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Senator Wright speaks to the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2014.

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 26 Jun 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:04):  As a South Australian senator for the Australian Greens, I rise to highlight an aspect of this bill, the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2014, which is fundamental but which has not received the attention it deserves. The level of consultation with the relevant area's traditional owners has not been sufficient-over the entire process leading to what this bill proposes. However, at this stage there still an opportunity to give due weight to their concerns.


To that end, I would like to make some comments in support of the Maralinga and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara, or APY, people's request that the Woomera Prohibited Area be removed from what is known as section 400. The Woomera Prohibited Area occupies 127,000 square kilometres, so it comprises 13 per cent of South Australia-twice the area of Tasmania. It is a huge area of land. The Maralinga lands cover about 40 per cent of the Woomera Prohibited Area, or WPA.

There is a history here of enormous cultural and social dislocation, including the Maralinga traditional owners being denied access to these lands during the British and Australian nuclear test program from 1956 onwards. The South Australian Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 handed back the traditional lands to a corporate body established to represent the traditional owners' interests. The Maralinga and APY people are the only owners of significant freehold land in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Section 400 is a particular tract of land which was provided by freehold transfer from the state of South Australia to the Commonwealth in 1957 for the purpose of British nuclear tests. It includes the nuclear test site and some minor trials sites and the Maralinga village. It makes up 3,125 square kilometres, or 2.5 per cent, of the Woomera Prohibited Area's total.

There is an overlap between section 400 and the Woomera Prohibited Area so that the Woomera Prohibited Area covers about half of section 400.

The overlap is where the nuclear tests and minor trials occurred. The Maralinga people, as the traditional owners, seek that this overlap be eliminated by redefining the Woomera Protected Area so that it does not encroach on section 400.

The bill that we are considering today provides for the minister to make the Woomera Prohibited Area rules. The rules as currently drafted define the Woomera Prohibited Area as including the northern half of section 400, on the Maralinga lands. I wish to place on the record my strong support and that of the Australian Greens of the Maralinga and APY peoples' request that the Woomera Prohibited Area be redefined to not include section 400. As I have mentioned previously, section 400 is equivalent in size to 2.5 per cent of the Woomera Protected Area's total. The reasons that this is important are that the Maralinga and APY people have a strong relationship with section 400. They were its traditional occupiers. For thousands and thousands of years these people lived, hunted, raised families, celebrated their culture and lived in their communities on these lands. These are their lands.

A significant clean-up of the nuclear and minor trial sites in section 400 occurred between 1993 and 2001 after years of negotiation between the Commonwealth, South Australia and the Maralinga Tjarutja people. The Commonwealth spent over $100 million rehabilitating these sites and the Maralinga village. After this significant exercise, all but 200 square kilometres are now fit for permanent Aboriginal habitation.

On completion of the rehabilitation, the Commonwealth negotiated for five years with South Australia and the Maralinga Tjarutja and resolved all issues relating to the hand-back of section 400 to the Maralinga traditional owners. This included a compensation package to meet the cost of section 400's ongoing maintenance and comprehensive indemnities by the Commonwealth to South Australia and the Maralinga Tjarutja regarding personal injury claims arising from the nuclear program.

As part of those negotiations, the South Australian government also agreed its Mining Act would not apply to the rehabilitated nuclear test sites. All parties agreed that mining exploration should not occur in a place where plutonium is buried in engineered burial trenches, and fine particulate plutonium is still deposited over nearly 200 square kilometres. The half-life of plutonium is 24,500 years.

This bill purports to open up the Woomera Prohibited Area for mining and sets conditions associated with that access. I understand the Maralinga and APY people are not opposed to mining and agree that opening up the WPA to exploration has important economic benefits. They make a strong case, however, for removal of the WPA from section 400. It is not just their strong, enduring connection with the land and the terrible history of dislocation which has already occurred. The huge amount of money the Commonwealth has spent rehabilitating section 400 alone would warrant it being kept separate from the WPA.

One of the primary conditions that this bill would set is that the minister can make the Woomera Prohibited Area rules. The request from the Maralinga Tjarutja and APY people is very clear: section 400 should not be included in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Their reasons for this request are cogent. They have a deep connection with the land as its traditional owners. They were displaced from section 400 in order for British nuclear tests to occur on their land.

The Commonwealth and South Australian governments have spent years negotiating with the traditional owners about how to rehabilitate this land. The South Australian Mining Act declined to allow mining in section 400 because of the risks associated with disturbing the plutonium in the area as a result of the nuclear tests. It is a tiny amount of land in question and there has been no cogent reason given about why it should be retained in the Woomera Prohibited Area.

 In addition to the significant issues of Indigenous consultation, I would like to mention another aspect of the bill which is less than optimal. The Australian Greens are not against mining in itself. We appreciate the significant economic effects that it can have-and this is certainly the case in South Australia-if it is well managed.

We have long advocated that mining exploits a shared resource, so the wealth associated with mining must be properly taxed so that the entire community can benefit from these economic impacts, so that the entire community can share in the benefits of what is a shared resource. Once mined, it is gone forever. We are also adamant that mining's environmental effects can be easily as significant as its economic ones and indeed are often more enduring. It is a fact that environmental degradation will outlast an economic boom.

Environmental stakeholders have raised some concerns with this bill. The Conservation Council of South Australia mentioned the biodiversity, water and energy issues associated with mining infrastructure and resource needs.

The proposal in this bill, for the Woomera Prohibited Area to be opened up for resources exploration and mining 'to the maximum extent possible', has significant risks to the natural environment. The bill makes no reference to sustainability or the environment and ignores the fact that ad-hoc exploration and mining may cause serious harm to environmental assets and ecological communities.

The Conservation Council of SA notes that the bill fails to recognise this environmental vulnerability and that the environmental assets in question have never been exposed to the level of exploration and mining that may now occur. For this reason, the Australian Greens say the bill should have additional measures to ensure that access is not granted to areas which need protection. It should also have some provision for environmental assessment. It has none.

Bush Heritage Australia observes in relation this bill that there is no recognition of the valuable environmental assets and capital in the Woomera Prohibited Area. It protects significant extents of intact, healthy vegetation and relatively healthy populations of native animals. There is a need to protect this largely intact area for the long-term health of the region's biodiversity and human population. Bush Heritage Australia recommend that the area's biodiversity, cultural and landscape assets should be formally recognised in the bill.

As the bill has failed to acknowledge the natural capital in the area or set any mechanisms for preserving these assets, on behalf of the Australian Greens I would like to squarely place these concerns on the record. We do not deny the benefits that mining activity can offer.

We will always advocate for mining exploration and activity to manage its impact on the natural environment as carefully and as wisely as possible. Economic benefits come and go, but a healthy, natural environment will outlast them. It is what we rely on to sustain us into the future.

In conclusion, I call on the government to engage with the traditional owners, remove the Woomera Prohibited Area from section 400, and allow any economic benefits associated with this bill to occur in a way that is respectful of traditional owners. The Australian Greens believe that the level of Indigenous consultation about this proposal leaves a lot of room for improvement, but there is still time for improvement. I could have devoted a whole speech to the government's missed opportunity to engage with the traditional owners. Instead, I want to focus on the opportunity the government now still has: to respect the traditional owners and their request; to respect that this site has been rehabilitated with much cost and effort; to remove the Woomera Prohibited Area from section 400. The Australian Greens urge the government to take up this opportunity, to make some amends for what has been an extremely sorry episode, recently, in what is a proud, long, traditional association between the traditional owners and these lands.


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