Mark Parnell in Parliament

Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission - Parliamentary Committee Report

Legislative Council

October 18th, 2017

The final report of the Joint Committee on Findings of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was tabled in the South Australian Parliament on October 17 2017. A copy of the report can be found here.

As a Member of the Parliamentary Committee, Mark spoke to the Report on October 18, and outlined his findings and recommendations in the Greens' Minority Report.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The notion that South Australia could become fabulously wealthy if only we would agree to take the world's high-level nuclear waste was ill-conceived from the very beginning. The committee heard evidence about previous attempts to establish nuclear waste dumps in other parts of the world and in Australia. Those attempts have mostly failed because the fundamentals just do not stack up. The liability lasts forever, the technology is unproven and risky, the economics are flawed and the public do not want it under any circumstances, according to the South Australian citizens' jury. So, this current proposal for South Australia has predictably and properly gone the way of its predecessors and it has been comprehensively dumped.

Whilst the Greens welcome the inevitable abandonment of this project, it has come at a significant cost to the community. Millions of dollars of public funds have been wasted pursuing this folly, and the community is rightly angry that other worthwhile projects and other investigations have suffered through this unnecessary distraction from the real issues that are facing South Australia.

The committee only had one recommendation that received majority support. That is the recommendation that no further public money be spent on a nuclear waste dump in South Australia. Hear, hear! That is a good recommendation. I fully support that. It was a waste of money and let's not waste any more. But there are a number of other lessons that we should learn from this process. When I say 'this process', I mean the royal commission into the nuclear industry, the government's consultation program, the citizens' jury, as well as the joint parliamentary inquiry that I was privileged to be part of.

Another recommendation I think the committee should have adopted refers to the fact that the law that currently prohibits nuclear waste dumps in South Australia was tinkered with last year in order to assuage the nervousness of the government that it might be breaking the law if it was to spend public money on consultation. So, we changed the law. We put in a special clause that says you are not allowed to use public money promoting a nuclear waste dump, but you are allowed to consult the community. We put that clause in. Now that the consultation has finished, now that the government has spoken, the opposition has spoken, and the people have spoken through the citizens' jury and through other surveys, let's put the act back to where it was before. Let's put it back so that there is no doubt about the prohibition on nuclear waste dumps in South Australia.

A third recommendation I think the committee should have adopted is one that relates to the relationship between the federal and state government. It became apparent very early on that the state was off on a frolic of its own. It was embarking on this major investigation about having a nuclear waste dump in South Australia when everyone knew that the bulk of the laws that regulate these things are at the commonwealth level.

The question that was then asked of the state government was, 'Have you been talking to the feds? Have you been talking to your colleagues in Canberra?' 'Oh, no, we haven't done that.' We got millions of dollars into the process, months into the process, and still we never had a single assurance from the commonwealth that they were on board with this project, that they were inclined or likely to give any of the authorities, permits or licences that would be needed to have a nuclear waste dump in Australia.

Another recommendation I think the committee should have adopted is one that relates to nuclear secrecy and improving scrutiny. It comes largely, I think, from the findings of the citizens' jury where, as I said, two-thirds of them, 350 people, had a strong conviction that South Australia should not pursue the opportunity to store and dispose of nuclear waste from other countries under any circumstances. That is a pretty bold statement.

However, the jury also found that there was a lack of trust in the state government and that the state government had a track record of poor performance when it came to managing issues relating to the nuclear industry. The recommendation that should flow from that is that the government should now review all of its nuclear related legislation with a view to removing the secrecy provisions and the exemptions. The aim should be to open up the nuclear industry to greater public scrutiny. That is the only way to rebuild any public trust, if there ever was any, in the government's competency as a regulator in this area.

Another recommendation I think the committee should have adopted—the Hon. Dennis Hood referred to it—relates to the Aboriginal communities. That was a big part of the discussion. Many parts of the Aboriginal community were very upset that they were not adequately consulted during the process. Ultimately, that fed through into the citizens' jury finding that this project was really so half-baked that it should not be proceeded with.

So, my recommendation would be that any future proposals for major developments of any kind, industrial in particular, that are likely to impact on traditional lands and the cultures of Aboriginal people, should always be subject to a comprehensive community engagement program that allows all people to participate in the decision-making process in a manner that is inclusive, respectful and culturally appropriate: that is the least we can do, and it was not done in this nuclear waste dump proposal.

The next recommendation relates to the royal commission. I maintained from the outset that the royal commission was the wrong tool for the type of inquiry that the government wanted to undertake. Using a royal commission under the Royal Commissions Act 1917 was unnecessarily formalistic and legalistic and was inappropriate for the nature of this inquiry. For example, the requirement for all written submissions to have to be sworn before a justice of the peace or some other authority before it could be accepted was misguided and put an unnecessary barrier in the way of public participation.

For example, my submission to the royal commission was rejected. I am a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Courts of South Australia and Victoria, am admitted as a practitioner of the High Court of Australia and am a commissioner for signing affidavits, yet my submission was rejected because I did not go and see the clerk or one of the other JPs to validate the submission I was putting in. I told Commissioner Scarce that he did not need to do this, that he was putting unnecessary barriers in the way, but at the end of the day they did what they did—I think it was the wrong process.

Most importantly, though, the commission never once used the extensive coercive powers that royal commissions have in the conduct of this inquiry. Let's think about it: the power to get reluctant witnesses from Rome (or wherever they might be), bring them back to Australia, quiz people who do not want to have questions asked of them—that is what royal commissions do best: coercive powers, reluctant witnesses, make them answer. This was effectively an inquiry where people were desperate to have their say—they wanted to have their say. They put in their submissions. There was no need to subpoena, if you like, anyone to come and give evidence.

I think that overly formal attitude of the royal commission fuelled concerns in the community that it was elitist and that it was not open to hearing a range of divergent views. So, my recommendation would be that any future proposals that involve complex economic, social or environmental issues should look for a tool more fit for purpose than is a royal commission, and we should limit royal commissions to those situations where the use of statutory powers clearly are necessary, such as compelling reluctant witnesses.

The next recommendation I would make is in relation to how inquiries, in this case a royal commission, choose the experts to advise them. What we saw with the royal commission is that they had a number of paid consultants—paid by you and I, the taxpayers—and they engaged these consultants who had clear, ongoing connections with the nuclear industry, often as lobbyists for the industry. We paid these people to advise the royal commission and, ultimately, advise the government and the parliament about the desirability of a nuclear waste dump.

The fact that the royal commission provided considerable weight to the findings of these consultants cast further doubt, in my view, on the independence and rigor of its analysis. In particular, the lack of any second opinion on the question of the financial viability of the proposed nuclear waste dump was a serious credibility problem for the royal commission.

I say that because I think that even the Hon. Dennis Hood in his contribution would agree that the only reason that was really advanced to do this was that it was a potential economic opportunity. Only one economic analysis was done. Sure, the committee I was part of got further opinions, we sought them, but the commission did not, and I think that was a flaw. So, we need to keep vested interests at arm's length—we do not want them running the show.

I also believe that the royal commission failed in, I think, its elitist approach to this inquiry by not giving everyone who wanted an opportunity to be heard that chance. We had a number of national and state conservation groups that basically said, 'The royal commission refused to hear from us.' I have put this personally to the commissioner. His view was that he did not think many of these people had anything new to add, and so he did not hear from them. Imagine how that would work if we tried to do an inquiry like that in parliament. Inquiries 101, the stakeholders who want to be heard, give them a chance to be heard! It is not rocket science. Then people scratch their heads and say, 'I wonder why the citizens' jury thought that this was a bad idea?' The royal commission was the architect, in many ways, of its own defeat.

I think the recommendation should be that in all future inquiries, of whatever type, make sure that all the divergent views are heard. Do not tell Friends of the Earth or the Australian Conservation Foundation or the Conservation Council that they are not required to give evidence because, for example, 'We've seen your written evidence; we don't need to bring you in in person.' Whereas, the proponents were allowed in person to give evidence on multiple occasions. It was an own goal of catastrophic proportions.

I am delighted that this process is almost over. I have described it as not the nail in the coffin of the nuclear waste dump, but the penultimate nail, because we still in this parliament have to deal with the legislation. The legislation was tampered with last year to allow this process to go ahead. Now that the process has run its course, we need to put the legislation back where it was. That will be the final nail in, I think, a very sorry chapter in South Australian history: how to waste tens of millions of dollars on something that was never going to amount to anything, ever.

For more information see a copy of the Report

Authorised by M. Parnell, Parliament House Adelaide.