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Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Page: 2830

Senator MINCHIN (South Australia) (12:29): I rise to speak on this bill in my capacity as the minister responsible for radioactive waste from 1998 to 2001 and as the minister responsible for the Land Acquisition Act, and hence the acquisition of a radioactive site, from 2001 to 2007. So I do have a long and intimate association with this vexed issue. I regret to say that the way this issue has been handled over the last 20 years is an indictment of Australia's political culture and, with great respect to my friends and colleagues opposite, the Australian Labor Party in particular. It is now nearly 20 years since the then responsible minister, Simon Crean, announced the then federal Labor government's commitment to a national repository and commenced the formal research for the best sites for that repository—and that process was still underway when we came to government in 1996.

At that point, regrettably, the ALP, then in opposition, took a 180-degree turn on this issue. From that point on, while the coalition continued the process initiated by Simon Crean and the Labor Party, the Labor Party, at state and federal levels, opposed us every step of the way. Labor spent 11½ years doing everything it possibly could to frustrate and oppose the implementation of the policy it devised when in government. The exploitation of community concern about radioactive material during that 11½ years was a real low point in Australian politics. When the then opposition could have, and should have, acted in the national interest to join with the coalition government to implement its own policy, it chose opportunism, cynicism and fearmongering.

To some extent, the worst offenders were not the federal opposition but the Rann Labor government in South Australia. Two years prior to the Rann government's election in 2002, the independent process over which I in government presided, but which had been implemented by Simon Crean, con­cluded that the central north region of South Australia was the best place in Australia to build a national radioactive waste repository. So it fell to me as the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, and in the interesting position of being a senator for South Australia, to announce the outcome of that scientific research in 2000 and the identification of a prospective sites in the central north of my home state.

To its great credit, the then state Liberal government in South Australia looked to the national interest and did not oppose that outcome. The Rann state Labor opposition, of course, saw a political opportunity and immediately started campaigning against having a national repository in South Australia. It did not seem to matter to Rann Labor that a national repository was federal Labor government policy under Hawke and Keating, that the federal Labor government had initiated the nationwide scientific search and that the search had identified the central north of South Australia as the best site. It did not seem to matter to the Rann Labor Party that building this national repository would enable the removal of radioactive waste from the centre of the city of Adelaide, where it was then, and still is, stored in basements on our main boulevard.

After their victory in the 2002 election the Rann Labor government used every resource available to a state government to frustrate the federal process, aided and abetted, I regret to say, by the then federal Labor opposition. The South Australian state Labor government used legislation and the courts and the cynical manipulation of South Australian public opinion to make it practically impossible for a federal coalition government to put a repository where the science—which we now hear we must obey—had told us was the best place in Australia.

Of course, as a South Australian senator and as the responsible minister, I bore the brunt of those rather vicious Labor attacks. I was branded a traitor to my state, I was pilloried at every opportunity and even my children suffered abuse at their local South Australian school. I needed police protection at public functions when I argued the case for this repository. So it was without question the ugliest period of my political career.

Of course, this cynical campaign was perpetrated by a state party and leader who had done everything they could at that stage to stop the development in South Australia of the Olympic Dam uranium mine—but they are now, of course, its biggest champions. Rann Labor now says: 'We do want the world's biggest uranium mine in South Australia but under no circumstances could we have a national repository for Australia's short-lived and intermediate level radioactive waste. The Howard government did the only thing it could: leave Mr Rann to wallow in his rank hypocrisy and seek to establish a Commonwealth repository in the Northern Territory. We were left with no other option, given the actions of the Rann Labor government. So those opposed to a repository in the Northern Territory have Mr Rann to blame. But for him, we would already have a national repository up and running in outback South Australia.

Now, of course, we are regrettably witnessing the hypocrisy of federal Labor. Federal Labor in opposition aided and abetted the Rann Labor government in its campaign to frustrate the national interest. Federal Labor attacked us relentlessly on this issue. Federal Labor in opposition voted against our 2005 legislation to develop a Commonwealth repository in the Northern Territory and promised at the 2007 election to repeal our legislation. Of course, now that they are back in government they are being mugged by the same reality that the previous Labor government faced nearly 20 years ago and they are now committed to establishing what Australia must have: a national purpose-built repository. So now we have a Labor bill which is essentially the same as our 2005 legislation which, as I say, Labor so cynically opposed at the time.

As the then shadow minister for resources and energy in the coalition, in March last year, just before my resignation, I sought and obtained shadow cabinet and coalition party room support for this Labor legislation, and I was gratified that the coalition party room put the national interest first rather than pursuing a cynical, short-sighted and politi¬≠cally motivated opposition. Unlike Labor in opposition, we will not play politics on this issue, and I applaud my own party for the stand they are taking. We must build this repository. As I said at the outset, it is a sad indictment of the political culture of this country that, for nearly 20 years, successive federal governments of both persuasions have tried to do the right thing without success. As a nation we have been incapable of collectively accepting the need for a purpose-built repository for our radioactive waste—nobody else's—and to get it built and get it operational.

The political exploitation of the tendency to nimbyism will cripple this country unless we unite to overcome it. Labor and the coalition must understand the importance of putting politics aside and joining together in the national interest to achieve outcomes like the proper safe disposal of radioactive waste. My experience with this radioactive waste issue, over many years, is why I have repeatedly and consistently said to my own party that without bipartisanship you can completely forget about nuclear power in Australia. If, after 20 years, we still have not been able to establish a low-level radioactive waste repository out in the desert, imagine how long it is going to take to build a nuclear power station. So I welcome the somewhat belated bipartisanship on this waste issue. We have to get this repository built as soon as possible.

I commend the government for bringing in this legislation and I commend my colleagues for agreeing to support it. I conclude by commending my colleague Senator Nigel Scullion for his handling of this issue. As it was difficult for South Australian senators, so it is difficult for Northern Territory senators—both Labor and coalition. I do know how tough it has been for both of them. I want to commend to the Senate the amendment moved by Senator Scullion and I urge the government to accept his very sensible proposal.