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Radioactive Waste Management in Australia and Muckaty Station

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 5 Oct 2010

I rise to speak briefly on the question of radioactive waste management in Australia. It is fitting that these are the first remarks I will offer in this new parliament. Although we have not yet seen our new colleagues come into the Senate as yet, it is something of a new dawn politically and I am very pleased to be able to add these remarks. We are seeing now recognition of the need for negotiation. We are in an environment that we have not been in in Australian politics in around 70 years. It is a minority government, an environment that requires respect for the fact that not everybody is going to get everything that they want in this new parliament; some will get more than others. These matters will be resolved by negotiation rather than by raw numbers and crunching particular agendas through. We are also going to see a healthy period of scrutiny of legislation and proposals in both houses of parliament. The Senate has been undertaking this important work for more than 100 years. We are now going to be seeing that spirit introduced into the House of Representatives.

The Australian Greens are delighted to be a part of that process as it unfolds.

Today has been marked out by campaigners around the world, chiefly in North America, Europe and Australia, as an international day in recognition of campaigns against radioactive waste-to prevent the production of this material in the first place and to responsibly manage the material where it already exists. Obviously, in Australia, and around the world, we have various categories of radioactive waste. It is one of the key legacies of the nuclear industry-still unresolved more than 60 years after the creation of the first volumes of this material-that nowhere in the world is there a consensus on what on earth to do with it. In Australia we face these same dilemmas. Around the world today, due to the exceptionally valuable ongoing work of people like Mary Olson in the United States, we are marking this campaign, which is now in its third generation, for the responsible management of low- to very high-level radioactive waste.

In Australia at the moment the focal point for this campaign is a proposal, which originated sometime in late 2005 or 2006, to load Australia's inventory of long-lived intermediate level waste onto a fleet of semitrailers, take it to the opposite side of the country and leave it on a cattle station about 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek. Despite the view of some in the area-and we must acknowledge that these views exist-that this is a way to provide employment and investment in the region, it must also be acknowledged that the proposal has sparked fierce and sustained opposition locally and nationally. I am standing here this afternoon to say that the Greens believe there is a better way of dealing with this issue and we hope that this better way coincides with the new circumstances and the new conditions that prevail here in the Australian parliament.

From a government that yesterday participated in a welcome to country with the consent of everybody in this building-the first one that has occurred in the forecourt and the second one of an Australian parliament- to an opposition which has newly discovered the concept of Aboriginal people exercising a veto power over what occurs on their land, surely this is the time to revisit the way we approach the management of radioactive waste in Australia. The Greens will work constructively with anyone on this new way forward. We have some proposals and some ideas about how to bring this debate forward.

Let us quickly traverse what it is not about. This is not about shutting down nuclear medicine or the availability of radiopharmaceuticals to people in Australia who need them. It is not about leaving radioactive waste stranded at hospitals or the so-called orphan source problem where materials are lost or misplaced. It is not even about opposition to the concept of centralising and better recording of where this material is; I think all sides of this debate believe that there is a case for that. It is not necessarily even about the gloves or the low-level waste that we so commonly hear about, the material that is toxic and ticking for a period of around 300 years, by which time it has faded away to background levels of radiation. If they had been producing this material around the later years of Sir Isaac Newton, about now is when we could relax and treat that material as uncontaminated.

There is perhaps an argument for the centralisation and better management of the places this material currently resides, but that is not necessarily a case for dumping it somewhere remote. This debate is about Australia's inventory of very, very long-lived radioactive waste, which demands isolation from people and from the environment for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years; a period during which language will change irrevocably, cultures will change, the climate will change, the coastlines will change. That is how far into the future we need to consider the management and safe isolation of these very, very long-lived and toxic materials.

It has thrown up intractable problems, not surprisingly around the world-including in countries with much more of this material than us-bringing world's best practice into the debate. We hope to learn from repeated failures overseas and here in Australia, things like propositions to coercively dump the material on unwilling communities. That approach has been shown to fail over and over again-including the proposition for a national radioactive waste dump in my home state of Western Australia and more recently in South Australia.

In Australia we would probably translate world's best practice as free, prior and informed consent of the communities that are to host this material. That is not just a scientific or an engineering challenge; that is a challenge in which the entire community has a stake. Ironically enough, people-the traditional owners of the site in question up at Muckaty-who do have experience of this land over generations and through what we would define as different geological ages do not support this proposal. There is neither community consent nor a community licence to take this material and dump it at Muckaty. Those people have written again on behalf of all five of the clan groups that signed up to form the Muckaty Land Trust some time ago, inviting the minister again to come up to country, to sit down with them, to at least look them in the eye, and, most importantly, to briefly stop talking and listen. I was not particularly impressed, as those in the chamber will know, with the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs when it investigated a previous iteration of this bill that was hung up when parliament suspended, but I think it is worth pausing to note recommendation 1 of that committee, which Senator Crossin chaired. It said:

The committee recommends that, as soon as possible, the Minister ... undertake consultations with all parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility.

We wholeheartedly endorse that recommendation, but it has still not been implemented. That is the reason that the traditional owners from that area are still writing, still petitioning, still knocking on the door and still calling the phone number of that minister. They cannot get a hearing. At the very least have the guts to look these people in the eye and tell them what your proposal is.

There is, of course, another way: a path of consent instead of a path of coercion. The government's approach, following quite closely on that of the former government, has been a path of coercion and a path of just dumping this material. That has led to the creation of enormous stress in the Muckaty community amongst people with other priorities and better things to do than to fight this misguided proposal. They have, however, led a national campaign and have support from people around the country, which I think played quite an important part in the very solid and serious swing towards the Greens and away from the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, in his seat of Batman in Melbourne, a very long way from Tennant Creek.

There has been a huge lift in the Green vote owing not just to the radioactive waste dump issue but also to the solid work that my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert has done on the NT intervention and the leadership shown by our candidates in Central Australia: Senate candidate Warren H Williams and Barb Shaw for the lower house seat of Lingiari. They made extraordinary progress and inroads in Central Australia, outpolling both Labor and the CLP in all remote booths south of Tennant Creek and recording swings in some instances of greater than 40 per cent. The seat of Lingiari, held by Minister Snowdon, is now marginal, and I think that is partly a result of the way the government has handled the radioactive waste management issue. We know that legislation has been drafted; we know that the minister wants to bring forward legislation which targets Muckaty and gives him total discretion to deal with this issue as he pleases. I frequently clashed with the minister over the approach of the Rudd government, but, at this first opportunity that I have in this new parliament, I will begin by agreeing with one thing that this minister has said on the issue-that is, to paraphrase him, that this is a formidably difficult issue for which there are no easy solutions. I associate myself with those comments, because it is true that there is no easy path to dealing with this waste which we have created in Australia and overseas without having any idea of what to do with it.

It is politically difficult as well as technically difficult, and we agree with that. We recognise it and we will commit to working with anybody in this parliament from the minister down who is willing to engage with this issue with the seriousness that it deserves. There are no doubt members of the coalition and certainly there are those in the ALP who know that this approach is wrong, and now is the time to do something about it. There cannot be excuses for failing. The government began its last term with an apology, and it is essential that on this issue we go no further down the path of needing to apologise again. The letter that all new members of parliament would have received yesterday or today is from all five of the clan groups that make up the Muckaty Land Trust. Shortly I will seek leave to table this letter and incorporate its message into Hansard by consent of the whips, but first I will briefly comment on some of the things that are here.

The letter reads:

You are a new parliament for Australia. We are asking that you give us a new start as Aboriginal people who are being threatened with this nuclear waste dump. There is a bill that will soon come before this parliament, the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill. It will target our land for the waste dump. We are the Aboriginal people who own the land and the dreamings you are talking about. We are asking that you reject this bill and scrap Muckaty as a site for the waste dump. The last two governments didn't listen to us-you must be different. We have been fighting for the last five years to say we don't want the waste dump in the land. We are again inviting Minister Martin Ferguson and all members of the new parliament to come down and face us in our own country. Come and sit with us and hear the stories from the land.

I seek leave to table the remainder of this letter and incorporate it in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows-

In the federal election people in our area didn't vote for the big parties because they want change. Our local member for Barkly Gerry McCarthy wrote in the Tennant Times that the election results show clearly people in this region do not want the waste dump, There was a big vote for the Greens because of the strong stand they have taken fighting against the dump. All members of this parliament should listen to the words of Gerry McCarthy.

Warren Snowdon shouldn't call his electorate Lingiari if he is supporting the waste dump. Vincent Lingiari fought for Land Rights and Warren Snowden is betraying this name. We have heard Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott says he wants to help Aboriginal people in Cape York to control their land. If you really care about Land Rights you will stop your partys support for the waste dump laws and for what is happening to us, which goes against the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976. We want to develop our communities, but we should not have to destroy the country to do this.

We do not want to have to sell our country just to get houses, roads and opportunities for education. Our houses are in very bad condition and overcrowded. The government has already said that there will be no new houses built on our homelands or our town camps under the Intervention, but there will be funding if we accept a nuclear waste dump. Why should we have to accept a dump to get basic rights?

Our ceremonies and our designs don't come from nothing. These come from the ground itself. We are carrying them on from our ancestors way back in time. If you destroy our land we will have no culture. We will have no law that keeps us surviving through the years.

We say no to the nuclear waste dump.

Please reply to our letter c/o Minister Gerry McCarthy.
PO Box 796, Tennant Creek, NT, 0861

(Signatures are available from the Senate Table Office)

Senator LUDLAM-I thank the chamber and close my remarks by saying again that the government can choose a path of conflict or it can choose a path of collaboration and consent, and the Australian Greens stand ready to work with anybody on either side of the chamber in either house to progress this issue. The decisions we will potentially be making here over the next few months will have consequences for geological eras quite different to ours, when the purpose of the debates in this parliament will quite simply be long forgotten. It is very difficult for us to get our heads around the fact that the decisions we may make in this chamber in coming months will have consequences for tens of thousands of years after we are gone and for folk much closer to and with a much more intimate understanding of country than we have here.

All I ask is that we do not act with haste and that we choose a path of collaboration and consent over the path of conflict that has already led to this matter being raised in the Federal Court of Australia. We believe that it was sad that the traditional owners needed to take that action. Of course we support it and await the outcome, but we believe there is a much better way of dealing with this material. I thank the Senate. 


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