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Question on Radioactive Waste

Scott Ludlam 2 Mar 2011

Senator LUDLAM (2.31 pm)-My question is to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr, in his role representing the Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism. It relates to the government's proposal to dump radioactive waste at Muckaty Station, close to Tennant Creek.

Senator Chris Evans-On a point of order: the senator wants to ask a question to the Minister representing the Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism, and I understand that it is Senator Sherry.

Senator Ronaldson-It will be a totally different answer to the one we would have got.

The PRESIDENT-We did make a statement earlier today, Senator Ronaldson, about interjections. That might have been a little bit helpful.

Senator LUDLAM-I thank the Leader of the Government in the Senate for that correction. I also acknowledge Mark Lane, a traditional owner from the area who is in the public gallery today. Can the minister advise the Senate on the status of recommendation 1 of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the radioactive waste
dump proposal of late last year, which stated that Minister Ferguson should undertake as soon as possible: ... 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. Has the minister done so and, if not, why not?

Senator SHERRY-I thank Senator Ludlam for his question. I am just looking through the brief for my representational capacity and the information is not before me, so I will have to take it on notice.

Senator LUDLAM-Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister explain why after the 2007 election responsibility for radioactive waste management was transferred from the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio, where it had been for decades, to the Resources, Energy and Tourism portfolio where there is no expertise whatsoever in radioactive waste management.

Senator Abetz-Senator Carr was the minister.

Senator LUDLAM-That is why I was hoping to put the question to Senator Carr. Why was there a transfer?

Senator SHERRY-That is an arrangement between two ministers that would have been determined by the Prime Minister. I am not aware of why the transfer of responsibilities from Senator Carr to the Minister for Resources, Energy and Tourism, Mr Ferguson, occurred. The officers in the division were transferred. It is your prerogative to ask a question, but I do not really see how a question about the process of transferring ministerial responsibility from one minister to another would be particularly informative for you. Nevertheless,
I will take it on notice and see what information I can find for you.

Senator LUDLAM-Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Thank you, Minister. I would very much appreciate a statement to the Senate about the reason for that extremely unorthodox change of responsibilities. Has the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research requested to take back responsibility for that portfolio-where it belongs- and, if not, will he do so as a matter of greatest urgency?

The PRESIDENT-Senator Sherry, I think you can answer the part of the question that may pertain to the portfolio that you represent, but I do not know if you can necessarily speak on behalf of another minister.

Senator SHERRY-Again, it is your prerogative to ask questions of this nature, Senator Ludlam, but I do not think it is unorthodox for responsibilities to be transferred from one department to another department. For example, with the new Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government there was a range of responsibilities transferred from a number of other-

Senator Ludlam-Mr President, on a point of order on relevance, the minister appears to be answering my previous question. The question that I just put to him was whether the minister would take responsibility back for this portfolio.

The PRESIDENT-I think I ruled at the start that the minister may well have difficulty in answering for a minister that he is not representing, but I do invite the minister to answer on behalf of the minister that he is representing. If there is anything further that the minister wishes to add then the minister can do so. There is no point of order.

Senator SHERRY-Kim, have you asked for the responsibilities back?

The PRESIDENT-Senator Ludlam, I think that might solve that one!


That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister representing the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Sherry) to questions without notice asked today.

I put three questions to Senator Carr, who has held the portfolio of Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research since the 2007 election, and was referred, or fobbed off should I say, to Senator Sherry. The first question I put, regarding the establishment of a radioactive waste facility at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, related to recommendation 1 of the inquiry of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Committee into the provisions of the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010, which I believe will shortly be before the Senate. Recommendation 1 said that before this project goes ahead, if indeed it ever does, the minister should as soon as possible meet with the affected parties. That does not sound too controversial to me. It was a unanimous recommendation that the minister should sit down-he should have the courage and the basic courtesy to do that-on behalf of the Australian Labor Party and the coalition members and senators who may well vote for this proposal when it comes to the Senate and tell the traditional owners and the people in the broader community up there around Tennant Creek and Muckaty Station why the facility is going there, why they have been chosen. The recommendation of the committee was that until he does that this project should not proceed. I do not think that is controversial at all.

Many of the affected landholders up there have such serious reservations about this proposal that they have taken the government and the Northern Land Council on in the Federal Court. One of those traditional owners, Mr Mark Lane, who is a named applicant in that Federal Court action, was in the public gallery today and is still here in Parliament House. He should not be wasting his time with an action like this over land tenure, and the government should not be moving to dump this material on their land in the Northern Territory at least until the tenure issues are sorted out and we know who has traditional responsibility for that area. It is absolutely outrageous that the government should be proposing to dump the most dangerous industrial materials that this country produces-to put them in shipping containers on semitrailers and take them to a cattle station. It is absolutely ridiculous. For the government to be proceeding, with the consent of the opposition, I understand, to legislate on this matter before we even know who has responsibility for that country speaks to me of the concept of terra nullius. I think that is something that most members of this chamber and the other place would have hoped we had set to rest. But that is effectively what this is: we are treating it as though it is empty land.

The other questions that I asked probably seem to have come somewhat out of left field. Why, subsequent to the 2007 election, was responsibility for radioactive waste management transferred from the Science and Innovation portfolio, where it had been in various guises, probably, since the 1950s, and suddenly yanked across and put in Resources and Energy? To this day, I have no idea what that was about. It was taken out of the portfolio responsibilities that Senator Carr had when he was in opposition and transferred to the Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, who has shown blatant disregard for the rights of landholders and, in fact, for the entire Northern Territory community. Perhaps the Labor Party thinks there is a handful of seats up there that they can do away with. Perhaps there is some kind of rather nasty political calculus at work that says, ‘It doesn't really matter if the coalition or, heaven help us, even the Greens bowl over a couple of seats in the Territory, we can dump it up there.' It is not happening. That material is not going to Muckaty Station, and this minister will have cost the country collectively several years by taking up this failed approach. He would know, if had studied the limited history in this country of attempting to coercively dump radioactive waste on people, that this will end in failure. Now there is a tenure dispute in the Federal Court. We will be contesting this legislation when it comes into this chamber. When the minister sees the people who turn up at his office every so often and make a public spectacle of his disastrous handling of this issue he should know that will continue, it will intensify. Nobody is going away until this issue has been sorted.

The last issue, I suppose, is something of a longer term one: take us out of the politics and remember what this debate is about. What is the nature of this material that will still be ticking, tens of thousands of years after we are gone? Why are we insisting on dumping it at a remote location? I do not believe that material is going to Muckaty, but if we defeat it at Muckaty where will the government turn to? What is the obsession with asking the question: which remote Aboriginal community should get this toxic material? We will move amendments to the bill, when it is debated in this chamber, probably not too far away from now, that will back off the postcode issue of which politically vulnerable community we can dump this toxic garbage on and that will establish a commission in the cold light of day to look at the proper way of dealing with this waste. What do we mean by world's best practice? We mean community consultation, siting this material close to the areas of expertise and the people who generated it and stop producing this material in the first place.

Question agreed to.


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