The Hon. Rob Lucas MLC

The Hon

Rob Lucas MLC

Treasurer

Speeches

Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission

Monday, 7 November 2016

The Hon. R.I. LUCAS ( 15:28 :05 ): I rise on behalf of Liberal members to support the motion. The Liberal Party's position in relation to proposals for the establishment of committees of inquiry to seek information, provide further information or seek facts is generally to support them. It is not 100 per cent, but generally to support them. From that essential base, our party room has decided to support the proposal from the government for a parliamentary committee of inquiry.

I will not delay the debate on this occasion to further reflect upon what I label as the hypocrisy of the Labor Party and certain Labor members in relation to the whole nuclear issue. Those who are interested in those comments can see my contribution and others during the recent debate on the specific government legislation in relation to allowing public funding for public discussion of issues relating to the nuclear cycle royal commission debate.

I address therefore the specific issues raised by the motion that we have before us. We support the notion that the committee, or the structure of the committee, as has been outlined to us, essentially will be two Labor members, two Liberal members and two Independent or minor party members, giving a committee of six, which means that neither of the major parties, government or alternative government, will have a majority on the committee.

Given the strongly held views of some members who come to the committee—and I look to my far left, the Hon. Mr Parnell: I suspect that we are well aware of his views in relation to this issue, and he comes to the work of the committee with a very fixed view in relation to the issues that must be addressed—it is therefore my expectation that it is probably unlikely that there will be a unanimous view between the six members of the committee. I remain to be surprised, but that would be my political assessment as we entered it. That does not mean that the committee cannot still do useful work and hopefully highly productive work.

If members of the committee can accept that some have come to the table with fixed views on particular issues, fixed views both privately and publicly expressed on the issue, I am sure it is entirely possible for the committee still to work together and to provide useful information not only for themselves but, hopefully, for other members of parliament and for the community generally on this very important issue.

I noted the Leader of the Government's statements that this decision ultimately was to be a decision for the government, and that is an issue on which I would disagree with the minister. Certainly there has been some criticism that the government was going to outsource its views to the same construct that delivered cycling on footpaths and a variety of other issues, that is, the citizens' jury construct with which the government is so enamoured. The government in response to that has said, 'No, no, that's not the case; the decision is the government's'.

My view is that the decision ultimately will be a decision for the parliament. I accept the fact that the government is one part of the parliament, but not the majority view in both houses. Certainly its view will hold sway in the House of Assembly (or it would be expected that that would be the case), but ultimately on something as critical as this it is a decision for the parliament, and I think that is why the government has constructed a tripartisan select committee.

The Leader of the Government has quoted the royal commissioner outlining the need for a social licence and importantly bipartisan support, because we are talking about decades and hundreds of years in terms of the decision that might be taken by the state of South Australia. I accept the view that the government has to take a decision, but the alternative government also has to take a decision, and those minor parties or Independent members who have not already taken a decision also have to take a decision as to what is to happen, and I am assuming that legislation that exists in South Australia will have to be either amended or repealed and new legislation will need to be passed, and that would require the support of a majority in both houses of parliament.

So, whilst I agree with most aspects of what the Leader of the Government in this chamber said, that is just one aspect on which I put a different view on the table in relation to ultimately where the final decision should be. The other aspect of the process of this, as I understand it, is that the government will be requiring this committee to undertake an intensive program of work, because the expectation or the requirement is that its work be completed no later than November.

We are at the end of May now and the committee is not going to be established until June. The expectation is that the committee's work is going to have to be concluded by no later than November. I think that is the timetable that the government representatives have outlined in terms of the citizens' juries and various other community consultation processes. The government has said that it is going to make its decision by the end of this year, and when one works that time line backwards, the members who are undertaking this task are going to be pretty significantly committed for an intense period of some four to five months, in terms of trying to do the work that has been asked of it.

Given that the royal commissioner has just spent $7 or $8 million over 12-plus months in producing a body of work, clearly the parliamentary committee—it is not able to work full-time, obviously, because the parliament will be sitting as well—is not going to be able to traverse all of those issues in the same degree of detail, in terms of the taking of evidence, etc., as the royal commission has done. So it is going to be important for the committee in its early stage to work out how on earth it is going to go about its task within the time frame and address the issues that various members of the committee want to be addressed during the four to five month period that we are going to have. It is not impossible that, once a decision is taken by the parliament, issues of detail and process and other things can still be explored by the parliament, and I am sure will be, post an initial decision, but most of the key work is obviously going to have to be concluded before the parliament takes an initial decision as to what particular path it wishes to go down.

I guess we have to bear this in mind, that just because a parliament takes a decision in 2016 does not mean that at some stage in the not too distant future a different parliament could not seek to unwind the whole thing. That is why, clearly, the royal commissioner is seeking bipartisan support for it, and that is why, I guess, the idiosyncratic position of the Labor Party on this issue in a short space of time bears scrutiny. It is entirely possible that having made one quantum shift in thinking, how sure can you be that there might not be at some stage in the future another quantum shift in thinking?

I am assuming the attempt is going to be that, having made a decision, and if ultimately that is supported by this parliament, it is in some way locked in to make it extremely difficult for that decision, at great cost at some stage in the future, to be unwound and changed in some way. That is an issue that the committee will need to consider as it looks at the specific terms of legislative, regulatory or institutional arrangements, and any other matter that the committee sees fit.

Clearly, there are very significant environmental and social questions, many of which have been addressed, and evidence has been taken by the royal commissioner and others. Some members of the committee will be relatively comfortable that that area has been thoroughly traversed; other members of the committee might wish to take or to gather further information in terms of those critical questions, in terms of what the parliament is being asked to consider and the state is being asked to consider as well. I hasten to say that, whilst I have an intense interest in clearly those issues, I do not profess to be an expert, as some of the members might profess to be in terms of the environmental issues of not only this project but some other projects as well.

The reason why I was asked by my party to serve on the committee—unlike perhaps some other members it was not something that I confess I was not clamouring to do—is that there were not a lot of bodies over which I climbed to win this particular position. The issues that I am being asked to look at, and I am very interested in looking at, are clearly what I would call the pot of gold arguments that have been used to argue in favour of supporting this. They are the significant economic and financial questions that need to be raised.

Clearly, the Premier in particular and others have changed, and even the Treasurer who at least publicly had said that he had been adamantly opposed to uranium mining over various parts of his career—not all parts of his career I might say—in recent years he has obviously changed his position on the nuclear fuel cycle in South Australia. However, the thing that appears to have won them over has been the pot of gold argument; that is, there is a financial nirvana to be won through, in essence, being one of the first movers in this particular area of storing medium and high‑level nuclear waste here in South Australia. That is an issue that I am intensely interested in.

Clearly, the royal commissioner and the people who work for him have had to make significant assumptions about the nicely rounded billion dollar figures that are included in the final report. I think it is important that this parliament, before it makes a final decision, understands the nature of the assumptions that have been made. I believe in the time frame that we have it will be impossible—even if we had unlimited time—in essence, to say that the assumptions are wrong, because assumptions are assumptions made by genuine people with the information.

However, I think it will be important to understand the assumptions and perhaps to understand what the implications of different assumptions might be in terms of the pot of gold argument and, in particular, the issue of how thoroughly the notion of first mover advantage almost, or being one of the first movers in this particular area, has been considered.

That is, how reasonable are the assumptions that have been made that if the state of South Australia, after what will be a long period of time, ultimately commences storing medium and high‑level waste in South Australia and that others in the world see or are convinced by the pot of gold argument, whether or not there will not be a reasonable number of other countries and other nations that will be convinced to move down this particular path and become competitors in the market for medium and high level waste?

Also, how reasonable are the assumptions that that potentially significant competition from a number of other countries can be prevented or whether the assumption that it is unlikely to occur to any great degree is reasonable or not, particularly if other countries do not go through what will surely be in the South Australian and Australian context significant regulatory oversight? My colleague the Hon. Mr Ridgway has been to England, and he has recounted to colleagues the time frames involved in that particular facility and their warnings in terms of what needs to be done. International treaties that need to be either renegotiated or unwound, planning and regulatory oversight, and all of that sort of thing will have to be done in the South Australian context, if we go down that path.

There might be other countries that perhaps might not be that worried about going for that same degree of regulatory oversight and play by the rules of international treaties in the future. What are the assumptions that the royal commissioner has made, or that this pot of gold argument has made, in relation to the possibility of competition from others who do not go to the same degree of regulatory oversight that we are likely to go through? They are just some of the issues in terms of the pot of gold argument, the economic and financial questions, that I believe the committee does need to provide further information on to the South Australian parliament and community. I think to do that the committee will need the assurance from the government, unlike other committees, as to access to significant human resource, in terms of staffing and/or consultancy support.

That means a separate budget with high-powered legal advice will be clearly required. With the greatest respect to other members of the committee, we do not want to rely on those amongst us who might be lawyers to provide us with legal advice on international treaties and the many other legal issues. Access to highly competent legal advice, but also access to highly competent economic and financial advice. Clearly, it cannot be from the same tribe or tribes that provided that advice with the same assumptions to the royal commissioner.

Clearly, the committee needs to have a fresh set of eyes, if it so determines. That is certainly the view that I will be putting to the committee; that is, if it so determines—and I accept it will be a decision of the committee. It needs a fresh set of eyes, a devil's advocate, to look at the assumptions and to, in the end, not say, 'Hey, you got it wrong' but 'The pot of gold argument, with this level of pot of gold, relies on these assumptions and these things to happen. However, there will be a slightly bigger or smaller pot of gold if those assumptions are different in this respect or if the competition in the marketplace is different in some other respect.'

If this committee is to do the work it needs to do, and I accept on face value that the government representatives and the government are genuine in wanting the committee to do a good body of work, and certainly some of the members on the committee I accept have accepted the position with that understanding from their viewpoint as well, but certainly there will need to be an early indication from the government that it is prepared to provide, in a short-term intensive way, an appropriate level of resourcing to ensure that these important issues can be canvassed.

There are lots of other issues. I have raised some issues in terms of administrative and structural that talk about the regulatory and institutional arrangements with government representatives already—not parliamentary members but the people within the bureaucracy who are evidently handling this—and I am particularly interested in the institutional arrangement, the supposedly independent agency, that will provide oversight if we are to proceed down this path; and I think there is going to be an agency from around about July whilst we consider this. If parliament decides not to go down the path, I presume that is the end of the independent agency, but if it decides to go further then I am assuming this independent agency will continue.

The question I have already put to the government representatives and to the government is: what is the true independence of this particular agency? Currently, it is a senior officer. I have asked: is that senior officer answerable to Mr Kym Winter-Dewhirst, as the chief executive of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet? Are all those officers within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet answerable to Mr Kym Winter-Dewhirst during this particular period? To whom do they report?

I am told they are going to report to the Premier, but they are the sort of detailed issues in terms of the institutional and oversight arrangements that the committee needs to think about as well. Some of those are subsidiary to the critical question about whether or not the parliament should be voting to proceed down this path, and I accept that.

Some of these issues do not need to be resolved absolutely before the parliament votes on the legislation; they are matters of secondary detail. Nevertheless, I think they are important issues as well. I have asked the question, for example: who is making the decisions about the government advertising for the nuclear fuel cycle discussion at the moment? Is that going through the PCAG Process, through the Department of the Premier and Cabinet? Does this mean that Kym Winter-Dewhirst, Paul Flanagan and Rik Morris, within the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, are the people making the decisions about how much money is going to be spent, and the nature of that advertising during this particular period? How can we be assured that this independent agency is truly independent in relation to the taxpayers' money that is going to be spent on advertising and those sorts of issues?

There are a lot of issues like that, and I have detailed questions. I do not propose to delay discussion at this particular stage, but I at least canvass some of the issues which need to be addressed. Some are at what I would call the high level—the critical issues as to whether or not we are going to recommend to go down the path—and then there are the secondary level issues which relate to, 'If we do that, how are we going to manage the process from 2017 onwards?' With that, I indicate that the Liberal Party will be supporting the motion that is before us.

        

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© Rob Lucas 2016 | Authorised by Rob Lucas, Parliament House, Adelaide SA 5000