Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: Two significant pieces of legislation affecting Aboriginal Australia came before the federal Senate this month. One has passed, and one was delayed. But both raise the important issue of free, prior and informed consent

It is unfortunately a concept governments fail to grasp. Legislation that nominates Muckaty Station as a site to store nuclear waste passed the upper house last month, despite the legislation currently being subject to a legal action in the federal court.

The waste dump bid is deeply controversial and has created division amongst traditional owners. At its heart, it is about the Labor government living up to its international obligations to consult before placing hazardous waste on Indigenous lands.

Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says: “States shall take effective measures to ensure 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”.

Dave Sweeney from the Australian Conservation Foundation says it’s clear Australia has failed in meeting this obligation.

“The key things are transparency and clear processes, and establishing a high level of community consent,” Mr Sweeney says. “Both of these things are missing from Muckaty. It’s clear there is division in the community. There are a great many Traditional Owners and affected people, and people with a long-term and a cultural responsibility in connection with country who are opposed to the dump, who have never been asked, who’ve never said ‘yes’. In that context, you cannot claim there is community consent. The mere fact the matter is before the Federal Court shows a failing in the process.”

It is important that Traditional Owners give their true consent, because if the federal government is successful in placing a nuclear waste dump on Muckaty, it is highly likely waste will be stored there for over 300 years.

Mr Sweeney says that one of the key Traditional Owners who gave consent agreed because of additional expenditure that would bring to community. The Traditional Owners wanted investment in areas like health and education – services are a right of citizenry, which should come without having to trade your human rights.

It’s an utter failing on behalf of a government that claims it wants to “re-set the relationship” with Aboriginal Australia.

Another promise the Gillard government is likely to break is that it will work towards a “stronger future” with Indigenous people in the Territory. Its plan to extend the NT intervention under the guise of this label is backed by little evidence and widespread concern from Aboriginal people, as well as legal, human rights, church and welfare rights groups.

Despite acknowledging that consultations on Stronger Futures were deeply flawed, the Senate committee probing the legislation recommended the bills pass Parliament, albeit with minor amendments. It puts a lie to government claims it will consult properly with communities.

Amy McQuire, editor

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