A year ago this week a small group of Traditional Owners of country in the Northern Territory won a big victory for Australians everywhere when the Federal Government announced an end to plans for a national radioactive waste dump at Muckaty, north of Tennant Creek.
The decision, an important win for the community, the environment and responsible radioactive waste management in Australia, is a tribute to the tenacity and courage of the many Traditional Owners who were tireless in their defense of country and culture.
After seven years of sustained campaigning the Muckaty community provides a clear example of the power of people to successfully resist the flawed actions of the people in power. It is also an important landmark on the continuing road to advancing responsible radioactive waste management in Australia.
The campaign against the dump included national speaking tours, regional rallies, community delegations, political advocacy and extensive media and public profile work. This combined effort saw a profound environmental and human rights abuse in a remote region make it on the national radar and won strong civil society and wider community support, including important assistance from legal firm Maurice Blackburn.
Muckaty was always a bad deal based on a broken promise and as senior Traditional Owner and campaign spearhead Dianne Stokes conveyed, it is a great relief that it will never be a done deal:
“Top to bottom we got bush tucker right through the country. Whoever is taking this waste dump into our country needs to come back and talk to the Traditional Owners. We’re not happy to have all of this stuff. We don’t want it, it’s not our spirit. Our spirit is our country, our country where our ancestors been born. Before towns, before hospitals, before cities. We want our country to be safe. We want to keep talking about it and continue to fight it until we are listened to. We say a big capital N-O."
The success of the Muckaty campaign is also a stark reminder of the failure of successive federal governments to advance an effective and responsible approach to radioactive waste management.
For too long successive ministers in Canberra have viewed radioactive waste less as a matter for measured and mature discourse and more as a political proving ground. For over two decades multiple sites in both South Australia and the NT have been targeted as a place for the nation’s radioactive waste – all have resisted and all the plans have had to be abandoned.
After decades of division and secrecy it is now time to do things differently and better. Earlier this year, in the wake of the failure of the Muckaty push, federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane drew breath and redrew the government’s approach.
Sadly he didn’t heed the long standing calls for an independent, evidence based and public examination of responsible radioactive waste management options made by many including the ACTU, the Central Land Council and the Public Health Association of Australia. However, the Minister’s revised approach is based on the twinned principles of non-imposition and voluntarism.
This is both long overdue and welcome, as are moves to assess the suitability any potential sites based on hard data rather than political expedience.
But the civil society jury is still out and deep caution and concern remains among many stakeholders. One key concern is that the Minister’s self-imposed truncated timeline will not allow for meaningful community consultation and might again lead to Canberra’s political imperatives being prioritised above good public policy and the national interest.
It is important at this time that the message of Muckaty is not lost. The approaches of the past – secret deals, top down announcements, the emotive linking of the separate issues of nuclear waste and nuclear medicine, commercial-in-confidence ‘agreements’ and carrot and stick politics, have failed.
We have a shared duty of care to all Australians – including future ones – to now get this issue right. We need to restore trust, confidence, and common ground based on good science, good process and acceptance that social and human concerns are valid and need to be addressed alongside technical criteria.
The need for this is clear, but whether the revised federal approach will be provided with the necessary resources, time and procedural credibility to deliver this remains uncertain. A key test will come in the next few months when the Minister releases details on a new range of possible sites.
On the anniversary of the Muckaty victory we need to remember that while only time can take the heat out of radioactive waste trust, transparency and talk can help lower the heat of the waste debate.
Dave Sweeney is nuclear free campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation
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