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


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (10:58): Can I start my contribution to this important debate on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2013 and this important area of legislative reform by at least congratulating Senator Farrell on having an interest in this matter. The previous Labor government had the opportunity, for two years, to do something about the Woomera prohibited area but did nothing. They sat on their hands. I just wish that Senator Farrell had had a more significant role in the previous government, particularly in the defence area.

I am conscious of the fact that Senator Farrell should have had a long career in this chamber. It would have been, I think, a quite distinguished career. Perhaps if he had been successful at the last federal election he might well be the Defence shadow. How much better it would be for Australia and the defence forces if we had someone of Senator Farrell's standing as the Defence shadow rather than the current Defence shadow, who seems to be only capable of abusing and insulting those people in uniform who defend our country so well.

I am sorry, Senator Farrell, that you will not be with us. Why you ever let Senator Wong bully you into standing aside from the No. 1 position you had on the South Australian Labor Senate ticket I will never know. The internal workings of the Labor Party are something that I can never quite follow. But I think Australia would have been far better served had you led the Labor ticket in South Australia at the last federal election and consequently that you had been elected. I will not go so far as to say you would have been the best choice for Labor Party leader in the chamber. I would venture to suggest, though, that in my opinion—and, of course, it is only my opinion—you could not have been worse than the current Labor leader in the Senate. But that is not a matter for me. It is nothing I have any influence over. Suffice it to say that I acknowledge that I think Senator Farrell could have made a more significant contribution to Australian governance in the years ahead had he been able to continue his term with us.

I am particularly interested in what happens in the Woomera area. I, like most Australians—and I think Senator Johnston mentioned this also in his contribution to this bill—believe in the mining industry. We are a country that is blessed with resources. We are not the only country in the world that is, I hasten to add. There are many countries in South America, Africa and northern Asia that have mineral resources as we do. We have to compete for international investment in mining with other countries around the world. But we have always done pretty well in Australia. Those wishing to invest would look at Australia think, 'There is a stable and sensible government. There are no sovereign risk issues in Australia.' That was until the Gillard-Rudd government came along and started to try to tax the mining industry out of existence. I think Senator Birmingham mentioned that the mineral resources of Australia, under our Constitution, belong to the states. The states, as we all know, get a significant part of their revenue from royalties from the mining industry. That is appropriate. But the Gillard-Rudd Labor government insisted on taxing the miners to the extent where investment very seriously dried up. We are still suffering from that.

This bill today that talks about what will happen in the future in the Woomera Prohibited Area is very important for a range of reasons. I want to firstly comment upon the mining industry. As someone who comes from the state of Queensland, I well understand the importance of a vibrant mining industry. The Bowen Basin and Galilee Basin coalfields up near where I come from are a significant contributor to the economy, particularly through employment. The many workers in those areas really make a contribution to the whole locality through their living expenses and the taxes they pay to my state of Queensland's coffers and the Australian coffers. I know well around Mackay, dutifully represented here by George Christensen, and Rockhampton, dutifully represented here by Michelle Landry, there are a number of new suburbs that have opened up in recent years to help house the families of the people who travel out to the mines in Central Queensland. So not only has it directly helped in mining revenue but it has helped things like the building and construction industry. It helps the retail industry. Right throughout, the mining industry is a very significant contributor to my state of Queensland.

I am conscious that South Australia has had its trouble financially. It has had 16 years of a Labor government, so that is a bit of a worry in itself. You would put that in the trouble basket. But under a Labor government its economy has really gone backwards. Its manufacturing industries have almost rusted to a halt. South Australia could have achieved much from a vibrant mining industry, but we know that, thanks to the federal and state Labor governments, the Olympic Dam process did not go ahead. This Woomera Prohibited Area is an area which could be rich in minerals and could assist the South Australian government with its revenue difficulties at the present time. That is why I think it is important to get right the Woomera Prohibited Area legislation.

I mentioned earlier—and I do not want to repeat myself as I want to be brief in this contribution because I am aware that there others who want to speak as well—that the Labor Party had years in government to do something about this and did nothing. So, whilst I appreciate Senator Farrell's interest in this now, I am just sorry, as I mentioned before, that he did not have the same sort of interest and influence under the previous government when they were able to do something.

One of the reasons I am cautious about this bill is the position of both the South Australian and Northern Territory governments, who have a vital interest in passage through this area. My understanding, from reports that I have read, is that they had not been fully consulted under the previous Labor government and that there were still issues that needed to be addressed. I am aware that the Department of Defence has been in continuing consultations with a number of different stakeholders across the area. I know that Defence has spoken with the rail companies, because the line goes through this area and it is important that the rail companies are able to develop a working level agreement in relation to what happens in this area.

I am sorry to say that Senator Johnston, the current Minister for Defence—and he is doing a mighty job, I might say—is not with us here today, but I know he is overseas in his role as Minister for Defence. He is not, I might add, in Western Australia campaigning, as some of our other Senate colleagues are this week. I wonder where Senator Ludlam or Senator Pratt are in contributing to this debate today. I suspect they are over there, campaigning in the Western Australian election. They are still, no doubt, drawing their salaries as senators here and simply abrogating their duties in this chamber—not participating in this debate, for example—and are over in Western Australia campaigning in a political campaign. That is unlike Senator Johnston, who is up for election on Saturday week. Senator Johnston is out there doing what he is paid to do and doing very well, I might say, as Minister for Defence. He is currently overseas pursuing Australia's defence interests in meetings with people overseas.

I am aware that Senator Johnston has gone very carefully into this. He has indicated and he indicated in his speech on this subject that he is in the process of having a bill prepared that will address the issues that the Labor government should have been addressing in the past three, four or five years. Senator Johnston is doing that. To do the legislation properly, he has had to consult very widely. That is because the consulting was not done under the previous government.

I am conscious that the Woomera Prohibited Area Advisory Board met in Woomera just before Christmas. The chairman of that advisory board is a former Senate colleague of mine, Stephen Loosley from the Labor Party. The deputy chair, strangely, is also a former Labor politician, Mr Paul Holloway; I think he was from the Northern Territory.

Senator Farrell: I rise on a point of order. I think if Senator Macdonald is going to make a contribution to this debate, he ought to at least be accurate in what he is saying. Minister Holloway, as he was then, was a member of the South Australian parliament and not the Northern Territory parliament.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Furner ): There is no point of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I do appreciate the interruption of my speech. I apologise—

Senator Farrell: I rise on a point of order. I might add that he was an excellent minister from South Australia.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I do not know that I can agree with the last part of Senator Farrell's interruption, but I do apologise to Mr Holloway. I accept and recall that he was a minister in the Labor government. Isn't it interesting though that, in that advisory board set up by the previous government, the chairman is a former Labor politician and the deputy chair is a former Labor politician? I suppose they are suited to the job. They have some experience.

Also on that committee are some ex-officio representatives from the Australian government from the relevant departments of defence, industry and finance. I understand the South Australian Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy and Defence South Australia are also part of that board. The board, just before Christmas, met with stakeholders—including the pastoralists, resource companies and rail companies that I have mentioned—to make sure that the new legislation when it comes in is correct. It is something that is essential and something that needs to be done.

I know there have been further meetings of that advisory board. I know that they are consulting with Indigenous groups, the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy and conservation groups as well. That consultation has been exhaustive under the new government, as it should be. I understand that, following those consultations, the Australian Rail Track Corporation has indicated to the Department of Defence that they can work with Defence to identify windows that minimise disruption to the rail operations through that area.

I have mentioned at some length the issues that the Northern Territory and South Australian governments have. This is a very important area for Indigenous people as well, and the Department of Defence has continued consultations with Indigenous groups on the proposed new arrangements. The bill does not apply to Indigenous groups, and their concerns relate primarily to existing arrangements under the Defence Force Regulations. I am conscious that Indigenous groups asked for written confirmation of their existing access permissions under the in-force Defence Force Regulations and for confirmation that any entitlement to compensation would be on what is called 'just terms'. I understand that the Department of Defence has actually given that written confirmation. Some of the Indigenous groups have also asked for agreements to confirm securing a working level consultation and communication, as part of the range operations.

I come from the North Queensland region. My office is in Townsville, the home of Australia's largest Army base. Consequently, anything to do with Defence is of great interest to me. I know it is of great interest to all Australians, because the defence of our country is very important. But the Woomera testing range is a very, very significant part of the whole defence operations of our nation. It is essential that this bill, which deals so importantly with that area, is right.

I am looking forward to the consultations being concluded: all the i's being dotted and the t's crossed. I anxiously await the bill that Senator Johnston will introduce into this chamber very shortly to address the issues which the former Labor government should have addressed previously and which they have left to Senator Farrell, as the opposition shadow, to introduce from opposition when, clearly, it should have been done in the last few years.

I have been allocated a longer time, but I do not want to delay the Senate. I know this is important legislation. I know others want to make a contribution. I might conclude at that point, indicating simply that I look forward to the matter being resolved with proper legislation in the very near future.

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