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Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Page: 5899

Senator LUDLAM (1:36 PM) —I rise to add my remarks to the debate on the Uranium Royalty (Northern Territory) Bill 2008. It would be no surprise to anyone in this chamber that the Australian Greens oppose uranium mining as an industry, because it poses unacceptable environmental and health risks and provides the essential ingredient of nuclear weapons. I have just spent the weekend in South Australia at the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance meeting. This is an organisation that has existed since about 1997. It is led by some very senior traditional Aboriginal people from right around the country, for whom uranium mining and nuclear waste dumping is not a matter of theory or political opinion but a matter of lived experience.

Most Australians have a healthy if distant scepticism for uranium mining, but for the people gathered in Quorn at the weekend these are matters of community life and death. At this point I pay my respects to the elders past and present who have led this campaign, often at great personal cost, and the campaigners from around the country, who are now into their third generation, who have stepped up against this industry since the fireballs of British nuclear weapons testing first lit up Central Australia.

I have a comment in response to Senator Minchin’s comments—and I am sure we will hear similar sentiments from the government when the minister debates this issue—that somehow it is possible to undertake responsible environmentally sensitive uranium mining. I certainly appreciate Senator Minchin’s sentiments as they apply to Arkaroola, a magical part of the country, and I do not understand why those sentiments could not be extended to a place like Kakadu National Park, our most important World Heritage area, or indeed regional Western Australia, my home state, which is under threat of uranium mining at multiple locations. I think Arkaroola is precious, Kakadu is precious, Kokotha country is precious and Wongi country is precious, and there is no place for uranium mining anywhere on this ancient continent. I do not think it is possible to mine this mineral in a way which is respectful of country or culture or that mouthing the words ‘world’s best practice’ in some way justifies the massive intergenerational harm that this form of mining guarantees. For this reason, I will be circulating a second reading amendment which simply states that the bill should allow for the orderly phasing-out of this toxic and obsolete industry. No fiddling around the edges is going to make this industry all right.

To move to the substantive provisions of this bill, if uranium mining is to occur—and we know that it is and that there is a huge bipartisan push at the moment for this industry to expand across Australia—the Greens do not believe that a for-profit royalty model is the best one on offer. The Standing Committee on Economics report tabled today does not make a convincing case for this model at all. The case that was made through this exercise is that royalties per se are not benefiting Aboriginal people, not just in the uranium mining sector but right across the board, and that the system is essentially failing. The case was very convincingly made that this government has been captured by the uranium mining industry and that all this bill is really is an answer to the uranium industry’s wish list for a simpler, more streamlined way of getting this material out of the ground, from marginal deposits if necessary. I will get to the detail of that in a moment. As we said in our dissenting report, regulatory capture is an entirely appropriate description to use in this case, when observing the actions of this government and the previous government becoming the nuclear industry’s tooth fairy, granting the wishes of the uranium industry framework, which on the day it was set up and to this day is an unrepresentative and industry dominated creation of the former Howard government, to which the Rudd government has now sadly become beholden.

The bill seeks to fast-track and remove barriers to the uranium mining industry. It prioritises industry imperatives—and it has been quite upfront about that—industry access, industry certainty, industry administrative ease and industry profits over other criteria, such as Aboriginal community development, environmental protection and sustainable regional economies. Royalty calculations for other minerals in the Northern Territory are using the for-profit system, and the key argument that has been advanced in the report of the committee and in the drafting of the bill is that we may as well bring uranium in line with other minerals and make sure that the system up there is streamlined. I note at this point that that is not the system that predominates in the other big mining states, Western Australia and Queensland. It is simply not a robust argument when it has been proven to be not working for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. It has not even worked very well for the Territory government. If the Xstrata example, about which we had a considerable amount of evidence during our hearings in Darwin, is anything to go by, then this is not a robust system for calculating mining royalties. Creative bookkeeping, in the concealment of profits in this case, resulted in the Northern Territory government receiving no royalties at all from the McArthur River operations for over a decade. In fact, it would not have received any royalties except that Xstrata was simply seeking to expand that mine to an open-cut operation. The case shows how difficult it really is to extract information required to calculate profits generated by the mining industry, which is compounded by the lack of transparency arising from commercial-in-confidence and other corporate secrecy provisions, which even FOI laws were unable to penetrate in the Xstrata McArthur River case. In my view, the committee was far too easily satisfied by assurances from the industry and government that potential for manipulation would be minimal and that rigorous assessment processes are in place ‘when in fact there is no such thing’. There have been very recent cases to prove the point that private profits can be maximised when royalty payments are minimised.

The fact of the matter is that uranium is unique. It is not like other minerals and these are not like other mines. The radiation from uranium mining and the daughter isotopes that are produced when uranium is unearthed are uniquely hazardous, persistent and indiscriminate, damaging our most precious legacy, the core human blueprint stored in our DNA and passed on to future generations. We know now that radionuclides with very long half-lives are cumulatively loaded into the environment and are resulting right now in ongoing impacts on health as well as long-term damage to the human gene pool. Given these unique health and environmental risks, uranium mining not only requires special regulatory and environmental requirements if it is to proceed at all but also requires case-by-case decisions. The health risks posed by proximity of residents and workers to radon gas emissions, for example, vary according to the location of the mine. Positioning of tailings dumps in relation to water sources is also unique in each instance and requires individual treatment. Therefore, negotiations and royalty systems should be tailored to the particular circumstance. I suggest at this point that that should apply right across the board and not just to uranium mining.

Facts were presented to the committee that neither royalty system is actually delivering significant or long-term benefits to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. We were told that the December 2008 report of the Native Title Payments Working Group—and this is an industry group with very serious industry representation—said:

... while hundreds of agreements exist between traditional owners and industry, there are only about one dozen agreements that provide substantial benefits to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and exhibit principles embodying best practice ...

That is around a dozen out of several hundred agreements. This is a system that has failed and is failing today, and this bill will do nothing if not entrench that system further. We have not heard a word from the government yet about how the system that is supposed to be bringing development benefits to Aboriginal communities in the Territory is failing so catastrophically and we have seen no sign of reform. There is certainty no sign in the bill that is before us today. The Australian Greens are convinced by the evidence presented by this working group’s recommendations for a review to examine the extent to which Aboriginal people are benefiting from mining royalties. We will be pursuing such an inquiry and it is a disgrace that the government did not get onto the front foot to do so itself.

Not only is the royalty system in the Territory failing to deliver benefits, the current approval system under the Land Rights Act operating in the Territory forces Aboriginal people to consent to mining if they consent to exploration, and that has been quite seriously doing people over. The mining industry comes in and says, ‘We’re just going to have a little bit of a look around and see if there is anything out there.’ You give consent to that and before you know it, you have given consent to mining operations. Of course this failure to consent to exploration can often result in the project progressing regardless, while cutting traditional owners out of the possibility of receiving compensation in the form of royalties, and this reinforces the disadvantage that we see today.

It is from this disempowered and marginal position that the government and the opposition seem to believe that Aboriginal people will be able to negotiate additional payments and benefits to fix all of the shortcomings of the royalty system. There is a ‘She’ll be right’ attitude within the system, but the situation clearly is not all right. It is an unacceptable way to address the gap that people will experience when they have given up their land and allowed water quality on their country to be compromised. And of course they will not be receiving payments when the market is down. This allows companies to forestall paying royalties to the Territory and Commonwealth taxpayer and to Aboriginal peoples during the nonprofitable start-up years and also the long periods when site remediation, replenishment of equipment or capital items will see no profits coming in.

Rather than acknowledging the systemic failure, the committee has instead recommended that uranium agreements be simply folded into an already dysfunctional profit based system largely on the grounds that this would remove a barrier to mining development, particularly for marginal uranium developments, and provide administrative consistency that ‘would be easier and involve less paperwork for business’. That’s great! While people are living in disgusting poverty in the Northern Territory, at least we are easing the paperwork burden on business.

This committee has allowed the government to encourage marginal outfits to use the profit based system to gamble the start-up of uranium mines, hoping for eventual profits. In the case of uranium mining—in any operation really but in uranium mining in particular—with its uniquely toxic and long-lasting waste streams, this is a pretty deadly gamble for the people who are right up close to it. If these companies go broke well before their deposits have been mined out—and uranium is a notoriously volatile and difficult industry in which to get a project up—the government and local communities will be left to deal with the mess. In fact the government seems to think it a good idea to encourage the development of more marginally economic projects. This is entirely reckless, very unpopular and out of step with community concerns, and it is certainly well out of the way of Labor’s supposed policies of the world’s best practice. I therefore move the second reading amendment on sheet 5908:

At the end of the motion, add “but the Senate calls on the Government to provide for the orderly phasing-out of uranium mining in the Northern Territory”.

This second reading amendment calls for the orderly phasing out of uranium mining in the Territory—not world’s best practice, not fiddling around the edges or marginal improvements. This is an industry that deserves to be phased out as rapidly as possible. Should this amendment fail, and I will not hold my hopes up too high, I would like to briefly foreshadow a number of amendments that we will be moving, which the Greens believe will at least improve the process that has been put forward by the government and clearly has opposition support. Our first amendment seeks to insert a standard recognised by the government fo             r the Ranger mine in the Northern Territory. If the words ‘world’s best practice’ mean anything at all in this debate, it would mean a mine operating in Kakadu National Park certainly within the ecological boundaries of the World Heritage area, with its own Commonwealth department, the Supervising Scientist looking over its shoulder, with a commitment to return mine tailings and wastes into the mine void when operations are concluded and with a commitment by the mining company to ensure that those tailings are physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years.

That is not a stricture that we would place on gold tailings or nickel tailings; that is something that is unique to uranium mining. I do not know of any other case in the world where a uranium mine has had a requirement placed on it that the tailings should be isolated from the environment for 10,000 years. God only knows how the company plans on achieving that but at least those requirements are there. Of course those requirements should apply to any company seeking to operate a uranium mine in Australia if that is indeed what we would consider world’s best practice. The same duty of care should relate overall.

In order to implement a 10,000-year monitoring program, which takes us back roughly to the establishment of agriculture—and these are the time lines that we need to be considering in proposals for uranium mines—a dedicated royalty stream will need to be quarantined over and above environmental bonds and so on that the companies may or may not be required to put aside. That is the subject of another amendment.

The resources and mandate of the Office of the Supervising Scientist should be expanded from only monitoring the Ranger uranium mine to providing oversight of all uranium mines in the Northern Territory. We know that they do have some role. They are called in on a case-by-case basis to consider uranium operations elsewhere including in South Australia. This should be mandatory and there are amendments here providing for that.

Finally, to minimise the possibilities of another Xstrata happening, the Greens believe that the NT government should receive support from the Commonwealth to review the figures provided by mining corporations to the Northern Territory government. I am certainly hoping for support from the National Party in this instance. Senator Joyce, who attended the committee hearings in Darwin, spoke out quite forcefully in this regard. The Australian Greens have moved to put those concerns and ours into legislative form, and that is what this amendment is about. It simply will not hurt to have the full weight of the Commonwealth in a double-checking of what mining companies are up to. In fact I think it will be well worth the expense for the Commonwealth to validate the claims made by mining companies so that we know the profits are not being hidden by the sort of behaviour that Xstrata was getting up to in the NT. I will leave it there. I will return to speak to the amendments at the committee stage when they are moved.