As the federal government debates an Indigenous Voice, state and territories are pressing ahead



The Queensland treaty process is still in the early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. But it’s still a historic step forward for Indigenous communities.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Harry Hobbs, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, University of Technology Sydney

Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad has announced that the state will begin a conversation about a pathway to treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In doing so, Queensland joined Victoria and the Northern Territory in formally commencing treaty processes.

This is a significant development. While the Commonwealth government embarks on another round of important yet time-consuming consultations over a potential First Nations Voice to Parliament, the states and territories are taking the lead on treaties.

Queensland’s ‘track to treaty’

Queensland’s announcement reflects a shift in debate on Indigenous constitutional recognition at the state and territory level. Only a few year ago, the states and territories debated whether to include a reference to Indigenous Australians in their constitutions. Now, they are contemplating negotiating treaties.

Treaties have been accepted globally as the means of reaching a settlement between Indigenous peoples and those who have colonised their lands. They are formal agreements, reached via respectful negotiation in which both sides accept a series of responsibilities.

Treaties acknowledge Indigenous peoples were prior owners and occupiers of the land and, as such, retain a right to self-government. At a minimum, they recognise or establish structures of culturally appropriate governance and means of decision-making and control.

The Queensland treaty process is still in its early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. This is sensible, because it is important that both the state and First Nations are ready to start negotiations.

For First Nations, this means having a clear sense of what a treaty might mean for their communities, as well as a broad consensus on their negotiating position. Preparing for treaty negotiations can also enable First Nations to engage in nation-(re)building, consistent with their values and aspirations, which is valuable regardless of the content, or even the completion, of a treaty.

For the state, it is equally important that non-Indigenous Queenslanders understand what a treaty is and what it might result in.




Read more:
Will treaties with Indigenous Australians overtake constitutional recognition?


Reflecting these preliminary steps, the government has established a bipartisan eminent panel of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Queenslanders, with Indigenous academic Jackie Huggins and former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch serving as co-chairs.

Their responsibility is to provide leadership and engage with key stakeholders across the state. A treaty working group will also be established soon to lead consultations with First Nations, allowing them to discuss and reach agreement on what a treaty might contain.

Jackie Huggins (left) will take a lead role in the Queensland treaty process.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Others leading the way

These steps follow similar processes in two other states and territories with Labor governments – Victoria and the Northern Territory.

In Victoria, the Andrews government committed to entering treaty negotiations in 2016. An Aboriginal Treaty Working Group was established to lead two rounds of community consultations, which resulted in the creation of a First Peoples’ Assembly. The assembly will not negotiate treaties itself, but will work with the state to develop a treaty framework through which the state and First Nations can negotiate.

At the same time, Victoria also established a Treaty Advancement Commission to maintain momentum for a treaty and keep all Victorians informed.

The process in the Northern Territory is following this pattern. In June 2018, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of the four Indigenous land councils, committing to exploring a treaty.

Earlier this year, Mick Dodson, the former director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, was appointed NT treaty commissioner. He is currently leading consultations with Aboriginal Territorians.

Why a lack of federal involvement is a problem

These are promising developments, but there are several challenges ahead.

First, treaties are political agreements. As such, they are vulnerable to political fluctuations.

In Queensland, the Liberal National Party opposition wants to look at the government’s announcement in more detail, but has already suggested it would adopt different priorities. If the LNP wins the 2020 state election, it could abandon the process before negotiations even commence.

We have already seen this play out in South Australia. In 2017, the state Labor government formally started treaty negotiations. But within a year, a newly-elected Coalition government stepped away from this commitment.

Second, the federal government’s position is problematic. Ken Wyatt, the new minister for Indigenous Australians, has said the federal government will leave treaty processes to the states and territories.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Ken Wyatt on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians


Federal government involvement is not legally necessary. Queensland has the legal authority to sign and implement a treaty with Indigenous peoples.

However, the Commonwealth parliament has the power to overrule any state or territory treaty. For this reason, it is preferable that the Commonwealth play a role in these processes. The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers an avenue to do so.

.

In this light, the federal government’s response to the Uluru Statement adds a further complication. The statement calls for

  • A constitutionally enshrined national representative body to advise the federal parliament (known as a “Voice” to parliament); and

  • A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about Australia’s history.

As constitutional lawyer Megan Davis has explained, these reforms are “deliberately sequenced.” The value of starting with a First Nations Voice and Makarrata Commission is that they can oversee developments across the country. Without these bodies, state and territory treaty processes may diverge and result in wildly different settlement terms.

Ken Wyatt faces intense opposition to his proposal for a referendum on constitutional recognition.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Finally, the support of Indigenous peoples is not assured.

Increasingly, First Nations are resisting agreement-making with governments that act inconsistently with their values and aspirations.

For instance, the Djab Wurrung Embassy, a group of traditional owners protesting VicRoads’ plan to cut down sacred trees, has launched a “No Trees, No Treaty” campaign to highlight the state government’s refusal to listen to their views.

Just last month, the Yorta Yorta Elders Council also rejected a Victorian treaty

as a trip wire and only a pathway to assimilation.

Consensus cannot be assumed, and will become more complex as First Nations articulate their objectives and objections to possible treaties.

What’s next?

Notwithstanding these challenges, Queensland’s announcement is historic.

It confirms that progress on Indigenous constitutional recognition is being led by the states and territories. It also directs more attention to the federal government’s approach to this issue.

It is hoped that the Commonwealth reflects on Queensland’s announcement and commits to establishing a Makarrata Commission. And that commission should be designed by Indigenous representatives serving on a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.The Conversation

Harry Hobbs, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, Industry Professor (Indigenous Policy), University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

US House of Representatives condemns racist tweets in another heady week under President Donald Trump


Bruce Wolpe, University of Sydney

The past three days in US politics have been very difficult – and ugly.

President Donald Trump chose to exploit divisions inside the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives – generational and ideological – by attacking four new women members of Congress, denying their status as Americans and their legitimacy to serve in Congress. They are women of colour and, yes, they are from the far left of the Democratic Party. They have pushed hard against their leaders.

But Trump’s vicious, racist attacks on them have in fact solved the unity problem among the Democrats: they are today (re)united against Trump.




Read more:
Two dozen candidates, one big target: in a crowded Democratic field, who can beat Trump?


You can draw a straight line from Trump’s birther attacks on Obama, to his “Mexican rapists” attack when he announced his run for the presidency, to his Muslim immigration ban, to equivocating over Nazis marching in Charlottesville, to sending troops to the US-Mexico border, to shutting down the government, to declaring a national emergency, to what he is doing today.

And his attacks on these lawmakers is based on a lie: three of the congresswomen were born in America. One is an immigrant, now a citizen, and as American as any citizen – just like Trump’s wife.

I worked in the House of Representatives for ten years. I learned early that you do not impugn – you have no right to impugn – the legitimacy of an elected member of Congress. Only the voters can do that.

Other presidents have been racist. Lyndon Johnson worked with the southern segregationists. Nixon railed in private against Jews. But none have spoken so openly, so publicly, without shame or remorse for these sentiments. So this is new territory.

And this is unlike Charlottesville, where there was vocal and visible pushback from Republicans on Trump giving an amber light to the Nazis in the streets. This is how much the political culture and norms have corroded over the past two years.

The Democrats chose to fight back by bringing a resolution condemning Trump for his remarks to the House of Representatives floor. Historians are still scurrying, but it appears this is unprecedented – the house has never in its history, which dates to the 1790s, voted to condemn a president’s remarks. (The Senate censured President Andrew Jackson over banking issues in 1834.)

The house passed the measure almost along party lines, with only four Republicans out of 197 – just 2% – voting for the resolution.

The concluding words in the resolution are these:

Whereas President Donald Trump’s racist comments have legitimised fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color: Now, therefore, be it resolved, That the House of Representatives […] condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimised and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of colour by saying that our fellow Americans who are immigrants, and those who may look to the President like immigrants, should “go back” to other countries, by referring to immigrants and asylum seekers as “invaders”, and by saying that Members of Congress who are immigrants (or those of our colleagues who are wrongly assumed to be immigrants) do not belong in Congress or in the United States of America.

So Trump is secure within his party – and he believes he has nothing to fear from the testimony of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, next week before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Much attention will be paid to the examination of obstruction-of-justice issues when Mueller testifies. But the more meaningful discussion will occur in the assessment by the intelligence committee examining Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the persistence of a Russian threat in 2020.

Mueller ended his Garbo-like appearance before the media in May with these words:

The central allegation of our indictments [is] that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.

The US presidential election remains vulnerable and it is not clear that sufficient safeguards are being put in place to protect the country’s democracy.

But it is the unresolved drama over impeachment that will colour Mueller’s appearance on Wednesday.




Read more:
Explainer: what is a special counsel and what will he investigate in the Trump administration?


Mueller concluded he could not indict a sitting president. However, he forensically detailed ten instances of possible obstruction of justice. Mueller said that if he believed Trump had not committed a crime he would have said so and that, as a result, he could not “exonerate” Trump.

The key question that will be asked of Mueller is: “If the record you developed on obstruction of justice was applied to any individual who was not president of the United States, would you have sought an indictment?”

And on the answer to that question turns the issue of whether there will be critical mass among House of Representatives Democrats, and perhaps supported by the American people, to vote for a bill of impeachment against Donald J. Trump.The Conversation

Bruce Wolpe, Non-resident senior fellow, United States Study Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The world has a hard time trusting China. But does it really care?



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Graeme Smith, Australian National University

As China grows more powerful and influential, our New Superpower series looks at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened. Read the rest of the series here.


One of the earliest guests I had on The Little Red Podcast, the podcast I co-host with former China correspondent Louisa Lim, said something that stuck with me about the view of China in the rest of the world. John Fitzgerald, a well-known historian of China’s diaspora, confidently declared that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “couldn’t care less” about what non-Chinese Australians thought of it and its actions.

Looking through the results of the recent Lowy Institute Poll on Australians’ attitudes toward China, this is probably a good thing for the party.

The Australian public’s confidence in China’s ability to act as a responsible power has fallen off a cliff. In just one year, it dropped from more than half of Australians to just 32%. That’s a dire number.



That wasn’t the only surprise in the poll. Four-fifths of respondents agreed with the proposition “China’s infrastructure investment projects across Asia are part of China’s plans for regional domination”, and 73% believed Australia should try to prevent China from expanding its influence in the Pacific.

The poll was released in late June, at a time when China’s image was taking a hit internationally. Millions of people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest a now-defeated extradition bill that could have seen Hong Kong residents sent to China on suspicion of crimes.

Then came news in Australia that the wife of an Australian writer who has been detained since January was herself interrogated by Chinese officials and blocked from leaving the country.

Even for a country that purportedly doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks, trust is hard to come by these days.

A matter of trust

It’s not entirely clear why so many Australians now distrust the Chinese state to the point where they believe our government should actively counter it (although perhaps not go to war with it).

There’s little evidence to suggest that one issue alone has caused this sharp decline in trust. For instance, the Communist Party’s most egregious recent violation of human rights, the detention of up to 1.5 million Uyghurs simply for being, well, Uyghurs has touched relatively few Australians.

Nor has the Australian government felt the need to act – it has said little on the matter.




Read more:
Xi Jinping’s grip on power is absolute, but there are new threats to his ‘Chinese dream’


Rather, the decline in trust seems to be the result of an accumulation of negative news on China — some well-informed, some half-baked (such as the 60 Minutes expose on a Chinese “military base” in Vanuatu). And for some, it’s based on personal experiences.

Last month, for instance, Australian National University revealed a massive data breach in the school’s computer system, including tax file numbers, bank accounts and passport details. The sophistication of the attack, which came after multiple attempts, meant there was only possible one suspect, according to senior intelligence officials: China.

Stealing people’s bank details might be profitable for the hacking team, but it doesn’t win hearts and minds for the Chinese state. Actions like this do more to damage China’s image than the words of noted China critics Clive Hamilton and Clive Palmer.

This sort of intimidation has been on the rise under Xi’s leadership in recent years. Academics who are critical of China now expect to be targeted by the CCP.

A podcast like mine, banned in China, doesn’t help. In the wake of an episode about China’s real-time censorship of its own historical record, I was hit by a denial-of-service attack that our university’s IT service struggled to fix. I gave up doing research inside China a while ago, after it became clear that my former colleagues and friends in rural China were increasingly at risk.

Even colleagues who have signed petitions calling on the Australian government take an evidence-based approach to China policy have been warned off continuing their in-country research by their Chinese research partners, ending collaborations which often stretched back decades.

To the outside world, this obsession with control looks like weakness rather than strength. A sanitised image of life inside China will do nothing to build trust in China as a responsible power.

This is the image of China that Xi Jinping wants to export to the world: happy, prosperous and non-threatening.
How Hwee Young/EPA

Misplaced attempts at soft power

So how does China go about winning back a 20-point drop in trust?

To answer this question, I have to borrow a famous line from the film, The Princess Bride:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

When it comes to the concept of soft power, the Chinese state misses the basic point that it doesn’t work particularly well. Money can’t buy you love, or in Joseph Nye’s terms, if your ideology and your culture have no appeal, cash won’t fix that.

Yet, the Communist Party is now a firm believer in soft power, built around its confidence that China’s ancient culture can return it to its legitimate status as the preeminent civilisation in the world. This confidence may be misplaced, as anyone who sat through the ponderous, state-backed, blockbuster film The Great Wall can testify.

To date, the target of China’s soft power push appears to be a largely Chinese audience. The purpose of its designated soft power tools, from Confucius Institutes to the English-language news service CGTN, is to impress on both the domestic constituency and Chinese communities abroad that China now looks and acts like a rejuvenated great power.




Read more:
Explainer: what are Confucius Institutes and do they teach Chinese propaganda?


This officially approved cultural soft power package might not sell to non-Chinese audiences in Australia or, well, anywhere. But China has recently been trying another tactic – economic soft power. This is specifically aimed at the developing world: China positions itself as a nation that overcame colonial oppression to emerge from grinding poverty and become an economic powerhouse.

Under former President Hu Jintao, the party tiptoed away from the notion that China would pursue a “peaceful rise”, because they worried the word “rise” sounded threatening, even preceded by “peaceful.”

Now, under Xi’s watch, there is a new catchphrase to describe China’s rise. Anchors on CGTN happily ask European and African interlocutors about the merits of “the China model” for economic development, in which the state acts as chess master, guiding the economy and society at every turn.

Some nations are buying into this. Last weekend, a taskforce of Solomon Islands MPs and bureaucrats presented their recommendation to parliament over whether to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. While many Solomon Islanders, including Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, are reluctant to switch, the country’s close economic ties with China make such a move feel inevitable.

A Chinese development model that promises an escape from poverty has appeal across the Pacific – and beyond.

Trust on both sides of the wall

Whether Beijing is able to turn around this trust problem depends, in part, on how much China begins to trust itself in the rest of the world.

Forthcoming research my ANU colleagues and I are conducting with Hong Kong-based researchers examines attempts by Chinese state actors to influence the 2019 Australian federal election.




Read more:
With China’s swift rise as naval power, Australia needs to rethink how it defends itself


Preliminary results indicate that the Communist Party didn’t give a hoot which party won. The goal of Chinese propaganda during the election, rather, was to create a sense of distrust among Australian-Chinese communities by depicting Australia as a racist, unwelcoming place.

We should be mindful of attempts by elements of the Communist Party to influence our political processes. Yet it’s crucial to remember the CCP targets many groups in Australia, including private businesses run by former Chinese citizens, religious groups and student organisations, not because they are all loyal party stooges, but because the party does not trust them.

The challenge for China, if it wants to be trusted by the rest of the world, is how to move beyond Mao Zedong’s famous dictum:

Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the utmost importance for the revolution.

This thinking should have no place in a globalised world, but in CCP circles, it’s back in vogue.

The challenge for Australia’s leaders is to recognise China’s current political reality, but not be drawn into the same binary, simplistic thinking. There’s enough of that going around.The Conversation

Graeme Smith, Research Fellow, Department of Pacific Affairs, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital signs: we need those tax cuts now, all of them. The surplus can wait



If you’re going to stimulate the economy, it’s wise not to wait.
Shutterstock

Richard Holden, UNSW

In an enormous week for economic news at the start of the month, parliament passed the government’s three-stage personal income tax plan, and the Reserve Bank cut official interest rates to an unprecedented low of 1%.

It happened against the backdrop of a flagging economy in dire need of stimulus.

As the bank cut rates to a record low, its governor Philip Lowe again warned about the waning power of rates (monetary policy) to lift the economy.

At the Darwin community dinner after the board meeting he said:

Monetary policy does have a significant role to play and our decisions are helping support the Australian economy. But, we should not rely on monetary policy alone. We will achieve better outcomes for society as a whole if the various arms of public policy are all pointing in the same direction.

Lowe and many others – including yours truly – have repeatedly pointed out that spending on physical and social infrastructure can do what lower rates can’t do well – boost the economy while lifting its productivity. So, too would other productivity-enhancing reforms, particularly in the labour market.

And, of course, the government’s tax cuts will also stimulate the economy when they come into effect.

With tax cuts, timing’s the thing…

The obvious problem is that much of stimulus from those tax cuts will happen years from now, rather than today.

What the government should have done was insist on enacting all three stages of their tax plan immediately. Not staggered over several years, not in 2024-25. Now.

That would have, of course, pushed the budget into deficit in the short run, and that would would have run counter to the government’s narrative about being responsible economic managers.

But how responsible is it to prioritise one’s own political brand over the economic health of the nation?




Read more:
Ultra-low unemployment is in our grasp. How Philip Lowe became the governor who lifted our ambition


Let’s not forget where the timing of the government’s tax plan came from. 2024-25 is outside the budget’s so-called “forward estimate” period and thus the impact on the deficit or surplus projections is not apparent.

It was the same rationale that underpinned the glacial, decade-long pace at which the government’s “enterprise tax plan” was to move to a 25% company tax rate. And it is the same set of dodgy accounting tricks that Wayne Swan was a master of for everything from health to education spending commitments.

…and the timing could be immediate

Productive infrastructure spending is hard to enact quickly. Spending on social infrastructure like education and training has a long lead time.

And structural reform of the industrial relations system might is probably the hardest and longest of all to put in place.

They are real constraints.

The Reserve Bank faces another, the so-called “zero lower bound” of conventional monetary policy and the complexities and uncertainties of unconventional policies such as quantitative easing.




Read more:
Below zero is ‘reverse’. How the Reserve Bank would make quantitative easing work


But a government which won a mandate for its tax policies, and who frankly has the Labor opposition in a tailspin, could have insisted on all three stages of the tax cuts immediately.

The only thing standing between the economy and the aggressive fiscal stimulus it needs is the government’s obsession with balancing the budget regardless of the circumstances.

We’re not in the best of times

Don’t get me wrong, I think debt and deficits most certainly do matter. The government deserves credit for chipping away at the structural budget deficit, and we shouldn’t be running deficits in good economic times.

But we’re not in good economic times. We’re standing on the precipice of the first recession in nearly three decades. We’re looking at highly uncertain global conditions, domestic economic growth that has slowed to a trickle, sluggish wages growth, persistently high underemployment, and even the possibility of Japanese-style deflation.

The irony is that if, with the failure to enact sufficiently bold stimulus, we do tip into a recession, the red ink will flow all through the budget. Unemployment benefits and welfare payments will rise, personal and corporate income receipts will fall, GST revenue will drop. And young people who enter the labour market during a recession will suffer for years to come.

The downsides of not enacting sufficient fiscal stimulus far outweigh whatever benefits there are of a glide to path to budget balance while avoiding a recession.

It’s certainly not the time for hand-wringing

Coming back to Lowe’s admonition that we need the “various arms of public policy…pointing in the same direction”, here’s where we currently stand: The bank has acted, but far too late. For years it told us that 5% unemployment was as good as it could get long-term, to be patient and to wait for higher wage growth and inflation.

It’s been a mere five weeks since Lowe stopped impersonating Charles Dickens’ character Wilkins Micawber, who was fond of saying “something will turn up”.




Read more:
Buckle up. 2019-20 survey finds the economy weak and heading down, and that’s ahead of surprises


Now the treasurer Josh Frydenberg is giving us his version of the same routine. On one hand he says personal income tax cuts are crucial to boosting employment and spending. On the other hand, he says we’d better wait.

The Australian economy can’t afford to wait for aggressive stimulus. The government has shown more concern for its political brand than for our economic health.

It isn’t what a responsible steward would do.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The new Mabo? $190 million stolen wages settlement is unprecedented, but still limited


Thalia Anthony, University of Technology Sydney

The Queensland government’s in-principle agreement to pay A$190 million in compensation for the wages withheld from more than 10,000 Indigenous workers is a watershed moment for the stolen wages movement.

Indigenous people across Australia have been fighting for their denied and withheld wages for decades, both on the streets and in the courts. There have been some victories along the way and many setbacks.

The significance of the Queensland settlement (to settle a class action) is that it marks the first recognition these claims have legal as well as moral and political merit. Its ramifications are potentially limited, however, given the full injustice of how Indigenous wages were stolen.

A significant contribution

Historically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women found work in farming, mining, roadbuilding, irrigation, fencing, gardening, pearling, sealing, fishing and domestic duties. But they were most concentrated in the cattle industry of northern Australia, from Western Australia to Queensland.

Tens of thousands worked on cattle stations from the 1880s to 1970s. The beef industry could not have survived without them. In 1913, the federal government’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, Baldwin Spencer, noted that “under present conditions, the majority of cattle stations are largely dependent on the work done by black “boys”. In the 1930s, when the rest of the economy floundered in the Great Depression, Indigenous labour helped keep the industry profitable.

Cattlemen at Victoria River Downs Station, Northern Territory, in 1953.
Frank H. Johnston/National Library of Australia

Systemic stealing

Indigenous workers were entitled to be paid two-thirds of other workers, but even then employers often paid them less. Sometimes the low value of their wages was disguised by being paid in food and clothing rations. Sometimes workers were provided “store credit”, which could only be used to buy exorbitantly priced items.




Read more:
Friday essay: the untold story behind the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off


Station managers may have justified under-payment on the basis they were “caring” for workers through providing scant food, clothing and accommodation.

Governments, meanwhile, “withheld” income – often putting money into trust funds that Indigenous people were unable to access. The Queensland government’s $190 million offer is to settle a class action claim for it misappropriating such trust funds.

The fact Indigenous people were vulnerable to such exploitation for decades was made possible by an intricate legislative regime that gave the state expansive powers over their lives. In all states and territories, Aboriginal Protection Acts gave the government officials the power to control the money earned by Indigenous workers.

In Queensland, historian Rosalind Kidd has estimated that 4,500 to 5,500 Indigenous pastoral workers may have lost wage entitlements worth more than $500 million between 1920 and 1968.

Redress schemes

There have been redress schemes in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.

The Queensland government set up the first redress scheme in 2002. It set aside $55.6 million to compensate any individuals who could supply documentary evidence their wages or savings were taken by the Queensland government. If they could do so – and there was a deadline of 2006 on claims – the scheme provided an ex gratia payment of $2,000 to $4,000.

These conditions set a high bar, and $21 million went unclaimed.

Western Australia established its scheme in 2012. It also involved a small ex gratia payment ($2,000) with a limited window to make claims. Claimants called the scheme insulting and mean-spirited. The ABC reported a source that said state treasury officials agreed individuals were owed as much as $78,000, and the government kept the work of its stolen wages taskforce quiet for years, waiting for potential claimants to die.

In distinction to these two schemes, the NSW Trust Funds Repayment Scheme (2006 and 2010) matched the wages withheld in trust funds between 1900 and 1969. It paid $3,521 for every $100 owed, or an $11,000 lump sum where the amount could not be established. This was the closest model to a reparations scheme, though also inhibited by bureaucratic requirements and time limitations.

Due to the limitations of all these state redress schemes, in 2006 a Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages recommended a national scheme. But no federal government since has acted on this recommendation.

Legal claims

Stolen wages claimants have taken their cases to court in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – but it is only in Queensland that they have had some success.




Read more:
Australia’s stolen wages: one woman’s quest for compensation


One of those is the case of James Stanley Baird, who sued the Queensland government for withheld wages on the basis that paying under-award wages to Indigenous workers was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. The state government compensated Baird and other plaintiffs the difference owed to them in damages and provided an apology.

Implications

The current settlement is based on a legal claim that the Queensland government breached its duty as a trustee and fiduciary in not paying out wages that were held in trust. The outcome is the most significant repayment for stolen wages plaintiffs in Australian history. Yet the benefits may be confined.

First, in Queensland there is a rich archive of documents (substantially unearthed and analysed by historian Rosalind Kidd) to prove the government misappropriated funds. Such a record may not exist elsewhere.

Second, the settlement only applies to wages placed in “trust accounts”. It has no implications for wages denied to Indigenous workers in other ways, such as by private employers who booked down wages or otherwise refused to pay.

For justice for all wronged Indigenous workers, there needs to be broad-based reparations for stolen wages. This requires truth commissions and a commitment by governments and anyone else that profited from that theft to restore what is owed.The Conversation

Thalia Anthony, Associate Professor in Law, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: When it comes to Indigenous recognition, Ken Wyatt will have to close multiple gaps


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If the Morrison government manages to get a referendum passed to give Australia’s Indigenous people constitutional recognition, it will be truly remarkable.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously taken little interest in this area, at least publicly. And he would have done something that proved beyond Tony Abbott, for whom it was a cause.

Morrison and his minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, would have stared down conservative colleagues, cut a deal with Labor, and persuaded enough Indigenous leaders to get on board.

Finally, the government would have overcome the public’s inherent negativity towards referendums.

It would, one might say, be another miracle.

But miracles are rare and on present indications this one will be extraordinarily hard to land.

We are yet to see how seriously committed Morrison will be to the recognition push. For a chance of success, he’ll need to put his back into it.




Read more:
The Morrison government proposes an Indigenous recognition referendum this term


His appointment of Wyatt, a man of Noongar, Wongi, and Yamatji heritage, was a statement in itself. The nomination of recognition for early attention was a surprise – and another indication that we have yet to get a grasp on Morrison as prime minister (as distinct from campaigner).

There has been much talk about his lack of an agenda, but the unveiling of a couple of significant priorities – industrial relations and now Indigenous recognition – suggests there might be more there than we suspected.

It’s important to be clear about what Wyatt – who outlined his proposals in a speech on Wednesday – is saying.

The government’s ambit hope is to put a referendum for recognition during this parliamentary term. But this will only happen if two conditions are met: it can get consensus on the content of what would go into the constitution, and there’s a high probability of a favourable outcome. The latter means winning not just the overall vote but the vote in four of the six states. Both content and potential support will present major problems.

What of the timetable? If the government really wants to give constitutional change a red hot go, there is a case for pushing it hard and quickly. Support doesn’t necessary build as time passes; beyond a certain point, it can erode.

But judging whether and when there would be sufficient likely public backing for a Yes vote would be tricky. Post May 18, everyone has become rather chary of polls. And things could quickly change in the final countdown.

History shows the voters’ penchant to say No. Despite the triumph of the 1967 referendum to give the federal government power to make laws for Aboriginal people and count them in the census (carried overwhelmingly in every state), referendums generally fail. Only eight have been passed – the last in 1977.




Read more:
Listening with ‘our ears and our eyes’: Ken Wyatt’s big promises on Indigenous affairs


Formulating the question will be an extremely challenging hurdle to climb over.

A constitutional change that acknowledged Australia’s First Peoples but didn’t go much beyond that would be easiest to get through government ranks and the popular vote.

It is hard to see either Indigenous leaders or Labor accepting just that.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in their 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart called for “the establishment of a First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution”.

But the indications are a voice would not be part of the government’s constitutional model. Wyatt does want a voice at the national level, but he is vague about its form, and the official line is that Morrison has “no plans” for the voice.

Labor was committed at the election to putting into the constitution a voice – which would be an input to the political process, not any sort of third chamber of Parliament – and the ALP would come under attack from Indigenous leaders if it walked away from this.

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday, Labor’s Pat Dodson, shadow assistant minister for reconciliation and constitutional recognition (and an Indigenous man dubbed “the father of reconciliation”) declared:

We either deliver the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full or continue down the failed path of soft reconciliation measures.

The shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney (also Indigenous), who is working closely with Wyatt and will do some travelling with him, may be more flexible than Dodson. Nevertheless she said after Wyatt’s speech:

We are at a point in our development, in our history where a voice to the parliament absolutely has to be entrenched in the Australian Constitution.

Morrison has had talks with Anthony Albanese to pursue bipartisanship on Indigenous issues and the Labor leader was optimistic on Thursday that a successful recognition referendum in the next three years was “absolutely realistic and doable”.




Read more:
Constitutional reform made easy: how to achieve the Uluru statement and a First Nations voice


But former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, a member of the review panel Abbott set up to examine possible pathways to constitutional recognition, says that while he’s sympathetic to what Wyatt is undertaking,

finding the necessary national unity to avoid hurt and disappointment will be far from easy.

One huge problem, Anderson believes, will be getting Aboriginal people to come together on an agreed model.

Those in the Coalition party room and in the right wing commentariat who are critical of the move for recognition will use the spectre of the voice as a scare tactic.

The recognition issue will be one test of whether the right, though tamed since Malcolm Turnbull’s overthrow, will seriously arc up within the Liberal party in this term.

But Wyatt has attracted enthusiasm from some colleagues. NSW Liberal John Alexander was quick to declare

I’m with Ken on this, he has my full support for the process he has initiated and I hope it can conclude with a successful referendum vote and form of voice we can all be proud of.

Of particular importance, many big corporations, including mining companies, now have progressive positions on Indigenous affairs and will swing in behind the move. Wyatt has indicated he would be looking to them to help carry the debate, particularly in his home state of Western Australia, where a referendum would potentially be a hard sell.

He’d be encouraged by sentiments such as from Woodside, which said the company was

proud to give our support to this process as we continue to walk together with courage towards a reconciled Australia.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Ken Wyatt on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians


As with same-sex marriage, indeed probably more so, the corporate world is talking up an important social issue and prodding the politicians to act.

If Morrison has to retreat on Indigenous recognition, it is unlikely to make a great amount of difference to him. It won’t affect the outcome of the next election.

For Wyatt the issue has quite another dimension. This is a fight for his people. The stakes are personal, and must feel frightening high.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Listening with ‘our ears and our eyes’: Ken Wyatt’s big promises on Indigenous affairs



In his first major policy address, Ken Wyatt noted how previous governments have failed Indigenous Australians with a ‘top-down, command and control approach.’
Rohan Thomson/AAP

Eddie Synot, Griffith University

Recently, I wrote that Ken Wyatt’s appointment as the minister for Indigenous Australians was a momentous occasion in Australian history. The appointment showed the government is committed to doing things differently when it comes to its responsibilities and obligations to Indigenous Australians.

It is still incredibly early days, but Wyatt has delivered his first major speech at a significant time – in the middle of National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) week.

For Indigenous communities, the speech held much promise and provided key details on what the Morrison government’s approach to Indigenous affairs will look like over the next three years. This is major turning point that could result in real change after years of little progress.

New language on Indigenous affairs

Perhaps most significant was the rhetoric Wyatt used – it mirrored the language long used by many Indigenous Australians, but notably lacking in previous government addresses on these issues. Wyatt noted how previous governments have failed Indigenous Australians, acknowledging how even the

most well-intentioned modern policies and programs have still tended to take a top-down, command and control approach.

Wyatt echoed legitimate concerns with the way the government approached its Indigenous policies in the past, noting that it had been as

if Aboriginal people didn’t know what they needed or wanted.

He further noted that dominant attitudes toward Indigenous affairs had ignored “proud members of one of the world’s longest-lived civilisations,” pretending as if they

had nothing to say, no wisdom to offer, about what would help their families thrive and their communities flourish.

The significance of a cabinet minister, especially one responsible for Indigenous affairs, highlighting these aspects of Australian history and society is massive. The change in comparison to earlier ministers who ignored or dismissed these truths is remarkable.

The Constitution remains key

Another major shift for the Coalition government: there is no longer a disregard for the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a First Nations voice being entrenched in the Constitution.

While Wyatt demurred on specific details, emphasising a “consensus option,” he did otherwise commit to a referendum within three years. This is another significant step toward implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It is important to note that the final report of the Referendum Council, as well as the bi-partisan, parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition, both affirmed that a First Nations voice as called for by the Uluru Statement was the most sensible and widely supported option for reform.

Also supporting the conclusions of the Referendum Council and the Joint Select Committee, Wyatt emphasised that “the constitution remains key.” Both found that current representative mechanisms for Indigenous peoples were not working. And both agreed that only a First Nations voice would provide the type of representation required to empower Indigenous peoples and communities.

The Referendum Council advised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to hold a referendum on establishing a voice to parliament in 2017, but Turnbull rejected the recommendation.
Paul Miller/AAP

A move away from top-down policy

Wyatt touched on many other issues that are important to Indigenous communities and are aimed at bringing more local input to policy-making.

On the issue of truth telling, he poignantly recognised that without truth

there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future.

More details were also provided on the role of the new coordinating agency called the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA). The NIAA aims to coordinate efforts across all levels of government and Indigenous communities to allow Indigenous peoples to empower themselves.

Wyatt specifically indicated that he doesn’t intend policy to come from the NIAA or his office. Rather, policy actions are to be supported by all levels of community and the state and territory governments to enable communities to own their own policy actions.

This is continued movement away from what Wyatt described as the history of
“a top-down, command and control approach” that has failed Indigenous Australians.

Wyatt emphasised this by saying that his intention is “to have genuine conversations, not only with Indigenous leaders and peak bodies, but with families, individuals and community organisations so that I can hear their voices.”

This addresses the long history of Indigenous peoples not being listened to and rather being told what will happen. Wyatt noted again that

the most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen – with our ears and with our eyes.

One area of concern

The speech also raised the priority issues of youth suicide, the revival and maintenance of Indigenous languages (with a pledged A$10 million), and the expansion of programs aimed at supporting Indigenous businesses, such as the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which provides incentives for Indigenous businesses to grow.

Wyatt also reemphasised the creation of the new position of a national suicide prevention adviser to coordinate and advise on already announced funding and increased support service delivery.

It is still early and only time will tell whether these actions will help, but at least one area of the speech raises concern: Wyatt’s commitment to revamp the the Community Development Program aimed at employment, training and development for Indigenous communities. By creating community advisory boards, Wyatt claimed that the

CDP has been reformed to ensure communities have a say in the way the programme is run.

The problem, however, hasn’t just been how the program is run. Many have been advocating for the abolishment of the CDP, rather than its reform.

Too many Indigenous people in the program work significant hours for less than minimum wage and face punitive punishments for non-compliance with regulatory requirements. This includes being fined for failing to show for work, which impacts the participants’ ability to purchase life necessities.

In attempting to force participants into work, the CDP fails to understand the challenges of remote communities and, as such, unfairly discriminates against Indigenous people. The CDP is effectively a “work-for-the-dole” program that punishes poverty rather than empowering communities.

Overall, Wyatt’s speech continued to build on the early optimism surrounding his appointment. His notable change in rhetoric from previous governments and his commitment for early action to build on reforms, such as the Council of Australian Governments’ partnership agreement with peak Indigenous organisations to close the gap in health, education and employment opportunities and the Indigenous Advancement Strategy Evaluation Framework, are welcome.

Most importantly, Wyatt’s recommitment to constitutional reform moves the nation one step closer to achieving those important reforms of voice, treaty and truth from the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As Wyatt noted, this is

too important to get wrong, and too important to rush.

But the crucial thing to remember is how far we have come since the Turnbull government’s response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, just two short years ago.The Conversation

Eddie Synot, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Morrison government proposes an Indigenous recognition referendum this term


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Morrison government plans to hold a referendum in the next three years on whether to enshrine constitutional recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Announcing the proposal on Wednesday, the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said he would:

develop and bring forward a consensus option for constitutional recognition to be put to a referendum during the current parliamentary term.

He said he had begun seeking the counsel of Indigenous leaders on the best way forward. But Wyatt made it clear that the final decision on whether the referendum goes ahead this term will depend on achieving a high degree of consensus and the prospect of it having a very strong chance of success.

Constitutional recognition is too important to get wrong, and too important to rush.

Wyatt stressed the importance of bipartisanship, and will establish a cross-party parliamentary working group to assist with engagement to develop a “community model” for the referendum.

Labor’s shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Linda Burney “will be integral to this process”, Wyatt told the National Press Club in a major speech outlining the Morrison government’s approach to Indigenous affairs. Both Wyatt and Burney are Indigenous.




Read more:
Ken Wyatt faces challenges – and opportunities – as minister for Indigenous Australians


Wyatt did not indicate how he envisioned changing the constitution, which has been highly controversial in the last few years.

The May 2017 “Uluru Statement from the Heart” called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution”.

The Referendum Council proposed a national Indigenous representative assembly be added to the constitution, but this was rejected by the Turnbull government.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently shifted course and begun speaking with Labor leader Anthony Albanese about a bipartisan approach to constitutional recognition. Without bipartisanship, any referendum is doomed to failure; passage is difficult enough even with agreement of the major parties. The last successful referendum of any sort was in 1977.

Changing the constitution through a referendum requires an overall majority of votes and a majority in a majority of states. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted to hold a referendum on Indigenous recognition, the plan slipped away amid arguments over its content and doubts about getting the necessary support.




Read more:
Listening but not hearing: process has trumped substance in Indigenous affairs


Wyatt also promised the development of “a local, regional and national voice”. He did not spell out the detail of a national “voice”.

He said the concept of the “voice” in the Uluru Statement from the Heart “is not a singular voice”.

It is a cry to all tiers of government to stop and listen to the voices of Indigenous Australians at all levels.

All they want is for governments to hear their issues, stories of their land and their local history.

He said Indigenous communities are asking the three tiers of government to stop and take the time to listen to their voices.

The national interest requires a new relationship with Indigenous Australians based on their participation and establishing entrenched partnerships at the community and regional levels.

Wyatt also said he would work on “progressing how we address truth telling.

Without the truth of the past, there can be no agreement on where and who we are in the present, how we arrived here and where we want to go in the future.




Read more:
Treaty talk is only one problem for Indigenous recognition referendum


On the treaty issue, he said it was important for states and territories to take the lead.

Wyatt said the significance of symbolism must never be forgotten but “it must be balanced with pragmatism that results in change for Indigenous Australians”. He highlighted the new National Indigenous Australians Agency, which was set up by Morrison to oversee Indigenous affairs policy.

With the establishment of the agency on 1 July, we began a new era for the government to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians. It will provide opportunities for growth and advancement in education, employment, suicide prevention, community safety, health and constitutional recognition.

The most important thing that I and the agency will do is to listen – with our ears and with our eyes.

I intend to have genuine conversations, not only with Indigenous leaders and peak bodies, but with families, individuals and community organisations so that I can hear their voices and work together to agree to a way forward for a better future for our children.

He also wanted businesses “to sit with me around boardroom tables – and around campfires – and discuss how they can contribute”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran’s leader is losing his grasp on power. Does this mean diplomacy is doomed?



President Hassan Rouhani came to office with an olive branch, but his hard-liners rivals now appear to be setting the political agenda in Iran.
Iranian Presidency Office Handout/EPA

Shahram Akbarzadeh, Deakin University

Iran’s announcement last Sunday that it would break the limit on uranium enrichment agreed to in the nuclear deal with world powers was not a surprise. It came hot on the heels of another breach only a few days earlier on the 300-kilogram limit agreed to in the deal on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium.

Iran had warned Europe that it would start dismantling the nuclear accord if the promised economic benefits of the agreement did not materialise. A year after the US withdrew from the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and imposed very strict sanctions on Iran, the Iranian leadership appears ready to give up on finding a diplomatic solution to this deadlock.




Read more:
Iran’s nuclear program breaches limits for uranium enrichment: 4 key questions answered


This bodes ill for the future of President Hassan Rouhani and regional security. A weakened Rouhani will find it difficult to fend off his hard-line critics in Iran and keep the nuclear deal alive.

With every step away from diplomacy, the hard-liners have taken a step forward and appear to be now setting the political agenda in Iran.

Rouhani’s riskiest gamble

The JCPOA was signed in 2015 between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.

This was Rouhani’s greatest achievement and riskiest gamble. He faced the ire of hard-liners in Iran who continue to have a formidable presence in the parliament, as well as the security and judicial system.

They accused Rouhani of selling out Iranian sovereignty and betraying the ideals of the Islamic revolution by scaling back Iran’s nuclear program and subjecting it to an unprecedented international monitoring regime.

Rouhani nonetheless pushed through his agenda of finding a diplomatic solution to Iran’s isolation because he believed that years of sanctions and mismanagement had pushed the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse.

He staked his political fortunes on bringing Iran out of isolation.

The JCPOA was the compromise deal to assure the international community that Iran would not pursue a nuclear weapons program in return for sanctions relief to revive the Iranian economy.

But US President Donald Trump never liked the deal. He campaigned against it and often questioned Iran’s commitment to it, though the UN International Atomic Energy Agency consistently reported on Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement.




Read more:
Why Donald Trump is backing the US into a corner on Iran


Despite much lobbying by European powers, Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and reimposed severe unilateral sanctions on Iran, and anyone dealing with Iran.

Losing control to the hard-liners

Trump’s decision to tear up the nuclear deal was seen by the conservatives in Iran as a vindication of their feelings towards the United States. They lambasted Rouhani for putting his trust in the US.

In May 2019, the situation got even more tense after Trump announced that US warships were sailing to the Persian Gulf to counter potential Iranian hostility. No intelligence regarding a suspected Iranian threat was shared.

The escalation of tensions following the alleged Iranian attack on two oil tankers last month, and the downing of a US reconnaissance drone by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards has made it very hard to find a diplomatic solution. Drums of war are silencing voices of diplomacy.

While Rouhani came to office with an olive branch, he realises that he has effectively lost the political contest against his hard-line critics. He has another two years in office, but is at risk of losing the presidency if the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who yields ultimate power in Iran, is disillusioned with his performance.

This realisation has seriously undermined Rouhani, who appears to have adopted the language and posture of the hard-liners in relation to the US. It is unclear if this can save him in office, or embolden his critics who seem to be gaining significant momentum.

In May, the Supreme Leader appointed a battle-hardened General as the commander of the Basij paramilitary force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards that suppresses domestic dissent.




Read more:
Iran nuclear deal is hanging by a thread – so will Islamic Republic now develop a bomb?


This was a significant development for the hard-liners in case they seek to assert political control. Basij has been a ruthless security force inside Iran and can provide the necessary street support for a potential coup against Rouhani.

Another notable military commander is General Qasem Soleimani, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in Iran due to his performance as commander of Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ international arm operating mostly in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State.

He is considered a war hero by the public and now has the confidence of the Supreme Leader. This is an ominous development for Rouhani.

A woman carrying a picture of Qasem Soleimani during an anti-US demonstration in Tehran earlier this year.
Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

Breaking with the tenets of the nuclear deal was also clearly not Rouhani’s objective, as it would reverse his hard-won diplomatic gains and discredit his legacy.

Iran’s recent breaches on uranium enrichment and stockpiles were incremental steps to exert pressure on European leaders to adhere to their promises of sanctions relief. This strategy was predicated on the assumption that Europe has more to lose with the collapse of JCPOA than a rift with the United States. It can only be described as a desperate move, showing that Rouhani is fast running out of options.

The window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution is fast closing and the alternative scenario of the return of a combative government in Tehran is looking more and more unavoidable. This would shut the doors to diplomacy and increase the chance of confrontation with the West.

Trump accused Iran of not wanting to sit at the table. He may be fulfilling his own prophecy.


An earlier version of this article implied General Qasem Soleimani was the leader of the Basij security force, when he is actually the commander of the Quds Force.The Conversation

Shahram Akbarzadeh, Professor of Middle East & Central Asian Politics, Deputy Director (International), Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran’s nuclear program breaches limits for uranium enrichment: 4 key questions answered


Martin Sevior, University of Melbourne

Iranian officials this week revealed that the country’s nuclear program will break the limit for uranium enrichment, set under the terms of the deal struck in 2015 between Iran and world powers including the United States under former president Barack Obama.




Read more:
Uranium, plutonium, heavy water … why Iran’s nuclear deal matters


What is uranium enrichment?

The nucleus of a uranium atom is a very rich source of energy. The splitting of a uranium atomic nucleus – a process called nuclear fission – produces more than 20 million times more energy than a strong chemical reaction such as burning a molecule of natural gas.

Atomic nuclei are made of two types of subatomic particles: protons and neutrons. All uranium atoms contain 92 protons, but can contain varying numbers of neutrons. Each specific combination of neutrons and protons is called an isotope. Isotopes are named according to the total number of protons and neutrons – hence, uranium-238 (U-238) contains 92 protons and 146 neutrons, whereas U-235 contains three fewer neutrons.

U-235 undergoes nuclear fission more readily than U-238, making it more valuable as a source of nuclear energy. What’s more, only U-235 can sustain a “nuclear chain reaction”, in which enough neutrons are released during nuclear fission to trigger fission in neighbouring atomic nuclei. This process is necessary to efficiently release large amounts of energy – either in a controlled way, such as in a nuclear power station, or in an uncontrolled explosion such as in a nuclear bomb.

Natural uranium, however, contains just 0.7% U-235, and 99.3% U-238. Commercial nuclear reactors designs generally require uranium fuel with U-235 concentrations of between 3.5% and 5%.

Uranium enrichment is the process of artificially increasing the proportion of U-235 in a sample of uranium to meet this requirement.

What does the process involve?

The technical details of uranium enrichment technology are highly classified, but we know the most efficient technique uses a process called centrifuge enrichment.

This involves reacting the uranium with fluorine to form a gas called uranium hexafluoride (UF₆). This is then spun at very high speeds in a series of centrifuges.

UF₆ molecules containing the heavier U-238 isotope are forced to the outside of the centrifuge, where they are removed. The remaining gas is thus richer in U-235, hence the term “enrichment”.

By feeding the mixture through a succession of centrifuges, the uranium becomes successively more enriched. Higher levels of uranium enrichment are therefore more expensive and time-consuming.

A typical 1-gigawatt commercial nuclear reactor contains one reactor and uses around 27 tonnes of enriched uranium fuel per year, although this depends on the quality of the nuclear fuel used. In a commercial market this costs around US$40 million, which is a small fraction of the US$450 million revenue that would be generated if we assume an electricity price of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Does it inevitably lead to weapons?

The technical details of nuclear weapons development are more closely guarded still. But we know that a uranium fission weapon requires tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, with U-235 concentrations of around 90%.

While the level of enrichment is much higher, there is no difference in the equipment used to make weapons-grade uranium, as opposed to nuclear fuel.

The same facilities used to produce 27 tonnes of 3.6% U-235 fuel for a commercial reactor could conceivably also be used to make one tonne of U-235 enriched to 90% – roughly enough for 20 nuclear weapons.

However, the post-processing of the UF₆ to make nuclear fuel is considerably different to that required for a weapon. In the case of nuclear fuel, it is formed into uranium oxide pellets and encased in zirconium alloy tubes. Weapons require pure uranium metal.

What limit has Iran breached, and what does it stand to gain?

Under the treaty, Iran agreed to enrich uranium to no more than 3.6%, and to only stockpile enough fuel to run its single commercial nuclear reactor for one year.

It has already breached the stockpiling limit, and has now broken the enrichment limit.




Read more:
The Iran nuclear deal could still be saved, experts say


In theory, these breaches could allow Iran’s nuclear reactor to run more economically and for a longer time before the fuel needs to be replaced. However, these higher-enrichment fuels require very specialised processing, and only a handful of companies worldwide have the technology to do this. The waste handling required for the spent fuel is also more sophisticated.

Whatever Iran’s ultimate aim, and despite the diplomatic tensions, its uranium enrichment levels are not yet near those required for nuclear weapons.The Conversation

Martin Sevior, Associate Professor of Physics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.