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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
17/11/2008
Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Repeal and Consequential Amendment) Bill 2008

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of the traditional owners from Muckaty. Thank you for coming along to talk to us today. The committee has received your submission as submission No. 95. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission? No? Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Stokes —Yes, I would like to talk about the waste dump and my people, the traditional elders I have brought from Tennant Creek. We have come because we have said no to the waste dump. We are the main Warlmanpa tribe. I have brought some Ngapa people also who are against the waste dump. I talk to my people about the waste dump all the time, and every time I do they say that it is not good to have a waste dump on our land. We are finding it hard. We want some people to listen to us. Some of the traditional owners, the elders of the Warlmanpa tribe, which is the main tribe in that country, are sick and very worried because they just want to say no to the waste dump. We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to. The big capital N-O. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms Stokes. Ms Bennett, would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Bennett —Yes. I am a Warlmanpa person also. I just want to talk a little bit about the consultation process and my feeling that it is a real social justice issue. I think it was early in 1996 when I first found out about the nuclear waste facility proposed for Muckaty Station. They call it facility; I call it dump, because that is what it is. I was shocked and blown away by the news in the newspapers. Where did it all come from? How did they get to this solution? They had not consulted people on the land, my brother Sammy, my sister Gladys, my mum’s Louis and Suzie, because they would have told us and we would all have been talking about it. When I started to find out more and heard that $30 million was the amount proposed for a waste dump facility, I went to the Tennant Times because I was due to go away, I think to Alice Springs, but I was very concerned and knew that I had to get the message to the rest of our family group quickly before I went so they would pick up on it. After the article in the Tennant Times, when I was back in town, which would have been I think in June, believe it or not, I heard nothing but alarming statements about how the Muckaty traditional owners and all that had agreed to a nuclear waste dump facility. I had still not been formally contacted by NLC, and other family members knew nothing and had not had any communication or written correspondence from the NLC.

One Saturday when we went out bush to get a load of wood we heard the news on the wireless. When I rang my sister over at Kalumpulpa on the mobile to see if she knew about what we had heard on the wireless, my brother-in-law told me, ‘No, they’re all in town. Big meeting called at the Gulkula TAFE centre.’ I said, ‘What’s the meeting about?’ He said, ‘Oh, they didn’t really know. They just had to go in to sign some papers for something.’ I thought straight away, ‘They’re going to trick our mob. They’re not going to communicate and consult with them properly. There will be something going on here.’ We forgot about the wood and took off into town to the meeting at the TAFE centre, the Gulkula training centre. The biggest mob of people were there.

When I walked in I was trying to get a gauge to see if different ones knew what the meeting was about. I said, ‘What’s this meeting about?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. We just had to come and sign paper for money.’ ‘What is the money for? Did they give anybody an agenda? Has anybody got an agenda?’ Nobody had an agenda. I was asking people all the way through. There were probably a hundred people there. A group of people, including the Lauder family, were sitting up the front with the NLC and certain people were sitting round the table. There was butcher paper on the wall presenting a you-beaut community. My uncles, my mothers and my aunties were up towards the back. Nobody could hear what was going on because there were no microphones as there are here and no translators, just a certain group of people around the front table where the beautiful you-beaut community was presented. A piece of paper was being passed around, and I asked, ‘What are you signing that paper for?’ ‘Oh, we’ve got to sign this one, they reckon, so we can get housing, and they are going to give us this and they are going to give us that.’ I said, ‘But what for? Why, all of a sudden, is the government going to give you this and that?’ Nobody knew.

I then challenged some of the people at the meeting why they were passing the paper around for people to sign. They said that if they did not sign it they would be ineligible to vote. I said, ‘Ineligible to vote for what?’ They said, ‘Oh, we are changing the constitution, and these proposed changes are supported by ORAC.’

I questioned why the Bennett family were not notified or aware of this, why none of us had received word of the meeting, and why my father, Harry Bennett, who is an elder and a traditional owner, had not been made aware of it so that he could be at the meeting too. I asked about that and about what the piece of paper was about and did requesting everyone’s signature have anything to do with the story I had heard on the news that the NLC was proposing to buy out Muckaty. I asked whether there was a hidden agenda behind obtaining signatures on the paper, why people were not informed, where was the agenda and why was there no microphone or a speaker so that people up the back and outside could hear. You could have heard a pin drop when I said they could be signing away their right to their land and to object to the location of the proposed nuclear waste dump on that land. Immediately NLC staff started pulling the you-beaut community presentation and everything else off the wall.

One of the NLC lawyers then challenged what right I had to be at the meeting. I told her in no uncertain terms why I was there and said that I had every right to be there. Then some families started to wise up, and they said I had a right to be there and to be heard. I said to the people, ‘Don’t sign that until we are all fully informed of the true purpose of this meeting, because you mob could be signing away your rights to your country.’ That put a bit of a blocker on the meeting.

After that more word went around about more meetings. I said, ‘Well, everyone needs to be informed properly and given time so they can attend.’ I can remember that a series of maybe six meetings ensued. There was a meeting after the one that I sort of gatecrashed at the TAFE centre, and I received a written confirmation of that meeting. A letter was put under my front door by the local NLC project officer to notify me of the meeting to be held the next day but I had to go to Alice Springs for my granddaughter’s medical appointment so I could not go to the meeting. Short notice like that is just not on. After that meeting we made numerous requests for the minutes of the meeting but never received them. We have a right to see the minutes and what the meeting was about.

After that, families started sitting down talking and saying that we needed to get on top of all this because our people are constantly being exploited and used, and, to be quite honest, Aboriginal people are getting sick and tired of it. The way we found out about the consultation process was wrong. If everything was open, honest and above board, why did the NLC not come down and consult with the traditional owners on their country openly and honestly? They should not have gone on to any further stage until everyone had a clear understanding of what was going on. It appears to me that two individuals, or possibly three, took it upon themselves to speak for the rest of the tribe and clans. They had no right to do that, and I will say that straight out. When the land claim was on, all the extended families that have links and connections to Muckaty were together as one. My grandmother walked that country the same as the rest, yet those two individuals, my cousins, chose not to involve the senior traditional owners in any discussions, and that is just down and out wrong.

CHAIR —Ms Bennett, we need to move on to questions from senators. Have you nearly finished your opening statement?

Ms Bennett —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Ms Bennett —I am also very disappointed in the NLC consultation process. The NLC is the Aboriginal people’s voice, and they failed to represent them. I will cut it short there. I think the consultation process was very flawed and that the time for trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes is past. Open and honest discussion should be happening involving all the right people, not just with certain elements of the people.

CHAIR —And who do you say are all the right people?

Ms Bennett —A lot of the senior people are here today, in particular the Ngapa people, the people who you now see standing. Many of them have no idea where the agreement for a waste dump at Muckaty came from. Others could not attend because they are sick in hospital.

Ms Stokes —And we have no vehicles to travel down from that far.

CHAIR —All right. Thank you very much, Ms Stokes and Ms Bennett, for your opening statements. We will now go to questions from senators. I am going to ask Senator Ludlam to start off.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you, Chair. Thanks, both of you, very much for giving us this evidence this afternoon. Ms Stokes, can you tell us about your connection to the country around Muckaty?

Ms Stokes —My connection is because my totem is going through the land trust and is in the land trust. My father’s name is standing in the land trust. My father’s name is Bildayan. He is the one who led the way for us to be in that land and to be the tribe of Warlmanpa. I am one of the Warlmanpa women and Waramuinyu. I speak Waramuinyu more than Warlmanpa, but I do understand the language. I am fighting to talk about this waste dump and the rights of the land trust because of my totem and my mother’s dreaming, but I am not talking about my mother’s dreaming; I am talking about my father’s dreaming.

Senator LUDLAM —How many people would you say there are who have traditional responsibilities for the area where the Muckaty waste dump is supposed to be?

Ms Stokes —Well, firstly, I would like to introduce Milwayi, one of the totems that went through there, and it has got places in there, and Ngapa, and Yapayapa. There are three groups in Ngapa, and some of the traditional owners from those three groups are here. The land trust.

Senator LUDLAM —Were all three of those groups spoken to and asked by the Northern Land Council whether they wanted a waste dump out at Muckaty?

Ms Stokes —Some of them were not asked. The NLC was focusing only on a few people, and a lot of Ngapa people were saying that they were not invited, that they have not even got them on the books. That is why they were not identified as the Ngapa clan.

Senator LUDLAM —If the Northern Land Council was doing a project like this the right way, how would it be done? What would the consultation normally be and who would they normally speak to?

Ms Stokes —We had lots of groups at the meeting at the time they talked about it. They let everyone go, and I was asked to stay. They picked out a few people and talked to us. I did not know anything about it until I went on my trip.

Senator LUDLAM —Can you tell us about the trip that they took you on?

Ms Stokes —The trip that I went on was to Lucas Heights to see the site, to find out what it was like and what it was all about. When I went there I was feeling no good because the rest of the people did not know about it. All the traditional owners were at the meeting when we were picked out to go on the trip. They were not told. No-one opened their mouth to the traditional owners and they left. They only wanted Ngapa people. There were a lot of Ngapa people there. We got a big mob of them. They know their clan, where they come from and who they are.

Senator LUDLAM —Did somebody ask you not to say anything to the other people?

Ms Stokes —Yes, they did. They put their hand in their mouth and told me not to talk about it.

Senator LUDLAM —Who did that?

Ms Stokes —That was Jeffrey Dixon.

Senator LUDLAM —Where is Jeffrey Dixon from?

Ms Stokes —Jeffrey is one of the executive members with the NLC. He told me not to say anything until I went on the trip and when I came back I was not to open my mouth.

CHAIR —Can I just clarify for the record so we get the dates right on this? You are talking about the trip to Lucas Heights?

Ms Stokes —Yes.

CHAIR —Do you remember roughly the date?

Ms Stokes —I cannot remember the date.

CHAIR —What year?

Ms Stokes —2000 and something.

CHAIR —2000 and something?

Ms Stokes —Yes.

CHAIR —Sorry. Continue, Senator.

Senator LUDLAM —That is okay. Ms Bennett, when you first spoke you mentioned 1996. Did you mean 2006?

Ms Bennett —I meant 2006, sorry.

Senator LUDLAM —I just thought I should check. Maybe I could ask you the same questions I have just asked Ms Stokes. For a project like this that is happening on traditional country, what is the process that the land council would normally use to find out what people thought? If this was being done the right way, how should it be done?

Ms Bennett —They should first send out a written communication notifying the people that they want to meet with them, informing them of the date, the time and why they are coming; they should organise the meeting properly, giving people at least two weeks notice; they should have at least one big meeting and then let people know they will come out to their community or talk to them at their camps; they should thoroughly consult with people, inform them, have another big meeting, then come together again. You have to give people time to think about these things, how they feel about them, and to talk amongst themselves. You cannot rush things through just like that. That is wrong. People can then come back together, sit with the NLC again and say what they think and feel. It has to be a consultative approach.

Ms Stokes —It has to be open.

Ms Bennett —Open, yes, and not rushed.

CHAIR —Thank you, Senator Ludlam. Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks, Chair. Ms Stokes, Ms Bennett, thank you for your time today and for making the effort to come and appear before us. What role do you and your other elders and families have in the composition of and decision-making processes of the land council?

Ms Bennett —Sorry, in the—

Senator BIRMINGHAM —What role do you have in the usual operation of the land council in terms of its members, who makes it up and who makes the decisions for it? Do you have some say in choosing who they are?

Ms Stokes —Talking of myself when I was an executive member, if I heard something in the full land council meeting I would tell them to wait until I went back to the traditional owners to see how they felt about it and what they wanted to talk about. I have never been to an NLC meeting, a full land council meeting, but the executive member for a region is supposed to come back and let us know, talk to all the traditional owners of the land trust and tell us what is going to happen. You are giving your feedback to the community.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Who is the executive member for the region?

Ms Stokes —At the time Jeffrey Dixon was the executive member.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Is he elected from within the regional community?

Ms Stokes —I don’t recall that. I just remember that he was the executive member.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is okay. I am curious to try to understand the relationship of the different communities to the Muckaty land. You have mentioned the Ngapa community and the statements that they have made in support of the facility being built on the Muckaty land. Why do you think that particular community is happy to see it built?

Ms Stokes —The Ngapa clan and the rest of the other totems in that land trust are all connected. We have connections to each other and are related to each other. We are the same tribe, the one ancestral cultural group of people who are the strong voice, and one voice, in that country. That is why I talk about Ngapa. Ngapa is only one family, but there are three groups in the Ngapa clan and the rest missed out. Ngapa is the rain, the water. Only one said yes to the waste dump and one that is a Northern Land Council member.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —How many other clans do you believe should have been consulted?

Ms Stokes —Well, there are another four clans.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —I would like to turn now to the consultation that you have had with government since the election, so since the change of government. Your submission indicates that you have attempted on numerous occasions to write to different politicians but appear not to have had much success in getting a response. Is that still the case or have you had recent responses?

Ms Stokes —We have been writing letters to the government body signed by the traditional owners. We have been asking for someone to come and sit with us so that we can talk to them face to face. We want to give our information to the government body, tell them what we are on about. We were all getting together and we were worried that it is going to be put up straight away. We have written lots of letters but never received a good response.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Has anybody agreed to come and sit and talk to you?

Ms Stokes —Well, not really.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —The one response that you appear to have received was from the energy and resources minister, Mr Ferguson. Did you feel that his response met what you thought the new government was going to do?

Ms Stokes —It did not make me feel good when I received his letter telling me that he is not going to do anything about the waste dump yet as he is waiting for the government to say something. He is not doing anything at the moment; he is not listening to us. He is getting our letters. I picked up a letter from him earlier. It is the same as the letter I received a few weeks ago. The story is the same. It is not a new letter. I think they are photocopying the same one.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Maybe that is possible. Lastly from me, what time line do you understand the process has now? I think the government has said that it will re-evaluate things once it has finished the assessment of the four possible sites. Have you been given any indication as to when that assessment should be complete or in what timing you can expect decisions to be made?

Ms Stokes —No, I do not think so. I did not get anything back to let us know about that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Pratt.

Senator PRATT —Thank you. It has been put to the committee that traditional owners of this site with a right to speak to the site that has been chosen have consented to this proposal and that they have said yes. You have just told us that only one group of the people who should have been consulted have actually consented. Is that correct?

Ms Stokes —There is only one family group that consented to have the waste dump on that site in that area, but looking back to where it started off—where people said yes, where people said no—I was the only person at the meeting they had at Muckaty. I had other groups there too, but I was listening to them. Two people said yes. I saw them with my own two eyes. There were two people and the rest were their kids. You do not call that a Ngapa clan. They told me off for not being on my mother’s side. I am on my father’s side. If anything comes on my father’s side, I say whatever I want. How many Ngapa people have we got? I will tell you. Come out there and have a look.

Senator PRATT —Can you tell us a little bit about the site itself that has been chosen? You have told the committee that that has been proposed. I think what you have told the committee is that you have all got links with that country that stretch across it to the other side and around it. Is that what you are telling us?

Ms Stokes —Yes, we have. We have got the snake, that is Milwayi, and Yapakurla, the little short man—that is mine—and we have Ngarrka. Ngarrka is a bit on the western side, but we are all surrounding it, and Ngapa are not the people who said yes. It is not their Dreaming that is in that site; it is these old people here.

Senator PRATT —So Ngapa is simply one of the closest communities to that site? Is that why it is purported that they have a right to speak for it?

Ms Stokes —And Milwayi. They are the closest.

Senator PRATT —So Milwayi is close as well?

Ms Stokes —Yes.

Senator PRATT —And they have not consented to or participated in the nomination either?

Ms Stokes —No.

Senator PRATT —I wanted to ask what the results of the nomination have been. How has that made the community feel and what kind of problems have arisen because of it?

Ms Bennett —Well, imagine you have got a lot of hungry gunipe dogs, and you have got one bone and you chuck it in the middle: they are all going to fight over that, aren’t they?

Ms Stokes —Yes.

Ms Bennett —And that is what the government is doing to us, because the whole process has not been done properly and because, as Dianne said, all these important factors such as Dreamings have not been taken into consideration. People are fighting now, and that is wrong. I get cranky sometimes, because when is the government going to stop doing that? I am sure it is a strategy of theirs to get one or two people offside; paint them a good future, a rosy picture; put a money incentive there, and then you have got them on side and bugger the rest: ‘As long as we’ve got this mob—we’ll get them all fighting and then we’ll have to make the decision for them.’

Senator PRATT —Finally, I wanted to ask if this process was done properly. I am not necessarily suggesting you would say yes, but, if it was here or somewhere else and people consented to it, would that be a proper process and would the communities say, ‘Yes, this can go ahead if that’s your land and that’s what you want to do with it’?

Ms Stokes —Going back to consulting the traditional owners of the land trust, talking to the whole Wannapa group—because it is not only one Wannapa group; there are a lot of us. We want our kids to grow up without having the papers that were consented to before, with the traditional owners saying yes, so that when they grow up they will not see that stuff there. We do not want that to happen, and we just do not want to see anything like that come up. We want to see people come face to face with the traditional owners, with the Wannapa group, not just one individual group, the Ngapa clan. We want all the traditional owners to be there to say yes or no and to hear what is going on.

Ms Bennett —Our parents and our grandparents, particularly our fathers and mothers, fought very hard over the last 40 or 50 years to get that country back, expecting to have the essential resources in place for families to move back and become strong again. It is not happening. If the old people, our dads and that, were alive today, they would be appalled at this. They fought all their lives to get it back—just to have it turned into a nuclear waste dump? I do not think so. That is not the future for our children. Some of our children are here today. They do not want that future. We do not want it. We want the land so that families can live there, work there, and for the culture to be strong. We do not want to give it away.

CHAIR —Are there any circumstances in which the Muckaty traditional owners that you represent would support the establishment of a nuclear waste dump or facility anywhere in the Northern Territory?

Ms Bennett —We do not want a nuclear waste site anywhere in the Northern Territory. Put it on an abandoned island somewhere, anywhere, but not in the Northern Territory. Leave it where it is.

CHAIR —If there are no further questions, thank you very much, Ms Stokes and Ms Bennett, for taking the time to come and appear before the committee this afternoon. We very much appreciate that you did so. Thank you.

Ms Bennett —I would like to thank you for taking the time to listen to us, because we have travelled a long way. I would just like to question why Martin Ferguson is sitting on this issue like a hen trying to hatch an egg. The people of the Northern Territory elected the Labor Party. We were led to believe that the nuclear waste thing would be all overturned and overruled, and at this moment we are extremely disappointed. How many times do we have to say no? No means no. Come on, Martin, let us do something about this.

CHAIR —Thank you. We need to move on to the next witnesses.

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