With a Senate Committee report last Thursday calling for the repeal of draconian laws allowing the imposition of a radioactive waste dump in the absence of any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal Traditional Owners, it is time for resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson to come clean on his plans for managing this contentious issue.
Labor voted against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act in 2005-06 with senior Labor MPs describing it as “extreme”, “arrogant”, “draconian”, “sorry”, “sordid”, and “profoundly shameful”. At its 2007 national conference, the ALP voted unanimously to repeal the legislation. More than a year later and Martin Ferguson has not budged while Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - for all his boasting about keeping election promises - has conspicuously failed to ensure that this commitment is kept.
The Labor Government will most likely repeal the Radioactive Waste Management Act in the new year but the controversy over radioactive waste management will continue. The waste in question ranges from the relatively innocuous - such as lightly-contaminated lab-coats - to the far more hazardous and long-lived wastes arising from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from reactors at Lucas Heights.
If the Labor Government intends to pursue the Howard government's plan to establish a dump in the Northern Territory, it will need to override NT laws - and thereby break its pre-election pledge to respect state/territory laws which outlaw the imposition of radioactive waste dumps.
Four sites in the NT are under consideration. None of the four sites were short-listed when a national site selection study was undertaken in the 1990s, informed by scientific, environmental and social criteria. The NT sites were short-listed under the Howard government simply because the NT was seen as a soft political target. Thus Labor's commitment to handle the issue in a scientific manner will go out the window if the NT sites are pursued.
Early in the new year, Mr Ferguson is expected to wave around a consultant's report purporting to demonstrate that his favoured site is ideal for a radioactive dump - just as his predecessor, Senator Peter McGauran, paraded a consultant's report in 2002 purporting to demonstrate that a site immediately adjacent to a missile and rocket testing range in South Australia was the safest place in the nation for a radioactive waste dump. Controversy forced the Howard government to abandon that location, then to abandon the SA dump plan altogether, and Mr McGauran was demoted to a junior ministry for his heavy-handed and clumsy mismanagement of the issue.
Labor's election commitment to handle the issue transparently went out the window long ago. In April, Mr Ferguson refused to provide substantive answers to questions on his radioactive waste plans, simply asserting that all matters raised were "under consideration". The secrecy was such that even a question about what specific matters were under consideration was also said to be under consideration!
Mr Ferguson is likely to try to impose a radioactive waste dump in an area in the Muckaty Land Trust, 120km north of Tennant Creek. This site was nominated by the Northern Land Council despite vocal opposition from a number of Traditional Owners whose country will be affected by the proposal.
Traditional Owner's are divided. Dianne Stokes, a Muckaty Traditional Owner who has been leading the campaign against the dump, said at the Senate Committee hearing in Alice Springs: "We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to. The big capital N-O. The Ngapa clan and the rest of the other totems in that land trust are all connected. We have connections to each other and are related to each other. We are the same tribe, the one ancestral cultural group of people who are the strong voice, and one voice, in that country."
Muckaty Traditional Owner Marlene Bennett told the committee hearing in Alice Springs: "I would just like to question why Martin Ferguson is sitting on this issue like a hen trying to hatch an egg. The people of the Northern Territory elected the Labor Party. We were led to believe that the nuclear waste thing would be all overturned and overruled, and at this moment we are extremely disappointed. How many times do we have to say no? No means no."
The opposition of numerous Muckaty Traditional Owners was expressed during the Senate inquiry and has also been acknowledged by the ALP at federal and territory levels. Among others, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has acknowledged the opposition and distress of Muckaty Traditional Owners, while in 2001 she publicly acknowledged that Australia has no need for the nuclear reactors which are the greatest source of the problem.
In April, the NT Labor conference unanimously adopted a resolution acknowledging that the nomination of Muckaty was not made with the full and informed consent of all Traditional Owners, that it did not comply with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and that the Muckaty nomination should be repealed.
One wonders if the fate that befell Peter McGauran will be visited on Martin Ferguson - demotion for clumsy, heavy-handed mismanagement of a contentious issue that demands a more considered, intelligent approach.
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