The recent federal election has once more seen a bit of a reshuffle in PM Turnbull's cabinet and thereby thrown the portfolio for Australia's national radioactive waste dump in the hands of another Minister for the third time in less than two years.
After 20 years of failed siting processes for the proposed dump, then Industry and Science Minister Ian MacFarlane only announced a new attempt in November 2014. The first half of last year saw a voluntary nomination process happen where landowners across Australia could propose their property to host Australia's low and intermediate level nuclear waste. Out of the 28 sites nominated, six were shortlisted for further consultation and investigation last November. All six site nominations were highly contested by the local communities.
Although the government, with its new 'voluntary' approach promised to not impose a nuclear waste dump on any community and therefore rely on voluntary nominations and community consultation, one of these six sites, Wallerbidina/ Barndioota in the Flinders Ranges, SA, made it to the next stage of the process, despite the strong opposition of the local Adnyamathanha community at Yappala station, just kilometres away from the site.
Not only chose the government to once again, after pursuing Coober Pedy from 1998 to 2004 and Muckaty in the NT from 2005 to 2014, to target an Aboginial community but it also chose a culturally highly significant site. The proposed property, nominated by former Liberal Senator Grant Chapman, is part of a songline and hosts many cultural sites, including the beautiful Hookina springs, a sacred women's site for the Adnyamathanha. The local community remains actively connected to the maintenance and preservation of the land and is documenting and preserving their culture and history through recording traditional heritage sites and artefacts and mapping storylines in the area. Regina McKenzie, an Adnyamathanha elder living at Yappala station, says that the proposal is 'an attack on our cultural beliefs, history and heritage. We do not want this waste dump on our ancestors' yata (land).'
MacFarlane never got to see through the process he started and had to hand over the portfolio to Josh Frydenberg last year, as Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia. After this month's federal election, he has now become Environment and Energy Minister and the waste dump responsibility lies with newly appointed Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan.
Canavan, like MacFarlane and Frydenberg, is a conservative and a nuclear proponent. An LNP member who sits in the National Party room under the unique LNP arrangement, he has quickly risen within the National Party over the last few years. The trained economist has now inherited responsibility for a project facing opposition by a range of environmental organisations and by the targeted community, further supported by the other five communities formerly shortlisted. His two predecessors tried to sell the process as inclusive, transparent and consultative. In reality, however, the local Adnyamathanha community had not been consulted at all during the first round of shortlisting and even now that only the Flinders Ranges site is continued to be pursued, it was the Traditional Owners themselves who sough to talk to Minister Frydenberg and express their concerns, travelling all the way to Melbourne.
Frydenberg's disrespect for Aboriginal communities is further demonstrated by his choosing to target the only Aboriginal community again, despite the failures of the past. He also, against his rhetoric of not imposing a dump on anyone, made clear that no 'one community' had the right to veto, a comment very clearly aimed at circumventing the opposition of the local Aboriginal community.
Matt Canavan has now the opportunity to correct these mistakes and engage in a truly inclusive and transparent process which actually listens to the concerns of the community and other stakeholders. Although a nuclear proponent, he should ensure that this process is not dealt with light-heartedly and pays attention to all aspects involved. This would best be achieved through an independent inquiry into Australia's nuclear waste and options for managing it.
Nuclear waste remains hazardous for hundreds and thousands of years and therefore also needs to take into account the impact on future generations and the environment on the long-term. Aboriginal communities all across Australia have sustainably managed the land for thousands of years, longer than any other group of people can claim. Their knowledge and concerns are valuable. Let's hope they will be listed to.
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