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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 749


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:08): I thank the minister. I will set aside your answer to the question about whether any other sites are under consideration as I think that has been addressed by some of your advisers at various estimates committee hearings as well. Your answer is consistent with what they have been telling us, which is that it appears that the process is on hold until such time as the issue of the Muckaty nomination has been resolved. Today of all days—when the entire country, from the most senior levels of government down, is consumed with other matters—I think it is cynical in the extreme to seek to pass a bill as contentious and controversial as this one. It is obviously a day when the press gallery have other issues in mind.

The first question that I put to you, minister, was around the number of sites that would close. I put that question to you for a reason. In some of your opening remarks, and certainly in the minister's remarks and in the debate in the other place, we frequently hear that there are hundreds of locations around the country at which materials are being stored. The implication is that they are being stored unsafely and that that is the reason we need a centralised remote radioactive waste dump. The question that I put to you is fairly simple: if we are doing that in aid of closing these sites, which number over 100—that is the response you have given—then how many of them will close?

The department, despite having a fortnight to provide us with an answer to that question, has not been able to give us a number at all. The minister you are representing in this place has handballed it back to the states and said, 'We don't know.' I put it to you, minister, that it is inappropriate to be using that line of argument if, when pressed on how many sites will close, you are unable to tell us. My suspicion is that none of the sites will close because there is no proposal to reduce the production of this material in any sense. There is no proposal, as far as I can tell, as a result of opening up a dump at Muckaty or anywhere else, to close any of the sites. So I think it is disingenuous in the extreme to run an argument that the dump is needed because of all these sites around the place which are unsafe. I would like the minister to provide us with a list of which sites are unsafe. What are the sites of concern? Where are we storing this material where it is not safe at the moment? Why are we allowing it to be stored at hospitals, university engineering departments or wherever? Why are we allowing that to occur? Why should it take the establishment of a remote waste dump to provide for secure storage of these materials at these sites that are dispersed around the country?

In the brief time I have had to consider the minister's response—and I think this might have been mentioned in passing in some of the responses to Senator Rhiannon's questions—I think some of the opposition to a remote waste dump is inconsistent. On the one hand, you say you do not want this material transported to a remote or centralised site; on the other hand, you contradict that by suggesting that waste from dispersed sites all over Australia should be collected on a regular basis and transported to Lucas Heights. I do not think there is any inherent contradiction there. That was in an answer I have just scanned to Senator Rhiannon around the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry in 2004, which was a very good report. You will not find many people who oppose the idea of concentrating and potentially centralising these wastes together in a single place, which will require transport of low-level radioactive waste of various categories. The big argument I have, and which many people have, is about whether it should be at a cattle station outside Tennant Creek or in the active care and maintenance of people who are well qualified to look after it.

The minister will be well aware that the proposal here is to transfer several hundred cubic metres, or in the low thousands of cubic metres, of this material from active care and maintenance at Lucas Heights, where it is surrounded by a security perimeter fence with Federal Police and in-house security and actively monitored and looked after by technicians and people very well qualified to look after it. I think that is appropriate. For as long as we are producing these categories of waste, it is appropriate. We do not think we should be producing this waste, but we will canvass that later in the debate. It is looked after by people who are qualified to do so, people who are trained in the dispersal patterns of this material and who know how it behaves over long periods of time with exposure to water and so on.

That kind of centralisation and looking after this material at a central site is completely different from loading it onto trucks and taking it to a cattle station where it will be looked after by six of the loneliest security guards on the planet. That is the proposal—two security guards on an eight-hour rotation for the next 300 years! That, I think, is what has got people upset, and at no time has the Commonwealth government made a case for why that is appropriate—for why this material would be somehow safer under the care and maintenance of two security guards than it is under the care and maintenance of the technicians and people who have been looking after it at Lucas Heights for 60 years. That is the essential case that the government has failed to make. I do not think there is anything inconsistent there. That is my very brief reading of the critique of the 2004 New South Wales parliamentary inquiry. I do not think there is any contradiction there at all. At the bottom of the minister's response to my answer on radioactive waste management facilities around Australia, there is a paragraph that reads, 'The government's legislation is based on the principle of volunteerism and does not of itself assume that a site will be remotely located.' My question to the minister goes to this principle of volunteerism. I do not have the quotations here in front of me on the Muckaty nomination but they are quite powerful. They are by the government's proponent, who put the proposal for a remote site to the Northern Land Council. They then forwarded it to the minister for his consideration. The proposal was that they need road upgrades and they are looking for some educational facilities. There has been this process in the NT and across remote Australia of withdrawing support for remote Aboriginal communities, for closing out stations and for concentrating people in particular sites. If I understand their submission correctly, these people are after basic upgrades to infrastructure that has been withdrawn and they are after educational opportunities.

Here is the problem with volunteerism. We can go to some of the most structurally disadvantaged communities in the country, people who are starving for resources and being forced off their land because we are not providing adequate resources, and say, 'Who's interested in a cheque for 12 million bucks?' in a school. That is what our principle of volunteerism amounts to. It takes politically vulnerable and extremely disadvantaged communities and says, 'In exchange for hosting this material that is perfectly safe—which is why we have to remove it from a metropolitan area. It is so safe that it cannot stay in Sydney any longer. We will provide you with basic infrastructure and services that the rest of the Australian population take for granted.'

Minister, I have a serious problem with what sounds innocently enough like the spirit or the principle of volunteerism, which I am presuming the government is setting in counterpoint to the spirit of coercion, whereby we simply roll into your community and tell you that you are going to get the dump. The principle of volunteerism means, in practice, that disadvantaged communities are being coerced into accepting this material. That is why this is not about Muckaty.

We have heard a huge amount of it about Muckaty because it is named and explicitly targeted in the legislation that we are debating today. But it is not about Muckaty. It is about the principle of why we always assume that it should be a remote Aboriginal community's job to host this toxic material until the end of time. That is the essential problem, here. There is every reason to believe that the Muckaty nomination will fall over. This is either because we will see sense in parliament and reject this bill or the Federal Court will find in favour of the applicants that the land was not properly nominated or that the community campaign that has sparked up around the country continues to do its work and rolls Minister Martin Ferguson right out of parliament in the next election, if not sooner.

If the Muckaty nomination falls over, we have every reason to believe that we will be visiting this disastrous and coercive project on some other community. Perhaps it will be in western Queensland. Perhaps it will be back in the north of New South Wales. Perhaps, Senator Evans, it will be in your state and mine,—through you, Temporary Chairman Furner—Western Australia, that already hosts a low-level state radioactive waste dump. That is the essential problem I have with this legislation. It has not been justified. The principle of remote storage has not been justified and it has been done to cover some pretty dodgy arguments.

The question that I put to you, Minister, is whether you disagree with my contention. What is noted here in the minister's answer to my question, as the principle of volunteerism, is simply economic and political coercion under another name.