Back to All News

Indigenous consultation needed for Woomera mining proposal

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:07):  I too rise to speak on the Defence Legislation Amendment (Woomera Prohibited Area) Bill 2013, and to highlight the fact that this bill is being rushed through the parliament without the necessary due diligence.

This debate has been scheduled despite the fact that the relevant Senate inquiry by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, which was due to report on this bill on 11 February-but that report has been deferred until 4 March-has not yet reported. As a result, we are expected to have this debate but without the benefit of the committee's consideration or findings. Further, and crucially for the Australian Greens, there has been a manifestly inadequate level of consultation with the traditional owners of the lands that this would affect deeply. These are key stakeholders.

Senator Farrell has cast doubt on the fact as to whether the current government would actually proceed with the proposal for allowing mining to occur in this area and the opposition will introduce their own promised amended legislation. On the other hand, we have heard the Minister for Defence, Senator Johnston, assure us that the government will proceed with legislation but on the basis of better and further consultation. I have no doubt that the current government will introduce legislation in relation to this area at some point. My feeling is that it is very likely that it is being affected by the timing of the South Australian state election in March because I think they would be anticipating, particularly with the lack of adequate consultation-that I will go on to discuss a bit later-a significant public backlash about the proposals in this form of legislation or, indeed, any legislation to open up this area at the moment.

They are not going to want to take that on before a state election in March and so they will delay that until after March. I am hopeful, having heard from Senator Johnston, that there will in fact be adequate and meaningful consultation, particularly with the traditional owners, because so far it has been a lamentable process and there is significant concern that some of the people most affected by this proposal have not been properly listened to and had their concerns heard.

The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara-the APY people-the Maralinga Tjarutja people, and the Kokatha Uwankara people have all raised concerns in relation to the proposals in this bill. They have raised these concerns over several years-but despite this the level of consultation has been far from authentic. In fact, it has bordered on tokenism.

This bill operates to open up the Woomera Prohibited Area for mining, and then sets conditions for access. The previous Labor government first introduced the bill in May 2013 in response to the Hawke review about what might be the best use of the Woomera Prohibited Area. That review was initiated in 2010, by the then Minister for Defence.

The Woomera Prohibited Area is Australia's most significant military testing range. The South Australian government asserts that over the next decade a valuable quantity of iron ore, gold and other minerals are potentially exploitable from the area. The Woomera Prohibited Area involves recognised traditional owners and significant Indigenous sites.

Public consultation in relation to the proposals in this bill allowed three working days for initial submissions. After the former defence minister, with the former resources minister, released the draft exposure legislation on 8 May 2013, stakeholders had only three working days to see it and to make a submission in relation to it. This, despite the deep impacts it would have on the communities who live there and whose futures will depend on the outcomes of any development in the area.

One public consultation workshop occurred in Adelaide on 10 May 2013. Given the location of the area and its traditional owners, and the factors that must be taken into account in order to do meaningful consultation with Aboriginal individuals, groups and representative bodies, it speaks for itself that this cannot be counted as real Indigenous consultation. The Australian Greens maintain that this is clearly not adequate.

On 24 May 2013 the South Australian government hosted a discussion between Defence officials and traditional owners of the Maralinga and APY Lands about the proposed legislation. But let us consider the three groups of Aboriginal people who will be most substantially affected by this legislation.

Under South Australia's Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984, the Maralinga Tjarutja people have been managing all access and mining issues in relation to the 100,000 square kilometre Maralinga Lands since 1984, and in relation to the former nuclear test sites since 2010. The Maralinga Lands comprise over 100,000 square kilometres of land in the north-west of South Australia, and cover approximately 40 per cent of the Woomera Prohibited Area.

In their submission to the inquiry about this bill, the traditional owners state that they had been denied access to their lands during the Maralinga nuclear test program from 1956 to 1963, and indeed until 1984. They emphasise that this caused enormous cultural and social dislocation for the traditional owners, who had been transferred to the Yalata Lutheran Mission in 1955. And in South Australia we are still seeing the flow-on the effects of that cultural and social dislocation to this day. These are some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished peoples in South Australia. The South Australian land rights act redressed this by returning the traditional lands of the Maralinga traditional owners to a corporate body, Maralinga Tjarutja, established by the act to represent the traditional owners' interests.

The submission of the Maralinga and APY peoples to the inquiry on this bill was frank about the history of the consultations between the Department of Defence and the Hawke review in relation to this issue. The reading of that submission is telling. The efforts at consultation, in fact, have been very poor. The Hawke review was initiated in 2010. The Maralinga Tjarutja heard about it in May 2011 when the report was released. Lawyers representing the Maralinga people advised my colleague, Australian Greens Senator Ludlam, that although they approached the former Defence minister in 2011, it was not until that meeting on 24 May 2013 that these people had any form of input into the proposal.

By this stage, not only had the Hawke review made its conclusions but the legislation in response to the report had been prepared.

There is a shameful back-story here, which I think it is very important we are aware of. The Maralinga Jarra-Ja people have endured the use of nuclear weapons and the resulting and ongoing health issues associated with their land being exposed to nuclear blasts, including the radioactive contamination of their traditional lands. They deserve the dignity of consultation about lands they have managed for 27 years, and over which they have been the traditional custodians for many, many more. This is particularly so, as the bill has the capacity to diminish their land rights, and their interests were not taken into account in the Hawke review. The APY people support the Maralinga people and each group, in jointly submitting to the inquiry, state they have suffered enough as a result of weapons testing on their lands.

Another Aboriginal group in the area, the Kokatha people, are dissatisfied that protocols in the area that are being implemented, may disturb sensitive sites and that activities have taken place in the area without the relevant permission. There are already problems in how the Woomera area has been handled, opening it up to mining could exacerbate those.

The Kokotha Uwankara native title claim group is currently the registered native title claimant in respect of vast areas encompassed within the Woomera Prohibited Area, including the Woomera township. The group submitted, in relation to the inquiry on this bill, that the occurrence of Aboriginal sites of significance to the Kokatha people is prolific. They occur within the township of Woomera and all over the pastoral leases situated within the Woomera Prohibited Area. They submitted that many of these sites have been recorded by members of their group and many of the sites are known to the Kokatha people but have not been recorded on the relevant South Australian government register. They say, indeed, the very location of many sites is confidential according to the traditional laws and governance and customs of the Kokatha, and divulgence of information to persons who are not entitled to know that location may be a contravention of Aboriginal tradition under South Australian law.

Their submission is unequivocal: that the proposal to open the Woomera Protected Area to mining and exploration is of great concern to the Kokatha people. Indeed, they submitted that the Commonwealth government should ensure no exploration licences, mining tenements or permissions to access are granted over the areas. They state this is because the native title claimants and traditional owners will not permit any damage to sites of significance. It is clear that parts of the mining sector have been consulted in relation to this bill.

Our mineral resources are owned by all of us, and they are finite-once they are mined, they are gone forever. It is for this reason that the Australian Greens have long advocated that the wealth we generate from exploiting those resources must be shared appropriately among the whole community while they last, while we still have them. The Australian Greens are adamant that there must be fairness in how we distribute the wealth generated by mining. It will not last forever and it must be distributed fairly, for the benefit for all those most directly affected and for the broader community.

This bill, and the inadequate consultation exercise that has occurred in relation to the Aboriginal people who live on the land, is a very tangible example of a lack of fairness. The Indigenous consultation in relation to this legislation has not been adequate. Because of this, the premises which underline the bill, about the best use of the land and the best conditions to set on that use-which has been deduced to be mining-cannot be relied upon and we cannot support this bill.

The Australian Greens are not opposed outright to mineral exploration in the Woomera Prohibited Area. We are, however, resolutely opposed to this occurring without authentic negotiations with the traditional owners. We also believe that this bill, with its significant implications and consequences, should be subject-as with most legislation with similar consequences-to a thorough and complete Senate inquiry. The Australian Greens will seek to ensure that the environment in the area is not degraded and that the rights of the Aboriginal people affected are respected and upheld. Thank you.


Back to All News