Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister representing the Foreign Minister, Minister Conroy, for an explanation as to why answers have not been provided to questions on notice Nos 338 and 364 asked on 6 and 17 December 2010.
Senator CONROY: I appreciate the senator's keen interest and concern regarding Burma's alleged nuclear activities. I am advised that a number of months ago the Minister for Foreign Affairs offered for the Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office to brief Senator Ludlam on this issue and other matters which he has raised in the course of Senate estimates. I understand that Senator Ludlam plans to take this meeting next week and I expect that answers to his questions will be formally provided following this meeting.
Senator LUDLAM: I thank the minister. I move: That the Senate take note of the explanation.
That is a very brief explanation for two questions on very similar issues that I gave notice of last December. The briefing with Dr Floyd, the new director-general of ASNO, was only offered about a fortnight ago. That officer has only just recently taken up that position. I recognise that Minister Conroy is outside his portfolio but I find that explanation to be wholly inadequate given that these questions were put on the Notice Paper in December.
They are about an issue, one which I will go into some detail on in a moment, that has direct relevance to Australia's security interests and yet these questions have languished, one for 253 days and one for 242 days. That is how long it has taken. I took the opportunity to go back through the Notice Paper and take a look at what else has lapsed, and this is an issue that I think Senator Cormann took up yesterday, and saw that we have questions overdue by a matter of months. The convention in this place is 30 days and for most portfolios you actually get that kind of response; you get an answer approximately 30 days after you put a question on notice.
The oldest one, the one that has been lingering the longest, is in the name of Senator Bob Brown, who gave notice on 28 September 2010 of asking about an issue relating to the Australian Political Parties for Democracy Program. That has been lying around for nearly a year. There are questions to Minister Conroy-and it is a bit of a shame that he has left the room-including a question that Senator Brown put on notice on 8 December 2010 relating to the Indonesian unit known as Detachment 88, which has been implicated in horrific human rights abuses in Indonesia. So that has been lying around since 8 December 2010.
There are questions of mine to Minister Conroy relating to the Digital Switchover Taskforce, quite detailed questions-about information that it would have been handy for me to know about-that I gave notice of on 13 December 2010. There is a question by Senator Siewert, relating to staffing in the disability services portfolio, that she put on notice in April 2011. There are dozens of questions lying around and no apparent procedure for getting them answered within the right time frame.
I did the Minister for Foreign Affairs the courtesy this morning of letting him know that we would be chasing these up, months and months after they were lodged, and he has seen fit to do nothing more than send Minister Conroy along to say, 'Oh, you'll be briefed on those, among other things, in a week's time.' That is really different from the process for questions on notice whereby detailed information is sought and expected to be received.
I wonder whether any spokesperson from the government would care to inform the chamber about what process actually operates behind the scenes for deciding which questions you will just let lapse until they get taken up in the Senate and which will be given a proper answer.
The reason that I have taken this time this afternoon-and I will only speak briefly, because I realise that progress did not get very far this morning on the bill that is before the chamber-relates to Burma's alleged nuclear weapons program. This is an issue in which Australia has a very direct interest. My questions on this subject first arose from some alarming reports that were issued in 2009 by Professor Des Ball from ANU and Phil Thornton, a journalist living on the Thai-Burma border. I had the opportunity to meet with both these two individuals who put the reports together. The cross-party group, known as Australian Parliamentarians for Democracy in Burma, sought a briefing from Professor Ball in 2009, which he provided and for which we are very grateful. He also briefed ASNO, the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office here, in Canberra, and other departments to discuss their findings and their research. I had the good fortune to meet Mr Thornton when I took a trip to the Thai-Burma border very early last year.
What MPs learned at the briefing was that the two authors had interviewed two informants who had come out of Burma. They were not aware of the existence of each other.
The defectors described Russian and North Korean collaboration with the Burmese military in an illicit reactor for producing plutonium. The people who follow these issues will be aware that these kinds of reactors are effectively for military use only. There is very, very little point if you do not even have a civil nuclear program in building a plutonium producing reactor. This technology is complex; it is very elaborate; it would take a long time to put together. If there is an illicit nuclear weapons program taking shape in Burma, with the covert or overt support of either the Russian government or the North Korean government, I think it would be in our interests to find out about that and do our part to stop that thing in its tracks before it got too far advanced.
The two informers told virtually identical stories about a clandestine facility that has been under construction for a period of time and that North Korea is assisting the Burmese regime to create a plutonium production facility in a very large underground complex in the regional part of the country. Their descriptions include the location of the facility, its scale, the timetable of construction and the sort of equipment that they are bringing in. The two stories matched perfectly. These were two defectors who had come out of the country and did not know of each other's existence.
It would be of huge concern if Burma were embarking on clandestine nuclear activities in contravention of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. I hope I do not have to spell out the reasons why. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, raised the suspected collaboration at the ASEAN summit in July of last year. Jane's Intelligence Review has written it up. The Institute for Science and International Security, which is a Washington DC based think tank, is writing it up. And a report commissioned by the Democratic Voice of Burma said that, while the military may not be successful in their efforts-and of course we wish them every failure-the intent is clear. It said analysis leads to only one conclusion: the technology is for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.
There are doubts. There is ambiguity operating in this kind of environment, obviously. Because the rumours have been going for some time, it was interesting to see quite a reasonable amount of material disclosed as a result of the WikiLeaks document drop of state department archives last year in which this subject is canvassed at length. A 2004 cable provided as part of that large store of material noted that there was no direct evidence of the alleged nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma; however, 'rumours of ongoing construction of a nuclear reactor are surprisingly consistent and observations of activity appear to be increasing as are alleged sightings of North Korean technicians inside Burma'. Another classified cable reports: 'North Korean workers are reportedly assembling surface-to-air missiles and constructing an underground facility at a Burmese military site about 315 miles north, north-west of Rangoon. Some 300 North Koreans are working on the secret construction site.' This is what the US State Department is telling itself.
Another cable in 2007 reveals concerns that Burma is exporting uranium to China. The cable describes the suspicious behaviour of authorities when handling a shipment of mixed ore from Burma to China via Singapore in January of that year. They quote: 'Embassy contacts noticed that authorities treated the shipment as highly sensitive and suspect it may have included uranium.' There are a large number of other cables, including one that refers to Australia's former ambassador in Burma, Michelle Chan, whom I had the good fortune to meet and discuss this issue with, trying to verify the accuracy of a report that she received that the regimes of Kim Jong-il and Than Shwe, the Burmese dictator, were engaged in peaceful nuclear cooperation.
The US cables detailed the construction of suspicious underground military facilities alongside the construction of a very large airstrip, as well as suspected shipments of uranium from Burma to China. That is why I have been following the issue and reminding the department and the minister through estimates and the various avenues that we have available to us in here that there is a very serious concern about nuclear weapons proliferation in the region-particularly if you allow yourself to imagine for a moment the idea of nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime such as Burma's, which is already a regional security threat and treats its own population with such an appalling contempt for human rights.
When I asked about this matter at Senate estimates-and I will follow this up with Mr Floyd next week-representatives from ASNO stated that Australia was monitoring developments in Burma-whatever that means. We have a very small diplomatic staff based in Rangoon, so I am not sure what they mean by 'monitoring developments'.
The questions on notice that I put to Minister Rudd, for which Minister Conroy has just provided this breathtakingly inadequate explanation, were seeking to clarify what efforts are being undertaken to monitor developments relating to these alleged facilities in Burma.
What is it that we are doing?
What does monitoring mean in this capacity?
What have we done through the various avenues that are available to us?
For example, I sought to understand what could be done by the IAEA and by our government in the light of the statement made by the Burmese regime in September of last year at the International Atomic Energy Agency assembly in Vienna, where the Burmese junta's statement included a refutation of allegations of a nuclear weapons program. Burma has two obsolete IAEA agreements and has failed to execute the additional protocol. We have nothing more to go on than what they told the IAEA in that forum. The 2010 IAEA report declared that Burma's nuclear material remained in peaceful use, but they stated that they are now investigating allegations that Burma is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In December 2010, they wrote to the regime and formally requested access for inspectors to visit Burmese nuclear sites and facilities. This is one of the reasons why it is important that we have the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty framework and why it is so dangerous for Australia to potentially circumvent that framework by, for example, trading with India. The IAEA, under the terms of that treaty, has those access rights; it can seek to inspect facilities.
Burma is a signatory to the treaty, such that they are therefore not allowed and not permitted to develop nuclear weapons. That is one of the cornerstones and one of the most obvious points as to why that treaty is in existence. Burma is supposed to provide the IAEA with initial reports of all relevant nuclear material and to allow the agency to verify the reports via inspections.
According to a Washington Times report of this January, Burma has ignored those letters, so they have ignored the request for inspections. So we have nothing more to go on than statements from the regime. They will not need to rely on international nuclear fuel supplies, with a fuel market that Australia services, because they have confirmed deposits of uranium at a number of sites within Burma, and reactor grade uranium was being mined near Lashio in northern Shan state.
Professor Ball and Phil Thornton have stated that cooperation with North Korea and Iran is being pursued under a fuel-for-technology program. The uranium mining occurs in Burma. Many of the shipments will be clandestine and in exchange they are receiving training from Moscow and technical advice and assistance from Iran and North Korea. Why on earth are we walking into a situation like that blindfolded? This is occurring in our region.
We are one of the largest suppliers of uranium to civil fuel markets in the world and yet we are just letting this go on behind our backs. I would have thought, given 250 days to consider the context of the questions that I put to the minister, we would have got more than a throwaway line that Senator Conroy just delivered: 'Oh, you will get a briefing next week.' That is wonderful; I look forward to that briefing. It would have been nice if Minister Rudd had seen fit-and we did tip his office off this morning that we would be bringing this question to the chamber-to give us a certain amount of information.
Senator Jacinta Collins: He is on leave.
Senator LUDLAM: I presume the entire department has not gone on leave.
Senator Jacinta Collins: You named him. You said his office.
Senator Cormann: He has been on leave for 255 days.
Senator LUDLAM: His office or the minister. Has he been on leave since last December, Senator Collins? I do not believe he has been on leave since December. This is not to be too critical. The Foreign Minister has done great work on behalf of Australia on nuclear proliferation. This is an issue he knows and cares about. This is not an accusation of not caring about the overall agenda of disarmament of nuclear weapons and ridding the planet of these foul devices. But I n this instance we have the potential of a very real security threat unfolding in our region and it is impossible to find out if our government, through any of the avenues that we have available to us, is actually doing anything about it. So the questions that I will put to Mr Floyd-and if the government would like to shed some light in the interim, that would be wonderful-are:
Is the Australian government aware of any of the results of the IAEA's investigations, either through inspection or by consideration of other material? And, how have we used our position on the board of governors of the IAEA? Our position on the global fuel markets presumably one of the reasons we often hear about remaining with the uranium suppliers is that it gives us leverage in this fora. How are we using it? What are we doing on the board of governors and our mission in Vienna to address the very serious proliferation risks implicit in this potential program?
The implications are so serious because there is no such thing as safe hands in nuclear weapons. It is not that the Burmese regime would put nuclear weapons in unsafe hands but thank goodness they are being maintained by the governments of Russia and the United States. No state whatsoever should have nuclear weapons, but certainly not this brutal and irrational regime who likely seek this capability to hold the international community in complete contempt, as it has done to its own people for 60 years.
The world's leading expert on Burma's economy, Associate Professor Sean Turnell from Macquarie University, has said that revenues earned from the sale of oil and gas have provided the Burmese regime with the financial resources needed to purchase nuclear technology from North Korea. Here is another place where Australia comes in because we have no trade embargo, we have no investment embargo, so Australian investors in the oil and gas industry are currently providing the regime with a revenue stream, in the sense of oil and gas exploration, which they hope to prove up to large scale and viable commercial projects.
That lucrative business would have to stop because if Burma was found out to be developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program there would have to be international sanctions, as there are around the regime of North Korea. That would obviously do no good for countries profiteering and, basically, participating in the looting of the country's natural resources. That business would have to stop because sanctions would be imposed. That would bite into Australia's $50-odd million worth of two-way trade with Burma.
Australia has a safeguards and nonproliferation office. We have got some expertise. We have an embassy in Burma; we have a seat at the UN General Assembly; we have a seat in Geneva at the conference on disarmament; we are in Vienna at the IAEA. What have we done? That is all we were seeking and that is all that we were after in the questions that we put to the minister. We need to be taking proactive steps with regard to Burma just as we have done with Iran. There are no right hands for these weapons to be in.
The government needs to be seized with the matter and actively engaged to verify and support the inspection efforts of the IAEA and we certainly expect that. The government should answer questions within the specific time that was allotted-that is, 30 days, not 250. I am looking forward, still, to a written response to questions 338 and 364. I thank the chamber.