Labor must hear Indigenous voice against Kimba nuclear site

Ahead of tomorrow’s expected federal court decision on a Barngarla Traditional Owners challenge to the planned Kimba nuclear waste site, Jim Green and Michele Madigan say federal Labor must be consistent on listening to Indigenous concerns.

Jul 17, 2023, updated Jul 17, 2023
Barngala Kimba nuclear dump protest outside the Federal Court in March. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Barngala Kimba nuclear dump protest outside the Federal Court in March. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

If the Albanese Labor government wants to restore confidence in its plan for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, it needs to walk the talk and respect Aboriginal voices.

Currently, the government is ignoring the Barngarla Traditional Owners who are unanimous in their opposition to the government’s plan for a national nuclear waste dump (or ‘facility’) near Kimba on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

Artist impression of the 211ha nuclear waste facility earmarked to be built in Napandee near Kimba. Image supplied.

Labor inherited the Kimba dump plan from the Morrison Coalition government. Barngarla Traditional Owners were excluded from a so-called ‘community ballot’ by the Morrison government. The results of an independent, professional survey of Barngarla Traditional Owners ‒ which found absolutely no support for the proposed dump ‒ were also ignored.

Jason Bilney, Chair of the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation, said: “It is a simple truth that had we, as the First People for the area, been included in the Kimba community ballot rather than unfairly denied the right to vote, then the community ballot would never have returned a yes vote.”

Federal parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights Committee unanimously concluded in an April 2020 report that the Morrison government was violating the human rights of Barngarla people. Even the Coalition members of the committee endorsed the report.

But the Morrison government continued to ignore the human rights of the Barngarla people.

The Morrison government also tried ‒ but failed ‒ to pass legislation which would deny Barngarla Traditional Owners the right to a judicial review of the nomination of the Kimba dump site. The draft legislation was blocked by Labor, minor parties and independent Senators.

It took 21 years for the Barngarla people to secure Native Title of their country through a court determination. Six months later, the Morrison government nominated Barngarla country for the proposed nuclear waste dump.

It was expected ‒ or at least hoped ‒ that the incoming Albanese Labor government would dump the controversial dump proposal after the May 2022 election. But Labor has pressed ahead with the Kimba dump proposal, led by federal resources minister Madeleine King.

Labor isn’t responsible for the plan to dump nuclear waste on Kimba farming land. But that’s no excuse for continuing with a controversial and strongly-contested proposal.

Labor’s position is that Barngarla Traditional Owners can challenge the dump plan in the courts. And that is what is happening: the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation launched a legal challenge against the Morrison government’s declaration of the Kimba dump site. The matter is before the Federal Court and a decision is expected on July 18 (with the proviso that an appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court may follow).

There are at least two problems with Labor’s position. Firstly, the government has vastly greater resources to contest a legal challenge. Indeed the government has spent $13 million fighting the Barngarla Traditional Owners in the Federal Court. Barngarla Traditional Owners haven’t even spent half a million dollars; and needless to say they have many pressing demands on their limited resources.

There is no other example in recent Australian history of this level of legal attack on an Aboriginal group.

Secondly, the relevant laws are stacked against the interests of Traditional Owners. In 2007, the Howard Coalition government passed legislation ‒ the Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act ‒ allowing the imposition of a nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land with no consultation or consent from Traditional Owners.

At the time, Labor parliamentarians described the legislation as “extreme”, “arrogant”, “draconian”, “sorry”, “sordid”, and “profoundly shameful”. But when the Gillard Labor government amended the legislation in 2012 ‒ and renamed it the National Radioactive Waste Management Act ‒ the amendments were superficial and still allowed for the imposition of a nuclear waste dump with no consultation or consent from Traditional Owners.

Barngala Kimba nuclear dump protest outside the Federal Court. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Even if the Federal Court finds that the government has acted within the law, the plan to impose a nuclear dump despite the unanimous opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners is immoral.

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It contradicts the spirit of the Voice to Parliament currently being championed by the Albanese government. Jayne Stinson, Chair of the SA Parliament’s Environment, Resources and Development Committee, said: “In this day and age, when we’re talking about Voice, Treaty and Truth, we can’t just turn around and say, ‘Oh, well, those are our values but in this particular instance, we’re going to ignore the voice of Aboriginal people’. I think that’s just preposterous and it’s inconsistent with what most South Australians would think.”

The government has spent $13 million fighting the Barngarla Traditional Owners in the Federal Court

It contradicts Labor’s professed support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that “no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent”.

Susan Close, now Deputy Premier of South Australia, said in 2019 that it was a “dreadful process from start to finish” that led to the nomination of the proposed Kimba dump site and that SA Labor is “utterly opposed” to the “appalling” process which led to Kimba being targeted.

Close noted in 2020 statement, titled ‘Kimba site selection process flawed, waste dump plans must be scrapped’, that SA Labor “has committed to traditional owners having a right of veto over any nuclear waste sites, yet the federal government has shown no respect to the local Aboriginal people.”

Of course, Close was speaking about the Morrison government but SA Labor continues to call for the federal government to abandon the proposed dump and for Traditional Owners to have a right of veto.

Yet the federal Labor government stubbornly persists. Sadly, federal Labor has form on these issues. In February 2008, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd highlighted the life-story of Lorna Fejo ‒ a member of the stolen generation ‒ in the historic National Apology to Aboriginal People in Parliament House.

At the same time, the Rudd government was attempting to impose a nuclear waste dump on her country in the Northern Territory. Fejo said: “I’m very, very disappointed and downhearted about that [the National Radioactive Waste Management Act]. 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.”

Labor’s nuclear racism is disgraceful and it diminishes all Australians.

Several steps should be taken to rectify the situation. To date, the issue has been managed by resources minister Madeleine King. There appears to have been little or no input from caucus, Cabinet or the Prime Minister’s Office. That needs to change.

Secondly, Labor will hold its national conference in Brisbane in mid-August. If it hasn’t already done so, Labor should take the opportunity presented by the conference to announce that it will no longer attempt to impose a dump against the opposition of Barngarla Traditional Owners.

So much the better if a national conference resolution adopts SA Labor’s policy that Traditional Owners should have a right of veto over any proposed nuclear dumps. That would give traditional owners across the country some confidence that their voice will be heard as the government progresses plans to store and dispose of waste arising from nuclear submarines in the coming decades.

Finally, Labor must commit to amend the profoundly shameful and deeply racist National Radioactive Waste Management Act.

Dr. Jim Green is national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia. Michele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent 40 years working with Aboriginal people across SA.

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