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The bipartisan nuclear war against Aboriginal people

By Jim Green - posted Friday, 11 July 2014


The nuclear industry has been responsible for some of the crudest racism in Australia's history. This radioactive racism dates from the British bomb tests in the 1950s and it has been evident in more recent debates over nuclear waste.

Since 2006 successive federal governments have been attempting to establish a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty, 110 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. A toxic trade-off of basic services for a radioactive waste dump has been part of this story from the start. The nomination of the Muckaty site was made with the promise of $12 million compensation package comprising roads, houses and scholarships. Muckaty Traditional Owner Kylie Sambo objected to this radioactive ransom: "I think that is a very, very stupid idea for us to sell our land to get better education and scholarships. As an Australian we should be already entitled to that."

While a small group of Traditional Owners supported the dump, a large majority were opposed and some initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site by the federal government and the Northern Land Council (NLC).

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The Howard government passed legislation − the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act − overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act, undermining the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent. 'Practical reconciliation' was the Howard government's mantra.

Labor voted against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, with Labor parliamentarians describing it as "extreme", "arrogant", "draconian", "sorry", "sordid", and "profoundly shameful". At its 2007 national conference, Labor voted unanimously to repeal the legislation. Yet after the 2007 election, the Labor government passed legislation − the National Radioactive Waste Management Act (NRWMA) − which was almost as draconian and still permitted the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent. Hooray for hypocrisy.

Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd highlighted the life-story of Lorna Fejo (a.k.a. Nanna Nungala Fejo) during the National Apology in February 2008. At the same time, the Rudd government was stealing her land for a nuclear dump. Fejo said: "I'm very, very disappointed and downhearted about that [Muckaty legislation]. I'm really sad. The thing is − when are we going to have a fair go? Australia is supposed to be the land of the fair go. When are we going to have fair go? I've been stolen from my mother and now they're stealing my land off me."

Shamefully, the NLC supported legislation disempowering the people it is meant to represent. (The NLC is also facing a legal challenge from Traditional Owners in relation to the bauxite mine in north-east Arnhem Land.)

Labor's Resources Minister Martin Ferguson drove the disgraceful NRWMA through parliament. He refused countless requests to meet with Traditional Owners opposed to the dump. Muckaty Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes said: "All along we have said we don't want this dump on our land but we have been ignored. Martin Ferguson has avoided us and ignored our letters but he knows very well how we feel. He has been arrogant and secretive and he thinks he has gotten away with his plan but in fact he has a big fight on his hands."

Dianne Stokes has not been alone. Many Traditional Owners were determined to stop the dump and they have been supported by the Beyond Nuclear Initiative, a pro bono legal team led by legal firm Maurice Blackburn, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, key trade unions including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, church groups, medical and public health organisations, local councils, the Australian Greens, and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Environment Centre NT.

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The Federal Court trial finally began in June 2014. After two weeks of evidence, the NLC gave up and agreed to recommend to the federal government the withdrawal of the nomination of Muckaty for a nuclear dump. The Abbott government accepted the recommendation (Tony Abbott himself might have been called to appear at the trial had it proceeded).

As a result of their surrender, the NLC and the Commonwealth did not have to face cross-examination in relation to numerous serious accusations raised in the first two weeks of the trial − including claims that the NLC rewrote an anthropologists' report. Kylie Sambo said: "I believe [the NLC] didn't want to go through that humiliation of what they really done. But it's better now that they actually backed off. It's good for us."

Lorna Fejo said: "I feel ecstatic. I feel free because it was a long struggle to protect my land."

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About the Author

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth and a member of the EnergyScience Coalition. His PhD thesis dealt with the history of the Lucas Heights nuclear plant and the debate over the replacement of its nuclear research reactor.

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