Questions Without Notice: CU-River Mining
Senator Patrick: My question is to Minister for Defence and concerns the operation of a Chinese owned mining company, CU-River Mining, in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Can the minister confirm that her department has reviewed CU-River Mining's compliance with access conditions set by the resource production permit issued to the company by Defence? Did that review confirm any instances of noncompliance or other security issues relating to the activities of CU-River Mining or its Chinese partner, JiuJiang Mining? How have any security problems been resolved? Has the department changed or modified the access conditions applying to CU-River Mining's activities on the Woomera range?
Senator Reynolds (Minister for Defence): I thank Senator Patrick for that question. I also thank him for the courtesy of prior notice. It's actually refreshing to get a question of substance from the other side of the chamber.
In relation to the question, the Woomera Prohibited Area is a key national security asset and Australia's most important weapons testing range. This is why the Morrison government takes the preservation of the unique capability very seriously. Dealings between permit holders within the Woomera Prohibited Area and Defence are subject to strict security, privacy and commercial considerations, so it is not appropriate for me, at this time, to discuss the details of individual permit holders. However, I am aware of the allegations of possible access and security breaches at the Cairn Hill mine, and I can confirm to the Senate that Defence takes these matters seriously.
I cannot discuss these matters publicly to afford all parties due process; I can say, however, that Defence does balance national security requirements with non-Defence activities under a coexistence framework at Woomera, where access is granted but only where it doesn't put Defence's interests at risk. To achieve this, Defence works very closely with security agencies to ensure its security posture and policy in the Woomera Prohibited Area is agile and also reflects current threats. Defence also conducts six-monthly audits of all permissions to access the Woomera Prohibited Area. In light of the evolving security environment, I have directed Defence to examine, review and audit processes of all permits.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, a supplementary question?
Senator Patrick: What discussions has CU-River Mining held this year with Defence concerning the proposed expansion of its mining operations? When did the company make formal application to expand its operations in the prohibited area? What has been Defence's decision in relation to that?
Senator Reynolds (Minister for Defence): Thanks, Senator Patrick, for that question. As I stated in my previous answer, dealings between individual permit holders and Defence are subject to security, privacy and commercial considerations, and therefore it's not appropriate for me to discuss the detail or outcomes of individual applications. However, what I will say is this: where necessary, permits will not be issued where the security of defence activities may be compromised. Where permits are issued, they may be subject to additional conditions to manage and mitigate risk or, as I said, they may not be issued at all.
The PRESIDENT: Senator Patrick, a final supplementary question?
Senator Patrick: Given growing concerns about Chinese espionage in Australia, what assurances can the minister give that the presence of a Chinese-controlled mining company on the Woomera range won't undermine confidence in security there—a vital facility being upgraded to support increased defence trials by not only Australia but also our allies?
Senator Reynolds (Minister for Defence): I can assure you and all in this chamber that Defence has a very strong legislative and policy framework which provides compliance, assurance and mitigation measures to uphold security in the WPA. The No. 1 priority of our government is to keep Australians safe. As I outlined to the chamber yesterday, the government is further strengthening Australia's response to the threat of foreign interference, with a new task force to disrupt and deter anyone attempting to undermine our nation's interests. The Morrison government will continue to take strong action to deter acts of foreign interference and, as the threat evolves, defend against them where they occur, in accordance with Australia's laws.