After abandoning its plan for a national nuclear dump in South Australia ahead of the 2004 federal election, the Howard government scrambled for a politically expedient location to dump its radioactive waste problem.

Despite an “absolute categorical assurance” from then environment minister Ian Campbell that a site in the Territory would not be picked, the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA) legislation was rammed through federal Parliament in December 2005 and allowed the Commonwealth to override NT laws prohibiting radioactive waste transport and storage.

NT CLP Senator Nigel Scullion had earlier promised his constituents he would work to stop the dump, telling ABC radio on 9 June 2005 that:

There’s not going to be a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory. The people of the Northern Territory doesn’t want anybody else’s nuclear waste in the Northern Territory, I represent them and so, “not on my watch”.

He even promised to cross the floor to vote against the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act (CRWMA) legislation, saying that:

Territorians don’t like having this sort of stuff shoved down our throat because we’re not a state.

However when push came to shove in Canberra, Scullion not only stood by the Coalition’s party line, he even proposed amendments that allowed for the nomination of additional sites in the Territory to be put forward by Land Councils or the Northern Territory Government.

A year to the day after the CRWMA was passed, Nigel played a key role in further amendments which allowed for additional nominated dump sites to be accepted even without the demonstrated consultation and consent of Traditional Owners. These changes also wiped out the opportunity for judicial review on the grounds of “procedural fairness” by any affected group; communities, pastoralists or the Territory Government.

Senator Scullion had meanwhile been reassuring people that none of the originally named areas would be chosen as the preferred dump site, telling the NT News that he “bet a beer” that it would not be at Harts Range, insinuating he was privy to information that a site somewhere else that would be nominated and chosen.

In May 2007 the Northern Land Council officially put forward a portion of Muckaty Land Trust, 120km north of Tennant Creek. The nomination came despite deep — and continuing — concern and division from many of the Traditional Owners. Since Muckaty was first proposed last April, Traditional Owners from all of the family groups in the Muckaty Land Trust have written to Federal Science Minister Julie Bishop and the Northern Land Council registering opposition to the radioactive waste dump plan.

Senator Scullion was recently invited by the NT’s largest environmental non government organisation, the Environment Centre of the Northern Territory (ECNT), to attend a Senate candidate forum to answer questions about the federal governments waste dump proposal before the federal election.

ECNT were prepared to offer a range of dates, venues and moderators, but to no avail.

The chest-thumping “not on my watch” before the 2004 election was replaced by a bunker dwelling “not at your forum” of 2007: as an excuse Scullion’s spokeswoman could only tell The Age, “We have little faith the Environment Centre would run a fair and balanced debate.”

His refusal is extremely disappointing and builds on his and the government’s evasive attitude to community concerns about radioactive waste management issues. In mid October Scullion said “bring it on” in relation to being put in the spotlight for his nuclear waste backflip. Now it seems he has employed the time honored nuclear avoidance tactic of “duck and cover”.

The Howard Government has demonstrated extreme disregard for public opinion since they announced the NT dump plan. Building a federal radioactive dump should involve opportunity for input from affected communities at every stage of the process. Instead we have lacklustre Dave Tollner MP, the CLP federal member for Solomon and Senator Scullion continuing to act with contempt and indifference for people they are elected to represent.

Without a public forum, where does that leave the election debate on this issue? Robust. The Greens and Democrats are vigorously opposed to the dump and Federal Labor has committed to repealing the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act if elected.

There is a continued commitment from people at all of the targeted sites to work together to stop the federal dump plan. The NT government remains strongly opposed, as does the majority of the wider NT community. Many people around the country have indicated they do not support the out of sight and out of mind dump plan and that they do not intend to radioactive waste their vote at the federal election.

So despite Scullion professing the importance of people getting “the right information”, it doesn’t appear that NT voters will have the chance to discuss their concerns about the federal dump plan directly with the Senator (who is currently in Queensland).

Maybe that’s for the best? After all, as Ian Campbell said as Environment Minister much earlier in this sorry saga, “… the last people you would need to be choosing what to do with nuclear waste are politicians”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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