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Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) (Public Money) Amendment Bill

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 12 April 2016.)

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 17:49 :17 ): I rise to speak to the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) (Public Money) Amendment Bill 2016. This bill amends the Nuclear Waste Storage Facility (Prohibition) Act, which was passed to protect the environment and the people of South Australia by prohibiting nuclear waste storage facilities. The government seeks to remove a clause in the act that will allow consultation with community regarding the findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission.

The government loudly protests that it is yet to change its policy on nuclear storage. Like the Premier, I am on my own journey on the nuclear road and, whilst the Premier indicates that he remains undecided, one cannot help feel with the bill before us that we are being drawn inextricably to the conclusion that we need to have a global waste dump cut into the soil of South Australia. The public statements of the commissioner have not assisted in easing my underlying reservations.

I have not reached my figurative destination and I am keeping an open mind on the issue. I will not be opposing the passing of the bill, as it is designed to facilitate debate and the formation of community understanding and consent. I do, however, have reservations about the clause providing for retrospective effect. No substantive reason for the retrospectivity has been forthcoming to blunt the calls for amendment of the offending provisions. However, I now understand that there may be some movement by the government on this matter.

I approach environmental issues such as these from two perspectives: my beliefs concerning our place in the world and our role in ensuring its health as well as the economics of the proposed endeavour—the heart and the mind. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, expressed a view with which I have great sympathy, that without a radical rethink of the relationship between environmental and economic challenges, the world faces the spectre of social collapse.

He warned that economy and ecology cannot be separated. The loss of sustainable environment leads not only to the loss of spiritual depth but also to material instability, and economics that ignores environmental degradation invites social degradation. We are best served by the environment when we stop thinking of it as there to serve us. Dr Williams questions whether we have the energy and imagination to say no to the non-future, the paralysing dream of endless manipulation that currently has us captive. These words and concepts press heavily upon me.

My family line originated from the west of Scotland and the east of Ireland. Before Christianity was gifted to us, we were one in our pagan simplicity with the natural world. Over time and the creation of the material world, like most other western communities, we were slowly separated from our connection, understanding and sympathies with nature. The call by Dr Williams is that we should reconnect and reject notions of ownership and replace them with stewardship—be the shepherd rather than the sovereign. I agree with him.

If the state were to accept the nuclear waste of other nations, we would be seeking payment and profit for destroying our own lands that sustain us. These appear to be the actions of an owner, not a steward. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to put a real price on degrading our own lands. Even John Stuart Mill acknowledged that the unlimited increase of wealth and population is not a good thing. In other words, growth for growth’s sake is not a fundamental imperative to underpin the happiness of a state’s citizens. Yet the public debate on the waste dump is populated by claims that the wealth created will be of such magnitude that it will not only compensate us for the risk but also underpin our lifestyles.

I suggest that we pay close attention to the voice of our Aboriginal communities about whether we should accept the waste that others create in lands far away from our shores. When I was a junior lawyer with Johnston Withers, I assisted in a minor way with the preparation of claims in respect of Maralinga. The plight of these people made a lasting impression upon me. I suspect that their connection to the land will serve as a guide as to the best path to take, rather than the loose assumptions contained in the business case.

I will need to be convinced before we allow further destruction of our lands in this way without Aboriginal community consent. I have previously enjoyed a career in financial services so I am well versed in business cases. They are important in facilitating informed decision-making. They tend, however, to have inherent weaknesses as they so often reflect the author’s heuristics and bias. With the benefit of hindsight, assumptions that are claimed to be well grounded were often at best overstated and at worst pure fantasy.

Much work needs to be done to allow South Australians to give informed consent, assuming that they are comfortable with the ethical considerations I have alluded to earlier. The risks are great. The market for nuclear waste is very difficult to predict and the time lines are extremely long. As a consequence, it is extremely difficult to price risk and forecast profit margins.

I wish to stress to the honourable members of this chamber that the markets are not static. Business cases often fail to deliver upon a successful venture because markets are fluid and the predictions are one dimensional and do not provide for changes in operating conditions. If storing waste is perceived as profitable, then other nations will be encouraged to enter the marketplace and put pressure on margins. Further, the nature of this type of service is that you cannot easily withdraw from the market should profits prove slim.

Our entry into the market could also encourage the production of more nuclear waste, rather than encourage the development of more efficient reactors producing a less toxic by-product. We therefore risk our beautiful lands for an unknown price and cost of operation that may change over time. There is little prospect of going back once we have commenced a storage undertaking.

I am unsettled by the politics surrounding the project. If we are to embark on this project, we will need considerable community will as well as agreed policy and regulatory settings. Yet it is not so long ago that the Labor government sought political advantage by opposing the storage of nuclear waste being then considered by the federal government. My honourable friend Mr Lucas amply illustrated this point in his second reading speech.

The rhetoric used by the Labor members—many of whom are still in the parliament today—was extreme. I quote the then premier, the member for Ramsay, who said:

This government made a pledge to South Australians that we would do everything within our power to stop this nuclear waste dump being built, and we are keeping our word.

The then premier emphasised our reputation for a clean green image that bolsters our food and wine exports. The Labor Party has come a long way. I suspect that its failure to manage our economy and plan for the future has led to this desperation, intellectual gymnastics and moral contortions.

How can a government that has failed in assisting its people with transitioning in a global economy be entrusted with a complex project that has extremely long lead times and requires the tightest of regulation as well as transparency of operation? The idea may prove to be worthy, but the execution is beyond this government and, I suspect, the bureaucracy that supports it. Day in and day out we in the opposition seek answers on a variety of matters from the government benches and all we get in return are indignant responses laced with half-truths.

If we were to have a waste dump on our lands, we would receive the same disregard for transparency in relation to the regulation of the operations. A dramatic change in culture is required. I am not confident that this is achievable in the near term. The community will need comfort and reassurance that there is a new maturity in our political system, perhaps even a reworking of our political system to support the governance of this endeavour. Yet, in the very bill that purports to provide for community consultation, there is a mechanism that delivers retrospective effect. No coherent explanation has been forthcoming as to why this was needed.

By acting in this way the government has failed before it has begun to reassure the parliament of its good faith in respect of this issue. The government benches should be seeking to assure us all that they can manage the risk, not demonstrate that they are a key risk in themselves. I finish with a quote from Dr Williams:

All the great religious traditions—in their several ways—insist that personal wealth is not to be seen in terms of reducing the world to what the individual can control and manipulate for whatever exclusively human purposes may be most pressing.

The ethics of storing the toxic waste of others is as important as the economics; they are not mutually exclusive concepts but co-dependent.

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