Saturday, May 26, 2007

Australia’s nuclear dumping-ground

The communal dumping-ground is a strong feature of European culture, at least of the last hundred years or so. It does not seem to be a universal norm across all modern cultures, however. I suspect that one set of cultures not so big on communal dumping-grounds are Australia’s Indigenous ones. Which makes a suitably ironic starting-point for discussing the nuclear dumping-ground to be established on Indigenous land in the middle (a word which, as will be seen shortly, carries more than its usual weight here) of the Northern Territory.

Communal dumping-grounds are, under European norms, places of apparent necessity. Private – which is to say, capitalist – dumping grounds exist by default in sparsely-populated areas (even well-heeled farmers don’t get council garbage collection), but are otherwise an anathema. Capitalism can’t cope with its own shit, you might say.

To be effective, a communal dumping-ground requires both strong boundaries and tolerant (or hapless) neighbours. The occupants adjacent to the dumping-ground will always carry the hazard of the dump oozing onto their property by stealth – whether by wind or water carriage, or by human agency. Conversely though, it would be completely unacceptable for such an adjacent occupant to become a “Join ‘em” defeatist, or capitalist, by allowing their property to become an unofficial or official dump also. That would be to then spread the boundary-policing problem to the neighbours adjacent to them, of course.

Over the last three decades, communal dumping-grounds have followed the general globalist trajectory of the times by being relentlessly de-localised. Even now – but not for much longer – the affluent residents of Toorak have their own neighbourhood dumping-ground (in less-affluent but still toney South Yarra), despite traditionally working-class Richmond being just as close to Toorak. The communal factor used not to mean open-slather aggregation and concentration of dumps, then. One’s garbage – until land values intervened – was generally geographically contained by one’s local government area, and probably also by the role of perceptions, in which the hypothetical prospect of Richmond trucking its garbage to Toorak would be more acceptable to the general public than the reverse. (South Yarra shares Stonnington Council with Toorak, while Richmond is, and has always been, a separate LGA.)

The proposed Muckaty nuclear dumping-ground is, needless to say, the nth degree of Other People’s Garbage being transported far, far away from its own Neighbourhood.

While Muckaty doesn’t have a local government, and in any case one might think that nuclear waste is in a different category from general waste in hardly being a local government issue, there is still an odd politicking and geography behind its choice. This isn’t a Toorak vs Richmond story of class, though.

If a person who knew nothing about the Northern Territory or Australia were to look at map of the NT that showed nothing other than (i) km scale, (ii) the Territory’s land and sea boundaries, and (iii) the internal boundary between the Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council, and was told that the NLC had rubber-stamped a nuclear dump somewhere within its bailiwick, that person should be able to pick out the location of this dump (the unlabelled Muckaty) with a high degree of accuracy.

How so? The intra-Territory NLC/CLC boundary runs like a diagonal step-ladder from the north-west of the Territory (about on a level with the southern end of Lake Argyle, WA), to the south-east (about a hundred clicks south of Camooweal, QLD). There are a few minor irregularities in this step-ladder, when it veers a bit north and south so as to trace the boundaries of current or former pastoral leases, but only one striking peninsula, where a finger of CLC bailiwick protrudes eastward into NLC territory about half-way between Elliot and Tennant Creek. The result is that a smallish (about 2000 square km) square of NLC land to the south of this finger is surrounded on three sides by CLC land. No prizes for guessing where Muckaty is now, folks.

Land council politics and geography aside though, the choice of Muckaty as a dumping-ground is not altogether perverse or malicious, as far as the Powers That Be (but not the traditional owners) are concerned. To my non-Indigenous eyes, the ~250 km stretch of the Stuart Highway between Elliot and Three Ways is the unloveliest countryside in Australia. It doesn’t have the central desert’s red, weathered geology and precise, minimalist vegetation, nor the tropical zone’s ferocious abundance. It is also too much in the middle in other ways, conveniently close to the Three Ways cross-roads, but conveniently far from any NT/state boundaries (state governments can’t be overridden by the Commonwealth like the Territory’s government can.)

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