Warren Mundine’s nuclear allegiances

Warren Mundine.

Warren Mundine, a member and former National President of the ALP, and co-convener of the Australian Uranium Association’s Indigenous Dialogue Group, has been promoting the nuclear industry recently. Unfortunately he turns a blind eye to the industry's crude racism, a problem that ought to be core business for the Indigenous Dialogue Group.

Mundine could have mentioned the legacy of uranium mining in the Wiluna region of Western Australia, to pick one of many examples.

Uranium exploration in the region in the 1980s left a legacy of pollution and contamination. Greatly elevated radiation levels have been recorded despite the area being “cleaned” a decade ago. Even after the “clean up”, the site was left with rusting drums containing uranium ore. A sign reading “Danger − low level radiation ore exposed” was found lying face down in bushes.

In August 2000, coordinator of the Wiluna-based Marruwayura Aboriginal Corporation Steve Syred said that until 1993, 100 to 150 people were living three kilometres from the spot where high radiation levels were recorded.

Syred told the Kalgoorlie Miner that the Aboriginal community had unsuccessfully resisted uranium exploration in the area in the early 1980s. Since then, many people had lived in the area while the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Corporation was based near the contaminated site. Elders still hunted in the area.

Another example ignored by Mundine was in late March when the NSW government passed legislation that excluded uranium from provisions of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 thus stripping Aboriginal Land Councils of any say in uranium mining.

Yet another example ignored by Mundine was the 2011 amendments to the South Australia Roxby Downs Indenture Act 1982. This is the legislation that governs operations at the Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine and retains exemptions from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Traditional owners were not even consulted in the amendments or exemptions. 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. The Olympic Dam mine is largely exempt from the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act and any uranium mines in NSW are to be exempt from provisions of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Likewise, sub-section 40(6) of the Commonwealth's Aboriginal Land Rights Act exempts the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory from the Act.

Mundine claims that Australia has “a legal framework to negotiate equitably with the traditional owners on whose land many uranium deposits are found”. That claim is disingenuous.

Native Title rights were extinguished with the stroke of a pen by the Howard government to seize land for a radioactive waste dump in South Australia. Aboriginal heritage laws and Aboriginal land rights are being trashed with the current push to dump in the Northern Territory. Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson's National Radioactive Waste Management Act overrides the Aboriginal Heritage Act, sidesteps the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allows for the imposition of a dump on Aboriginal land even in the absence of any consultation with or consent from traditional owners.

David Ross, Director of the Central Land Council, noted in a March 14 media release: “This legislation is shameful, it subverts processes under the [Aboriginal] Land Rights Act and is clearly designed to reach the outcome of a dump being located on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, whether that's the best place for it or not. This legislation preserves the Muckaty nomination without acknowledging the dissent and conflict amongst the broader traditional owner group about the process and the so-called agreement. The passage of this legislation will further inflame the tensions and divisions amongst families in Tennant Creek, and cause great stress to many people in that region.”

A small number of traditional owners support the NT dump proposal. However, most are opposed and the NT government supports that opposition, key trade unions including the Australia Council of Trade Unions, church groups, medical and health organisations, and environmental groups. If push comes to shove, there will be a blockade at the site to prevent construction of the dump.

A pro bono legal team is assisting traditional owners with their legal challenge against the nomination of the Muckaty site. At a Federal Court hearing on March 27, a Commonwealth lawyer argued that the government's legislation allows the nomination of a dump site to stand even if the evidence regarding traditional ownership is false.

These patterns are evident in other countries. North American Indigenous activist Winona LaDuke from the Anishinabe Nation told the Indigenous World Uranium Summit in 2006: “The greatest minds in the nuclear establishment have been searching for an answer to the radioactive waste problem for fifty years, and they've finally got one: haul it down a dirt road and dump it on an Indian reservation.”

Here in Australia the situation is scarcely any better than it was in the 1950s when the British were exploding nuclear bombs on Aboriginal land. Which brings us to another of Mundine's blind spots. He could have mentioned the latest ‘clean up’ of the Maralinga nuclear test site, which was done on the cheap. Nuclear engineer and whistleblower Alan Parkinson said of the ‘clean-up’: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land.”

Mundine’s claim to support Aboriginal empowerment is contradicted by his consistent failure to speak out when mining and nuclear interests and governments that support those interests disempower Aboriginal people.

[Republished from Online Opinion. Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth and a former national committee member of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance.]