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N-dump vote "may never happen", Jay concedes

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Premier Jay Weatherill says he is personally “persuaded” about the need for a nuclear waste dump, but insists he will not campaign for the project because “it doesn’t matter what I think”.

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Weatherill yesterday kept community debate alive on the prospect of a high-level nuclear repository – as endorsed by the Scarce Royal Commission – by vowing the question would be put to the electorate in a referendum.

However, he says he will not be an advocate in the debate, and has given no timeframe as to when “community consensus and bipartisan support” need be achieved, which could see the proposal effectively shelved.

“It requires more than one politician’s perspective about this, or even one political party’s perspective,” he told InDaily.

“It requires the community to embrace it.”

The Premier said his approach to date had been “not to be a political advocate except for the idea of the public discussion”.

“That was for a range of reasons – one, the [Labor] party hasn’t got a position of support for the issue,” he said.

“I also wanted to make sure the process was seen to have some integrity… if it looked like it was designed by a person that was vociferously campaigning for it, it would have undermined [the process].”

Weatherill concedes his insistence that “there won’t be a referendum unless there’s bipartisan support and some reasonable prospects of success” could ensure that “it may not happen”.

“It will only happen on that basis,” he said.

“I’m just promoting people to discuss it; there’s going to be no advocacy.

“It took Finland 38 years to get to that point [of building a repository with community consent]… I don’t expect this is going to happen any time soon in our state.”

The latest turn was met with ambivalence by royal commissioner Kevin Scarce, who insists: “I don’t think it’s time now to pull out.”

“I think we should continue to ensure the community is engaged in deciding whether we should proceed further,” he told InDaily.

However, he conceded, “you’d have to say [there’s] great uncertainty, now that it’s become a political issue”.

“The bipartisanship I thought was essential becomes that much harder [to achieve]… I’m hopeful that we get an opportunity to continue the dialogue with the community, to explore whether it should move to the next step to learn more about the proposal,” he said.

Evidently unhappy that party politicking has hijacked the debate, Scarce said: “Once the conversation starts to get into politics, I’m not interested in going there.”

“I’ve got what I think is a report that stands scrutiny, that enables a Government to make a decision about what’s written in the proposal,” he said.

I’m expecting the Government will present both cases equally

“I’d like to see a balanced discussion – a discussion for those who don’t support it and why, and a discussion for those who do and why… that’s the way the community will learn about this.

“It’s leaning one way at the moment [but] I’m expecting the Government will present both cases equally.”

Scarce was also terse about the citizens’ jury process that effectively formed an insurmountable political roadblock.

“I think the one thing we learned from overseas is this takes time, because of the complexity we need to go through,” he said.

“The Government chose the jury process, and that put enormous strain, I think, on the jurors to get across the breadth of things we looked at over 15 months, over three weekends.”

He said his role now was “really to address some of the concerns expressed in that [jury] report, which clearly I have some issue with”, although he emphasised he was not critical of the jurors themselves.

“It’s such a complex issue – the expectation that you can get that complexity over in three weekends, that’s a big ask,” he said.

Scarce has previously expressed doubt about using a referendum to gauge community consent, describing it as a “moment in time” rather than a continuous discourse.

“I think the comment [I made] about referenda, which was what we found from overseas, remains,” he said today.

“[But] the Government has decided upon this process, and that’s for the Government to action… we were very clear not to prescribe how social consent might be gained.”

He noted the jury’s concerns about Aboriginal communities, but pointed out his final report had emphasised that “the communities on which a facility would be built would have final say”.

“I don’t think that’s a reason not to take the next step, to learn more about the proposal,” he said.

Weatherill said he had noted a clear lack of trust from indigenous communities – and by non-indigenous respondents on their behalf – which will require a broader political response.

“The power of that has led me to conclude that this is something that needs to be responded to,” he said.

“We need a more powerful way in which we have to deal with the ongoing issues into Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal [relations].”

He said the divide “has the potential of undermining lots of potential projects”, beyond just the waste dump, and that he had spoken to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kyam Maher about drawing up a broader policy response.

Weatherill denies his stance on the nuclear issue has made it an inevitable election battleground.

“My responsibilities were to continue the discussion – there’s permission to proceed with the discussion, we’ve amended the act that permits us to consult on this question and that consultation can continue,” he said.

“I’m duty bound to explore all the opportunities that potentially exist for the future for the SA economy – that’s the reason we explored this in the first place. Given the size of the potential benefit examined by the Royal Commission, there’s no doubt it should be explored.”

The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy today welcomed the move to “continue the discussion on further involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle”.

CEO Rebecca Knol said “such a decision should not be rushed”, arguing the discussion was “strikingly similar to that surrounding the development of Olympic Dam in the early 1980s”.

“The concerns of the public on economic, environment, safety and consent are very much the same,” she said.

“Olympic Dam today provides opportunity to all, including indigenous people and local traditional landowners, and supports regional communities and their development… the case for an expansion into the nuclear fuel cycle is relevant to all South Australians and carries with it a challenging conversation, but one that is crucial to the prosperity of this state.”

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