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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2971

Mr HALE (12:48 PM) —I rise today to make my contribution to the debate currently before the House on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. I had the privilege of entering this place in 2007, elected to represent the seat of Solomon in the Darwin and Palmerston areas, as well as to support the people of the Northern Territory. As a proud member of the Australian Labor Party in the Northern Territory and a strong supporter of the union movement in the north I am compelled by my convictions to convey the opposition by the people I represent to the proposed nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory.

I have been on the public record as opposing a nuclear dump in the Northern Territory since my preselection and that will remain my position. I represent the people of my electorate, regardless of whether they voted for me, the colour of their skin, where they were born, their social standing, their sexuality, their gender, whether they have a disability and the size of their bank account. They are my people and I am their voice in this place.

I am compelled by the many representations I have received about this issue through letters, at meetings, at markets or whilst doorknocking in my electorate, all wanting me to convey to this House their concerns and the far-reaching implications for future generations. Very few pieces of legislation introduced during my time in this place will have such a long-term impact on people, on industry and on the reputation of an area and our country as this particular bill before us today. In poker terms, let me say that the Minister for Resources and Energy was dealt a very average hand from the get-go!

The important search for a repository site was left in a mess by the former government, which did nothing for a decade on this issue, and then the Howard legislation of 2005 overrode the laws of the Northern Territory permitting the process of identifying a site. You have only to look at the history of this debate to see that successive governments have failed to address what is essentially a very important issue for the country, and we now find ourselves in a situation where our time line has tightened significantly. In order to meet our international obligations we need to build a facility as soon as we possibly can before we begin to receive our waste from abroad in 2015.

I am a firm believer that in politics it is the people who will be the most affected by a policy decision made by government who need to be consulted the most. I am not a supporter of the notion that others know best simply because they are in a position of having the most influence over policy and the process of policy development.

The Labor member for Barkly, Gerry McCarthy, made a representation to me outlining his concerns regarding the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. Gerry has lived in the Barkly area for the past 30 years. Gerry and his wife, Dawn, have worked, lived and raised their children in this remote part of Australia. As a schoolteacher and now a minister in the Henderson Northern Territory government, Gerry has a vast knowledge of Indigenous culture, the region’s Indigenous clans, the dynamic relationship between the people and their land, as well as the challenges that face Indigenous Australia in remote and regional areas.

Gerry’s representations to me are balanced and well informed and without the emotion which for so long has stifled this debate in Australia. Emotional arguments have been put forward from both sides of the debate. Gerry brought to my attention a number of issues he has with the legislation in its current form and I wish to convey them to the House on his behalf and on the behalf of the people he represents. Gerry highlighted a number of issues he had with the minister’s second reading speech, delivered on Wednesday, 24 February 2010. Gerry wrote to me regarding the purpose of the bill and said:

To repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 was an honourable move in support of the NT however to merely ‘cut and paste’ off the Howard Government legislation that continues to override Northern Territory legislation enacted to oppose the establishment of a nuclear waste facility in prime pastoral country was disappointing and a dismissal of our normal rights of administrative appeal.

On 4 March 2010, 100 people turned out in Tennant Creek to hear and voice concerns about the proposed nuclear radioactive waste dump at Muckaty Station. The question is: what would be the impact on pastoralists in the Barkly area who have successfully marketed their beef as clean and green? Henry Burke, the deputy chairman of the Tennant Creek branch of the NT Cattlemen’s Association, said:

As an industry view, we need to be fully engaged in the process and we need to be kept up to speed with how and when this is taking place.

Mr Burke personally feels that the people who are directly involved in making the decision should be informed of all the details and implications of what is being proposed. He went on to say:

We need to make sure what the safety process is around this. Why is it that it’s got to be stuck out in the middle of the Northern Territory at Muckaty Station? What’s dangerous about it?

He added:

There seems to be a whole lot of reasons and issues for the Government people to be sticking it out in the middle of nowhere without a lot of consultation.

The cattle industry is an enormous contributor to the nation’s GDP and plays an even bigger role in the growth of the economy in the Northern Territory. There is a very high rate of Indigenous engagement in the industry and, as I have already stated, it has a reputation second to none on the competitive global market. We are making a grave mistake if we put this industry at any risk because we do not listen to their concerns.

In addressing the issue of Australia’s international obligations to properly manage its own radioactive waste, let me echo once again the representations made to me from the member for Barkly. He wrote:

I agree and that directly relates to this issue as a matter of national significance and national security therefore making it negligent to base a decision to site Australia’s first and most critical nuclear waste management facility on a remote cattle station as determined by a group of Indigenous land owners now in conflict with their larger moiety and tribal groups opposed to a decision viewed as of self interest and at odds with traditional kinship and law relating to shared dreaming tracks across vast areas of Aboriginal land.

This is such an important issue for all Australians that the decision must be made on the correct science for what is best for the nation. It is wrong for any government to look for a quick fix to this problem in a part of the country which is rich in biodiversity, cultural significance, history and heritage, and which is reliant on the cattle industry for it economic survival and future growth.

A final and most compelling point that the member for Barkly made was in response to Minister Ferguson’s second reading speech, when the minister said:

The bill enables the Commonwealth to act in good faith and spirit with respect to the Site Nomination Deed entered into by the Northern Land Council, the Muckaty Aboriginal Land Trust and the Commonwealth in 2007.

To this comment the member for Barkly wrote the following:

In essence if the decision is based on the testimony of an extended family group living away from Muckaty Station then the dislocation of the Warumungu and Warlmanpa tribal communities of the Barkly that I represent is at stake.

Any determination to proceed without direct, open and accountable consultation with the wider contemporary Indigenous community representing the neighbouring clans, moiety and tribal groups of the central Barkly will effectively lead to generational division and conflict among the very people the Minister has set out to support!

He goes on to add:

Division and conflict among remote Indigenous people in an “alcohol fuelled environment” leads to bloodshed in the streets of our towns and communities and if you wish to dismiss my language as alarmist then I urge you to visit our region, town and accident & emergency department of our hospital to personally witness the legacy of “grog fuelled” violence that results from conflict and disputes within the indigenous community.

I commend the member for Barkly for his tireless effort in making representations on behalf of his community.

In September 1991 the then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Simon Crean, officially sought the participation of all governments in a coordinated search for a site for a single national radioactive waste facility; all except WA agreed to participate. Over the next 20 years there were various studies, reports, public consultations, scientific analyses, information kits, sites nominated, sites dismissed, drillings done and construction licences applied for. The entire process has suffered from paralysis through analysis and has failed to move forward during this time. As the timeline tightened along came the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005. It was legislation removing procedural fairness and imposing a waste dump on the Northern Territory. The people of the Northern Territory realised at that point something the rest of Australia has known for a long time—they do not have the same rights as other Australians. The Howard government was able to impose a nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territory, not based on the science but based on the constitutional clout the Commonwealth has over the Northern Territory. The NT does not have the right to say no.

It should be noted that the then member for Solomon, David Tollner, voted to support the bill as well as amendments on five occasions from 1 November to 8 December 2005. Senator Nigel Scullion also voted to pass the bill in the Senate on 8 December 2005. All the time they were saying that they were here to protect the rights of the Northern Territory—after all, that is why they were elected. It was an example of saying one thing in the NT, walking along one side of the street and then crossing the street, and then voting another way in Canberra.

I have never pretended to get everything right in the way I represent the people in my electorate. However, when it comes to my position on government policies, there is consistency in my position both when I am in Canberra and when I am in my electorate of Solomon. My position does not alter during the flight north. While flying home on Friday I had a chance to read the synthesis report on a proposed Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility in the Northern Territory by Parsons Brinckerhoff. With all due respect to this report, it is a preliminary report that recommends further consideration, data collection, community consultation and scientific evidence be collected on the Muckaty Station site.

However, the radioactive waste repository for Australia site selection study released in November 1997 clearly outlined a number of sites scientifically suitable for such a repository. Of the 13 criteria listed for a suitable site, it was only the Olary site in New South Wales and South Australia and the Billa Kalina site in South Australia that met all the criteria listed as scientifically suitable sites. The more I have read about this proposed area, the more I am convinced we have got it wrong. None of the sites in the Northern Territory stacked up in this particular report.

As a nation, we need to have a holistic approach to the disposal of nuclear waste. I am aware of the need for this to occur quickly as the time line has tightened for us. Currently this waste is being stored in hospital car parks, in drums, in filing cabinets and in storerooms at more than 100 sites around the country. It is a bizarre situation we find ourselves in. We have all benefited at various times or know somebody who has benefited because of nuclear medicine, and thus we have all contributed to this waste in some way. Is it not only fair that all Australians take responsibility in how to deal with its safe disposal?

On 25 February this year, the Senate referred the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 for inquiry and report to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The committee has noted that other Senate committees have previously conducted inquiries into radioactive waste management legislation, most recently in 2008. In light of the previous opportunities for consideration of environmental and other issues relating to radioactive waste management in Australia, the focus of the current inquiry will be on legal and constitutional matters, including issues relating to procedural fairness and the bill’s impact on, and interaction with, state and territory legislation. I note submissions to the inquiry have closed and it should be recognised that 128 submissions have been received. The reporting date for the committee is 30 April 2010. Two public hearings are proposed: the first is on Tuesday, 30 March in Canberra, and the second is on Monday, 12 April in Darwin. Whilst I appreciate the efforts of the committee, I am at a loss as to why the committee is not holding a public hearing in Tennant Creek. I know it would be appreciated by the people in the region.

I am not without a solution to this situation and I understand fully that any facility should be based on the correct science and not because of constitutional weak links. I urge the minister to revisit the entire process again, to engage with state governments, to have a shared responsibility to a whole-of-nation response for the need to have a safe, scientifically based and fully consultative, transparent process to find the best possible site for such a facility. We, as legislators, have a responsibility to future generations to make the most informed decisions on this issue and they are decisions we cannot afford to get wrong. While I acknowledge the difficultly associated with this issue, I remain opposed to a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory and will continue to fight for the rights of the people I was elected to represent.