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Issue #1433      28 October 2009

Despair and Defiance

In August of last year I was privileged to camp with Aboriginal elders and environment groups at the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance meeting in Mary River, about 100 kilometres south east of Darwin.

Aboriginal people did not give prior or informed consent to the British nuclear weapons tests that took place at Maralinga; they were not warned that the black rain was laced with plutonium and radioactive fission products, or that the brilliant white flash would blind.

 

 

This was a remarkable gathering of traditional landowners and campaigners who have been impacted by uranium mining, nuclear weapons testing and radioactive waste dumping. Supported by environment groups from around the country, these meetings were started in 1997 as the Alliance Against Uranium when the campaign to stop a uranium mine in Kakadu at Jabiluka combined the strengths of Green and Black organising.

The stories I heard were of the cruellest form of dispossession: the day black rain fell at Maralinga, the expanding groundwater sacrifice zone around the Beverley uranium mine and the cultural and ecological tragedy of Olympic Dam.

Trauma is not too strong a word for what people were feeling. The Australian community at large holds a distant but healthy suspicion about all things nuclear, but for the people gathered this weekend the insidious poisoning of country and culture by nuclear blasts, nuclear waste and uranium mining are matters of direct personal experience.

I heard about the brain tumours and breast cancer growing inside people far too young – of the legal entrapments of the Native Title Act, which has set families against each other and of the Northern Territory intervention, which has simply compounded and aggravated the despair.

At the meeting there was a huge hand-painted map on the wall showing the rash of proposed uranium mines from Meekatharra to Mount Isa and everywhere in between. As one participant observed, “There’s just nowhere left to run.”

In the back of everyone’s mind in the Territory is the spectre of 60 years of nuclear waste from the Lucas Heights reactor. The Howard government passed the highly coercive Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act in 2005, which suspended all forms of due process and democratic oversight in order to dump Australia’s radioactive waste in the Northern Territory. In opposition at the time, the ALP promised to repeal this bill and start again.

Now the federal government is burning its bridges up here. First there was Martin Ferguson’s thuggish repudiation of Kevin Rudd’s election promise on the waste dump. Then we witnessed the awful spectacle of former Midnight Oil’s front man and anti-nuclear activist Peter Garrett meekly signing off on the expanded violation of groundwater at the Beverley Uranium Mine. In the pipeline are massive expansions at the Roxby Downs and Ranger uranium mines. Where will it end?

According to the hardened campaigners and their families here it ends with final silencing of their culture, language and the contamination of the country for all time.

In 2009 we still have elders and senior law people willing to share their knowledge with us and to “open doors to the country” as Kevin Buzacott puts it. The language is still alive. The cultural laws are still being passed on to the kids, and people want to get on with the healing that “sorry” went some way to enabling. Why are we still crushing Aboriginal people between chequebooks, bulldozers, police and Acts of Parliament?

Authorities have attempted to provide for the health treatment costs of the police and military personnel present at Maralinga during British nuclear testing – those of them still living. It is unlikely that there will ever be a “sorry” and compensation for Aboriginal people who found themselves under a mushroom cloud. An area the size of England was fenced off by the British, who permanently contaminated an area the size of metropolitan London with seven nuclear blasts and hundreds of “minor trials”. Aboriginal people did not give prior or informed consent to the weapons tests, they were not warned that the black rain was laced with plutonium and radioactive fission products, or that the brilliant white flash would blind.

The Senate inquiry into my bill to repeal Howard’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act 2005 received 103 submissions from various organisations and individuals. Two public hearings held in Alice Springs and Canberra provided thoughtful and considered input to the Environment, Communication and the Arts Committee’s deliberations and final report.

The inquiry revealed an overwhelming consensus regarding the deficiencies and consequences of Howard’s 2005 legislation, which enables the federal government to impose a radioactive waste facility on unwilling Territory communities and against the wishes of the NT government. The legislation does this by overriding laws generated by the Territory government, preventing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 from having effect during investigations of potential dump sites. It also excludes the Native Title Act 1993 from operating at all, overrides the Land Rights Act and wipes out procedural fairness through the suspension of the Judicial Review Act.

This inquiry exposed how contested the favoured nuclear waste site at Muckaty Station really is. Senior Ngapa traditional owners gave compelling evidence about the flawed nature of the consultation process and questioned the accuracy of a secret anthropological report that designates a small handful of individuals as speaking exclusively on behalf of that country.

It is now a year and a half since the ALP was elected on a promise of throwing out the Coalition’s failed radioactive waste strategy. Eighteen months later that strategy is still in full effect, run with ruthless efficiency by Martin Ferguson.

It is essential that sooner or later Australia faces up to its radioactive waste legacy, in a deliberative and measured process. Any future legislation to this effect will be carefully scrutinised to ensure that it enables the kind of scientific, transparent, accountable and fair process the government has promised.

Ten years ago the Jabiluka uranium mine was fought to a standstill by the Mirrar and thousands of their supporters. The Kungkas defeated the South Australian waste dump despite the full force of the federal government being brought to bear. The Territorians working against the waste dump and their supporters are going to win as well, but only through a determined mobilisation made up of thousands of individual actions: write out a surprisingly generous cheque to the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA), send a strongly worded letter to the Prime Minister or pick up the phone and find out how you can help more directly.

The nuclear industry has no place in a sustainable Australia. There is still time to bring some sanity back to this 60-year-old conversation and to institute a properly democratic and informed process for curing the country’s radioactive migraine.

The people gathered in that shed just outside of Darwin have things they would much rather do than fight these undemocratic and toxic projects, but fight they will, and they deserve our support.

About the author: Senator Scott Ludlam is a Greens Senator from WA. He has been involved in numerous campaigns including opposing uranium mining at Jabiluka and in WA, nuclear weapons, foreign military bases and has supported Aboriginal land rights and disarmament, recognition of climate change and advocacy for fair trade and equitable globalisation as well as energy market reform.

The Beacon

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