Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2021


National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:41 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the second reading of the National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020. The issue of a national radioactive waste facility in Australia has a long and fought history. We don't have a national facility for the storage of this waste, which instead is held at more than 100 locations around Australia, many of which were not designed for the long-term storage of waste. The majority of the radioactive waste produced in Australia is classed as low-level waste. We do produce some intermediate-level waste, for example, from the production of nuclear medicines. The use of radioactive materials in this context is of critical importance to Australians. Managing this waste at a single site rather than at many sites across Australia has been an objective of governments of both persuasions. The public policy rationale for this is clear. Despite this, we have been at an impasse for decades, dating back to the 1970s. Understandably, community anxiety about the storage of radioactive waste has not been able to be overcome, resulting in the failure of all attempts to agree on a site for a national facility.

In an effort to break this impasse, in 2012, the Gillard-Labor government enacted the National Radioactive Waste Management Act 2012. That act provided a transparent legislative process for selecting a site for a national radioactive waste facility. It sought to build community confidence to overcome anxieties about the risks that a national radioactive waste facility might pose to any community. It is unfortunate then that, at every step, this process has been so bungled by the coalition. The deep flaws in this process have been the subject of significant debate here and work by Senate committees. I don't intend to revisit all aspects of it, although Senator Patrick did go to some of those in his contribution. But a brief history demonstrates how we came to find ourselves here today debating this bill that is before the chamber.

In September 2014, the Abbott government released a notice of intention to consider opening a nationwide volunteer process of landowners to dominate a national radioactive waste facility. Between 2 March and 5 May 2015, 28 applications were received. In November 2015 the then minister for resources, Mr Frydenberg, announced the six nominated areas that had been assessed as suitable for a further assessment and public consultation. Two of the three sites now listed in the government's proposed amendment were not contained in that process. But in November 2016 the subsequent minister for resources, Senator Canavan, announced a revision to the radioactive waste management nomination of land guidelines. His revision set out a process allowing landholders to nominate their land as a potential site for the facility. Then in March 2017 Minister Canavan announced the formal receipt of two new nominations near Kimba, Napandee and Lyndhurst, which he accepted to proceed to initial consultation. In June Minister Canavan accepted the nominations of the Kimba sites and announced that the sites were to proceed to the next phase of assessment.

The consultation process undertaken by the government can best be characterised as shambolic. It fomented division within communities, divided between support for the potential economic benefit of hosting a nuclear waste facility and opposition based on the reputational, environmental and cultural heritage risks. But rather than work with communities to inform debate and reconcile differences, the approach adopted by the coalition and, in particular, then Minister Canavan exacerbated these tensions. As the Conservation Council of South Australia noted in a submission to the Senate Economics References Committee:

… confidence in the decision-making process has been eroded by the flawed and divisive consultation, lack of definition and geographic definition of the community and stakeholders …

This is no more evident than in the treatment of traditional owners through this process.

Senator Canavan refused to allow the Barngarla people, the traditional owners, the right to vote at all in the community ballots. The Barngarla challenged this decision in court but were unsuccessful. Despite this, Minister Canavan and now Minister Pitt rely on the Kimba community ballot result to justify their support for locating a facility at Napandee. Because the Barngarla people were denied the right to vote, members of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation held their own ballot, and it returned a no vote. Of course, the minister has refused to acknowledge the Barngarla community's ballot.

The fact is, for years now the minister has had the power to make a declaration, under section 14 of the 2012 legislation to which I referred, to select a site. For years the minister has refused to do so, instead, bowling out this bill to the parliament—this bill with which the government is seeking to cure its own stuff-up by asking the parliament to do the government's job, by asking the parliament to make the very decision the minister is empowered to make and to remove the capacity for community to challenge that decision in court. So it is important to remember in this debate, this government could have made this decision at any time over the last four years but it has refused to do so.

When this bill was introduced to the parliament, the Barngarla people approached me. I met with their representatives and I heard their concerns. I encouraged the government to engage with them. Yet it has not been, until recent days—at the urging of Labor and, in particular, the shadow minister for resources, Ms King—that the minister has finally engaged. And when the amendment now circulated by the government was first published, the fact that it included a site on the traditional lands of the Adnyamathanha people was news to those peoples. There was no consultation, no discussion about the meaning of its inclusion, no explanation about the government's intention. It was this side of the chamber, again—not the government of the day—who reached out to the Adnyamathanha people. So Mr Ramsey and many others who keep publicly supporting this facility perhaps should have concentrated on talking to impacted communities—rather than telling me and other people to get out of the way—hearing them and working with them. It's the approach that should have been taken to this bill and the approach that I have sought to take.

As I said, when this bill was first introduced I was contacted by the Barngarla peoples and their representatives. They made the very reasonable point that the bill as it was overrode their democratic and legal rights. This is against a history of their exclusion in the decision-making process. Labor is a party committed to reconciliation and recognition. We understand the importance of consultation with First Nations peoples and of respecting their views. This matter, this bill and the associated matters, was discussed at Labor's First Nations Caucus Committee, and the position adopted by the caucus reflected the importance of preserving the legal rights of the Barngarla in respect of any decision; hence our prior position, which was to oppose site selection by legislation and oppose the removal of the capacity for judicial review. It also informs our position today.

We do welcome the government introducing amendments, which abandon site selection by legislation and the removal of capacity for judicial review. I note that the minister has agreed to address additional concerns raised by the Barngarla in a further provision to the explanatory memorandum. We have also consulted in the time allowed with the Adnyamathanah people and we look forward to the government clarifying on Hansard its intentions in respect of the site at Wallerberdina. It is on the basis of that clarification that the Adnyamathanah representatives have accepted our support for the amended bill.

I also want to take a moment to briefly respond to the contribution made earlier by Senator Hanson-Young, who came in and ran a line without regard to the content of the bill or the positions expressed by the traditional owners on the question actually before the Senate. Ultimately, the bill before us is not about whether a nuclear waste facility proceeds. The minister already has the power to make that decision and he could do so right now. Labor have listened to traditional owners throughout this process and we have worked with them in securing concessions from the government and in taking Labor's final position, and I encourage all senators to do the same.

I want to acknowledge the significant amount of work by the shadow minister for resources, Ms King, her predecessor, Mr O'Connor, and the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Ms Burney. I also want to thank the members of Labor's First Nations caucus committee. Our party is made so much richer for our commitment to reconciliation, a commitment that we have sought to demonstrate by our approach to this bill—to consult, to discuss and work together—to achieve an outcome.

Labor supports the Uluru Statement. We support 'Voice. Treaty. Truth.' The need for a voice enshrined in our Constitution has never been more clear to me. The whole process is a reminder of how much further we have to go to achieve a more respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. We won't always be able to find agreement but we must try. We must talk, we must listen and we must seek to understand, and only then will we be able to continue on the path to reconciliation.


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