Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010; Second Reading

Debate resumed on the motion:

That this bill be now read a second time.

to which the following amendment was moved:

At the end of the motion, add "and further consideration of the bill be an order of the day for the next sitting day after:

(a) the Government receives the written consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory to the dumping of radioactive waste in the Territory;

(b) the Minister for Resources and Energy has completed consultations with representatives of the Muckaty Land Trust and all other parties with an interest in, or who would be affected by, a decision to select the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility; and

(c) the Federal Court decision is handed down in the case between the Muckaty traditional owners, the Northern Land Council and the Commonwealth concerning the nomination of the Muckaty Station site as the location for the national radioactive waste facility"

12:24 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a rather different debate. We have just been speaking on what passes as best practice in the Australian context on waste management. Now the debate turns again to worst practice in radioactive waste management. I will just conclude my remarks.

The Greens are absolutely not in denial about the 4,000-odd cubic metres of so-called low level and short-lived intermediate level radioactive waste and the approximately 600 cubic metres of long-lived radioactive waste in this country. We believe that it should not have been created in the first place but we are acutely aware of the radioactive reality that has been created for current and many future generations to deal with. The Greens are also perfectly aware that 32 cubic metres of spent research reactor fuel in reprocessed form is returning to Australia from reprocessing in France and the UK in 2015-16. The Greens take this material seriously and we understand that we cannot afford to make mistakes with materials that are deadly for thousands of years.

In the committee stage of the bill, when we come to it, we will describe at some length our alternative proposal for long-term radioactive waste management and I will sketch it now. We will seek to establish a process for identifying suitable sites that are scientific, transparent, accountable and fair and allow access to appeal mechanisms. I will put this on the record one last time in this second reading debate: we are very willing to work with the Gillard government and the opposition on this issue construc­tively and carefully. If the government chooses to return to the path that it was planning and advocating prior to the 2007 election which saw the Rudd government come to power, and if the government abandons its strategy of aggression and dispossession, we will support it in putting something better in place. But, if not, the government needs to know that it has picked a fight with powerful and resilient people.

I have spent a great deal of time on the road in the last couple of years working on this issue. I know for an absolute fact that many of the people that the government has chosen to target have nowhere else to go. They strongly and genuinely believe that if their land is taken away that they will simply have nothing. It is not good enough for the government to draw rectangles on the map, try and split families and communities off from each other and imagine that there will not be significant strong, sustained and ultimately successful resistance. The govern­ment has failed in the past in attempts to coercively dump radioactive waste on communities that are simply not willing to host it and do not understand why, if it is not safe in southern Sydney, suddenly it should be made safe by parking it in a shed or a shallow hole in the ground on their country. People do not understand that.

I want to acknowledge Dianne Stokes and Mark Lane, who have spent time in this building far from home advocating, and Kylie Sambo, who was here with Dianne yesterday, making the case very strongly and proudly speaking out for their country and culture that they do not believe that they owe the rest of Australia an obligation to host this toxic material until the end of time.

There are people who have been following this campaign closely, supporting the various people who found themselves on the front line, including Nat Wasley who has given up an enormous amount of her own time and dedicated herself to this campaign in the most extraordinary way, along with Paddy Gibson and little Jellybean who was in the public gallery, I think, probably for the first time yesterday.

In Alice Springs, Hilary Tyler has marshalled the views of the Public Health Association and medical opinion to stop the government from hiding behind this argu­ment that somehow cancer treatments require that we produce these toxic cate­gories of waste. Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conser­vation Foundation has been absol­utely extraordinary on this issue and has provided leadership over a sustained period of time as the Australian government has lurched from one emergency and coercive strategy to another, and all the folks at ACE and Friends of the Earth have made it their jobs to remind the minister that he may be a very long way from his office in Batman to the site of the dump but in fact he will be reminded day in, day out.

Lastly, Felicity Hill in my office has been a profoundly supportive and important part of this campaign and came on the road on many occasions to committee visits and demonstrations in remote parts of the country to pursue this cause. I also at this point urge support for my second reading amendment already moved.

12:29 pm

Photo of Nick MinchinNick Minchin (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this bill in my capacity as the minister responsible for radioactive waste from 1998 to 2001 and as the minister responsible for the Land Acquisition Act, and hence the acquisition of a radioactive site, from 2001 to 2007. So I do have a long and intimate association with this vexed issue. I regret to say that the way this issue has been handled over the last 20 years is an indictment of Australia's political culture and, with great respect to my friends and colleagues opposite, the Australian Labor Party in particular. It is now nearly 20 years since the then responsible minister, Simon Crean, announced the then federal Labor government's commitment to a national repository and commenced the formal research for the best sites for that repository—and that process was still underway when we came to government in 1996.

At that point, regrettably, the ALP, then in opposition, took a 180-degree turn on this issue. From that point on, while the coalition continued the process initiated by Simon Crean and the Labor Party, the Labor Party, at state and federal levels, opposed us every step of the way. Labor spent 11½ years doing everything it possibly could to frustrate and oppose the implementation of the policy it devised when in government. The exploitation of community concern about radioactive material during that 11½ years was a real low point in Australian politics. When the then opposition could have, and should have, acted in the national interest to join with the coalition government to implement its own policy, it chose opportunism, cynicism and fearmongering.

To some extent, the worst offenders were not the federal opposition but the Rann Labor government in South Australia. Two years prior to the Rann government's election in 2002, the independent process over which I in government presided, but which had been implemented by Simon Crean, con­cluded that the central north region of South Australia was the best place in Australia to build a national radioactive waste repository. So it fell to me as the then Minister for Industry, Science and Resources, and in the interesting position of being a senator for South Australia, to announce the outcome of that scientific research in 2000 and the identification of a prospective sites in the central north of my home state.

To its great credit, the then state Liberal government in South Australia looked to the national interest and did not oppose that outcome. The Rann state Labor opposition, of course, saw a political opportunity and immediately started campaigning against having a national repository in South Australia. It did not seem to matter to Rann Labor that a national repository was federal Labor government policy under Hawke and Keating, that the federal Labor government had initiated the nationwide scientific search and that the search had identified the central north of South Australia as the best site. It did not seem to matter to the Rann Labor Party that building this national repository would enable the removal of radioactive waste from the centre of the city of Adelaide, where it was then, and still is, stored in basements on our main boulevard.

After their victory in the 2002 election the Rann Labor government used every resource available to a state government to frustrate the federal process, aided and abetted, I regret to say, by the then federal Labor opposition. The South Australian state Labor government used legislation and the courts and the cynical manipulation of South Australian public opinion to make it practically impossible for a federal coalition government to put a repository where the science—which we now hear we must obey—had told us was the best place in Australia.

Of course, as a South Australian senator and as the responsible minister, I bore the brunt of those rather vicious Labor attacks. I was branded a traitor to my state, I was pilloried at every opportunity and even my children suffered abuse at their local South Australian school. I needed police protection at public functions when I argued the case for this repository. So it was without question the ugliest period of my political career.

Of course, this cynical campaign was perpetrated by a state party and leader who had done everything they could at that stage to stop the development in South Australia of the Olympic Dam uranium mine—but they are now, of course, its biggest champions. Rann Labor now says: 'We do want the world's biggest uranium mine in South Australia but under no circumstances could we have a national repository for Australia's short-lived and intermediate level radioactive waste. The Howard government did the only thing it could: leave Mr Rann to wallow in his rank hypocrisy and seek to establish a Commonwealth repository in the Northern Territory. We were left with no other option, given the actions of the Rann Labor government. So those opposed to a repository in the Northern Territory have Mr Rann to blame. But for him, we would already have a national repository up and running in outback South Australia.

Now, of course, we are regrettably witnessing the hypocrisy of federal Labor. Federal Labor in opposition aided and abetted the Rann Labor government in its campaign to frustrate the national interest. Federal Labor attacked us relentlessly on this issue. Federal Labor in opposition voted against our 2005 legislation to develop a Commonwealth repository in the Northern Territory and promised at the 2007 election to repeal our legislation. Of course, now that they are back in government they are being mugged by the same reality that the previous Labor government faced nearly 20 years ago and they are now committed to establishing what Australia must have: a national purpose-built repository. So now we have a Labor bill which is essentially the same as our 2005 legislation which, as I say, Labor so cynically opposed at the time.

As the then shadow minister for resources and energy in the coalition, in March last year, just before my resignation, I sought and obtained shadow cabinet and coalition party room support for this Labor legislation, and I was gratified that the coalition party room put the national interest first rather than pursuing a cynical, short-sighted and politi­cally motivated opposition. Unlike Labor in opposition, we will not play politics on this issue, and I applaud my own party for the stand they are taking. We must build this repository. As I said at the outset, it is a sad indictment of the political culture of this country that, for nearly 20 years, successive federal governments of both persuasions have tried to do the right thing without success. As a nation we have been incapable of collectively accepting the need for a purpose-built repository for our radioactive waste—nobody else's—and to get it built and get it operational.

The political exploitation of the tendency to nimbyism will cripple this country unless we unite to overcome it. Labor and the coalition must understand the importance of putting politics aside and joining together in the national interest to achieve outcomes like the proper safe disposal of radioactive waste. My experience with this radioactive waste issue, over many years, is why I have repeatedly and consistently said to my own party that without bipartisanship you can completely forget about nuclear power in Australia. If, after 20 years, we still have not been able to establish a low-level radioactive waste repository out in the desert, imagine how long it is going to take to build a nuclear power station. So I welcome the somewhat belated bipartisanship on this waste issue. We have to get this repository built as soon as possible.

I commend the government for bringing in this legislation and I commend my colleagues for agreeing to support it. I conclude by commending my colleague Senator Nigel Scullion for his handling of this issue. As it was difficult for South Australian senators, so it is difficult for Northern Territory senators—both Labor and coalition. I do know how tough it has been for both of them. I want to commend to the Senate the amendment moved by Senator Scullion and I urge the government to accept his very sensible proposal.

12:39 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I join my colleague Senator Ludlam in opposing this legislation. I take up the point at the end of Senator Minchin's very sharp and well-delivered speech where he said, in advocating that this bill pass expeditiously: imagine how long it is going to take to build a nuclear power station after the length of time it has taken to establish a nuclear waste dump. Therein lies an enunciation of the fear that so many people have about a nuclear waste dump being put 'in the desert', as Senator Minchin puts it—that is, in this ecosystem in the Northern Territory.

This is not as innocent as it looks. This is a proposal to put low-level waste from medical facilities or whatever into a place that is out of the range of most city dwellers but on the land of Indigenous people in Central Australia, against the wishes of people in the region that is being targeted by this legislation. But what Senator Minchin has clearly outlined is a proposal that in future this waste dump also be the repository for waste coming from the proliferation of nuclear power stations in Australia. We do not need long memories to go back to the Howard proposal, in the run-up to the 2007 election, that there be up to 25 nuclear power stations around Australia, close to—for grid reasons and because they are cooled by water—existing major population centres. It is very much alive and on the agenda of the alternative government of this country that nuclear power stations will come down the line, despite what we have seen unfold in Japan in recent months.

It is as if on the benches opposite there is an inability to grasp the threat to humanity of the whole nuclear power cycle. I want to talk about that for a moment, because a former Prime Minister approached me recently proposing that Australia become a nuclear waste dump for the whole world and the money coming from such a nuclear waste dump be put to environmental purposes. I said: 'Well, Bob, how can that be? The environmental threat of a nuclear waste dump feeding a nuclear industry on the planet far outrides any monetary advantage that might be put into the environment itself.' Let us make no mistake: Muckaty Station is targeted not just for a low-level or even medium-level nuclear waste dump, as proposed in this legislation, but to become the Australian repository of waste from a nuclear industry which has huge plans afoot for nuclear power stations in this country. At the highest levels of corporate thinking is the proposal that this waste dump become a global nuclear waste dump. And (a) leads to (b) leads to (c). You cannot see this legislation divorced from that intent. Senator Minchin has just given a clear indicator of how live and prospective these proposals are.

Senator Ludlam has done an enormous amount of work in evaluating this proposal and has outlined more specific and local reasons for not going ahead with it. Senator Minchin has condemned the South Australian government for opposing north-east South Australia as a site for a nuclear waste dump, and I add this: every reason that the Rann government gave for opposing a nuclear waste dump in north-east South Australia applies to this proposal in the Northern Territory. It is simply a case of the Commonwealth having the power over the Territory that it does not have in overriding a state interest. What is good enough for South Australia is good enough for the Northern Territory.

Debate interrupted.