28/04/2011 - 00:00

Uranium policy Labor’s albatross

28/04/2011 - 00:00

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State Labor faces a political and ideological challenge when it next addresses its policy on uranium.

NOTHING sets the passions racing at a Labor Party conference like a debate on uranium. But the anticipated showdown on the issue at the party’s state conference in June is now unlikely; the debate seems certain to be shelved – for this year at least.

The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which resulted in radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power station, has seen to that.

Labor’s uranium dilemma certainly won’t go away. But a number of party hardheads believe that, given the Japanese experience, staging a potentially divisive debate – which could turn into a public brawl – would be counterproductive.

It will be the second consecutive year the issue has been put into the too-hard basket. Twelve months ago it was considered too close to the imminent federal election.

Yet a new opinion poll by Patterson Market Research testing the attitudes of voters in Western Australia has found they may be more forgiving towards the industry than at first thought. More than 400 voters – including about 100 in rural areas – were surveyed in a telephone poll in mid-April on their reactions to the ‘radiation issues in Japan’.

The majority – 71 per cent – agreed that the message for the industry was a “warning to improve”. Twenty-six per cent took a much stronger view. The fallout from the earthquake and resulting tsunami was a sign that the industry should be closed down. The remainder were undecided.

Labor’s recent hardline stance against uranium mining stemmed from its last national conference to be held Perth, in 1977. Until then the party’s policy had generally been supportive, including during the Whitlam years between 1972 and 1975. But doubts were beginning to emerge.

Bob Hawke was the party’s national president, as well as the ACTU leader, for the Perth conference. He had an ambivalent attitude, based on his ‘head and heart’.

“My head tells me that mining is OK, but my heart tells me the opposite,” was the pragmatic leader’s approach, based, he said, on pressure he was getting from his daughters. The momentum for a policy to ban mining was growing, and it carried the day.

In the early 1980s, delegates at another national conference had to grapple with the reality that uranium was already being mined in Australia. If the party won government, what would it do, close the mines down? Delegates were hissed and spat at as a majority backed the three mines policy. That is, Labor in government would allow the existing three mines to remain, but no more.

This continued until 2007. Another conference narrowly supported then leader Kevin Rudd’s plan to drop the ban on new mines, leaving the final decision up to state governments on what happened within their boundaries.

Under Labor premier Geoff Gallop, followed by Alan Carpenter, the position in WA remained unchanged, even though the state has more than 20 uranium deposits, including a number believed to be commercially viable.

But under Premier Colin Barnett, the Liberal Party has encouraged owners of uranium deposits to push on, and develop them for export. Obviously the market will be the overriding factor in investment decisions, but much work has still to be done on issues such as how will the uranium be transported, and where will be its point of export – WA, the Northern Territory or South Australia?

Labor mines and petroleum spokesman Jon Ford recently delivered an interim report on the uranium industry to opposition leader Eric Ripper. It questions the capacity of the current legislative framework to oversee the start of uranium mining, including occupational health as well as long-term safety issues.

It also raises the issue of liability. For example, if radioactive contaminated water leaches into groundwater supplies, who is responsible? And who pays for the rehabilitation of used mine sites?

If the uranium issue is passed over at the June conference, it must be tackled next year, the last conference before the 2113 election. Party strategists are already concerned about a conference floor showdown, which would be six months or so before the poll.

So next year’s debate could be confined to what to do with mines already in, or close to, operation. Three options are under consideration.

The first is a hardline stance. Mines in operation or under development would be closed down. That’s pretty radical, considering uranium is already being mined across the state border at Olympic Dam in South Australia under a state Labor government. What about sovereign risk and the political fallout?

The second option allows for mines already operating to continue, as occurred nationally during the Hawke and Keating years. But no more licences would be issued.

The third is no change. In other words, Labor’s party platform would remain silent on the issue, and the answer would be up to the leader, in this case Eric Ripper, to decide. A precedent occurred in South Australia when Labor’s Mike Rann led the party back to power. His government allowed the Olympic Dam mine to proceed when the state platform was silent on the issue.

It’s a matter WA Labor must confront, and sooner rather than later. The last thing the party needs is a half-baked policy muddying the waters as it seeks to regain the Treasury benches.

Court remembered

THE role of former Liberal premier Sir Charles Court in opening up the state’s iron ore, oil, and gas industries will be formally acknowledged at two events later this year.

The first, Sir Charles’ long-awaited biography by a former director of the Battye Library, Rhonda Jamieson (which has been six years in the making) has been earmarked for a July launch.

The book, which is expected to contain more than 500 pages, is based on more than 170 hours of interviews by the author with Sir Charles.

But the book also contains the opinions of others about Sir Charles, who established a reputation for an authoritarian approach during his 29 years in state politics, including eight years as premier from 1974 to 1982.

“I didn’t just want Sir Charles’ view,” Ms Jamieson said about her book, which will include a foreword by prominent historian, Geoffrey Blainey.

Two months later, Sir Charles will ‘return’ to St Georges Terrace when his statue, by Fremantle sculptor Tony Jones, is unveiled on the Mount Street corner, in the middle of the oil and gas precinct.

The statue was initiated by then Labor premier, Alan Carpenter, shortly after Sir Charles’ death in December 2007. Its installation is set for September 29, which would have been his 100th birthday.

The statue depicts Sir Charles striding out in his characteristic suit. The site will include a platform with a summary of his main achievements. There are doubts whether a proposal enabling the public to hear recordings of his voice on key issues will go ahead.

 

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