Topics:  Nuclear waste; PM’s US visit; The Voice; community pharmacies

04:20PM AEST
Thursday, 10 August 2023



Greg Jennett:  Well, the long search for a permanent national waste dump for low and intermediate grade nuclear waste starts all over again from today. The Government’s officially abandoned any further work on the proposed Kimba site, that’s on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. There’ll be no appeals against that Federal Court ruling that last month stymied that site. So, Resources Minister, Madeleine King has told Parliament it’ll be tidied up and abandoned in search of the next possible site to store what is thousands of cubic metres of radioactive waste, mostly generated from medical isotopes.


Madeleine King grab ex Ministerial statement in House of Representatives


And if you haven’t appreciated already in our discussions and coverage today, it has been a day of intense tactics and vote-wrangling in the Senate before it wraps up for the week. I won’t take you through a summary of what happened – some of that was covered in our last discussion with Bridget McKenzie. But subject to further shenanigans we are now able to bring Shadow Foreign Minister, Simon Birmingham in – he’s also Opposition Leader in the Senate he’s with us in the studio. Senator, we’ll get in a moment to the ins and outs of the Senate which we did, in part touch on with Bridget McKenzie. But since we heard from the Government there on Kimba – the radioactive waste site that’s now been abandoned, we’re back to square one, at least in South Australia. Do you support further examination of South Australian sites, do you think this will end up going elsewhere from now?


Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m very happy for further examination of South Australian sites Greg, but firstly this decision by the Government today shouldn’t have been made. It’s irresponsible and frankly a bit gutless of them to not either appeal the decision – it was a very narrow ruling on one particular ground only that was upheld. And it sets a precedent that I think the Government should consider very carefully about  in terms of the nature of that  ruling and that’s why I think they should’ve pursued the appeal both to deal with the precedent and also to continue to pursue the Kimba site because the people of Kimba voted to say we’re happy to have this here…


Greg Jennett: Some but not all…


Simon Birmingham: …all of the analysis indicated that it was a perfectly sound site for it. This is an issue that has gone on for decades in terms of trying to find a location and to go back to square one is completely reckless. The other option the Government could have pursued would have been to actually legislate a remedy to declare that as the site – to do so without avenues of further appeal and to be actually able to get on with it. And I note the Parliament just a couple of months ago did precisely that in relation to the Russian embassy site here, in overruling a court decision – taking away that lease and being very clear about it. The same could’ve been done to resolve this issue.


Greg Jennett:  You’d have supported that if the Government had?


Simon Birmingham: I think we would have supported that because we recognise this is an issue that needs resolving. After decades of debate about the issue, years of analysis and building community support and a program in relation to the Kimba site, to throw it all out and go back to square one is reckless, it’s irresponsible, it means that the country is now thrown into huge doubt about how medical waste from nuclear-medical treatments will be handled in the future. And by not even being able to know how we’re going to handle and store gloves and basics, low-level radioactive waste, what confidence can that give in terms of the Government’s ability to handle the far more challenging issues associated with nuclear powered submarines?


Greg Jennett: Well, exactly and that was going to take me to the next question. Because we now have knowledge of the need to start preparing for that high-level radioactive waste from submarines, might it now make sense to integrate thinking on both of them, accelerate the high radioactive waste planning and find a site that could handle all of it?


Simon Birmingham: Well, if that’s possible, yes. But there is some urgency to the low-level waste that is currently being stored in sites all over the country. Those sites are getting full and so there actually needs to physically be a permanent location found. The nuclear agencies that oversee the way in which we actually manage nuclear medicine in Australia and the production of the equipment for it – they have actually sounded some warning signals about the storage challenges that are there. So, there’s a real urgency to it. The Government’s got to drive forward and there’s something the Government needs to realise in doing so; they’re never going to get complete consensus around a site. Every location when it was Woomera, the Labor Party under Mike Rann in South Australia campaigned against it – rallied groups against it – environmental groups, Indigenous groups and ultimately forced abandonment of that site. Then we ended up at Kimba – and once again, we’ve seen environment groups, Indigenous groups, with the tacit support and encouragement of parts of the Labor Party and The Greens, pursue these appeals  – knock that site out as well. We recognise it was a hard decision; in government we were willing to take it  – drive it forward. We got so close now, and the Government has really been quite foolish to walk away from it.


Greg Jennett: Well, multiple governments have certainly been frustrated over the years. Why don’t we move on to something in your shadow foreign area, the Prime Minister’s announced the White House visit – it’ll be an official state visit. There is now a view, I think, that we may not get – with an election year approaching in the US – a more accommodative administration than the Biden administration right now. So, in view of unfinished AUKUS work and other projects, what are the priorities that you think the Prime Minister should be locking down while the opportunity is there on this visit?


Simon Birmingham: Well there’s the administration and, yes indeed, we’ve had good relations with the Biden administration and ultimately, governments of all political persuasions in Australia have managed good relations with administration’s of all political colours and persuasions in the US. And so we should be happy with the way in which we’ve always done that and it will be crucial to do so, whoever occupies the White House in a couple of years’ time. But a key challenge for the Prime Minister’s visit to the US will really be about Congressional outreach and support and how his visit helps to leverage the Australian Government’s efforts to ensure that the different pieces of AUKUS legislation pass through the Parliament – that we do get all of the breakthroughs in terms of changing of export controls – approval for the US to provide the nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of the early stages of AUKUS..


Greg Jennett:  You think that they’re still in limbo, do you, so much so that it needs Prime Ministerial intervention or reassurance? Because I know when you ask figures in the Government, they say, it’s all in hand.


Simon Birmingham: I have confidence that we still enjoy bipartisan support across the US Congress, and we should be able to see that legislation pass through. But we should leave no stone unturned and nothing to chance either and so involvement of Congressional leaders, key committee leaders in the Prime Minister’s program and the Prime Minister’s visit, that would be a logical thing to do to ensure we’re building those relations and that momentum to ensure that the subs program is secure in advance, but also the different Pillar Two aspects of AUKUS in terms of different elements of technology and military technology and know-how being shared and driven forward jointly is a critical component too.


Greg Jennett: Alright, he’ll be out of the country, roughly speaking between the 23rd and the 26th of October that much we did learn today. What does that tell you about when the Voice referendum is going to be held, you can do the maths can’t you?


Simon Birmingham: Well, it might give some credence to it perhaps being held beforehand, I can’t say that I’ve had time today to do the math since seeing the PM’s announcement but I’m sure plenty of others will.


Greg Jennett:  We’ll work it out sooner or later. Now was there an own-goal, a tactical blunder by your side over the 60-day dispensing in the Senate? Not very often, that you see a disallowance motion hijacked, stolen from you in many ways, and then slammed back on you against your wishes. Why didn’t you read the numbers in the first place?


Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re standing for the policy that we think is right, but also trying to give the Government a chance to get its policy-house in order. The Health Minister has said he’s going to work with community pharmacy to try to resolve their concerns around this. So, we’ve been clear if their concerns aren’t resolved, it should be disallowed. But we also said today that we would defer consideration of the disallowance motion through the next three weeks when the Parliament is not sitting here so that the Health Minister could be true to his word, sit down with community pharmacy and actually resolve their concerns about Labor’s policy and the impacts it has on their businesses.


Greg Jennett: So how will you measure or evaluate looking ahead and not so much back at today’s developments, but how will you measure or evaluate levels of concern so that you might be satisfied, yes we need to move disallowance again in three weeks from now?


Simon Birmingham: Well the Government for example has said, hand on heart, every dollar of savings that come from the 60-day dispensing rule change will be reinvested back into community pharmacy. So, what will we what we want to see? We want to see evidence and proof as to how that stacks up and how those dollars are being delivered and that the Government is being true to its word. Because based on the concerns of community pharmacy at present it doesn’t stack up, it’s not being delivered and what is happening is that pharmacists are being asked to take a haircut and with the costs weighing on the pharmacists, that means that for those that are marginal, particularly in rural areas, they either go out of business, or they put their costs and charges up, which means Australians will still be paying more, maybe not for the medicines that are subject to the 60-day dispensing rule, but for all of the other services the pharmacy provides.


Greg Jennett: In other politics, Opposition must never have felt more real than it did today to see what the Government was able to do through sheer weight of numbers.


Simon Birmingham: I mean it was a pretty extraordinary thing, the Government, so a Labor Senator moved the disallowance of a Labor Party policy, because they didn’t want to wait three weeks to vote on the disallowance. That says to me that they were worried that they’re not going to meet expectations in the next three weeks and the Senate crossbench might change its mind and there is of course always the risk of revisiting these issues if that’s the case.

Greg Jennett: Well, let’s see what happens in three weeks’ time. Simon Birmingham, covered a bit of ground, thanks so much for joining us.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks Greg, my pleasure.