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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS
18/11/2008
Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Repeal and Consequential Amendment) Bill 2008

CHAIR —With those formalities over, I again welcome everyone here today, and I welcome Miss Donna Jackson from the Top End Aboriginal Conservation Alliance. Thank you for coming along to talk to us today, Ms Jackson. The committee has received your submission as submission No. 23. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?

Ms Jackson —No, thanks. I am a little bit confused: I wrote the letter to the Northern Land Council on the Top End Aboriginal Conservation Alliance letterhead, but my official submission to the Senate committee is the one from the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance. I am quite happy to speak on TEACA or both, but I wanted to clarify that.

CHAIR —That is fine. You are free to speak on both. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Jackson —Yes, thank you.

CHAIR —Please do so.

Ms Jackson —I wanted, first of all, to thank you all for allowing me to speak today and also to acknowledge the traditional owners of Alice Springs for letting us have this conference here, and the traditional owners who have travelled here from Muckaty Station and other areas to defend their country as well. Some of them cannot be here today. They had to go back.

My role in this is that, even though I come from Darwin and I have Larrakia heritage there, I am concerned about some of the consultations that have occurred. Having dealt with the Northern Land Council myself over a number of years on Larrakia issues, I was a bit alarmed to hear that other people’s wishes were being treated with similar contempt. Whilst the Northern Land Council has assisted us over the years in different ways, I have found it to be lacking in support if we say no to something. If there is something we do not want to happen on our country, we seem to get very little support from the land council. That is also why I initiated the Top End Aboriginal Conservation Alliance—as an independent voice for people on country.

The other issues that led me to get involved were hearing from one of the Muckaty traditional owners that Mr Levy had threatened her with legal action if she continued to speak out. I thought it was totally unacceptable that a lawyer in his position would make that sort of threat to a traditional owner who was totally within her rights to be speaking for her country. So, aside from the social and environmental concerns, I was also quite angry to hear that certain TOs were being bullied and were finding it difficult to have their voices heard. Fortunately, the Arid Lands Environment Centre and the Environment Centre, Northern Territory have been very supportive of TEACA and of the TOs in defending their country.

The other issue with the conduct of the land council, and I think it was mentioned yesterday, is that no minutes are given to people when we attend meetings with the land council. If the land council has a meeting with my family in Darwin, the Browne family, there might be three of us who agree with something and two who do not, but we do not get to see the minutes of those meetings, so we do not know how the meeting is reported back up the chain to the hierarchy, and that concerns me. The Larrakia Nation Governing Committee, which I sit on, recently passed a motion to insist that in future the land council give us minutes from all of our meetings.

The other reason I am here is for ANFA, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, whose submission I put in to the Senate committee. It is a newly formed committee, but the group has been meeting for a number of years, starting with the issue of the Jabiluka uranium mine. That is probably it for my opening statement, thank you.

CHAIR —Thanks very much, Ms Jackson. Senator Ludlam.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Ms Jackson.

Ms Jackson —Good morning.

Senator LUDLAM —Thanks very much for coming down and giving some evidence this morning. You touched briefly in your opening statement on your experience working with the Northern Land Council. Can you give us some examples of how you have seen that process from TEACA’s point of view or the Larrakia Nation’s point of view?

Ms Jackson —Yes, certainly. A recent example would be the Inpex gas plant in Darwin. The Larrakia Nation Governing Committee made public statements that we were not supportive of the gas plant. I spoke yesterday with Mr Hill, for whom I have respect, and he assured me that the land council was not involved in those discussions. However, when I spoke to government and Inpex people, I learned that the land council directed them to the Larrakia Development Corporation, which is a commercial structure of our people that has started to run amok and go off in its own direction and make decisions without reference back to the Larrakia Nation Governing Committee. Over the years I have written to the land council a number of times about inappropriate developments—marinas planned for our country when we won our land claim on the Cox Peninsula—and pretty much without fail they do not respond to those sorts of requests for assistance. We end up having to do those sorts of campaigns ourselves without any support from the land council—or, if there is support, it is just a couple of lines in an email.

The other thing is that at meetings called by the land council quite often Mr Levy is in the habit of giving us legal advice on a piece of paper with no letterhead and no signature. The advice could have come from anyone and it could relate to anything. I think it is unprofessional to give traditional owners legal advice on a piece of paper without a letterhead and a signature. It only occurred to me later why he was doing that.

Senator LUDLAM —In reference perhaps to the nuclear waste dump or to projects for which you have said it is very difficult to get support from the land council if you are trying stop a particular development from going ahead, from your point of view, what would it look like if these sorts of consent processes were done properly?

Ms Jackson —For a start, there should be minutes from meetings. There should be a cooling-off period. Our people often have heaps of stuff on our agendas and we are really busy. If we are called in for a meeting and the land council tells us there is this or that happening, sometimes people are talked into signing there and then, and when we go away and think about it we realise it probably was not the best thing to do to sign that piece of paper—but there is no cooling-off period; there is no going back and saying, ‘Oh, that was a mistake.’ Another instance is that our family disagreed with the mineral extraction deed put to us by the land council. The benefits to us and the non-rehabilitation of our country and lack of protection for our archaeological sites were pretty poor, so we strongly disagreed. The land council then sent someone around to my dad, who is quite ill. On that occasion he got out of bed and signed the piece of paper without realising, so we are now locked into five years of mineral extraction without any benefit. It is those sorts of tactics that I think should be looked at carefully.

In terms of the Muckaty Station nomination, as you have probably seen from my letters, a number of letters were written to the full council. I think they explained a bit yesterday how it works, but basically there are several representatives from each region within the Northern Land Council area. The people who sit on that full council are all very good people, and I fully respect them. When I asked several of them about this issue specifically and about the letter that was written by the TOs from the Tennant Creek area, I was told that the then chairman, Mr Daly, did not table that letter, but held it up, said, ‘This is rubbish,’ and threw it to one side. No-one got to see that letter. We were attempting to get to the good people on the full council to let them know that there were people who were not happy and to give them both sides of the story. The council members whom I asked said they were convinced by senior people at the land council that every proper traditional owner had been spoken to and all had given their consent. So, given that information, the full council voted and accepted the nomination.

Senator LUDLAM —Convinced by whom?

Ms Jackson —I am not entirely sure. I believe it was the lawyers. I do not think it was the executive, because a number of the executive members are also opposed to the situation. I guess it was the lawyers, but I was not there. That was just how it was explained to me: that they were assured by senior people at the land council that all the right people had been spoken to and that is why they made that decision.

Senator LUDLAM —Can you tell us a little bit about the role played by the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, of which you are the co-chair and have made the submission on behalf of?

Ms Jackson —I am quite new to the alliance. A lot of really good, hardworking people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have kept that going over the years since Jabiluka. Basically, it is a coming together of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists and people concerned about the environment to look more closely at the expanding uranium industry and also the nuclear waste dump. Through ANFA—the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance—they assisted TOs in South Australia to prevent the waste dump from going there and are certainly supportive of TOs in the Northern Territory to prevent the waste dump coming here as well.

Senator LUDLAM —I noticed in the submission from the Top End Aboriginal Conservation Alliance some of the different language groups that are listed from all over central and southern Australia.

Ms Jackson —That is right.

Senator LUDLAM —What interests would you say Aboriginal people have who might be thousands of kilometres away from Muckaty? Why is the concern so widespread?

Ms Jackson —Certainly Larrakia has a strong concern that should we have a nuclear waste dump anywhere in Australia, but particularly in the Northern Territory, it is quite likely that ships carrying international nuclear waste that are apparently in various places around the world waiting for somewhere to dump would start heading towards our harbour to start unloading that nuclear waste and send it down the track by the train. Also just to show some solidarity with people who are not being listened to or heard. I would just add that one of the first statements President-elect Barack Obama made was that he will take Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear waste site in the States, off the list. So if President-elect Obama can see the folly in trying to force nuclear waste on indigenous people then perhaps our ministers could see similarly.

Senator LUDLAM —So your concern is that we might start with a national radioactive waste dump and end up with an international one?

Ms Jackson —Yes, and Yucca Mountain actually puts more pressure on us in terms of where that waste is going to go. When I first heard about the nuclear waste dump I saw a vision in my mind of these ships sailing towards Darwin harbour with their cargo that they cannot dump anywhere else. It is a big concern for us. Some uranium coming out of Ranger already goes through our harbour. We have an inadequate emergency response. In fact, Dr Nitschke, who is now famous for euthanasia, initially was a whistleblower of the NT government when he exposed the inadequate preparations Darwin had for any nuclear accident. He was a doctor at the hospital at the time and realised that if something happened his staff and he would probably be on the front line. We were not aware at the time that we had an American nuclear powered sub in our harbour. He blew the whistle and was sacked and has since gone on to do euthanasia. I think some attempts were made to have a response, but our harbour does not flush very much. It sort of just washes in and out. So, if there was a spill in our harbour, it would be absolutely devastating to everything and it would be almost impossible to get the uranium out of the water.

Senator LUDLAM —Thank you very much for your comments this morning.

CHAIR —Ms Jackson, how does the alliance believe Australia should treat its nuclear waste?

Ms Jackson —The best advice at the moment is to keep it where it is at Lucas Heights. Despite the previous government’s categorising of our waste as low- and intermediate-level, I understand in other places in the world it is regarded as high-level waste. It is spent fuel rods from the reactor containing high-level waste plutonium. Transporting that around is dangerous in itself, and the best advice is to store it onsite.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Ms Jackson, thanks for your time today. What discussions have you had about the repeal of the act with the government or representatives of the government since its election?

Ms Jackson —The NT government or the federal government?

Senator BIRMINGHAM —The federal government.

Ms Jackson —Only writing this submission, I guess. I was part of the speaking tour that Natalie Wasley spoke about yesterday. We met with various senators and ministers from all sides of politics on our speaking tour. So there was that first point of contact, but since then it is just this submission.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —What is your understanding of the promise that the Labor Party took to the last election?

Ms Jackson —When we were in Parliament House in Canberra on the speaking tour, we sat in with Mr Snowdon. There was a representative from Mr Garrett’s office there and Senator Kim Carr. They were all in opposition at the time. They basically gave us an undertaking that if they were elected they would repeal the CRWMA immediately. We went away from the meeting feeling quite happy that the Labor Party had promised to repeal the act.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —And what is your feeling in regard to the government’s lack of action so far?

Ms Jackson —It is quite disappointing. I know we are not talking about the intervention, but both those issues are impacting hugely on our people, and the expansion of uranium mining in the Northern Territory, or in Australia, is having a big impact on our people. As Marlene Bennett said yesterday, it is like throwing a bone at a pack of dogs and it is causing people to fight over potential benefits. It causes lots of fights between families.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Can I just go back to the Northern Land Council briefly just to help me to understand better its structure and how representative it is or otherwise. You spoke fairly positively of the members of the full council who represent the different communities and groupings within the council’s area. Does the full council elect in some way or appoint the executive that oversees the operations of the council?

Ms Jackson —Yes. The full council members are elected on a regional basis, and then they elect an executive. So it is not the constituents who elect the executives; it is the full council itself that has already been nominated by the constituents.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Where do you think it all breaks down? You are obviously fairly critical of the end output of the council. If it is good people going into the full council, where does it go wrong with the output to the community?

Ms Jackson —I have sat on the Larrakia Nation Governing Committee for eight or so years, and it is partly just overwhelming information presentation. There is one thing after the other and by the time you get to agenda item 25 you are falling asleep in the chair and not really taking enough notice of the issues. If you are being told that the right people have been spoken to and there is no question then I guess you take that decision and make your statement.

Senator PRATT —Thank you, Chair. Thank you, Ms Jackson. In your submission you say it is unacceptable to put nuclear waste on Aboriginal land threatening the health of the environment, water and the people. I know there is a fair bit of information available about the impacts of nuclear waste, but I really want to ask you to unpack that statement a little bit for us in terms of the perceived impacts and what evidence you base that on.

Ms Jackson —I have seen a couple of diagrams of how they plan to store the waste. As Mitch mentioned yesterday, it is layers of dirt and gravel and drums. I am not sure that any iron or steel drum can last several thousand years. If you could get at a drum to look at its condition, you would probably find that it was breaking down and leaking under the ground unseen. The other issue is the lack of security. When questioned about how the waste dump would be secured, they initially said there would be no-one there, and then they said they would have one security officer there. So if terrorist groups were looking to exploit a vulnerable set-up, then there would be one security guard sitting on the waste dump.

In terms of people, I think the amount of stress put on various environmental groups and contemplating the waste dump and especially on traditional owners was pretty evident yesterday when I observed the traditional owners weeping in the back of the room after they had made their submissions. It really is nefarious and bordering on evil that rich, non-indigenous societies create toxic, long-lasting pollutants and then turn to indigenous people in the world to dump it on their country. I am not sure if anyone is familiar with what happened at Wounded Knee with well-known activist John Trudell and others. It was made into a movie, Thunderheart, the subject of which was a nuclear waste pile at the back of the community. Several people lost their lives trying to expose and defend their country. I myself woke up at four o’clock this morning tossing and turning with a knot in my stomach because of the stress.

Senator PRATT —Other groups, such as some of the Ngapa people at Muckaty, we have been told are convinced that the protection measures likely to be put in place should such a site be chosen would be adequate. How difficult is it for non-scientists to weigh up and deliberate on these issues?

Ms Jackson —If various scientists and ministers, such as Minister Martin Ferguson, would show their respect and take the time to sit down and talk with people on the ground, they might discover that, yes, there is a lot of opposition. To be fair to Amy and her family, I feel some sorrow for them. If you read some of her media statements, you will see that the first thing she mentions is that now we will get some schools and roads and basic services. So people who are already underprivileged and suffering and almost desperate for some services are being offered nuclear waste dumps to get the services that they require.

Senator PRATT —Lastly, Ms Jackson, we have had some discussion in the past couple of days about the Northern Land Council. You mentioned minutes and the importance when people are both for and against of having that kind of documentation. These things are not necessarily decided by majority, and I am trying to get my head around the politics of who should be listened to when there are such divisive issues in play.

Ms Jackson —I can only go back to what I said earlier. Members of the full council were convinced that all the right people had been spoken to. I honestly believe that if those individual full council members were here listening to the traditional owners, who do have rights to speak for that country, a number of them would change their position. They have been told that the right people have been spoken to but, as I said, they have massive agendas, so they move on to the next item. Did I answer all of that question?

Senator PRATT —Yes.

Ms Jackson —Just quickly, if I can jump in with one more statement, the other thing about Tennant Creek is that it is highly prone to tremors. Not long after Mr John Daly, the then chairman, was on television announcing the waste dump nomination for Muckaty Station a strong earth tremor was felt right near Muckaty Station. So this constant harking back to it is all about the science and Tennant Creek is the best place is quite astounding. If you go to the Australian geological website and look at the dots on the map for earthquake and tremor-prone areas, you will see that the whole area of Tennant Creek is a big blotch of red, which means it is highly prone to seismic activity.

CHAIR —Thanks, Ms Jackson. Just one last question from me. This bill that we are considering today is to repeal the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, and if it was successful in the parliament there would be no act. What is the view of the alliance about replacement legislation, or are you happy, if the act was repealed, to live with the other legislation, territory and federal, that governs these issues?

Ms Jackson —I had not had a huge amount to do with that prior to this and was quite stunned to find that various other acts were put to the side for this one to stand. The NT government is clearly against a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory, and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was suspended to allow the passage of this act. Both alliances that I represent ideally would like to see the CRWMA completely thrown out and, if there is to be any further discussion, that it be open and transparent and properly consultative, and also that those doing the consultations do not rely solely on the Northern Land Council to ascertain whether traditional owners want these sorts of things on their country.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, thank you very much for your submission and for taking the time to appear before the committee this morning. We appreciate it very much.

Ms Jackson —Thank you, Senator.

[8.34 am]