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Thursday, 25 February 2010
Page: 1243

Senator LUDLAM (4:10 PM) —I move:

At the end of the motion, add "but, in respect of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, the provisions of the bill also be referred to the Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2010".

I understand the proposed amendment to the motion has been circulated to the whips. Its circulation was set in motion a little while ago, but I will inform senators exactly what I am doing. The proposed amendment does not seek to impede the work of the Selection of Bills Committee. It refers specifically to one of the recommendations in respect of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, which was presented to the House of Representatives the other day.

The Selection of Bills Committee has recommended the referral of this extremely important bill, in which we know there is going to be a very high degree of public interest not just in the Northern Territory but right around the country, to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for an inquiry which basically gives people 11 working days to inform the committee—and for the committee, hopefully, to inform itself—as to the wide-ranging import of a bill of this kind. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee is exactly the right place for this referral to go with regard to the quite serious constitutional implications of the drafting of the bill, which effectively not merely trespasses but bulldozes the rights of states and territories. The Northern Territory is on the front line right at the moment, but this bill seeks to effectively clear a path through any private interests, Aboriginal interests, environmental interests and the relevant state and territory legislation that would impede the site selection and location of a national radioactive waste dump, the first that has ever operated in Australia.

We have a 20- or 30-year history of coercive attempts at dumping this form of material on remote Aboriginal communities and it is time that that approach ceased, effective immediately. We thought we had that commitment in hand from the Labor government. Comments were made by candidates, by sitting senators and by Labor members of parliament that the approach of the former government was wrong and that it was time to move to a different footing—a respectful, scientific, deliberative approach as to what to do with our radioactive waste. Instead what we have is a continuation of this process. Now we have the Selection of Bills Committee moving for a very rapid short-circuiting of due process on an issue that the community has enormous interest in.

You will note that we are not proposing the cancellation of the recommendation of the Selection of Bills Committee. I think it is entirely appropriate that the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee assess the constitutional implications of this bill. If that is the recommendation of the committee, that is fine. This motion seeks to refer the bill simultaneously to the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts for a decent period of time. We have set the report date at 24 June 2010, which is enough time for the committee to seek correspondence—and they will be getting a lot of it from around the country but particularly from the people on the ground at Muckaty Station, who know that they are targeted by this legislation. They know absolutely that this is a continuation of the process that we have seen before. If it is the government and Minister Martin Ferguson’s decision to continue down this track that has failed and left in its wake a trail of Commonwealth ministers in failed attempts to coercively establish radioactive waste dumps, then that is the government’s decision and so be it.

But, at the very least, give the Senate a chance to do its job. Let the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee look into the constitutional implications of bulldozing aside state and territory rights in the site selection, the location, the construction and the operation of the dump, but give the Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee the opportunity to conduct a thorough inquiry and take evidence from the community. We know a high degree of public interest will be expressed, because that same committee did an exceptional job in the second and third quarters of 2008 and came up with a consensus report. It was chaired by Senator McEwen. We travelled to Alice Springs and we had hearings here in Canberra. We took evidence from all stakeholders, but most importantly we took evidence from people who had come down from Tennant Creek. That was the first time that they had had their voices heard in this debate. For the government to refuse to refer this to an appropriate committee for a decent period of time is a calculated abuse of the Senate’s oversight role. I commend this amendment to the chamber.