Nov 2, 2005

Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill – Nuclear Waste Dump, NT


Second Reading

2 November 2005

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (5.31 p.m.)— The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005 and the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management (Related Amendment) Bill 2005 is extreme legislation from an extreme, arrogant, out-of-touch government. This is one of the most draconian pieces of legislation that has been brought before this chamber. This legislation does two things. Firstly, it imposes a hazardous nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territorians regardless of their views. Secondly, it tears up critical environmental legislation. The legislation overrides any existing or future state or territory law or regulation that prohibits or regulates a nuclear waste dump. It overrides existing environmental protection and Indigenous heritage laws. It overrides the Native Title Act and the Land Acquisition Act. It removes procedural fairness. It allows the Commonwealth government to do whatever is necessary to establish or operate a nuclear waste dump at a particular site, and it allows the Commonwealth to do whatever it pleases to ensure the nuclear waste gets transported to the nuclear dump site.

Now you know why the Howard government is considered to be extreme. The Howard government brushes aside critical health, environmental protection, community safety and Aboriginal rights laws with this piece of legislation. Now let me tell you why the Howard government is considered arrogant and out of touch. The Howard government is arrogant because it promised one thing before the election and it delivered something very different after the election had been held. Just before the election, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage said:

The Commonwealth is not pursuing any options anywhere on the mainland. So we can be quite categorical about that because the Northern Territory is on the mainland.

Perhaps the Northern Territory has been moved off the mainland. It was a very clear statement from the environment minister. It was clear and unambiguous. The environment minister’s promises have as much credibility as a Tony Abbott ‘rolled gold commitment’. In June this year, the member for Solomon also ruled out a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. The member for Solomon said:

There’s not going to be a national nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory …That was the commitment undertaken in the lead-up to the federal election and I haven’t heard anything apart from that view expressed since that election.

The member for Solomon said that in June this year, yet he was in this chamber during this debate to support this legislation. The government did not even bother to consult him or to tell him that this would occur, yet he has so little courage that he came into this chamber and sold out the clear and unambiguous commitments that he gave. If the member for Solomon had any ticker at all, he would cross the floor and vote for the interests of his constituents and against this extreme legislation.

The Howard government is out of touch, because its extreme policy is overwhelmingly opposed by Northern Territorians. Clare Martin’s government went to a Territory election just this year, opposing a nuclear waste dump in the Territory. Clare Martin’s position was very clear. Clare Martin was not just returned as the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory; she had a thumping landslide of a win. Nineteen of the 25 seats in the Northern Territory were won by the Australian Labor Party. The seats were won with a clear, unambiguous commitment and promise on this issue. Northern Territorians do not want this nuclear dump imposed on them.

The Central Land Council, the traditional owners of two of the sites, also opposes the dump. The government consulted the Arrente people, the traditional owners of the Alcoota-Harts Range and the Mount Everard sites, on 20 October. These people strongly opposed the location of the dump on any part of their country. They have written to me, as I am sure they have written to other members, and stated:

… of particular concern is the need to keep the country safe and healthy for present and future generations, and to be able to continue to use their country for hunting and getting bushtucker.

Many Aboriginal people live near the sites in small communities and outstations and they are extremely worried about the proposals. They fought hard to get their country back and they believe they should not be the ones to have to live with radioactive waste on their land.

They do not want the dump, and they do not want their hard-won rights extinguished by this government. The Howard government is out of touch, because it has literally wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to impose a nuclear waste dump on Australians. The Howard government has spent and wasted $17.5 million on the South Australian nuclear waste dump. That went nowhere and produced nothing. That is $17.5 million that could have been used to improve our schools, hospitals and natural environment. It is a scandal that the Howard government spent $620,000 on an unsuccessful public relations campaign to convince South Australians that, after all, they really did want a nuclear dump. Now the government is spending an additional $13 million on a new way to impose the nuclear waste dump on Australians. Arrogant, out of touch and extreme are three descriptions which characterise the Howard government.

I want to now focus on the implications of this legislation in overriding the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999. The bill specifically allows for the EPBC Act to be bypassed in the selection process for the nuclear waste dump. Are there environmental concerns regarding the proposed site? ‘Who cares?’ say the Howard government, ‘We’re just going to override them.’ Are there heritage concerns regarding the proposed site? ‘Who cares?’ say the Howard government, ‘We’ll just override them.’ They want the nuclear waste dump regardless of the consequences. They will not let the environment get in the way, and they will not let our heritage get in the way. That is the Howard government’s position. You would think that the EPBC Act was a pretty minor law with the way it is being treated. You would think that maybe it was a Labor invention that they were opposed to, but that is not the case. The EPBC Act dates from 1999, and the Howard government have been telling us for the last six years how important it is. In 2000, the then environment minister, Senator Robert Hill, described the EPBC Act as ‘groundbreaking’. Senator Hill suggested that one of the act’s great features was the ‘robust framework it provides for Commonwealth-state cooperation in relation to the environmental assessment and approval process’. You can just hear the irony of those words rumbling through this chamber.

In his 2004 election platform, Prime Minister John Howard described the EPBC Act as ‘a truly national framework for environment protection’. He went on to say:

… now any development that could threaten our vulnerable or endangered species, or any environmental matter of national significance, must be referred to the Environment Minister for a rigorous environmental assessment.

That commitment has been broken too, because if it relates to the siting of the nuclear waste dump, the environment minister does not have a say. You would not believe that one of the environmental matters of national significance that the Prime Minister referred to is a ‘nuclear action’. Section 21 of the EPBC Act specifically states:

… the Commonwealth … must not take a nuclear action that has, will have or is likely to have a significant impact on the environment.

A nuclear action includes ‘establishing or significantly modifying a nuclear installation’, and a nuclear installation includes ‘a nuclear waste storage or disposal facility’. So here you have the cornerstone of environmental protection, the EPBC Act, with a specific clause in section 21 of the act speaking about just this: a nuclear waste storage or disposal facility. And here we have talk about a single national waste dump but the legislation being overridden on that issue. It is an extraordinary tearing up of the EPBC Act, and yet we have not had a single complaint from the environment minister, not a peep about the tearing up of the act that he is paid to defend and implement—in fact, we get just the opposite.

Just two weeks ago, the environment minister described the EPBC Act as ‘one of the most comprehensive pieces of environment protection legislation anywhere in the world’. It is terrific and it is comprehensive but, when it is going to apply—even in very specific, very narrow terms—we will just bring in legislation that overrides it. It is not a comprehensive protection when the credibility of one of its seven matters of national environmental significance disappears with this act. There are only seven. It is about 15 per cent gone with this act. The environment minister has simply failed to do his job in standing up for the environment on this issue, and he has broken his very clear promise to the Northern Territory. His credibility has been shattered and the credibility of the EPBC Act has been shattered.

Under the legislation, the act only comes into force once the site has been selected. But you cannot pick and choose these things. Either you are committed to protecting matters of national environmental significance or you are not. It is no good bringing the act into force once the site has already been selected. That is an absurd proposition.

It is worth reflecting on the Howard government’s previous failed attempt to impose a nuclear waste dump on South Australians. The outcome was flawed but at least there was a process that led to site selection—and environmental assessment was part of that process. At one stage, the Howard government seemed hell-bent on putting the dump at the Woomera defence range, in South Australia. The Office of the Supervising Scientist in the Department of the Environment and Heritage looked at issues relating to this site. Among other things, the Office of the Supervising Scientist found that the site was not a suitable location, because the probability of breaching the site through Defence Force activities—that is, missile tests—was considered to be unacceptably high.

As a result, the then environment minister, David Kemp, ruled out locating the dump at Woomera because of ‘the risk associated with its close proximity to a proposed commercial satellite launch facility and an existing weapons-testing facility’. That was to the credit of the former environment minister, who did his job. If the current legislation had been in force then, we may well have got a nuclear waste dump in the middle of a missile-testing facility. That is the Howard government’s own example. Experience shows why you need environmental assessments and proper processes to make sure that you have good government. That is what it is about: good and effective government.

This whole farce highlights why nuclear power will never be an acceptable solution to the problems associated with climate change. After half a century of debate and publicly subsidised research, the proponents of nuclear power still have not been able to resolve the intractable issues of high-cost, radioactive nuclear waste and nuclear proliferation. Federal cabinet ministers are spruiking the idea of nuclear power plants for Australia, but the only answer they have for nuclear waste is draconian legislation that tears up critical environmental laws. I see the member for Tangney radiating at the back there. He is the greatest proponent of nuclear energy ever to come into this parliament, but I have not heard him, the member for Bradfield or any of the other proponents say, ‘I want a nuclear reactor in my seat.’ We will know they are fair dinkum when they say that. And when they say, ‘I’ll have the waste from it as well, thank you,’ we will know they are fair dinkum, because the waste issue has not been solved.

Ms Gambaro—It has not been solved anywhere in the world.

Mr ALBANESE—The parliamentary secretary opposite is right; it has not been solved anywhere in the world. She obviously has a sensible, rational position on this. The environmental argument against nuclear power is very strong. High-level waste from a nuclear reactor is highly radioactive and needs to be isolated for more than 10,000 years. International best practice demands that local communities are consulted and support having a nuclear facility in their communities. Of course, that is not the path the Howard government have followed. The Howard government have form here. They imposed a new research reactor on the local residents of Lucas Heights and the surrounding Sutherland Shire, despite community opposition. They also wanted to impose a nuclear waste dump on South Australians. The South Australian government passed laws banning a nuclear waste dump, and there was strong community opposition. The Federal Court intervened to overturn the site selected by the Howard government.

We urgently need tackle climate change as it is our greatest environmental challenge. We need to take action now in Australia and overseas, but we should not be distracted by proposed solutions that create more problems than they solve. This legislation highlights just how difficult the issue of nuclear waste is. The Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2005 is stark proof of the difficulties that remain with the nuclear issue. This is an extreme piece of legislation brought to you by an extreme, arrogant, out of touch government. All members of the House who have any consideration for the environment should object to the overturning of the EPBC Act, which is part of the provisions of this draconian bill. All members of parliament should also object to the imposition of this bill on the Northern Territory—against the will of the Northern Territory and without any proper discussion with the community there.

The sidelining of Indigenous rights—fought for and held dearly by the Indigenous people on whose country the government would impose such as facility—is another reason to vote against this bill. Labor are opposing the bill for all those reasons. We understand that there is a need to deal with waste—and that has long been a part of Labor policy—but this is not the way forward. The way forward is through consultation and making sure that rights are not removed, which is what this bill does. I urge the House to reject the legislation. (Time expired)