A fortnight in the red room

The September sittings opened and closed with unplanned symmetry. Opened with a line in the desert sand drawn by Aboriginal elders refusing any further compromise with the uranium miners. Closed with the tabling of a meticulous two hundred page manifesto for the rapid abolition of nuclear weapons, signed by the ALP, the Greens and the Coalition.
The fortnight started with the 2009 coming together of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance. By late evening Friday nearly ninety people had assembled in Quorn on Nukunu country, under the gentle, ancient slopes of the southern Flinders Ranges in South Australia.

Months in the planning and audacious in ambition, this was the ninth such meeting, a unique collaboration between environment and social justice groups and Aboriginal communities from around the country. The thread binding them together is profound opposition to all stages of the nuclear fuel chain. Most Australians have a distant, healthy scepticism of the nuclear industry and its’ expanding Australian footprint; for the people directly impacted by the radioactive waste dump and the cancerous proliferation of uranium mining proposals, it is a matter of lived experience and a question of survival.

It was odd synchronicity to be debating a Northern Territory uranium mining bill in the senate 48 hours later; and a bucket of political cold water to have a series of carefully worded amendments voted into the bin 5-0 by the major parties. The disconnect between the firelit deliberations of senior custodians who have never ceded sovereignty, and the bloodless indifference of white law-makers in Canberra has never felt so vast. It might seem like the radiation merchants hold all the cards at the moment, but the one they’ve forgotten about – the truth – is going to hit the table sooner or later.

Professor Des Ball of Australian National University gave us a glimpse of the extended consequences of dealing in this trade, briefing a cross-party group of MPs and staff on the results of two years of research with Burmese defectors on the Thai-Burma border. With Russian and North Korean scientific and technical assistance, a covert nuclear weapons programme is taking shape, centred on an underground complex at Naung Laing not far from the slave-built Burmese capital of Naypyidaw. The Australian Government has treated the research with surprising indifference, which we are working to change.

On Friday we wrote the Sydney chapter of our Access to Justice Inquiry, initiated earlier this year with the intention of detailing the structural asymmetry built into our legal system. The centuries-old theory – equality under the law – is sound. The perverse reality under late capitalism is obviously quite different: your access to justice depends in part on your access to cash. We’ve gone some way to explaining why our prison population features such an obscene over-representation of Aboriginal people and how the legal aid and community legal sectors have been wilfully starved of resources even as their caseload has expanded unsustainably. The problem is, we’ve known this for years, and past recommendations haven’t been sufficient to shift the situation much – how much of a contribution this inquiry makes will depend on how effectively we can work for a shift in resources and priorities before the next budget.

Saturday evening saw Flick and I making our way from rainy Melbourne into the Latrobe Valley to join five hundred climate campaigners at the site of the Hazelwood Power Station. Under heavy skies, the camp had come together to challenge the continued operation of the largest single greenhouse gas emitting facility in the country, and demand a practical clean energy transition for the coal workers who have kept the colossal power station running long past its use-by date. It was a spirited and optimistic gathering; colourful, diverse and defiant, and it certainly provided a healthy break from the atmosphere that pervades climate politics on capital hill.

Week two saw a complicated collision of projects we’ve been working on for months: our report into national Container Deposit Legislation (CDL), a sideways swipe at the Government’s blighted proposal for mandatory net filtering, collaborating with Senators Nick Xenophon and Barnaby Joyce on a dissenting report on foreign investment criteria, and the handing down of 12 months work by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties on progress toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. We also moved for the Communications Minister’s radical proposal to break up Telstra to go to one of the standing committees so it can be looked at in detail.

The Container Deposit proposal builds on work done by Greens MPs Colleen Hartland MLC and Ian Cohen MLC in state parliaments, and essentially legislates for a comprehensive scheme for a 10c deposit on beverage containers which you get back when you recycle the container. The focus is coming onto the national meeting of environment ministers chaired by Peter Garrett in Perth on November 5, at which it is essential the Government adopts a national scheme after years of delay. The committee’s report into the Greens bill provides more evidence – if it were needed – that this approach is a sound way to reprocess the mountains of pointless trash that we currently landfill.

We finished the fortnight on something of a high note – for 12 months we’ve been working with the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) to produce a comprehensive report on non-proliferation and nuclear weapons abolition. Minutes before the parliamentary session wound up on Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of doing an all-party press conference to present a united front on this most polarising of issues. If the Government adopts the key recommendations to work toward a global nuclear weapons convention (NWC), we will be well on our way to playing a decisive role at the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty conference in New York next April. It was a fitting way to end a fortnight that began with the quiet but powerful anti-nuclear survival celebration around the campfire at Quorn.