Muckaty nuclear dump plans scrapped: a huge victory for Aboriginal Australia

Elizabeth O’Shea | The

This has been hard fought litigation, and we are proud to have given voice to the resilience and determination of our clients.

The Stuart Highway turnoff to Muckaty Station. Photograph: Neda Vanovac/AAP

The Stuart Highway turnoff to Muckaty Station. Photograph: Neda Vanovac/AAP

Today, the Commonwealth Government has agreed not to act upon the nomination of land at Muckaty Station as a site for Australia’s first radioactive waste dump. The resolution comes seven years after the nomination, four years after the court case was started, and two weeks into a seven week trial. The matter has settled with no admission of liability. Maurice Blackburn’s social justice practice conducted this case on a pro bono basis, and we couldn’t be prouder of the outcome or happier for our clients.

Muckaty Station, 110km north of Tennant Creek, is an Aboriginal land trust under the Aboriginal land rights act. In the 1990s, the Aboriginal land commissioner, justice Gray, was tasked with working out who were the traditional owners of that particular country and the nature of land tenure under customary law. He wrote a report and handed the land back to Aboriginal people on the basis of his findings.

This means the land is owned outright by Aboriginal people, like most people own their homes. Under the law, the land is dealt with according to customary law or agreed processes. The idea is that Aboriginal people are in charge of their land, with the Northern Land Council (NLC) acting on their behalf. It is a statutory scheme that now seems quite visionary, especially in relation to the small minded attitudes that underpinned the Intervention and its successor, the Stronger Futures regime.

Understandably, the return of land to Aboriginal people is a source of immense pride for many. Aboriginal people treat their customary obligations seriously and with dignity, undercutting many of the old lines about Aboriginal people from the reactionary songbook.

 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

In relation to Muckaty, there may be many Aboriginal people who have an interest in the land under customary law. The NLC is charged with dealing with land according to certain rules. They have legal duties to obtain informed consent from people who have primary spiritual responsibility for country, but also to give those with an interest in the land the opportunity to express their views.

In 2005, the Howard government introduced legislation to facilitate the building of Australia’s first radioactive waste dump. The Commonwealth had sites that it owned already and could use, but the NLC lobbied to introduce a provision which permitted Aboriginal people to volunteer a site.

In 2006, the NLC began negotiations with the Commonwealth about a nomination of a site on the Muckaty land trust. The proposed nomination was immediately contentious. Eventually, the Commonwealth offered $12m in the event that the nomination was declared to be the site of the dump. The NLC say they obtained consent and consulted with the right people. The deal was signed in 2007.

There is no doubt that some traditional owners consented to the nomination. It is easy to see why – these are some of the poorest people in Australia and this is a lot of money, though it starts to look quite miserly when compared with international examples.

However, there are five key dreamings on Muckaty that are relevant to this site. The NLC’s stated position was that one sub-branch of one dreaming group were exclusively able to consent to the nomination. Representatives of every other dreaming oppose the dump.

This contrasts with justice Gray’s report, which clearly articulates how decisions about country in the Central Desert area are made collectively, by consent. It is also troubling for other reasons. This proposal is not a microwave tower, or a railway or even a mine. This proposal involves burying radioactive waste on country, within a short distance from a significant sacred site. Even if, as the Commonwealth maintains, it will be safe within a couple of hundred years, it arguably involves permanent sterilisation of land under customary law. The consultation for a proposal of this significance should have been thorough, so people knew exactly what it was they were consenting to, but also that any dissent was treated seriously and as potentially a reason not to proceed with the proposal.

The court heard evidence last week from traditional owners and witnesses on behalf of the applicants seeking to stop the dump. The court was presented with a united front from traditional owners, who explained that the consultation process was confusing and unclear, with people not certain about the location of the proposed dump or who that land belonged to. Meetings were very tense and people felt like they weren’t listened to. The witnesses told the court that they were not told who would be getting the money or how it would be managed.

The NLC maintains it has done everything properly. The traditional owners maintain that they were ridden over roughshod and the anthropology which identified the relevant people to speak for country was mistaken. Hopefully, this is an opportunity for the NLC to reflect on their processes and try to get it right.

This has been hard fought litigation and we are proud to have given voice to the resilience and determination of our clients. In the seven years since this nomination was made, the movement to stop a dump on Muckaty has grown. Local council, unions, community groups all got on board and stood firm in their opposition to the dump.

But the truth is that this is a much bigger issue than the court case. This is an opportunity to rethink these issues from a public policy perspective. These remain some of the most important discussions we can have. If you are a person who places importance on the rights of Aboriginal people, the protection of the environment or simply good governance, you have a duty to be part of them.

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