Jim Green | Online Opinion

The nuclear industry has been responsible for some of the crudest racism in Australia’s history. This radioactive racism dates from the British bomb tests in the 1950s and it has been evident in more recent debates over nuclear waste.

Since 2006 successive federal governments have been attempting to establish a nuclear waste dump at Muckaty, 110 kms north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. A toxic trade-off of basic services for a radioactive waste dump has been part of this story from the start. The nomination of the Muckaty site was made with the promise of $12 million compensation package comprising roads, houses and scholarships. Muckaty Traditional Owner Kylie Sambo 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.”

 Milwayi elder and traditional owner Bunny Nabarula, who gave evidence about her clan's ownership of the Muckaty Station land. Photograph: Neda Vanovac/AAP

Milwayi elder and traditional owner Bunny Nabarula, who gave evidence about her clan’s ownership of the Muckaty Station land. Photograph: Neda Vanovac/AAP

While a small group of 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 Howard 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. ‘Practical reconciliation’ was the Howard government’s mantra.

Labor 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 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 nuclear dump with no Aboriginal consultation or consent. Hooray for hypocrisy.

Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd highlighted the life-story of Lorna Fejo (a.k.a. Nanna Nungala Fejo) during the National Apology in February 2008. 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 [Muckaty 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.”

Shamefully, the NLC supported legislation disempowering the people it is meant to represent. (The NLC is also facing a legal challenge from Traditional Owners in relation to the bauxite mine in north-east Arnhem Land.)

Labor’s Resources Minister Martin Ferguson drove the disgraceful NRWMA through parliament. He refused countless requests to meet with Traditional Owners opposed to the dump. Muckaty Traditional Owner Dianne Stokes said: “All along we have said we don’t want this dump on our land but we have been ignored. Martin Ferguson has avoided us and ignored our letters but he knows very well how we feel. He has been arrogant and secretive and he thinks he has gotten away with his plan but in fact he has a big fight on his hands.”

Dianne Stokes has not been alone. Many Traditional Owners were determined to stop the dump and they have been supported by the Beyond Nuclear Initiative, a pro bono legal team led by legal firm Maurice Blackburn, the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, key trade unions including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, church groups, medical and public health organisations, local councils, the Australian Greens, and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Environment Centre NT.

The Federal Court trial finally began in June 2014. After two weeks of evidence, the NLC gave up and agreed to recommend to the federal government the withdrawal of the nomination of Muckaty for a nuclear dump. The Abbott government accepted the recommendation (Tony Abbott himself might have been called to appear at the trial had it proceeded).

As a result of their surrender, the NLC and the Commonwealth did not have to face cross-examination in relation to numerous serious accusations 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 said: “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: “We will be still talking about our story in the communities up north so no one else has to go through this. We want to let the whole world know that we stood up very strong. We want to thank the supporters around the world that stood behind us and made us feel strong.”

After the celebrations, one immediate challenge for Muckaty Traditional Owners is to continue their campaign to have land council boundaries shifted so they can be represented by the Central Land Council instead of the NLC. Kylie Sambo said: “Hopefully we can continue to try and push the boundary for the NLC back up north a bit. We had a good trust there but then they broke it. It’s going to be tough, we stood and fought for eight long years and I think we can take on anything now.”

What did self-styled Aboriginal leaders such as Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson have to say about the Muckaty dispute? Nothing. In eight years they never once spoke up in support of Muckaty Traditional Owners. Likewise, Australia’s self-styled ‘pro-nuclear environmentalists’ − Adelaide University’s Barry Brook, uranium industry consultant Ben Heard, and others − never once voiced concern about the imposition of a nuclear dump on an unwilling Aboriginal community and their silence suggests they couldn’t care less about the racism of the industry they so stridently support.

Dumping on South Australia

The failed attempt to establish a dump at Muckaty followed the failed attempt to establish a dump in South Australia. In 1998, the Howard government announced its intention to build a nuclear waste dump near Woomera in South Australia. Leading the battle against the dump were the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, a council of senior Aboriginal women from northern SA. Many of the Kungkas personally suffered the impacts of the British nuclear bomb tests at Maralinga and Emu in the 1950s.

The proposed dump generated such controversy in SA that the federal government hired a public relations company. Correspondence between the company and the government was released under Freedom of Information laws. In one exchange, a government official asked the PR company to remove sand-dunes from a photo to be used in a brochure. The explanation provided by the government official was that: “Dunes are a sensitive area with respect to Aboriginal Heritage”. The sand-dunes were removed from the photo, only for the government official to ask if the horizon could be straightened up as well. Terra nullius.

In 2003, the federal government used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump. Native Title rights and interests were extinguished with the stroke of a pen. This took place with no forewarning and no consultation with Aboriginal people.

The Kungkas 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 − after a Federal Court ruling that the federal government had acted illegally in stripping Traditional Owners of their native title rights, and with the dump issue biting politically in SA − the Howard 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.”

The Kungkas victory had broader ramifications − it was a set-back for everyone who likes the idea of stripping Aboriginal people of their land and their land rights, and it was a set-back for the nuclear power lobby. Senator Nick Minchin, one of the Howard government ministers in charge of the failed attempt to impose a nuclear dump in SA, said in 2005: ”My experience with dealing with just low-level radioactive waste from our research reactor tells me it would be impossible to get any sort of consensus in this country around the management of the high-level waste a nuclear [power] reactor would produce.” Minchin told a Liberal Party council meeting that ”we must avoid being lumbered as the party that favours nuclear energy in this country” and that ”we would be political mugs if we got sucked into this”.

Nuclear War

Muckaty Traditional Owners have won a significant battle for country and culture, but the problems and patterns of radioactive racism persist. Racism in the uranium mining industry involves ignoring the concerns of Traditional Owners; divide-and-rule tactics; radioactive ransom; ‘humbugging’ Traditional Owners (exerting persistent, unwanted pressure); providing Traditional Owners with false information; and threats, including legal threats.

One example concerns the 1982 South Australian Roxby Downs Indenture Act, which sets the legal framework for the operation of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam uranium mine in SA. The Act was amended in 2011 but it retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Traditional Owners were not even consulted. The SA government’s spokesperson in Parliament said: “BHP were satisfied with the current arrangements and insisted on the continuation of these arrangements, and the government did not consult further than that.”

That disgraceful performance illustrates a broader pattern. Aboriginal land rights and heritage protections are feeble at the best of times. But the legal rights and protections are repeatedly stripped away whenever they get in the way of nuclear or mining interests. Thus the Olympic Dam mine is largely exempt from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Sub-section 40(6) of the Commonwealth’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act exempts the Ranger uranium mine in the NT from the Act and thus removed the right of veto that Mirarr Traditional Owners would otherwise have enjoyed. NSW legislation exempts uranium mines from provisions of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Native Title rights were extinguished with the stroke of a pen to seize land for a radioactive waste dump in SA, and Aboriginal heritage laws and land rights were repeatedly overridden with the push to dump nuclear waste in the NT.

Most of those laws are supported by the Coalition and Labor. Radioactive racism in Australia is bipartisan.

The Muckaty battle has been won, but the nuclear war against Aboriginal people continues − and it will continue to be resisted, with the Aboriginal-led Australian Nuclear Free Alliance playing a leading role.