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Senator discusses the Government's decision on the Jabiluka mine.

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FRAN KELLY: The government has released its response to the UN World Heritage report that suggested last year, you’ll remember, that Kakadu National Park was in danger from the Jabiluka uranium mine. That report infuriated the government and they’ve spent at least one million dollars on an international lobbying effort trying to convince other countries to vote against it when it comes up for a final hearing in July in Paris.


According to a document that was leaked last year, that lobbying effort includes supporting other countries’ nominations to other international bodies in return for their vote here. Here we go - cynicism again. The government’s response yesterday quoted scientific experts saying the park was not threatened by the mine and it also tried to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the traditional owners, the Mirrar people’s opposition to the mine.


Peter, the intransigence of the Mirrar people is absolutely driving the government and the mine owners, ERA, wild. This whole exercise has already cost ERA in terms of its international reputation for environmental excellence and, of course, a reputation is not easy to buy. And they believe they’re the victim of some UN committee members’ personal agendas here in this whole thing.


I’m joined now by one of the leading opponents to the Jabiluka mine here in Australia, Democrat Senator Lyn Allison. Senator Allison, why should the Australian government bend to the will of a small group of international experts when Australian experts are saying something different? They’re saying that the Jabiluka mine is not a threat environmentally, scientifically or culturally?


LYN ALLISON: Fran, that’s just a restatement of the government’s position over and over. I think this report doesn’t in fact, discount the comments that were made by UNESCO in their recommendations. Really, it just attacks UNESCO, and I would say was deeply insulting to that bureau.


FRAN KELLY: It’s like we’ve got two sides though - one saying one thing, one saying the other thing. They’re completely opposite. This government report also has a report from the office of the supervising scientist whose job it is to continually monitor the impact of mining on Kakadu, and they say in this report that the natural values of the park are not threatened by this mine.


LYN ALLISON: Well, there are other scientific experts in this country who disagree with that position. And I think this report is full of false claims by the government and I think that’s the way it will be seen.


FRAN KELLY: But you say it’s full of false claims but the government says your claims are false. How do we break through this and is this why it’s going to be left to a small group of UN specialists - not even specialists in this area - to make the decision? It’s pretty arbitrary, isn’t it?


LYN ALLISON: Fran, if you just look at the cultural aspects, and of course that was what UNESCO was most worried about. The government claims the Mirrar have agreed to the mine, and we know they have not. It claims that cultural records and mapping have been done and that an interim cultural management plan is being peer reviewed. And we know that they’re having real difficulty in finding an anthropologist who’ll have anything to do with the management plan which was prepared without the traditional owners’ involvement. The traditional owners are happy to sit down and talk with the government, they’re happy to be involved in preparing this plan, but they won’t do it while construction is continuing on the mine. And I think that’s a fair position.


FRAN KELLY: And, of course, construction is continuing. The government in its report makes much of the fact that the traditional owners, the Mirrar people, are only the traditional owners of 2 per cent of the park area, and yet their actions could see the whole park listed as in danger. Is that fair when it’s not many people holding out here?


LYN ALLISON: The problem, Fran, is that the site itself where the ore body is located is on the most sensitive part of that site, and that’s the real issue. Now, the decline, the construction has now reached that point and it’s about to continue underneath that boyweg site. And as the Mirrar people have been saying over and over again, this is a very sensitive area.


FRAN KELLY: It is a very sensitive area. They say it’s a sensitive area culturally. What about environmentally, though? If you look at the new Jabiluka mine it’s a very small surface area. The government report quotes it as 0.007 per cent of the area of Kakadu. It’s a small, state-of-the-art mine. It really isn’t an eyesore on the park - you can’t see it except from an aerial view. If the huge Ranger mine got the okay, why shouldn’t Jabiluka when it’s not really hurting it environmentally in that sense?


LYN ALLISON: Range is an enormous blot on the landscape. You can see that. And I’ve been taken by aboriginal people to areas where you’ll see the Jabiluka mine. So I don’t ....


FRAN KELLY: But the Jabiluka mine is pretty small, isn’t it?


LYN ALLISON: Well, it is small, but is that a reason for mining in our world heritage area? We could put in a whole host of very small mines. I would argue that any encroachment on a world heritage area is not to be countenanced.


FRAN KELLY: In the government’s response it makes the point that Kakadu made it onto the World Heritage List when Ranger was already there and operating. As you say, Ranger is a huge mine. Mining wasn’t a problem then and we got the world heritage listing. The government argues: why should Australia lose it now when there’s just another tiny mine being added?


LYN ALLISON: Well, the government also says that Ranger has not caused any problems over its 18 years existence, but there’s been 120 breaches of the conditions for Ranger, including contaminated water being allowed into the Magela Creek system and of course the wetlands are fed by the Magela Creek. So I don’t think we can say that Ranger has been harmless, and anyway Ranger is not the issue here. We’re talking about a new uranium mine since world heritage was announced for that area.


FRAN KELLY: And the issue as far as the Democrats is concerned is primarily the cultural issue and the issue of sacred sites and the refusal of agreement from the traditional owners?


LYN ALLISON: It’s also environmental, Fran. Remember there are still some remaining issues with this mine that haven’t been resolved. There hasn’t been an EIS process undertaken for the milling or the transport of material to Ranger, should that be the outcome. We’re proceeding with this mine without knowing where the milling will take place. We also don’t know the details about the replacement of tailings back into the mine. There is the need to create another space underground and we don’t know the details of where that will be, and there’s no process for approval for it. So there are some big question marks still over this mine.


FRAN KELLY: Can I just ask you very briefly: what’s at stake here for the government if the UN committee does vote to put Kakadu on the world heritage in danger list?


LYN ALLISON: I guess it’s our reputation overseas. But it is a bit of a puzzle as to what the government feels about world heritage, I must say. It says it has no intention of stopping the mine, regardless of the outcome of UNESCO’s deliberations. Then why spend so much money and time and effort in defending that decision? I think with this government we’ve seen that there’s not much respect for world heritage areas since it came to power - Shark Bay over in Western Australia, a host of mining proposals likely to get the go ahead. We’ve seen Hinchinbrook development, the disaster that that is. We’ve got open cut shale oil mining on the coast in the Great Barrier Reef world heritage region. The list goes on.


I think the government is saying that it’s worried about the listing of the Blue Mountains world heritage nomination, but it seems to me that the government couldn’t care less about world heritage. The tourism department doesn’t even know how many people come here to see world heritage.


FRAN KELLY: Lyn Allison, thanks for your time.


LYN ALLISON: Pleasure.


PETER THOMPSON: And Senator Lyn Allison is the Democrat spokesperson on nuclear issues.