The politicians finally get their ears out of their pockets
The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta continued to implore the federal government to “get their ears out of their pockets,” and after six years the government did just that. In the lead-up to the 2004 federal election, with the dump issue biting politically, and following a Federal Court ruling that the government had illegally used urgency provisions in the Lands Acquisition Act, the government decided to cut its losses and abandon the dump plan.
The Kungkas wrote in an open letter: “People said that you can’t win against the Government. Just a few women. We just kept talking and telling them to get their ears out of their pockets and listen. We never said we were going to give up. Government has big money to buy their way out but we never gave up.”
Botched Clean-Up of the Maralinga Nuclear Test Site
The 1998-2004 debate over nuclear waste dumping in South Australia overlapped with a controversy over a botched clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear weapons test site in the same state.
The British government conducted 12 nuclear bomb tests in Australia in the 1950s, most of them at Maralinga. The 1985 Royal Commission found that regard for Aboriginal safety during the weapons tests was characterised by “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism”.
The Australian government’s clean-up of Maralinga in the late 1990s was just as bad. It was done on the cheap and many tonnes of plutonium-contaminated waste remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology.
Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the clean-up: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land.”
Dr Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, said in a leaked email that the clean-up was beset by a “host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups.”
Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston noted that there were “very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project.”
Prof. Johnston (and others) noted in a conference paper that Traditional Owners were excluded from any meaningful input into decision-making concerning the clean-up. Traditional Owners were represented on a consultative committee but key decisions — such as abandoning vitrification of plutonium-contaminated waste in favour of shallow burial in unlined trenches — were taken without consultation with the consultative committee or any separate discussions with Traditional Owners.
Federal government minister Senator Nick Minchin said in a May 2000 media release that the Maralinga Tjarutja Traditional Owners “have agreed that deep burial of plutonium is a safe way of handling this waste.” But the burial of plutonium-contaminated waste was not deep and the Maralinga Tjarutja Traditional Owners did not agree to waste burial in unlined trenches — in fact they wrote to the Minister explicitly dissociating themselves from the decision.
Barely a decade after the Maralinga clean-up, a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated waste pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence.
Despite the residual radioactive contamination, the Australian government off-loaded responsibility for the contaminated land onto the Maralinga Tjarutja Traditional Owners. The government portrayed this land transfer as an act of reconciliation. But it wasn’t an act of reconciliation — it was deeply cynical. The real agenda was spelt out in a 1996 government document which said that the clean-up was “aimed at reducing Commonwealth liability arising from residual contamination.”
Radioactive Ransom in the Northern Territory
After the Kungkas victory in 2004, successive federal governments spent the best part of a decade attempting to establish a national nuclear waste dump at Muckaty, 110 km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. A toxic trade-off of basic services for a radioactive waste dump was part of the story from the start.
The nomination of the Muckaty site was made with the promise of a A$12 million compensation package comprising roads, houses and scholarships. Muckaty Traditional Owner Kylie Sambo (see photo) objected to this radioactive ransom: “I think that is a very, very stupid idea for us to sell our land to get better education and scholarships. As an Australian we should be already entitled to that.”
While a small group of Aboriginal Traditional Owners supported the dump, a large majority were opposed and some initiated legal action in the Federal Court challenging the nomination of the Muckaty site by the federal government and the Northern Land Council (NLC).
The conservative Liberal/National Coalition federal government passed legislation — the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act — overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act, undermining the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent.
The Australian Labor Party voted against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, with Labor parliamentarians describing it as “extreme,” “arrogant,” “draconian,” “sorry,” “sordid,” and “profoundly shameful”. At its 2007 national conference, Labor voted unanimously to repeal the legislation.
Yet after the winning the 2007 election, the Labor government passed legislation — the National Radioactive Waste Management Act (NRWMA) — which was almost as draconian and still permitted the imposition of a dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent (to be precise, the nomination of a site was not invalidated by a failure to consult or secure consent).
Radioactive racism in Australia is bipartisan — both the Labor government and the Liberal/National Opposition voted in support of the NRWMA. Shamefully, the NLC supported legislation disempowering the people it is meant to represent.
In February 2008, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd highlighted the life-story of Lorna Fejo — a member of the stolen generation — in the historic National Apology to Aboriginal People in Parliament House. At the same time, the Rudd government was stealing her land for a nuclear dump.
Fejo said: “I’m very, very disappointed and downhearted about that [NRWMA legislation]. I’m really sad. The thing is — when are we going to have a fair go? Australia is supposed to be the land of the fair go. When are we going to have fair go? I’ve been stolen from my mother and now they’re stealing my land off me.”
“Our Heart Jiggled With Joy”
The Federal Court trial finally began in June 2014. After two weeks of evidence, the NLC gave up and agreed to withdraw the nomination of Muckaty. Victory for the Muckaty mob!
The announcement came just days before the NLC and government officials were due to take the stand to face cross-examination. As a result of their surrender, the NLC and the government did not have to face cross-examination in relation to numerous serious accusations (see here, here and here) raised in the first two weeks of the trial — including claims that the NLC rewrote an anthropologists’ report.
Kylie Sambo said: “I believe [the NLC] didn’t want to go through that humiliation of what they really done. But it’s better now that they actually backed off. It’s good for us.”
Lorna Fejo said: “I feel ecstatic. I feel free because it was a long struggle to protect my land.”
Marlene Nungarrayi Bennett compared the Muckaty victory to other famous victories for Aboriginal people: “Today will go down in the history books of Indigenous Australia on par with the Wave Hill Walk-off, Mabo and Blue Mud Bay. We have shown the Commonwealth and the NLC that we will stand strong for this country. The NLC tried to divide and conquer us but they did not succeed.”
Dianne Stokes said: “Everyone is feeling very happy that we won; we struggled that long to get it over and done with. … If anyone else around the country wants support to stop a nuclear dump, we will come along and help them to go against the waste. We had so much support when we were struggling, if anyone calls we will go straight there.”
Isobel Phillips said: “Looking back now on how we struggled, it was the hardest. Keeping it up was the worst because of the pressure that our land will be destroyed. We first felt sad, heartbroken and betrayed that the government would put the nuclear waste on our country. And our grief is for our elders who have passed away — they helped us but their spirit is here with us today. There is one thing that we have — our culture, lore, and family connection on the land.
“We kept going with the fight until we won our land back. Our heart jiggled with joy and smiled when we heard the good news that the government was not going ahead with the nuclear waste dump on our country. We jumped and we danced with excitement — what a blessing. We are so happy, so strong and still smiling with pride.”
Australia as the World’s Nuclear Waste Dump
Now Aboriginal people in South Australia face the imposition of a national nuclear waste dump as well as a plan to import 138,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste and 390,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste for storage and disposal as a commercial venture.
The plan is being driven by the South Australian government, which last year established a Royal Commission to provide a fig-leaf of independent supporting advice. The Royal Commissioner is a nuclear advocate and the majority of the members of the Expert Advisory Committee are strident nuclear advocates.
Indeed it seems as if the Royal Commissioner sought out the dopiest nuclear advocates he could find to put on the Expert Advisory Committee: one thinks nuclear power is safer than solar, another thinks that nuclear power doesn’t pose a weapons proliferation risk, and a third was insisting that there was no credible risk of a serious accident at Fukushima even as nuclear meltdown was in full swing.
Announcing the establishment of the Royal Commission in March 2015, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said: “We have a specific mandate to consult with Aboriginal communities and there are great sensitivities here. I mean we’ve had the use and abuse of the lands of the Maralinga Tjarutja people by the British when they tested their atomic weapons.”
Yet the South Australian government’s handling of the Royal Commission process systematically disenfranchised Aboriginal people. The truncated timeline for providing feedback on draft Terms of Reference disadvantaged people in remote regions, people with little or no access to email and internet, and people for whom English is a second language. There was no translation of the draft Terms of Reference, and a regional communications and engagement strategy was not developed or implemented.
Aboriginal people repeatedly expressed frustration with the Royal Commission process. One example (of many) is the submission of the Anggumathanha Camp Law Mob (who are also fighting against the plan for a national nuclear waste dump on their land):