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Aboriginal disadvantage & nuclear waste

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 23 Aug 2012

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:31): I suspect that if Senator Siewert had had a few more minutes to speak on this matter of public importance on the Stronger Futures legislation, she would probably have directly addressed some of the matters raised by Senator Crossin. I found some of the accusations that came flying back across the chamber quite bizarre-because a fair bit of the enormous amount of work that Senator Siewert has done on behalf of disadvantaged Aboriginal people and Aboriginal people across the spectrum has been done in conjunction with Senator Crossin. When our interests align and when the government does good things, we will of course support them.

Senator Crossin asked, rhetorically I suppose, what positive initiatives we had supported. She said that she had not heard any. I find it perplexing that we would need to underline them-but I will. On hearing, and oral health in particular, Senator Siewert has been directly involved in a comprehensive plan for otitis media-and Senator Crossin knows this. We were able to bring about comprehensive funding for a suicide prevention package. Again, this is cross-party work which everyone supports. We were able to bring about soundfields in classrooms. We have detailed proposals for community controlled education in Aboriginal communities. We have been a big part of the debate on a floor or minimum price for alcohol, as we have been on takeaway-free days in areas where the communities are calling for them.

On criminal justice, we have played a major part in popularising justice reinvestment. This is something both of us-and now Senator Wright as well-have had a lot to do with, inspired largely by the work of former Human Rights Commissioner Tom Calma. He brought the concept to Australia after he had seen how well it was working in the United States. Senator Siewert has a native title amendment on the books, which Senator Crossin is absolutely welcome to support. It actually gives people the right of veto-the absence of which has been a tragic flaw in the native title legislation right from the beginning. We were a big part of mandating Opal fuel-and of course there is Senator Siewert's proposal for unsniffable Opal petrol to be mandated across the region. These are not trivial matters. These are things with which we have been directly involved in support of the aspirations of our Aboriginal communities-not just in the Territory but across the country.

The issue I want to address directly is the idea that the best way to support economic development and Aboriginal advancement in the Northern Territory-and there seems to be a bizarre and nasty cross-party consensus about this between Labor and the CLP-is to dump radioactive waste on them. Senators will be well aware that this is a campaign I have had quite a long involvement with. I became involved in 2005, when I had the good fortune to be on Senator Rachel Siewert's staff and sat in the public gallery during the fateful week when the coalition, which had the numbers in the chamber at the time-they were fresh from bashing through the Work Choices legislation which would eventually bring the government down and they subsequently rammed through the welfare-to-work and terror laws and abolished student unions-decided, for a wrap-up, to have a go at radioactive waste and passed this shameful legislation through. During that debate-and I remember this vividly-ALP senators spoke out strongly. They were great. They were actually inspiring. They were not as inspiring as Senator Siewert but they were clearly on board.

Since then, what has happened? Directly after the 2007 election, responsibility passed to Martin Ferguson and the Howard agenda continued. It was shameful. The Howard government radioactive waste legislation was described by ALP MPs, in the run-up to the 2007 election, as 'sordid'-and sordid it is. The idea that the best way to promote economic advancement in the Northern Territory is to post six of the loneliest security guards in the country to guard against people tampering with radioactive waste for the next three centuries absolutely beggars belief. They waved around a $12 million cheque in the community, north of Tennant Creek, which wanted a decent road and some community education support for their kids. That $12 million cheque was dangled in their faces in exchange for hosting what they thought was going to be a rubbish dump. Those were the words that were used-'rubbish dump'.

As I said, I have been involved with this campaign for quite some time. We have seen some very strong support from right across the board. I would like to acknowledge NT Chief Minister Henderson, who has defied his federal colleagues over this issue-and of course the NT Greens have been steadfast in the Barkly region, in Alice, in Darwin and right across the Northern Territory. But the Chief Minister is fighting an uphill battle, because he is fighting his own federal colleagues. This is a Labor Party radioactive waste dump, but it follows exactly the same template as the one which was announced by the coalition in 2005.

It was extraordinary, when listening in to the House debates and when the debate on the Radioactive Waste Management Act came through the Senate, to hear one coalition speaker after another taking credit for the idea and bagging the government for simply cutting and pasting. On that I agree with them. I agree with my colleague Senator Scullion, who claims some credit for the Mukaty waste dump, when he says that the ALP had just copied the coalition's policy-because they did. The only people who have been standing up and supporting the community on this one from day one have been the Australian Greens.

It is made all the more disappointing by the actions of the ALP when they were in opposition.

This is obviously a campaign that has a long way to run. Matters do not get to the Federal Court on a whim. While Minister Ferguson at the behest of the Northern Land Council continues to insist that one person effectively is able to speak for that country, we are in regular contact with a large number of traditional owners from the complex and quite tightknit family networks up there saying that of course traditional responsibility and custodianship over the area is shared and it is not a simple matter to simply draw a rectangle out of the area that five family groups signed on to as the Muckaty Land Trust and say it is just one person.

So the federal government is in enormous trouble and I suspect what is in the offing is probably a humiliating backdown. No matter what the outcome of the Federal Court, this is no way to treat the people of the Northern Territory. I am surprised at how quiet the NT CLP have been over this extraordinary attack on Territorians' rights. One thing I will note which has been a positive consequence, not just of the way the intervention was handled but also of the way this waste dump proposal has been handled, is that it has re-sparked the debate over statehood for the Northern Territory. The debate is probably in better shape than it was when it was last had in the Northern Territory. I support the discussion being had so that this kind of exploitation-which is what it is; it is base exploitation of the constitutional weakness of the Northern Territory-can be taken advantage of by both major parties voting together as they did when that Muckaty waste legislation was finally put to the vote during the last session.

What is happening in the Federal Court is that the traditional owners are wishing to explain that the Muckaty Land Trust was granted to five groups in common due to interconnected responsibilities and songlines. The government of course has isolated a small number of people and declared them the exclusive owners of the designated land. We fought the bill for two years and it did pass this March, but we were pleased to be able to secure an amendment after negotiations with the government, which was also supported by the coalition, to ensure that no international waste is stored in Australia. But the impact on the traditional owners of Muckaty continues, as it has now for seven years since John Howard's law was first passed-exploiting that same constitutional weakness that Territorians are now more than sick of hearing about-to dump radioactive waste on their land. The impact on them has been stress-they do not need this; they have enough on their hands without having to fight an industrial hazardous waste facility on their country as well. The issues that Senator Scullion listed, the issues that Senator Crossin listed and the issues that Senator Siewert relayed are all real issues that will only be solved if in a cross-party way we listen to the aspirations of the people who are directly affected in the Northern Territory.

The very last thing that people need is to hear about the nation's most toxic radioactive waste not being safe enough to be parked where it is at the moment, under the active care and maintenance of the staff at the Lucas Heights facility in Sydney, but somehow magically being transformed into something completely safe if it is trucked 120 kilometres north of Tennant Creek and dumped in a shed surrounded by barbed wire. The people of the NT do not buy it. They have supporters all around the country, and I know this full well, who do not buy it either. The government has come down completely the wrong track, backed by the opposition, and the Greens will continue, if we have to, to be the only voices standing up in opposition to this flawed and completely misconceived facility.

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