Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP Speaks on a Bill to establish a Nuclear Waste Facility in South Australia

11 June, 2020

TRANSCRIPT: I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I currently stand, the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, as well as the Barngarla people of South Australia, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

The National Radioactive Waste Management Amendment (Site Specification, Community Fund and Other Measures) Bill 2020 gives effect to the establishment of a national radioactive waste management facility to permanently dispose of low-level radioactive waste and temporarily store intermediate-level radioactive waste. This raises concerns in respect to the temporary storage of intermediate-level radioactive waste. There is no established case or current extenuating circumstance for this temporary relocation of intermediate-level radioactive waste. I do have concerns that the passage of this bill will be used to argue a case for storage of high-level waste in circumstances where there are issues of support by the community.

The bill specifies the site on which the facility will be established and operated—the Napandee site, located in the District Council of Kimba in South Australia. The facility will allow for a single repository of Australia's nuclear medicine and research waste at this time, which has been sited over diverse geographic areas over many years. Currently, that is an issue. Nuclear medicine is particularly important to the Australian people. Many will need it in their lifetime for screening and for various diseases and ailments.

The bill also establishes a community fund of $30 million to support the local economy, which will be overseen by a local community board for distribution to viable projects. The establishment of the facility and the community fund will provide ongoing economic benefits and employment opportunities for the local community; I am very cognisant of that.

The bill comes at the end of a significant consultation effort made by the minister and the department over many years, and I do commend them for that. However, there is still a level of uncertainty and grave concern, as far as I'm concerned. As with anything nuclear, the siting of the facility has caused significant division within the local community and debate over Indigenous rights more broadly.

Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples explicitly requires:

States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.

The standard of free, prior and informed consent is identified as part of Australia's binding human rights obligations under articles 2 and 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The land on which the facility is sited covers the native title area of the Barngarla people. The statement of compatibility on human rights states:

Native Title rights have been extinguished at the specified site; however, Aboriginal heritage, either tangible or intangible, may still be present.

Whilst the department has made admirable efforts to consult with the Barngarla people—consistent with the components of free, prior and informed consent—the facility still does not have their consent. The Barngarla people nominated the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation as their registered native title body corporate to speak on heritage matters. Of its members who were eligible to vote in the ballot, 100 per cent voted no on the question, 'Do you support the proposed national radioactive waste management facility being located at one of the nominated sites in the community of Kimba?'

Further, in a submission made to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics on 26 March 2020, the Barngarla people reaffirmed their opposition and raised additional concerns as to the consultation provided by the government and to legislative provisions set out that could limit their democratic rights. So there is clearly still an issue. I also note that there exists a level of ambiguity over the protection of native title in the broader site area.

In the circumstances, we are at a loss to understand why the government cannot place the facility somewhere where these issues are not in question, like the Woomera prohibited zone. I have received representations from several groups, including the Sisters of St Joseph and the Australian Conservation Foundation, raising their concerns about potential environmental and human rights implications of the bill, and that has also factored into my consideration of this bill.

It's curious that the government has decided to debate this bill now, as it comes at a crucial point in our history. The death of George Floyd, and the resulting protests, in the United States has highlighted entrenched racial bias and inequality and has created shock waves in countries around the world with their own troubled histories. Australia is not immune. We rectify our history by listening and enabling Indigenous Australians to chart their own destiny. That's why I support constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, and I strongly urge the government to hold a referendum on this issue and legislate an Indigenous voice to parliament, consistent with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as soon as possible.

The Uluru statement ends with an invitation: 'We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.' The sentiment is so selfless and empowering—to be invited to share in a history and culture that reach back 65,000 years. This is a moral choice for all Australians to make. What kind of Australia do we want to be? The recent blasting of the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves by Rio Tinto and the reports of further consideration of destruction of Indigenous sites by other mining companies demonstrate that we need the voice now more than ever and that we're far from the ideal that is set out in the Uluru statement.

That brings us back to this issue. I'm sympathetic to the economic benefits for the Kimba district and the general need for opportunities for the local non-Indigenous community that this bill will create. However, the facility clearly comes at the objection of the Barngarla people. It also undermines the spirit of the bipartisan commitment this government has to pursuing the goals set out in the Closing the Gap reports and the spirit of the Uluru statement. Considering this, I again repeat my request that Minister Wyatt devise the question and publicly commit to a referendum on a voice to parliament without delay and that the referendum be put to the Australian people during 2021. It's also clear from recent events that the Prime Minister should urgently convene a national cabinet to discuss Black Lives Matter, inviting experts from the Indigenous community to agree to a national plan of action to address Indigenous deaths in custody and incarceration rates. This all forms part of how we do all walk together for a better future.

So, in considering this nuclear waste facility, put yourself in the shoes of the local Indigenous people. They've been ignored for generations. Imagine their sense of hopelessness, despair and despondency as they are continually overruled. Consistent with the voice and the sentiment expressed in the Uluru statement, I will not support this bill. The turning point for our regard for Indigenous Australians is now and starts with rejecting this bill.