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

CHAIR —Good morning, Dr Leeder. Thank you very much for joining us this morning. I note that the senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy, and shall be given a reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of them to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim. Dr Leeder, I note that your evidence is being recorded by the media, presumably for broadcast; is it okay with you that that happens?

Dr Leeder —Yes, that is fine.

CHAIR —The committee has received the Northern Territory government submission as submission No. 81; do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?

Dr Leeder —No amendments or alterations.

CHAIR —Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Dr Leeder —Yes, thank you, I would like that opportunity. I would like the opportunity to provide an overview of the Northern Territory government position. The Northern Territory government contends that the provisions in the Commonwealth’s Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 that override existing laws made by the democratically elected Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory prohibiting the transport and storage of radioactive waste are a serious erosion of the democratic rights of Territorians and are contrary to the concept of self-government, create legal uncertainty in regard to the application of Northern Territory laws, and are contrary to the principles of good governance. The unfettered capacity of the Commonwealth’s Radioactive Waste Management Act to override any law of the Northern Territory that would operate to regulate or impose conditions on the selection of a site or the construction of a radioactive waste management facility in the Northern Territory create uncertainty in the application and the extent of the application of existing Northern Territory laws and the application of future laws. It is highly undesirable that there should be uncertainty in the application of the laws of a jurisdiction.

Further, the Commonwealth’s Radioactive Waste Management Act eliminates procedural fairness to Territorians as it allows the selection of a site for a radioactive waste management facility to be made without any consultation or right of review, or the informed consent of traditional owners of land upon which it may be located. In summary, the Northern Territory government maintains its strong objection to: the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act’s capacity to override Northern Territory laws and impose a radioactive waste management facility on Territorians; the abandonment of a process of site selection on the basis of the best available scientific advice and rigorous comparison with other more suitable sites; the removal of the usual consultative processes, transparent review and scrutiny; the ability to declare a site for a radioactive waste management facility without having to consult with traditional owners; and the imposition of waste from the rest of Australia on Territorians, not based on arguments of national good and potential consequences.

The Northern Territory government maintains that the location of a radioactive waste management facility should be based upon independent and objective scientific advice on the most appropriate site or sites, wherever in Australia that site may be. In addition, the Northern Territory government maintains that there should be an open and transparent consultative process which has consideration for issues such as Indigenous rights, environmental and local concerns and transport and security implications before any decision is made on the establishment of a radioactive waste management facility.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your statement, Dr Leeder.

Senator LUDLAM —Thanks, Dr Leeder. It is good to have you here this morning. Can you describe for us briefly what communication you have had with the new federal government since the election last November on this issue?

Dr Leeder —I am afraid I am not in a position to be able to comment on that.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay. So you cannot tell us what dialogue the NT government as a whole has had with the Commonwealth on this issue?

Dr Leeder —No, unfortunately I cannot.

Senator LUDLAM —Can you tell us what difference you think it has made being a territory rather than a state? Do you think that has played a role in the NT being chosen over perhaps one of the other states?

Dr Leeder —I think the ability of the Commonwealth to override Northern Territory legislation puts Northern Territory residents in a position where decisions can be made that override those made by their democratically elected representatives.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay, so you do believe that it has played a part in decision making at a Commonwealth level?

Dr Leeder —Yes.

Senator LUDLAM —If the Commonwealth government at the moment were to repeal the Radioactive Waste Management Act and the legal status quo were to be restored, there is legislation in the Territory prohibiting the dumping of radioactive waste in the Territory as there is in Western Australia and South Australia. What would your proposal be to the Commonwealth government post the repeal? What is the Territory’s position on what should happen to the nation’s radioactive waste?

Dr Leeder —I am sorry, I am not in a position to answer that.

Senator LUDLAM —Does the NT government have a policy on what should become of Commonwealth waste?

Dr Leeder —The Northern Territory government has its own legislation that actually prohibits the transport and storage of radioactive waste, so that would cover that position.

Senator LUDLAM —Does the Northern Territory government have its own inventory of waste at hospitals or from engineering uses and so on?

Dr Leeder —I would not like to answer that, not because I am avoiding it but just because it is not the area in which I work, so I do not have the information. I am happy to provide that later if that would be of assistance.

Senator LUDLAM —I would appreciate that. Perhaps you could just give us an outline of where you are going to be able to make comment so that I am not continually taking us off on tangents.

Dr Leeder —I am probably only able to make comment on the points that are made in the Northern Territory government’s submission, but not on anything that goes wider than that. It is not my area of expertise, and I would not like to make uninformed comment.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay. I am just wondering whether you would perhaps be able to take on notice and provide us with the NT government’s position on what should happen—if there is a position, and perhaps there is not—to the Commonwealth radioactive waste. There is potentially a bit of a contradiction; on the one hand you have said it should not be in the Northern Territory and you are opposed to the dumping of waste in the NT, but also that there should be a process that is independent, objective, scientific and so on. Whatever we might think of remote dumps, that could end up targeting a site in the NT.

Dr Leeder —I take on notice your question.

Senator LUDLAM —Okay, I would appreciate that. I will probably leave it there for the moment. Thanks for your comments.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Dr Leeder, thanks for your time. Are you aware if the Chief Minister or your minister or any minister has written to the Prime Minister or any of the ministers in the new government pursuing the repeal of the act in question?

Dr Leeder —I am not aware of that, no.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Are you aware of any other form of communication, if it has been raised at ministerial council meetings or at any other such fora?

Dr Leeder —Not that I am aware of.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Do you think you might be able to take on notice for us those questions and find out from your minister’s office if they are willing to provide such information to the committee?

Dr Leeder —I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Were you involved at all at the time of the drafting of the Nuclear Waste Transport, Storage and Disposal (Prohibition) Act 2004?

Dr Leeder —No, I was not.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —So I assume you are not then in a position to tell us why the Territory chose to pursue that act if it was also the belief of the Territory government that nuclear waste should be stored in the most appropriate scientifically secure location?

Dr Leeder —No, I am not able to make any comment on that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Can I maybe stray then and try somewhere else: we have heard a lot of criticism of the operation of the Northern Land Council from many witnesses. Have issues regarding the decision-making process of the council been taken up with the government by organisations?

Dr Leeder —Not that I am aware of. But that is not to say that they have not; it is just that that is not my particular area of knowledge.

CHAIR —Are you able to say whether or not the Northern Territory government was consulted prior to the introduction of the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill into the federal parliament in 2005 and/or when the amendments to that act were introduced in 2006?

Dr Leeder —No, I am not able to.

Senator PRATT —Point 12 in your submission talks about procedural fairness to Territorians, and point 14 talks about not needing to consult with traditional owners. I want to follow up with respect to traditional owners, because clearly there are some sites already nominated as part of this act. Clearly the Northern Territory government would consider that the existing act has already impeded the rights of those communities who have been impacted by the nomination of those sites.

Dr Leeder —That is correct.

Senator PRATT —Further to that, the submission notes that there is a lack of procedural fairness and of appeal, and in that sense, whilst there has been a nomination from the Muckaty region which purports to have consent, in a wider sense that has clearly been contested by other communities as to whether that consent is legitimate, saying that particular nomination is also without that procedural fairness. Is that recognised by the Northern Territory government as being procedurally unfair also?

Dr Leeder —Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Following on from questions by Senator Ludlam and me, can I ask you also to take on notice whether you could provide a response that reconciles the statements in paragraph 10 of the Territory’s submission with paragraph 15 of the Territory’s submission where on the one hand you are speaking of the Territory’s ban on the storage of nuclear waste but on the other hand the government is speaking on its belief that the best and most thorough scientific approach should be applied?

Dr Leeder —I am happy to provide additional information out of session to that.

CHAIR —Thank you. As there are no further questions, thank you very much, Dr Leeder, for the submission from the NT government and for taking the time to appear before the committee this morning. We appreciate your attendance.

Dr Leeder —Thank you.

[9.29 am]