CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
What Labor will do about uranium mining
, April 15, 2006
Labor has until April next year, when its national conference meets, to decide on how to deal with the uranium question
.Prime Minister John Howard is once again attempting to split the Opposition Labor Party - this time over uranium sales to China - in a bid to further undermine Kim Beazley's leadership.
However, there are a number of reasons why, on this occasion, Labor will not succumb to what has now become a well-rehearsed tactic by the PM.
Mr Howard has raised the prospect of using constitutional powers to override Labor states which remain opposed to opening up new mines because of the party's "three mines" uranium policy.
Labor has until April next year, when its national conference meets, to decide on how to deal with the uranium question.
Already there is a stand-off between resources spokesman Martin Ferguson, who wants the policy scrapped, and environment spokesman Anthony Albanese, who is backing the 20-year-old policy.
But Mr Howard is now trying to use the stand-off, and the long hiatus between the signing of the recent deal with China and Labor's conference, to expose Mr Beazley's "weak" leadership.
There are three reasons why this is unlikely to work.
Firstly, Australians remain suspicious about selling uranium to China, despite Premier Wen Jiabao's assurances that the ore will be used for peaceful purposes, and despite China being a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
China's growing power and trade dominance over Australia may please the bureaucrats in the Federal Treasury and some politicians in Canberra, but, in the wider electorate, Australians are more wary.
Secondly, the environment lobby itself is divided over uranium because it is increasingly being seen as an alternative to carbon-producing fossil fuels.
So-called global warming and "climate change" have overtaken the "nuclear winter" as the chief pre-occupation of environmental groups around the world.
The debate is still in its early stages, but the logical follow-on to the global warming argument is that, if the world is really facing catastrophic climate change and rising sea levels, the only immediate quick alternative to a near total collapse of the Western economies, is nuclear-powered electricity.
Thirdly, Labor knows the uranium debate inside out and, after almost two decades of angst, the heat has largely gone out of the debate.
Labor won power in 1983 with an anti-uranium mining policy, yet Prime Minister Bob Hawke succeeded in convincing his party to maintain the status quo of the existing three mines which were open at the time.
But Mr Hawke, a consummate pragmatist, did so only after overcoming great opposition from within his party, leading to the creation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party which won a Senate seat.
Known as the "Three Named Uranium Mines" policy, it restricted uranium mining across Australia to Ranger and Nabarlek in the Northern Territory and the new mining venture at Roxby Downs in South Australia.
All other proposals for further uranium mines were shelved, including Jabiluka, Yeelirrie (which had a pilot plant conducting feasibility studies in preparation for a major mining development), Honeymoon and Beverley.
Mr Hawke argued that the mines should not be closed but be phased out slowly once they had been exhausted of their minable uranium deposits.
That period coincided with the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), French nuclear-testing in the Pacific, and the ever-present threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Berlin Wall has fallen and nuclear safety is no longer a prominent issue, now that almost 20 per cent of electricity in the world is generated by nuclear power stations. However, Labor's policy has been criticised ever since as being illogical.
In 1996, when the Coalition won power, the "three mines" policy was scrapped and, since then, the South Australian Beverley mine has been opened and Honeymoon is on the way to being opened.Five-mine policy
If Labor were to win power at the next election, it would either have to scrap uranium mining altogether - or change to a five-mine policy.
Neither is going to happen. Labor has enough problems on its hands without going down the route of a bitter and divisive uranium debate.
Mr Beazley will succeed in scrapping the existing policy well before the debate at the national conference, and the issue will largely be forgotten.
And Mr Howard will have to find another issue on which to wedge Labor.