tests by Britain of its own nuclear weapons. The armed forces who were there and the Aboriginal people ended up with so much illness: long-lasting cancers, sores and blindness. This is a tragedy that I do not believe we have ever taken full responsibility for. Again, none of this was acknowledged by the speakers who have come into it.

Then we heard Senator Feeney and others speak about the great benefits this will bring and how essential it is for the Indian economy and India's future energy needs. You really got the impression that India is dependent on uranium for its nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy in India today only accounts for about 2.3 per cent of its energy. This is a very small component, and right now there are huge protests across India—very successful protests that are actually holding up the building of nuclear power plants. Fisherfolk, local villagers and many supporters from the larger cities across India know that there should be no future for nuclear energy in India. They should be phasing it out, not building new nuclear plants.

Right now, in the last day, about 100 people have been arrested in Tamil Nadu. Thousands have been protesting outside the assembly. One of those people arrested was David Bradbury, the Oscar-nominated Australian filmmaker. I congratulate those people, because they are doing a service not just to their immediate community, India, but to the world. The world has to say, 'The era of nuclear power and nuclear weapons is over.' We need to now be cleaning up the world, not adding to the pollution and the dangers that will beset so many generations. When you listen to Senator Brandis, Senator Feeney and the others who have spoken from Labor and the coalition, what they are outlining is to impose dangers, hardships, sickness and illnesses that will kill so many people if their policies continue and are put in place.

This issue right now is very relevant for the people of New South Wales. The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, placed the issue of uranium mining back on the agenda in November last year when he approved the resumption of granting uranium exploration licences in New South Wales, overturning the state's 26-year uranium ban. The Premier of New South Wales linked the decision to the announcement days earlier by the federal Labor party that it would overturn its ban on uranium exports to India, saying that New South Wales would be crazy not to look— (Time expired)

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for this debate has expired.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I was going to move for an extension of time so she could be heard more. It is brilliant what she is saying.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rhiannon did not speak over time. She was allocated the remaining five minutes of the scheduled debate. Not all other senators used all their available time, which meant that time was available to her, irrespective of what the clock said.