Adjourned debate on second reading.
(Continued from 9 March 2016.)
Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:52 :12 ): I am the lead speaker for this bill, and let me say at the outset that the opposition will not oppose passage of this bill through this house. If information comes to light that we think is important and we feel the need, we reserve our right to move amendments between the houses.
This is a very important bill, because it touches on an area of debate, research, discussion and investigation which is across our entire state and which is linked in with both the federal government’s interest in having low to medium-level nuclear waste stored somewhere in Australia, and potentially in South Australia, and also the state government’s royal commission which is looking at the entire nuclear fuel cycle with regard to mining, enrichment, power generation and also the storage of waste.
It is very important that everybody in this house and everybody who might have an interest in this bill particularly and in this debate does understand that, if this bill passes both houses of parliament, it would still be illegal for anyone to actually develop a nuclear waste storage facility, import nuclear waste or even to transport nuclear waste around the state. This bill itself addresses a very specific aspect of the broader act, and that is to remove clause 13. Clause 13 says:
Despite any other Act or law to the contrary, no public money may be appropriated, expended or advanced to any person for the purpose of encouraging or financing any activity associated with the construction or operation of a nuclear waste storage facility in this S tate.
To take those words out of the current act is the bill in itself, but, of course, all of the rest of the words in the current act stay and they would prohibit any actual development of a facility or the importation or the transport of nuclear waste.
So why would the government want to remove those words from the bill? Well, it is pretty straightforward and easy for everyone to see: it does actually want to spend money to consult, investigate, and encourage the potential development of a nuclear waste storage facility in South Australia. I think that is quite a reasonable thing to do, given the discussions that are going on at the moment. It is quite appropriate that the government should use its resources—keeping in mind that the government’s resources are taxpayer funded—to investigate this topic.
The royal commissioner, the Hon. Kevin Scarce, has provided everyone with his interim findings and, while they are very broad and contain an enormous amount of information, the key thrust of those interim findings was an invitation for anyone who finds fault—in any way whatsoever—with the research he has done to please come forward and say so. If they think there is anything inaccurate or inappropriate about the conclusions he has come to, based on the research he has done or the evidence he has been provided with, they need to come forward. That is really what the interim findings are about.
Of course, along with that invitation he has put forward his personal expectation that down the track he will, at least for now, be discarding three of those four key issues. He will not be recommending more mining, he will not be recommending enrichment and he will not be recommending the pursuit of nuclear power generation in South Australia, but he probably will be recommending that South Australia takes a very active role with regard to importing high level nuclear/radioactive waste from nations which have used it for appropriate purposes, and tries to develop an industry in South Australia. He estimates that, as a state, we could receive something in the order of $5.5 billion per year for 70 years if we were to do this.
So it is quite appropriate for the government then to want to look into this. It is a very, very serious opportunity. It comes with risks, and the royal commissioner has not shied away from that either. There is a vibrant public debate, with some people thinking that the risks are too high and some people thinking that the risks do not exist and some people thinking that the economic benefits outweigh the risks. There is a wide range of issues out there, but I say again that it is quite appropriate for the government to want to look into these issues.
I have to say, though, that I am concerned about what I understand is the legal advice that the government has received that has led it to introduce this bill right now. Everybody here knows that I am not legally trained, but it seems very strange to me that the government would introduce the bill into this house—two weeks ago last sitting week—saying that it needs to be ready for when the royal commission finishes its work and releases its findings, that based on the information it already has from the tentative findings it needs to release this information now so that it can start spending money to investigate, consult and encourage the potential development of a nuclear waste facility.
I would think, by virtue of the fact that the government has already expended an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money to establish the royal commission and, very importantly, that the government actually gave the terms of reference to the royal commission, one of which was to investigate the potential for our state to store nuclear waste, that if the government needed this act to be changed now so that it could consider the findings of the royal commission, it probably needed the act to be changed in advance of establishing the royal commission.
They have already spent the money. It was not a case of, ‘Here’s some money. Kevin Scarce, please look into whatever you want to look into.’ They specifically said one of the four key elements of the terms of reference was to look into the potential for developing a nuclear waste storage facility in South Australia. They are now saying they need permission to consider not only the interim findings, but also, down the track, the final report. It seems to me that they needed that permission right up front. If they need it now, they needed it when they established the royal commission.
There is another key issue of concern for me—and I say concern specifically with regard to the bill; not the overall topic, and not the right for the government to be doing its homework, essentially. The government proposes that if the bill passes both houses of parliament, it would come into effect when it was introduced to parliament two weeks ago. That implies that the government needed to have had the power two weeks ago from today and, at the very earliest, four weeks ago from when it is likely to pass it. If it gets through the upper house in two weeks’ time, that would be backdated, roughly, a month.
Why would they need it to have been implemented two weeks ago if they have not already started to spend the money to do the things that the act currently says, very specifically, the government should not spend the money on? The only reason they would need that is if they have already started spending the money.
It seems to me very likely that the government has already infringed upon the act as it stands today, otherwise why would it need it to be backdated? If it needed to be backdated for a particular reason, if it has not spent any money in any of the ways that the act says it should not spend money, if it has not done that already then why would the act need to be backdated?
There are some very serious questions, and I would be grateful if the minister would address them in his comments, or we could do it in committee. Those are the reasons that the opposition will allow the bill to pass through this house, but does reserve its right to move amendments in the upper house if information comes to light that means that it would be appropriate to do so.
Let me just go back to something I said before. What I am talking about right now, and what we are here to debate, is the government’s right to spend public money for the purpose of encouraging or financing any activity associated with the construction or operation of a nuclear waste facility in the state. We are not talking about whether having a facility is appropriate or not; we are not talking about whether the government should spend money or not. We are talking about whether the government needs this act to pass through parliament right now and whether, potentially, it needed to be passed before the royal commission was set up, and we are talking about: why has it asked for this permission to be backdated if, in fact, it has not already contravened the existing act?
I leave my comments at that. Let me saying in closing that I am extremely comfortable with the work that the royal commission is doing. I think that Kevin Scarce is an exceptionally highly regarded, capable, objective person. I believe very strongly that whether a person is completely opposed to anything to do with the nuclear industry, or has already made up their mind and is already in favour of it, regardless of someone’s personal opinion they should welcome the royal commission because this is the opportunity to get all of that information out in a very thorough and very professional way.
The fact that we have a royal commission does not mean that people need to be scared of it. It gives people who are opposed to the nuclear industry as much opportunity to put their views forward as it does people who are in favour of the nuclear industry. I really just cannot wait until 6 May. As a member of parliament, as shadow minister for mineral resources and energy, and also as a country and outback member of parliament whose home turf, potentially, could be very affected by the outcomes of this royal commission, I really want to know what the royal commissioner is going to propose. I think it is going to be incredibly important, whatever he puts forward.
It is also important for people to understand that part of his interim findings was that, whilst he was saying pretty clearly that he thinks there is a strong possibility that it would be very good for the state to participate in the storage of other nations’ high-level nuclear waste, he also said (and he has repeated many times, and it is my strong opinion as well) that it should not happen without broad community consent. It should not happen without broad community consent.
So, whatever the commissioner puts forward will not set the path forward automatically for us. There are many other issues that need to be dealt with before we could go through this, but it is an important process to undertake. I ask the minister very specifically to explain why, if the legal permission is required now to investigate the interim findings, it was not required to establish the royal commission in the first place, and also why it is necessary to backdate this bill two weeks earlier from today if the government has not already spent money and contravened the act as it stands today?