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Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Repeal and Consequential Amendment) Bill 2008

CHAIR —Welcome. Your submission consists of a letter to the committee dated 27 October, and I think today you have provided us with a copy of a letter that the council forwarded to the committee for its inquiry in 2005 about the original act establishing the Commonwealth radioactive waste management facility. Do you have any additions or alterations to those items?

Alderman Clark —No, we do not.

CHAIR —Would you like to make an opening statement?

Alderman Clark —Yes, I would. I come representing Alice Springs Town Council as an alderman, and also as an executive member of the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory. We would like to bring up a few issues of concern, particularly to local government. First of all, as stated in the letter, the original inquiry was a very short timeline, and also there was not, as you have done correctly this time, people coming to Alice Springs to actually consult with the community. We do not believe that there was a consultation process that adequately consulted the Northern Territory community. We believe that there was communication in that our mayor actually found out via the radio that there were three locations in the Northern Territory at that stage being considered, and then we had reporters contact us to ask what our thoughts were. Immediately we were on the back foot, and having to answer to the media. This was particularly distressing to us because of the recent signing of the intergovernmental agreement, which meant that we hoped there would be communication between the three tiers of government on issues that were of importance to our council. We received very little consultation on the process.

Alice Springs Town Council was concerned that, going back to 2005, the waste dump was supposed to be happening in Woomera. The South Australian communities were able to politically oppose that successfully and have the waste dump not considered for Woomera anymore. The Northern Territory does not have the same legislative rights as other citizens in Australia, which means that not only have we been disadvantaged in the past but also in the future, if there were a referendum, we would not get counted in the double majority. We would only get one vote counted, and not two. So we believe that the citizens of the Northern Territory have less ability to actually fight for what we believe is right in terms of government process. We are asking the Senate committee to also take that into account when making future considerations for where you want the radioactive waste dump located. We certainly have our backs up whenever decisions are made by federal government on behalf of the Northern Territory, because we know that we do not have the ability to have the same processes as other Australians. I do not know if the CEO has anything to add.

Mr Mooney —Good afternoon to the committee and Madam Chair. I only reiterate the comments of Alderman Clark. The council voted that it was not in favour of any radioactive waste, low level or anything of the like, within the Northern Territory. We were very concerned that, as Alderman Clark said, we heard about it over the media—and that was only months after this particular document was signed by the three tiers of government about communication and consultation. So we felt that it was an affront that that was the way we had to be advised of this particular issue. Notwithstanding that, the council let a public meeting take place in the foyer of the civic centre to show that it was prepared to facilitate those discussions. It is not a matter of ‘not in your backyard’; we have many, many principles here in the Territory, and because we have a small population on the vast area in its own does not justify a decision based on political imperatives, when there is far more—as you would be aware—to such a decision than just the decisions at the political level.

Senator LUDLAM —I was just wondering what response you have had. Can you detail the correspondence that you have had to or from the present federal government since the election last year?

Mr Mooney —There has been an acknowledgement of council’s representations and comments about keeping council in the loop, if you like, but very little correspondence in the last two years.

Senator LUDLAM —It is good that you are in the loop, because there are a lot of people who feel they are not. Can you tell us what, if anything, has come back from any relevant ministers in relation to this matter since November 2007?

Mr Mooney —Since that initial meeting that was held, at which Senator Nigel Scullion was present, I guess it would be fair to say there has been a deafening silence.

Senator LUDLAM —You also mentioned briefly that you did hold a public meeting after you were made aware of the proposals. What was the mood of that meeting, and could you give us an idea of the sort of response you have had from ratepayers and residents of this area?

Mr Mooney —That meeting was facilitated by council by allowing the foyer of its civic centre to be used as the venue. I made that decision in consultation, but there was even some criticism about that decision being made. I believe that the meeting had a tone of some hostility and some concerns, obviously, from those present about the issues that Alderman Clark and I have mentioned about the lack of prior notice, the lack of consultation, and the basis upon which the decision was made. Bearing in mind that Woomera was suggested a couple of years beforehand, but the outcry there made them say, ‘No, we’ll take it somewhere else.’ Since that time there has not been a lot of correspondence or dialogue at all. However, we have an active lobby of residents and ratepayers in the community who continue to be opposed to such a facility located within the confines of certainly Alice Springs but, indeed, the Northern Territory generally.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Thanks for your time today. Can you enlighten me a little as to the geography? How far away from Alice Springs are the four sites under discussion?

Alderman Clark —The closest one would be Mount Everard, which is about 20 kilometres. Also, what you have to recognise is that the railway and the main road go through Alice Springs, so that would mean that people are particularly concerned about the transport of the waste products through our town. With respect to any location that you choose, it will have to go through Alice Springs.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Senator Ludlam asked you a little about consultation and engagement with the government. Have you met with Mr Snowdon or Senator Crossin or any of the new ministers since the election last year to discuss this issue?

Alderman Clark —Not since the election last year, but certainly after 2005. We also made representation to the Australian Local Government Association about it at its general meeting.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have you written to any of the aforementioned since the election last year?

Mr Mooney —No, not since the election.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —How would you propose the Australian government handle its nuclear waste?

Alderman Clark —I do not think that that is an issue that we are discussing here. What we are discussing is the decision-making process and keeping local government informed and working appropriately with our level of government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Should science and community management and everything else suggest that the best site could be found in the Northern Territory, would you accept that?

Alderman Clark —The decision-making process would determine whether or not we accept it. We have not been consulted appropriately, and I cannot talk on behalf of other aldermen who represent the town of Alice Springs. The appropriate forum would be where we would say yes or no to that issue, and I certainly cannot say yes or no on behalf of council.

Mr Mooney —If I could just add that the official position of council remains unequivocally that council is opposed to such a facility in the Northern Territory.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Can I suggest that, if council feels so passionately, you might like to chase up with the government as to where it is at in the 12 months since its election?

Alderman Clark  —Excuse me, I find that offensive. I am sorry, but we have already said that we are opposed. That has been a formal position of council. If the federal government wants to place the radioactive waste dump here, it needs to initiate consultation, and it is not for us to continuously put the same piece of information up to the federal government.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Most other groups that oppose the dump that have appeared before us today have been quite active in their representations on behalf of their constituency. The council has provided a three-sentence submission to this inquiry and appears to have done nothing since the change of government. So I would suggest that, if it is a passionate position of the council, you take that up with the government. That is all.

Alderman Clark —Okay, and I reiterate my offence at your attitude.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Noted.

Senator PRATT —It has been put to this committee that, if traditional owners consent to the acceptance of a site for the taking of waste, that right should be respected. Would you comment on, I suppose, wider and broader community rights to also have a say in the context of decisions like this.

Alderman Clark —Certainly the whole community needs to be able to have their say. Everyone is affected through the transportation, in particular, and the long-term effects of the plans for what could happen in the future, so once again I return to the process: if you have not consulted, then you have no right to choose a location in the Northern Territory. I honestly believe that this process has been really flawed from the start. We feel railroaded in the Northern Territory, so that is what I return to again and again. You can put 100 different scenarios to me. Alice Springs Town Council stood against it. We have said we are opposed to it on the process, and that is what we said in our supporting letter to our original motion as well.

Senator PRATT —Do you think the Northern Territory has been a focus of these investigations in recent years because of its lack of rights to be able to say no?

Alderman Clark —Yes, I believe that, because other locations have been considered and then changed and because of the very little amount of consultation that took place with the Northern Territory, I do believe that the federal government took advantage of our lesser rights as citizens.

CHAIR —Just out of curiosity, do you know whether the Local Government Association of the Northern Territory has a position on the siting of a nuclear waste facility in the territory?

Alderman Clark —The Local Government Association did present Alice Springs Town Council’s motion and supported it. I would have to verify this, but I do believe that it took a position that it would support any local government body in what their decision actually was. So it would lobby on behalf of any council—for instance, Alice Springs Town Council—that is opposed to it. I do believe that Katherine Town Council is opposed to it as well. Where a council has made a decision, the Local Government Association would support it in the decision that it has made for its region.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your submission and for appearing before the committee today; we appreciate it. Before I conclude today’s hearings, I need a motion to accept tabled documents from today’s meeting.

Senator LUDLAM —I so move.

CHAIR —I will put that: all those in favour, against; carried. That concludes today’s proceedings. I would like to thank all the witnesses for their informative presentations, and I would like to thank visitors in the gallery for attending today. I also thank Hansard, Broadcasting and the secretariat for their assistance today.

Committee adjourned at 4.44 pm