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Unanswered questions on notice regarding Muckaty nuclear waste dump

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 19 Nov 2012

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:01): Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Resources and Energy, Senator Evans, for an explanation as to why answers have not been provided to question on notice No. 2389 asked on 19 October 2012?

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:01): I thank Senator Evans and I do acknowledge that I have not provided him with prior warning that I was going to move this. It is a little unusual in that the question has only fallen late by a day or two, so I can understand why the minister does not have a brief before him. However, I move:

That the Senate take note of the failure by the Minister for Resources and Energy to provide either an answer or an explanation.

Senator Chris Evans: Don't you need an explanation before you can take note?

Senator LUDLAM: I will put some brief remarks on the record as to why I am bringing this forward now. I know it is a little unusual. Sometimes we wait for months with unanswered questions. I am not willing to do that in this instance. This is an extremely time-sensitive matter. I have sought explanation for these unanswered questions on notice because several of them pertain to time-sensitive matters.

Question No. 2389 included questions about the status of the tender process for the concept design of a national radioactive waste facility. The question also put to the minister whether the department had any dialogue or provided briefings to the new Northern Territory government or its agencies regarding the location of a national radioactive waste facility at Muckaty. Particularly importantly, the question asked: has the department had any dialogue with any stakeholders over the potential for a further site nomination, either within the Muckaty Land Trust area or in any other region of the Northern Territory or elsewhere?

At successive budget estimates hearings I have put precisely that question to officers from DRET: are you looking at an alternative site? We know that the government is in serious trouble with the existing Muckaty nomination that is now five or six years old. We have been warning the government, from the time that it was proposed in the late years of the Howard government to the time that it was taken up by Minister Martin Ferguson of the Rudd and then Gillard governments, that the government has gone the wrong way and that this proposal would fail. I believe what we are seeing now are some signs that the government realises its proposals for the Muckaty radioactive waste dump is going nowhere.

There are some developments to report on and that is why I am keen for an answer to my question, as well as because they pertain to legislation that passed in this place earlier this year. The developments I specifically want to refer to include a meeting on Muckaty Land Trust land on 7 November 2012. What was discussed at this meeting? The site targeted for a nuclear waste dump by Minister Ferguson and the Northern Land Council that is currently under Federal Court action, for example-was that discussed at this meeting? Was it discussed that this Federal Court action is likely to take a very long time? Likely it would not have been appropriate for this court action to have been discussed at that meeting considering one of the leading NLC participants in the meeting is the solicitor representing the land council in this action. His conduct will be under scrutiny as an agent of the Northern Land Council who participated in the consultations for the original 2007 nomination. If that issue was not raised not raised, what else is going on at Muckaty? Is there another site under discussion or not?

According to people with whom I have spoken, at the meeting on 7 November included no maps, no specific sites were named, but there was also microphone and a lot of informal discussions, side conversations and so on. Some people were invited that I know, then they were uninvited, then they were re-invited. Very strange times on the Muckaty Land Trust when traditional owners are treated like this on their own land. The agenda in the meeting information sheet for that meeting was clear that this was not a decision-making meeting. Items eight and nine on the agenda included: whether the federal government will consider other land in Australia for the national radioactive waste facility and how an additional nomination affects the 2007 nomination of land adjacent to the haulage road on Muckaty Station. So two of the items referred to the potential for an alternative site nomination, additional to the one that is currently being tested in the Federal Court.

After that meeting, according to some participants, it was not at all clear whether the meeting convened by the Northern Land Council and the Muckaty Land Trust on Wednesday, 7 November, was to discuss a proposed new site for a radioactive waste dump. However, while not much light may have been shed at the meeting itself, the Northern Land Council principal legal officer, Mr Ron Levy, it did help clear matters up when he addressed a press conference on 13 November that in fact there is a specific alternate site known to the Northern Land Council. His exact words were:

The Northern Land Council has been asked to formally consult in relation to an additional nomination of separate land under the new statute at Muckaty Station. The consultations were the commencement of that process.

Really? Okay. The NLC principal legal officer said: 'Well, this is separate from and additional to, not alternative to, the nomination which is the subject of court proceedings.' Really? That is interesting.

When asked who had requested that these consultations commence, the NLC principal legal officer said the following: 'Well, traditional owners of the relevant land. I don't intend to give names of those persons at the moment.' I wonder when he will. The NLC principal legal officer also said, 'So the Commonwealth will need to persuade first the traditional owners and subsequently the public about safety considerations, but there will be a major effort in that respect in the consultative process.' What does Mr Levy know that nobody else knows? What does he know that none of the participants at that meeting were told, to keep on trying to persuade them?

I am interested to know: will the NLC and the Commonwealth recognise exactly when it is that they have failed to persuade-because of course they have. The vast majority of people on the Muckaty Land Trust who are signatories, and their families, remain not only unpersuaded but implacably opposed. Does the government really think that the same factors will not come into play if another site is chosen in the same earthquake zone that has been the site of so much contest and division between family members since this nomination first came to light-a place where several of the same groups of traditional owners have the same interlocking ownership and the same say over country due to overlapping songlines and stories? All of the same problems will follow the dump if the government tries to simply move it 10 or 20 kilometres in one direction or another. It must know that.

Do the government and the Northern Land Council really believe that another site process has begun with these consultations and with this meeting? These are consultations that have already gotten off to a nasty start-where all of those party to the Federal Court action were not invited, where some people were invited and then uninvited and then invited again, and where no specific site was indicated-but then the NLC principal legal officer goes and tells a press conference that there is a nomination.

Will the minister answer my question? Will he provide the precise geographical location of the proposed alternative site referred to by the Northern Land Council's principal legal officer? There clearly is another site in play; Mr Levy was happy to tell a press conference that. It does not appear that he told any of the participants in that meeting-those of them who eventually made it-that there was such a nomination under way.

It would be appropriate for the minister to provide that information to the chamber, and it would fit well under my question: Has the department had any dialogue with any stakeholders over the potential for a further site nomination: (a) within the Muckaty Land Trust area; and (b) in any other region of the Northern Territory or elsewhere?

Just in case the minister does not quite see what I am getting out, we can put another set of questions in to help him. We can continue kicking this particular can down the road, or the minister can come clean and hold a national radioactive waste commission to finally answer the question of what we should do with the nation's inventory of radioactive waste that does not involve the premise being which remote Aboriginal community should host this shed for all time.

We have to start a different process: a more honest, deliberative, open and scientific process-which is what we thought we were getting, because ALP candidates told us in 2007 that that was what they would do if they were elected. I hope that the minister will provide us with an answer to these questions. I thank the Senate for allowing me to detain it briefly, and I hope you will all agree that these questions require an urgent resolution by the government.

Question agreed to.


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