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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 692

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (Minister for Resources and Energy and Minister for Tourism) (7:16 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to respond to what has largely been a constructive debate to what is a very important bill, the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010. I begin by thanking the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts for its advisory report into this bill, because it has very much been part of the debate before the House this evening.

As the committee noted, since 2005 radioactive waste management legislation has been the subject of four previous parliamentary inquiries, providing opportunities for consideration of evidence and submissions from members of the public. Members of the public were invited to comment on the bill last year during an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. The report notes that ‘the government’s bill has substantially addressed the recommendations of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee’.

Whilst I will not go into detail on the debate and the contribution by all members, I will spend a little more time responding to the dissenting report of the member for Melbourne and addressing some of the assumptions contained therein, including his contribution to the debate this evening. The honourable member and his party colleagues are playing an old political game. On the one hand they express support for establishing a single national radioactive waste facility and then with the other they erect every conceivable barrier to prevent this realisation. I simply note that the process leading to this bill in Australia commenced in 1988. It is time that we fronted up to our responsibilities.

Based on his dissenting report and subsequent media statements, and reinforced in his contribution this evening, the member for Melbourne does not support the concept of a national radioactive waste facility. For instance, the member for Melbourne suggests that this bill allows the minister to make a decision that is not scientifically informed. The truth is that the bill’s framework is solidly underpinned by sound science. In 2009, extensive biophysical studies were completed and presented to the government by Parsons Brinckerhoff on the current nominated site.

Under the bill, similarly detailed site studies will be conducted for any other land nominated and being seriously considered as a site before any ministerial decision to select a site for full regulatory assessment. Any selected site would be referred for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The facility will be subject to regulatory requirements of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 as well as those of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Safeguards) Act 1987. The bill ensures that these fundamental requirements are not bypassed—nor should they be. Against this framework and given the undoubted intelligence of the member for Melbourne, it is tempting to conclude that ‘sound science’ is simply a euphemism for an outcome that he agrees with.

The member for Melbourne’s dissenting report also suggests that there is something inherently wrong with the Commonwealth passing laws within its legislative competence that are inconsistent with or contrary to state legislation. This is not a view of the writers of our Constitution, who made specific provision in section 109 to allow for the supremacy of this parliament’s laws. Some examples, for the information of the member for Melbourne, of Commonwealth legislation overriding state law are the Native Title Act, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act and, of course, the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983. Perhaps the honourable member for Melbourne could raise the repeal of these acts, particularly the latter, in his next party room meeting! Perhaps he now wants the Franklin River dam to actually be built!

It makes sense that these overriding provisions operate only to the extent necessary for the facility to be established and to operate as intended. Surely it is appropriate that an Australian government facility intended to benefit the whole of Australia should be regulated through Commonwealth laws and no single state and territory law should have the capacity to frustrate a benefit going to all others. The fact is that the member for Melbourne and his colleagues erect these straw men as arguments because of their ideological opposition to all things nuclear.

Perhaps, in terms of his argument about whether or not the Commonwealth should override state laws, he should also have a more detailed discussion with the member for Denison on his desire for the Commonwealth to legislate with respect to potentially overriding state and territory laws on the issue of gambling in Australia—proposed legislation supported by the Greens party room.

Need I point out that around 500,000 patients annually benefit from radio isotopes in medical procedures such as cancer diagnosis and treatment. Australians, including the Greens and the member for Melbourne, are responsible for creating nuclear waste from the use of mobile phones, iPods and computers. Accepting the benefit of these technologies means that we are all responsible for finding a safe location based on science to store Australia’s nuclear waste. As a community, we have failed miserably in this endeavour since 1988. As a 2010 Victorian Auditor-General’s report into hazardous waste stated:

… there is little assurance that hazardous waste is stored and disposed of appropriately.

The bill the government has introduced is aimed at ensuring that radioactive waste from the production and use of nuclear medicine and other essential applications is managed properly, subject to full scientific assessment and regulatory approvals. On this point, I also reinforce to this House that the intended facility will only store radioactive waste generated, possessed or controlled by the Commonwealth of Australia or a Commonwealth entity—no other country’s waste. The law of Australia prevents Australia from storing the waste of any other country.

In terms of the issue of Victoria, I simply say that the bill that the government has introduced is aimed at ensuring that radioactive waste from the production and use of nuclear medicine is appropriately stored. Indeed, the member for Melbourne ought to be aware of the following facilities in his own electorate, which neighbours my electorate of Batman in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, which use nuclear material in medical and other research: the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the Royal Children’s Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne. Radioactive waste is stored at Peter MacCallum, right in the middle of Melbourne, and there is also a significant amount of material at Melbourne university. All four sites produce the same kind of waste, which will be managed under the provisions of this bill. This waste is therefore routinely transported throughout his electorate and many other electorates of the Commonwealth parliament—without, to my knowledge, any demonstrations against it by the honourable member or candidates from his party.

A national radioactive waste management facility is an essential element of a long-term strategy to manage Australia’s radioactive waste. Perhaps the most sensitive issue that has been exploited by the Greens and the Australian Conservation Foundation—who have been hand in glove with the Greens on this issue—has been their opposition to this bill in terms of traditional owners. I remind the House that traditional ownership of land in the Northern Territory is established through processes set out in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Generally, this involves the Aboriginal land commissioner conducting hearings and publishing a report which the relevant land council considers in reaching its conclusions on who are the legitimate traditional owners.

Muckaty is a large cattle station covering 238,000 hectares, with seven clans, each with traditional ownership of a separate and distinct area of land. In relation to the land presently nominated as a site for the national radioactive waste facility, following the well-accepted process I have outlined, the Northern Land Council concluded in 2007 that the traditional owners were the Ngapa clan. Under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act only traditional owners are empowered to consent to third party use of Aboriginal land. This was the basis on which approval has previously been given by groups other than the Ngapa people for a railway, a gas pipeline and mining projects on Muckaty Station.

Contrary to the suggestion by the Australian Greens and the ACF, it is inconsistent with the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act to suggest that all traditional-land-owning groups on Muckaty Station must give their consent for all decisions about third party use of land on Muckaty Station. Against this background, it would clearly be inappropriate for a minister to treat a group of Indigenous people as traditional owners of a particular piece of land when an independent land council has made a different decision. One might say that it also flies in the face of Indigenous self-determination, something we on this side of the House long fought for.

I remind the House that there are Federal Court proceedings challenging the Northern Land Council’s consultation with traditional owners in nominating the land. I cannot speak for the honourable member for Melbourne, but the Gillard government will accept the court’s decision on this matter. However, we do know that throughout these court proceedings the Greens have consistently suggested that the Northern Land Council have got the wrong traditional owners and that the right traditional owners were not consulted. To present this as a matter of fact is to pre-empt the Federal Court’s decision.

As a former member of the Melbourne bar and officer of the court, the member for Melbourne should know it is unethical to pre-empt a decision of the court for political gain. It speaks volumes about the nature of his political ethics and those of the Greens and the ACF that each feel they can legitimately pick and choose who is and who is not a traditional owner. In the Labor Party we do not pick and choose traditional owners to suit our political circumstances or campaigns we seek to pursue for short-term political gain. We respect due process. We respect land councils. We respect Indigenous self-determination, which is facilitated by the Northern Land Council. The Greens respect only those that agree with them.

In conclusion, this bill will allow for the siting, construction and operation of a radioactive waste management facility. The legislative framework is based on volunteerism in identifying a site. Establishing the facility will be conditional on comprehensive environmental and other regulatory approval processes. These are conducted independent of the project proponents and ensure Australia adheres to international best practice. In commending the bill to the House, I indicate to the House that the government opposes the second reading amendment of the member for Melbourne.

If I were to undertake consultation as the minister at the present time, it would have to be pursuant to the terms of the existing act, which we seek to repeal this evening. I am not prepared to enter into negotiations with third parties on the basis of an act that does not allow procedural fairness and other protections, and whilst the Federal Court is considering issues associated with the determination of traditional ownership and the site nomination of the Ngapa. As I have indicated on many occasions, I await and will respect the Federal Court decision. As soon as this bill is passed and litigation concludes, I will consult widely with the parties that have rights, interests or legitimate expectations with respect to any nomination.

In actual fact, this bill for the first time gives me as the minister potential to actually consult beyond the traditional owners with what could be broadly described as affected parties. That capacity does not currently exist in terms of the act that operates with respect to the issue of siting a nuclear repository in Australia at the moment. Indeed, unlike the Howard government’s legislation that we are seeking to repeal, this bill will enable those consultations to occur subject to judicial review and procedural fairness.

Can I also say in response to some of the contributions that this debate is not about nuclear power; it is about our basic and fundamental responsibility to meet our international obligations to establish a single national nuclear repository in Australia in accordance with our international obligations.

Mr Wilkie interjecting

Mr Bandt interjecting

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Yes, the interventions speak in terms of what I regard as the rampant hypocrisy of the member for Melbourne, time and time again seeking to pursue short-term political activities using traditional owners to suit his own short-term political needs. He stands condemned. It is time for the Australian parliament to front up to its responsibilities and to actually ensure that we store our waste, which is basically used to look after the health and wellbeing of Australians, with half a million Australians per year benefiting from nuclear medicine. I commend the bill to the House and reject the amendment moved by the member for Melbourne.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms K Livermore)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Melbourne has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing 133(b) the division is deferred until 8 pm.

Debate adjourned.