Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Economics References Committee
Selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia

JOHNSON, Councillor Dean, Mayor, District Council of Kimba

LARWOOD, Mrs Debra, Chief Executive Officer, District Council of Kimba

LIENERT, Mrs Megan, Councillor, District Council of Kimba

Committee met at 10:33

CHAIR ( Senator Ketter ): I declare open this hearing of the Senate Economics References Committee for the inquiry into the selection process for a national radioactive waste management facility in South Australia. The Senate referred this inquiry to the committee on 6 February 2018 for report by 14 August 2018. The committee has received 109 submissions so far, which are available on the committee's website. Five submissions are 'name withheld' and 13 are confidential. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made, although the committee may determine or agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera.

I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It's unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee, and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It's also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may also be made at any other time.

Witnesses should speak clearly and into the microphones to assist Hansard to record proceedings, and I'd ask photographers and cameramen to follow the established media guidelines and instructions of the committee secretariat. Please ensure that the senators' and witnesses' laptops and personal papers are not filmed. I ask everyone to ensure they have switched off their mobile phones, or turned them to silent. Before I call our first witnesses, I just remind members of the public and everyone in the gallery that they are not permitted to speak or interfere with the proceedings or with witnesses at any point during the hearing. Anyone who does not follow these instructions will be asked to leave.

I now welcome representatives from the District Council of Kimba. Thank you for appearing before the committee today. Would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Councillor Johnson : I would, thank you. Good morning chair and committee members. Thank you for the opportunity to make a statement this morning about the District Council of Kimba's involvement in the process to determine the location of the Commonwealth government's proposed national radioactive waste management facility at one of three sites in South Australia. I would like to acknowledge the Barngarla people, traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

To date, council's main role has been to facilitate a ballot in 2017 on behalf of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. It gave Kimba residents an opportunity to express their support or opposition to the project in a confidential manner. The intent remained when council, in May this year, agreed to a request from the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator the Hon. Matt Canavan, to facilitate a final ballot commencing on 20 August. This will help determine at which of the three nominated sites the facility will be constructed.

Council's support of progressing the site selection process to the second phase has always been predicated on allowing the residents and ratepayers it represents to have transparent access to detailed information about what hosting the facility would mean for the Kimba community over the life of the project. Two properties nominated within the Kimba local government area were put forward voluntarily; a fact council is incredibly supportive of. The land owners have made their own determinations on nominating 100 hectares of their freehold land on which to locate the facility.

Early on in the site selection process, council was asked to provide feedback on its definition of 'community'. The consensus of elected members was that residing within the District Council of Kimba boundary was an applicable interpretation of 'community'. This was the definition utilised for the initial ballot, and the one that council believes should be used for the final vote as it allows for the facilitation of a ballot in accordance with the provisions of the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999. To that end, Kimba residents not on the House of Assembly roll were provided with an opportunity in May, along with other stakeholders eligible under section 14 of the act, to apply for inclusion on the voters roll. Any elector included on the voters roll as at the 31 May deadline will also be eligible to vote in the South Australian local government elections on 9 November.

Part of reaching an informed, balanced opinion about the project involves the community being provided with accurate, detailed information about each element, including the social and economic benefits the facility will deliver. Council acknowledges that the minister has made a commitment to make the information publicly available in a timely manner, and has given a deadline of midday on 23 July for this to occur in order for it to determine whether or not it intends to proceed with facilitating the ballot.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that the location of the facility has created a variety of views within our community and further afield. I would also like to reiterate the council's unwavering position remains that without the information being released, the community will not be in a position to make an informed decision that addresses the questions and concerns identified during phase 2 of the site selection process. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Johnson. I'll just kick off with some questions and then other members of the committee will ask you some questions. My first question is: what comments do you have to make about the engagement of the Australian government through this process for the site selection? Has it improved over time? What comments would you like to make there?

Councillor Johnson : The department have provided a number of experts to inform our community. Council's position has always been to facilitate that information getting out to our community. So I'm supportive of the experts in their fields coming out and presenting to our community.

CHAIR: From your submission, I take it you're happy with the number of visits from the experts and the professionals on both sides of the debate.

Councillor Johnson : Council doesn't have a formal position on whether it's supportive of the number of visits we've had. I believe we've been supportive of the experts that have come across, but it's a bit difficult for me to comment exactly on how many and whether that's enough.

CHAIR: So you agree that the community is much more educated now about the issues involved?

Councillor Johnson : Certainly. Part of our submission included Frank Harris, an expert in radiation safety, and Associate Professor Dr Geoff Currie. They both commented that Kimba's become a very well-informed community and probably leaders in the country in the safety of radioactive waste, which is not where we thought we'd be at this stage, but that's exactly what's happened.

CHAIR: From where you stand as mayor, what do you say to the common concerns that residents have about the project?

Councillor Johnson : There is still some information to come, and I think largely that's around the community benefits package. Those things have not been addressed at this stage, although the minister has committed to releasing that information before the vote takes place. I think it's largely just that follow-up information and information around the benefits package that would be the main concerns at this stage.

CHAIR: You touched on this in your opening statement as well: whether the ballot should go beyond the local government area. You talked about the Local Government (Elections) Act and why the process is consistent with that. What do you say to those that argue that there should be a wider definition of those impacted by the ballot?

Councillor Johnson : The first thing I'd comment is that our community has been through an incredible journey over the last three years. We have had many, many experts from both sides of the debate in our community. I don't see that same knowledge and recognition from those outside of our district. I believe if you're going to cast a wider net, all of that information must be consulted out to a wider community. I don't think it's fair now to cast the net wider without having all of that information available to everyone.

CHAIR: Coming back to the community benefits packages, can you tell us how they are administered here and your view as to whether that support will be a substantial influence on how people might vote.

Councillor Johnson : Once again, the council's position is not to make a definition of how good a package is or to make judgement calls along that line. Our firm position is to give that information to the community, and the community will then cast their votes and make their opinions heard. So I don't believe it's a council issue to say that that's enough.

CHAIR: Putting aside the quantum, what about the way it's administered? Are you able to tell us anything about that?

Councillor Johnson : Without knowing what the final package is and how it will be delivered, it's really difficult to answer that question. Until we get that information, I think it's pretty hard to answer that question.

CHAIR: You finished your submission by saying that you'd like more guidance on the financial and service benefits that the federal government could provide. It sounds like you've got some concerns about whether that's been addressed sufficiently at the moment.

Councillor Johnson : Certainly. Stepping a little outside of my council position, I'm also a member of the Kimba consultative committee, through that committee we're aware that there are economic surveys being undertaken and an economic study that will be delivered before the vote. It's hard to comment on the outcome of that until we see it, but I support and have heard from many in the community that they want economic studies done and baselines taken so that we can see the benefits or detriments that this facility would bring.

CHAIR: What sort of details are you looking for in these financial and service benefits.

Councillor Johnson : Again, council's position is to facilitate this information for the community, so I guess it's up to them to judge exactly what that will be. Council has made a couple of overarching statements about what we'd like to say in a benefits package, but not on specific detail.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Thanks very much for making your time available. I have just a few questions. Are you confident that the federal government's commitment to provide to the council that range of information by 23 July this year will be met?

Councillor Johnson : I guess we'd take the minister's word at face value. He's committed to make that information available, and council does have an out clause if it is not provided.

Senator DEAN SMITH: But there's no reason why you don't think that that will not be met at the moment.

Councillor Johnson : No. As I say, we take it at face value if the commitment is there.

Senator DEAN SMITH: In your submission you note that the first survey approach lacked the necessary independence and robustness. So the AEC-sponsored process met the independence criteria and robustness criteria from the council's perspective?

Councillor Johnson : I might hand to our CEO who's a quite an expert in this field now.

Mrs Larwood : In respect of the AEC ballot, it was handled by the AEC, which is a completely independent body. As we facilitated that ballot and are planning on doing so with this one, it is under the Local Government (Elections) Act 1999, which provides us with specific guidelines as to how the process runs and who gets the vote. It is relatively black and white. We also have the ability to seek legal opinion based under the Local Government Act and the elections act to make sure we've got specific guidelines and there is no judgment call involved—it's legislated.

Senator DEAN SMITH: So you're confident as the council CEO that the ballot will meet the council's requirements around independence and robustness.

Mrs Larwood : Yes. It will meet the requirements as stipulated under that act.

Senator DEAN SMITH: I was interested to read in the submission the discussion, or debate, around community. Is it your view that the attitude has hardened that the definition of community should be 'the district boundary', or has it remained consistent?

Councillor Johnson : There are a variety of views within the community. I think wherever there's a line drawn in any sort of debate such as this there will be people just on the wrong side, and there will always be exceptions. What council has endeavoured to do by using an act and those guidelines is to make that not subjective, so it's not our call and it's not the department's call. People can't influence where that is. It may not be perfect, but it's a very good start, and no-one can influence who's in and who's out.

Senator DEAN SMITH: It's well established and well known to everybody, that's right. In the submission you also make some commentary in regard to Associate Professor Geoff Currie and his observation that he has never seen a community and conversation as mature as this one in the Kimba community. What are the elements that make it mature? Is it the fact that a variety of perspectives have been put to the community and have been heard and understood? In your observation and experience, what makes it mature?

Councillor Johnson : I think the conversations back three years ago were largely focused on international disasters—for example, Chernobyl and Fukushima and these things. But what we're talking about is Australian waste that's produced largely for Australian nuclear medicine. There are so many misnomers out there and so many things that you see from outside commentators that really have no basis in this argument. So I think the argument from all sides has really matured. I think we've gone from some radical safety concerns where we're now down to: what are the pros and cons of a facility such as this in our community?

Senator DEAN SMITH: When I hear the word 'mature' I can use descriptions like 'fact based' or 'evidence based' as a means of understanding what that term 'mature' means?

Councillor Johnson : Yes.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Thanks very much.

Senator PATRICK: I would like to thank the chair, who has come all the way from Queensland, and also Senator Smith, who has come all the way from Western Australia. That's appreciated.

Senator GALLACHER: I came all the way from Adelaide!

Senator PATRICK: And of course Senator Gallacher, my South Australian colleague—I thank him as well. In relation to the consultation process, you've said in your submission that a range of experts have come and that you have a well-informed discussion going on within the community. Coming from an engineering background, there are always pros and cons. Do you feel that the cons are being expressed? You can often have people who are trying to encourage a facility like this talk up the positives. Are you comfortable that the negatives are being dealt with as well?

Councillor Johnson : Again, this is not a council position, but what I would say is that I'm certainly no nuclear physicist, so it's probably not appropriate that I say what the experts have brought and what information they have given. What I would say is that the independent experts that have come to our community have given us fact based evidence and straight answers to all questions. So I guess I don't believe I'm qualified to make an absolute call on whether it's good enough or not. But I do believe the people that have come here have spoken from the heart and given us the information as much as they can.

Senator PATRICK: You talked about the importance of not having subjective outcomes in this. Just going to the definition of 'broad community support', do you believe there's an objective criteria set for what 'broad community support' might mean?

Councillor Johnson : Council has discussed this on a few occasions, but we do not have a solid position on this. I guess in the end this is a process that's run by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, and ultimately the minister makes that call around a broad community support. I don't believe it's council's job or responsibility to be saying what that number is. The minister's made several statements that he's taking into account different evidence to come to an overall decision, but I don't believe council has a philosophical position on that at this stage.

Senator PATRICK: It's been mentioned in submissions, and in fact I was present in the chamber when Senator Canavan made his statement about 65 per cent, and of course he did make that mentioning other criteria, so I will be careful not to verbal him. In submissions that have been made to the inquiry it's been stated that he indicated that number to local community. Have any of you three that are sitting before us heard the minister say that sort of number?

Councillor Johnson : I haven't personally heard him say that number. I've of course seen his statement, wherever it was made, in answer to the questions. The number of 65 would be interesting. I also believe that was predicated on a phone survey. What I would like to say is that I believe an independent, robust AEC vote is way more evidence based than a phone survey.

Senator PATRICK: The criticism wouldn't go to the vote itself. If you get a number out of a vote which we would accept is an independently and well-collected number, does it have meaning if you don't understand what the definition of 'broad community support' is? In some sense, people might say, 'Why have a vote if you don't have an understanding of how that number feeds into that criteria of broad community support?'

Councillor Johnson : I think this would be a very long discussion. It's predicated on a number. I don't know the number—55, 60, 65, 70. I would say that the recent gay marriage vote was 61 per cent, and all the headlines I saw were 'landslide victory'. So I'm not sure what the number should be, and I think it's really supposition for a councillor to be commenting on it.

Senator PATRICK: In a situation where you've a community that is divided and some would say bitterly divided—and that's an unfortunate thing—I personally have a concern about whether when a decision is made there's a residual or ongoing bitterness that flows from that. Don't you think that in that circumstance it would be good to have the test clearly defined so that it is the community input that is paramount in this decision and it's not left with people wondering how the minister came to the decision that he did?

Councillor Johnson : Perhaps. I think I've stated the council's position. I don't really have anything to add to it.

Senator PATRICK: Sure. I go to the last vote that occurred. Please correct me if I haven't quite got this right, but my understanding is that the last question that was asked was, 'Should we proceed to the next stage?' Would that be an accurate summary of the question that was put?

Mrs Larwood : I have the exact question. Just give me a second.

Senator PATRICK: Was it of that nature—something along the lines of moving to the next stage?

Councillor Johnson : Yes.

Senator PATRICK: Do you know the next question will be asked at this final stage?

Mrs Larwood : The question at the last ballot was, 'Do you support a nomination for a site being progressed to phase 2 for further consultation for a national radioactive low-intermediate-level waste management facility?'

Senator PATRICK: Thank you. Do you know what question will be asked next time, on 20 August?

Mrs Larwood : Yes, we do.

Senator PATRICK: What question will be asked on 20 August?

Mrs Larwood : 'Do you support the proposed national radioactive waste management facility being located at one of the nominated sites in the community of Kimba?'

Senator PATRICK: Okay. That's a much more definitive question which the community can decide up. That seems to me to be good.

I have a couple questions about medium-level waste storage. My understanding was that at the start of this process medium-level waste was not considered or wasn't on the table? Is that your understanding, or do you believe it's been on the table from the very start?

Councillor Johnson : I believe intermediate-level storage has always been spoken about. It may not have been clearly defined in exactly how that would look, but, yes, it's always been on the table.

Senator PATRICK: My understanding is that it's a temporary storage. What do you think temporary means?

Councillor Johnson : I don't think I'm qualified to be answering these questions, to be honest. I think that's a matter for the department.

Senator PATRICK: Respectfully, it's the community that bears the outcome of this process. You are saying that the community has been made aware of a range of things. I would have thought that in the process the community—perhaps it's simply that you don't know and the other witnesses might be able to better inform me. When someone talks about temporary, that tends to have a particular meaning and, once again, perhaps should be defined so that people understand what it is that they are accepting when they vote on the 20th.

Councillor Johnson : My understanding from what the department has told us is that the intermediate-level waste will be held temporarily while a final site for intermediate disposal will be sourced and go through the process. That's likely to be several decades, I believe.

Senator PATRICK: In some sense this process has been running, from a government perspective, since 1970. That's four decades. 'Temporarily', in your understanding, could mean a similar quantum.

Councillor Johnson : Several decades is what they've said.

Senator PATRICK: Okay. Do you think it would be helpful for the government to clearly articulate what they think temporary is to inform people as they make this next vote?

Councillor Johnson : I don't really have a comment on that. Obviously it will be a process. I think it would be very difficult to put a specific timeline on it. But they have said they need to find a home for the low-level disposal before the intermediate-level disposal site is sought.

Senator PATRICK: But you might see where I'm coming from. Your opening statement said that you believe the community is being informed about the facility and the pros and cons. I would have thought some of these things would be fundamental to the understanding of what it is that people are voting for.

Councillor Johnson : I'm not sure what your question is, to be honest. I've said that the information we've been given is that, once a central national facility for low-level waste is found, they will source a home for the intermediate-level waste. It will temporarily be stored at the low-level waste facility, likely for several decades.

Senator PATRICK: I will simplify my question. Do you think that it would be useful for the government to define what 'temporary' means before people are asked to commit to a vote?

Councillor Johnson : I think it's an impossible question.

Senator PATRICK: Okay. Finally, I go to the economics of it. I understand that you are awaiting further information on that. What is your current understanding about the jobs that are likely to be generated here? My understanding is that the numbers have changed even just recently. Is that your understanding?

Councillor Johnson : There was a recent announcement that there will be a minimum of 45 full-time-equivalent jobs.

Senator PATRICK: Do you understand what the make-up of that is? The government has made a statement. We senators spend a lot of time checking from an oversight perspective what it is that government says. Have you delved into the details of what those 45 jobs might consist of in terms of the types of skills? Are you satisfied that that's a number that seems realistic?

Councillor Johnson : There has been a fact sheet produced with an indication of what those jobs will look like, yes. I'm quite satisfied with the make-up of the jobs.

Senator PATRICK: All right. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Gallacher.

Senator GALLACHER: Mr Johnson, I go to the issue of 'temporary'. Have you been to ANSTO Lucas Heights and the temporary facilities which have been in place there for decades?

Councillor Johnson : Yes, I have. I've actually been to Lucas Heights twice—once with council early on and also when I returned with my family as a private tour as well.

Senator GALLACHER: Has anyone else in the community been invited to inspect those premises?

Councillor Johnson : Yes. I think the large majority of the KCC has been. A fair portion of council has been. Yes, there have been many, many people from the community.

Senator GALLACHER: The word 'temporary' storage is used at Lucas Heights, which has been there for decades, because it's stored in the absence of a permanent solution. That's why it's called temporary.

Councillor Johnson : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: And it would be no different here. In the absence of a permanent solution, you would be another adjunct to the temporary storage facilities at Lucas Heights, on which the Commonwealth spends—I don't know. Senator Smith used to chair the Public Works Committee, and he and I were in the habit of going to Lucas Heights. They invested millions of dollars in temporary storage facilities. But I really wanted to go to the appropriateness and thoroughness of the consultation and information provided to the community. Is the council able to place on the record a view about that? Has it been consistent, thorough and appropriate?

Councillor Johnson : No, council does not have an official position on that, so I'd be very careful about stating a position on behalf of all of council. I don't think I could answer that.

Senator GALLACHER: But there is a record of meetings, the experts who came and the attendances? They are all available on the public record?

Councillor Johnson : Yes, absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: When we talk about broad community support, are we at the edge of your council boundaries, or are we seeking the entire Eyre Peninsula?

Councillor Johnson : Council's view is that it would be within the District Council of Kimba's boundaries.

Senator GALLACHER: Would it be usual that the entire Eyre Peninsula would be supportive of your positions?

Councillor Johnson : Personally, I do believe that the facility and its benefits or detriments will mostly be in the District Council of Kimba. I just don't see the view that it's much wider than that and I would strongly support the view that, if it's going to be wider than that, full consultation would need to occur.

Senator GALLACHER: So the only affect to anywhere else would be the transportation of waste in and out on a national highway or train.

Councillor Johnson : Yes, which already occurs—not with waste but with radioactive materials.

Senator GALLACHER: What about the appropriateness of the decision-making? Do you think that's been appropriate? You had a view on the telephone polling, and then it went to the Australian Electoral Commission. Is that the appropriate mechanism for resolving this definition of 'community support'?

Councillor Johnson : Yes. I believe we've come a long way from the start and I do strongly support the AEC vote the council's put in place. I think it's a fair representation of what our community believes.

Senator GALLACHER: Mrs Larwood, you've said that the question asked has been further defined and the council is of the view that that's the appropriate question?

Mrs Larwood : The question asked this time is different from the question asked the first time, because it's obviously a different ballot, but the council has approved a question at the June meeting.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it as a result of community input that the question was changed?

Mrs Larwood : The question was based around a paper that was provided by the department to the Kimba consultative committee.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. Mr Johnson, is this the most challenging event or occurrence in your term as mayor?

Councillor Johnson : It's fair to say yes.

Senator GALLACHER: How is the council dealing with it? Is it on the right track?

Councillor Johnson : I'm really proud of our council. We've taken philosophical views . We've sought lots of input from our entire community. Our council has got a long and proud history of being really tight and well connected to our community. We've taken views from everyone, and our position since day one has been to facilitate the information to our community so that they can make the final decision. We still support that to this day.

Senator GALLACHER: Does the council have a view? Is it involved in any of the financial compensation in respect of this?

Councillor Johnson : We've been involved. We've sent several letters around framing up a benefits package, but we don't have a firm view Once again, we believe our view is to negotiate the best package possible and then put it to the community to see if they are satisfied.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you for appearing before the committee this morning. Senator Smith?

Senator DEAN SMITH: I go to the issue of whether it's appropriate to define what the threshold should be around broad community support. The Radioactive Waste Management Taskforce made a submission and identified what I would call a number of principles about why it might be unwise or unhelpful to actually define a threshold. I will read the three points that they've identified and perhaps you could give me an indication of whether the council would think like that. At page 5 of the document it says:

In the department’s view there are several compelling reasons why a threshold level or definition of "broad community support" is not appropriate for decisions under the Act:

There is no precedent, nationally or internationally, that could authoritatively be used to set such a threshold in these or similar circumstances.

That's the first point. The second point is:

It is ... the Minister’s absolute discretion—

in terms of whether it should proceed. And, finally, it says:

... what constitutes broad support in each community will necessarily vary depending on the different interest groups involved in a particular site.

Are they three principles that the council would concur with?

Councillor Johnson : Without having discussed those in depth at a council meeting, I don't believe I could give an answer to that. Council does not have a stated position on it, so I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment at this stage, but thank you.

Senator DEAN SMITH: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you again for appearing before us.