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National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 14 Jun 2011

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (12:54):  I rise to make remarks on the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 and particularly the extent to which it targets the Aboriginal community and Aboriginal land. I would also like to note that I know there are people keenly listening to this debate, both in the gallery and back in many communities.

This bill overrides Aboriginal heritage and environmental protection laws, and it is something that I have been passionate about since I first started in this place. When I first took on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander portfolio, this was an issue that came up virtually straightaway, so the Greens have been campaigning on this for quite some time. In particular Senator Ludlam, who will speak later, has been working intensely on this campaign and opposing the approach by this government that continues the approach of the previous government in foisting this facility on Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. I will go into that issue again a bit later.

We believe that this bill overrides both Aboriginal heritage and environmental protection laws to the extent that it seeks to impose nuclear waste on an unwilling community in the Northern Territory. This bill indicates the government's continued failure to understand the standards and agreements established at the international level when it comes to Indigenous peoples. The international Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues require the 'free, prior and informed consent' of affected communities, and this is something neither the previous government nor this government truly gets. Article 29, part 2 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states:
States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.

This is not international best practice. In 2008 the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts found that the previous government's bill on radioactive waste was unfair and discriminatory and that consultations and decision making should reflect the interests of all the clan groups in the immediate areas. Paragraph 2.33 of the committee report states:
The committee agrees that the undermining of legal rights by the current legislation is unfair and discriminatory, and should not form the foundation for any issue, including radioactive waste management.

The 2008 committee inquiry revealed that the former Howard government's proposal to store radioactive waste at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory was strongly contested. The people of Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek, continue to be targeted and specifically named in this government's legislation. The environment committee inquiry put important documents on the table—in particular, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner's report that established the Muckaty Land Trust. The land commissioner recognised shared interests and group structures. He recognised interweaving songlines and ceremonial relationships to that land among five group communities—not just one but five groups. This covered the whole area covered by the trust, and those groups—and I apologise right now for my mispronunciation—are the Ngapa, the Milwayi, the Wirntiku, the Ngarrka and the Yapakurla groups. Stephen Leonard, who made a submission for and on behalf of the Muckaty traditional owners, emphasised the importance of this document.

In 1997, after hearing years of tested evidence in a transparent and objective tribunal framework, the Aboriginal Land Commission found that there was clearly joint and interconnected ownership between the five main groups in the Muckaty Land Trust where dreaming overlapped. This was a core reason why a single land trust was granted. Furthermore, the report clearly indicated that the nominated site was jointly owned by at least three to five groups. The current process isolates a small number of people as the exclusive owners of a patch of land within the trust. This determination has been made through a secret anthropological report commissioned by the Northern Land Council. The Northern Land Council rests its entire case on this document but refuses to reveal it even to other members of the Muckaty Land Trust, whose country it concerns and whose family members, we think, are likely cited. The documents recently found in the National Archives underline further how far at odds the NLC's advice is with the land commissioner's findings. The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee also conducted an inquiry into this matter and made a recommendation that the minister 'undertake consultations with all 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'. I note that the minister has failed to do so. This is a disregard for parliamentary process, consultative public policy and, we believe, basic human rights.

I would also like to quote from a letter I understand the minister has received from Mark Lane, who wrote to him about this issue last March. Mr Lane said:
These are our concerns. We told the government that Karakara is sacred land. Only men talk about the land. No women talk for Karakara in the Muckaty Land Trust. The site for the proposed nuclear waste dump is in an earthquake tremor zone. What if an earthquake opens the nuclear waste storage and radioactive waste falls into our groundwater basin? We don't get our water from the city, town or from the coast. It comes from right below us.

The Warlmanpa elders always said that the Karakara is not Milwayi country. Milwayi is a snake dreaming travelling through Karakara and Muckaty Land Trust to Helen Springs. Milwayi is the totem for the ancestors' ground. Is the government going to regret everything later when a disaster happens like what is happening in Japan right now?
Finally, he said:
The government should rethink about the whole nuclear cycle and leave our traditional cultural, spiritual homeland alone. If the minister had adequately consulted he would know about these issues and maybe he would be taking them into account.

The minister may have a similar attitude to the member for Canning, who has said:
Geologically it is the most appropriate place. It is geologically stable, from a weather point of view it is dry and lacks in humidity, and no one to speak of lives there.
I repeat, he said: … no one to speak of lives there. It is a very sparse population. Barely anyone lives in that arid and desolate part of the Northern Territory.

I think the member for Canning needs to take a little trip and go and talk to the people that do live there, that do love and belong to that land.

Is that the approach of this parliament: no-one lives there so we can dump waste on them? That is the attitude that is prevailing in this place. We know that is not true. People do live there. There is a cattle station in the area. People live in the surroundings and use the land for ceremony, hunting and camping—people with names, people with children, people with connection to that place. People do live there; they have connection to that country. Their land is not nowhere and they are not nobody.

As Melissa Parke said in the other place, we should guard against the notion that remoteness equates to emptiness. And as Gerry McCarthy, the ALP representative of the area, stated to the Senate inquiry:

If the government's decision is based on the testimony of an extended family group living far removed from the Muckaty Station, then the total dislocation of the Waramungu and the Warlmanpa tribal communities of the Barkly that I represent is at stake. Any determination to proceed without direct, open and accountable consultation with the wider contemporary Indigenous community representing the neighbouring clans, moiety and tribal groups of the central Barkly will effectively lead to generational division and conflict amongst the very people the minister has set out to support.

In evidence to the committee the Australian Public Health Association pointed out the health implications of the kind of divisive strategy set out in this legislation. The Public Health Association went into detail about the stress that results from disempowerment when there is a lack of confidence in decision making, when people do not have a say, when people have not been consulted, when their opinions are not taken into account, when they are not properly dealt with as individuals. The impact of these circumstances is very real and is one of the contributing factors to illness, stress and the 17-year gap in life expectancy.

We are supposed to be learning, we are supposed to be closing the gap and yet, here, the very practices that have led to the existence of this gap are being practised yet again when the government wants to dump something on a community. Exactly the same things that we have done in the past we are doing again. Exactly the same things that brought us the failed intervention are being practised again on these communities, and apparently they are supposed to wear it. They are supposed to wear the fact that some of this material may have been generated in generating nuclear medicines so therefore that justifies dumping it on their land and not taking their opinions into consideration—but that is okay because it is for the benefit of society. It is 2011. You would have thought that we would stop doing this, but apparently we have not learnt.

Division and conflict are much more prevalent when money is introduced in a context of poverty. The fact is that Aboriginal people are faced with the choice of sacrificing their land, health and water in exchange for what most Australians regard as their citizenship entitlements. As we heard in evidence to the legal and constitutional affairs committee inquiry:
So we made a decision about this waste problem to get money to build up our outstations, to get money to go back to our land and have schooling, have employment, have health out of the land itself, build up our station as a cattle station again, start a business.

We should not be doing that in 2011. It is the same thing that is occurring in other places around Australia where we are making Aboriginal people give up rights to their land so that they can then have access to the services that the rest of Australia takes for granted and knows that a good society provides: decent housing, decent health, decent education. If you tried to dump this in one of the green leafy suburbs so that people could get decent housing, decent employment and decent health, what do you think the response would be? The same as this community's has been: 'No, we don't want it. No, we don't want to sacrifice our land.' But these people, apparently, are in lands where no-one lives and it is empty. Well, it is not empty and they do care. We believe that this is a shameful indictment of the government's handling of Aboriginal people's rights, livelihood and future. It replicates yet again the approach that was taken during the intervention in the Northern Territory that we know has not worked, that we know was foisted on them with a top-down, patronising approach—and here we go again. It is all very well to wrap it up, saying, 'We've consulted one of the groups'; but, as we know, there are five groups there and they are saying; 'We don't want this waste dump. It's not appropriate to foist it on us. It's not appropriate to try to divide and conquer us, the same way you have done for the 200 years you've been in this land.' We are repeating those same mistakes. It is time it stopped. It is time we actually listened properly to what Aboriginal people want. There is no doubt in my mind that what we are practising here is radioactive racism, and it needs to stop.

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