Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory) (1:31 PM) —I rise to speak to issues surrounding the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill 2010 and some amendments associated with the bill. I can remember the very first year I got here, in 2001, and there was still an amount of controversy over the placement of a national radioactive waste repository. As a Territorian, I recall this issue being particularly difficult to deal with in this place as it appeared that there were no good reasons for this repository being placed in the Northern Territory rather than in places that were more scientifically suitable.
I can remember, along with Dave Tollner, putting in a series of amendments that dealt effectively with the issues of concern for Territorians. Those amendments dealt with issues such as the storage of overseas waste, the waste from states and territories, ensuring the regulation and appropriate transport of liquid or particulate matter, and that private land could be volunteered. There was a suite of amendments at the time. I firmly believed that the nation needed a storage facility to appropriately store waste, including the waste from Lucas Heights.
I will speak briefly about the importance of the waste from Lucas Heights. I had the opportunity to visit not only Lucas Heights but also the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where products like technetium-99m are produced. I think technetium-99m is used in around 80 per cent of the radio-pharmaceuticals used in nuclear medicine. I will use it as a stark example of what the nature of the health services available in Australia would be like if technetium-99m was not available.
We are still dealing with issues like breast cancer and I will use it as an example because it is so well known to most Australians. If you have a breast tumour it will drain to some 19 lymph nodes on the inside and the outside of your chest, particularly under your armpits. It is very difficult to know the state of the tumour and whether or not it is draining to one or all of those lymph nodes. An injection of technetium-99m, followed by a scan, will tell you exactly whether that tumour is draining and exactly which lymph node it is draining to. This enables us to forensically and cosmetically remove a tumour. I do not think anybody disagrees that this is very important, but I think it is important to know what this was like in the bad old days.
The bad old days provided women with a full mastectomy that affected them not only physically but also emotionally because it is an extremely traumatic intervention. Of course, it is something that should be avoided at all costs. The capacity for Australia now to produce its own technetium is a fundamental part of our health system. The need for a national repository is not in question because our capacity in this country to produce technetium is reliant on having a facility like Lucas Heights, which in turn makes us signatories to the arrangements under the International Atomic Energy Agency which are run by ARPANSA in Australia. Under those arrangements, if we have such a facility then the fuel that we use to make medicine has to be reprocessed to take out the plutonium as part of our obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—and, as Australians, we have agreed that that is an important treaty—and that is coming back because that is an obligation. I think Australia was coming to grips with this during that difficult time, but luckily there were storage facilities at Dounreay in Scotland and at Cogema in France that we could use—no doubt due to the negotiations by the department. I would like to commend a couple of the people I can see on the other side who have been involved in those negotiations for a long time.
It is very important to look at the history of this. All Australians agreed for all the reasons I have put forward, except for the Western Australian government, which said, ‘If you don’t mind, we are going on our own; we are going to build our own repository.’ At the time there was a bit of argy-bargy, but basically Western Australia was not included in the agreement to go out and do a survey right across Australia. All states and territory governments, apart from Western Australia, had agreed fundamentally that that would be the case, such that in September 1991 under the Minister for Science and Technology, Simon Crean, that became so.
We went out with good science and we found what we considered was the perfect site, notwithstanding the safety of the material that was to be stored. I emphasise that we keep talking about safety and it gives this impression of needing to be concerned about something. That is not the case. I have had a very close look at and examined the details and descriptors of all of the material that could be stored on this site and I am convinced that it is eminently safe. I commend those who do not read the same sort of material to apprise themselves of the facts.
We found section 56 in the Officer Basin, or around about there, was the ideal location. That was to be the address—we would all agree to it. Right at the last moment, after the South Australian government had agreed that we should do this, when it came to deciding that the preferred site was indeed in South Australia, and notwithstanding that its government had agreed that the site would be selected on the science, the Premier, Mike Rann, in what is probably an all-time low of political expediency, put the health system of Australia behind his own political aspirations. He used this as a political ploy in the election campaign. He said, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and ‘Don’t worry about this nasty nuclear waste; it won’t be in your backyard in South Australia. I will fight for you and you should all vote for me. We won’t talk about the impact on our international obligations.’ I do not think that anybody who was involved in this debate would have had a problem had we had a good scientific process to establish it in the best place available. There is no doubt that we have to have the materials that we have. We were all very disappointed when it was challenged in the High Court in January 2004 and, sadly but probably appropriately, the South Australians won.
As I understand it, with the reprocessed fuel rods that I mentioned before, the year 2015 has been bandied around, but we have an obligation soon to take those fuel rods back. To be in breach of that obligation puts us at risk of not being able to produce more fuel rods to ensure the further production of these essential radiopharmaceuticals that give us the health system and the standard of living that we assume in Australia. I was particularly unhappy about the Howard government’s decision at the time, as those people who were around at the time could understand. We in the Northern Territory do not have the same powers of the states to resist Commonwealth decisions. We do not have the same powers as other states to say, ‘You can’t do it here.’ We did not have the same power, for example, as South Australia, which decided to resist the Commonwealth in this enterprise and make it go somewhere else.
I was convinced, after seeing all the material, that there was a higher goal—that is, to ensure the provision of a health system in Australia. Unlike Mr Rann, I lost a lot of bark. Making a decision in the Northern Territory that I was going to support the radioactive repository—notwithstanding a suite of amendments that met most of the concerns of Territorians—was a little bit like getting into a shower with an angle grinder. It was not a lot of fun and it was probably pretty unsafe politically. For quite a long time, there was a major campaign led by the Labor Party to ensure that I would meet the full force of odium from the Northern Territory.
The not-in-my-backyard protests continued—they continue to this day. We had some hope that, when the Howard government left office, all the Labor states and territories—and, of course, with a federal Labor government in power—would have said, ‘Let’s go and have something done on science.’ It was in fact the federal government here today that made the promise when they came to office after the election that stated categorically: ‘If we are elected we will throw this legislation out,’ which they have done, technically—I acknowledge that—‘but we will replace it with something that is based on sound science.’ We already know what the sounder science says. It says that the new address is ‘Section 56, Officer Basin’. That is the new address, and we knew that was the case. Therefore, one would assume that, when the government made that promise, that was where it was going to put it or at least readdress it—that is, go back and have another crack at it. Of course, this government has got form in what it promises before an election and what it is prepared to deliver afterwards.
I can only assume that none of the other state governments really wants to cooperate, none really wants to play the game, and that we are back now to where we started. But this is a very important point. It is terrific that my colleague and good friend Senator Crossin on the other side is in the chamber, and I assume she is going to speak, because I can recall for years and years Senator Crossin and Mr Snowdon in the other place standing and saying, ‘Scullion, how dare you let this go in the Territory.’ I think there were 18 media releases—I do not want to misquote Mr Snowdon but it was about that—and I am not sure how many of those Senator Crossin put out, but she was pretty scathing of me. For the entire time she said, ‘How dare you actually allow it to go into the Territory.’ It is going to be very interesting to see how Senator Crossin votes on this. People no doubt will be looking very closely at that vote. I, however, Senator Crossin, whilst bearing the political scars to this day, will be consistent in ensuring that we maintain the boast that we have one of the best national health systems in the world.
There is still a great deal of injustice, and the injustice for Territorians is quite clearly that we are still decision takers. The most significant amendment that I put to the previous bill—or current; I am not really sure—was that the site would be on a voluntary basis. Somebody who owned land could put their hand up, and it was the Northern Land Council who did that. They had a full council meeting about it. The Northern Land Council and I have not seen eye to eye over everything but I have to commend them for the incredible task they undertook. They held a meeting of the entire land council and made a decision on whether or not to support an application for the site. That decision was then considered through a full process, and it was decided that that would be the case. That gave me great relief because at least someone had put their hand up. There was capacity for someone to put their hand up. Don’t worry, there were probably better sites outside of the Northern Land Council’s lands. The site could have been on the Northern Territory government’s land. There is plenty of that around. But that day—
Senator Crossin —I bet you were relieved.
Senator SCULLION —Thank you, Senator Crossin, for your interjection. Again, based on the science, the Chief Minister was able to assert that same day that there were no suitable sites on government land anywhere in the Northern Territory. The government took a position that was all about politics. They were not worried about the health benefits that the responsible people who supported this measure would provide. So, Senator Crossin, I hope you do not injure your back today. I am looking forward to seeing whether or not you fundamentally support the exact same legislation that you deplored for so many years.
I would like to take a very short amount of the time that I have left to foreshadow an amendment that was circulated today. I will discuss it in committee, but before I do I would like to frame some of the history around it. Another of the very important amendments that I put to this legislation and fought for, as one normally does within government, was that the choice of site be down to individuals. It was terrific that the Northern Territory government put their hand up. However, we needed to ensure that overseas waste was not stored there because the Northern Territory people were saying, ‘What’s going to be stored there?’ We said, ‘It’s okay.’ They said, ‘What about someone else’s waste? We don’t want to be a dumping post.’ That was absolutely reasonable. The amendment reflected that the site could not store overseas waste. One thing that I remember saying to our leader at the time was: ‘For all these states and territories, it has been pretty bloody convenient to tell us in the Territory “not in my backyard, but we’re going to put our waste, however safe, in your backyard.”’ So we provided an amendment that in effect said that the only people who could keep their material there was the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory. But, of course, that has now changed because of a little deal that was done.
I am not sure whether you had anything to do with this little deal, Senator Crossin, but it involves your mate Mike Rann in South Australia. He put us in this position because his political aspirations come far ahead of his electorate. He said: ‘What about we call it “Commonwealth” and give it to you? What about that, Julia? If I give you my waste—be a bit tricky—and you can call it “Commonwealth waste” and then you can keep it in the Northern Territory.’ It was a terrific move!
Senator Crossin —Chair, I need to take a point of order. I am assuming that the person Senator Scullion was referring to is in fact our Prime Minister. I think rather than call her by only her Christian name, she should be referred to correctly and reverently. Thank you.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McGauran)—Yes, ‘correctly’ but I am not sure about ‘reverently’.
Senator SCULLION —I withdraw. That is quite fair. Mike Rann said to the Prime Minister: ‘Prime Minister, we’ve got this bit of legislation at the moment that won’t let me store my gear in the Northern Territory. If you can just give me the material I will call it “Commonwealth” and then it sort of fits in.’ Senator Crossin, I do hope you will support my amendment. My amendment ensures that all of the states and territories are charged because, except for the Northern Territory, all of them have decided ‘not in my backyard’. Every Territorian should agree that if the other states and territory are not storing waste in their backyards and want it to come to the Territory—they have all had an opportunity to provide a site, particularly South Australia because it does the best science—then they should be charged. It is not a penalty; it is simply a charge. If this service is to be foisted onto the Territory—except in terms of the land being provided voluntarily—then it is very, very important that that be the case. This is why I flagged the amendment that is being circulated.
We may not get to the committee stage of the bill; however, the amendment is about the creation of the Northern Territory Oncological Services Fund; it will establish that. So we will be able to say to those people who seek to get around the very good amendment that was placed before them: ‘You can’t just give waste to the Commonwealth and then it become Commonwealth waste. What you have to accept is that that is the mischief that the Scullion amendment intended to prevent.’ Hopefully, this amendment will provide the Northern Territory with funds that will go specifically to oncology. We do not have a very big invoicing base. Whilst we now have a very good oncology unit in Darwin, it is difficult to ensure sufficient staff or the provision of scholarships. We have a whole range of important cancer services there.
In closing, I make the following points. It was Labor who decided that we needed a process based on science. It was Labor who pulled out of the process based on science. It was Labor who said: ‘We’ll destroy the process when we are elected. We’re going to throw it away and we’re going to start again on science.’ Today, we are looking at a piece of legislation which Labor have introduced and which is still not based on science. I do not know how you rationalise this position. I cannot for the life of me understand where Labor are on this, apart from where they started. They are all about political expedience. The government do not care a fig for the health system of Australia. This is a very serious matter and they stand indicted for forcing this site onto the Territory. I am one of the ones responsible enough to take it on the chin, because we do need those very important health services. But the government stand indicted for promising that they would go away and withdraw the legislation and restart the process based on science. They have simply taken out one piece of legislation, slipped in another and said, ‘What about voting for this?’ The legislation is almost identical. Once again, the only thing they do better than waste and mismanagement is promise something and never deliver on it.
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