08/05/2007 - 22:00

Uranium shift long overdue

08/05/2007 - 22:00


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Because State Scene has long supported cleaner energy generation worldwide, the Australian Labor Party’s decision at its national conference to at last scrap its silly three uranium mines policy and instead back additional mining of this energy source, wa

Because State Scene has long supported cleaner energy generation worldwide, the Australian Labor Party’s decision at its national conference to at last scrap its silly three uranium mines policy and instead back additional mining of this energy source, was most welcome.

Let’s ignore for the present the continued refusal of Western Australian premier, Alan Carpenter, to allow WA to benefit from this decision by blocking the mining of its half dozen uranium deposits.

Let’s also ignore, for the time being, Labor’s equally silly refusal to back John Howard’s long overdue move to ensure Australia becomes a player in the nuclear industry.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Australia was emerging to be a leader in peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Those skills and opportunities were wantonly squandered, however, because of an avalanche of ongoing propaganda against nuclear energy by Greens and short-sighted Laborites after the Whitlam government was toppled in 1975.

It may interest readers to know that State Scene experienced the impact of such campaigning at quite close quarters five years later.

At university, I knew well a student who gained excellent results in physics, easily one of the toughest subjects taught there at the time.

As things transpired, that student undertook frontline research in the late 1960s at Lucas Heights in Sydney – still Australia’s only nuclear reactor – for his doctoral studies.

Readers will therefore understand my feelings when I once went to my letterbox in 1980 to find a political flyer from this person, who’d been pre-selected as Labor’s federal candidate for the seat I was living in, and discovered he was backing Labor’s outright opposition to Australia mining uranium.

Like his party collectively, he’d succumbed to the post-1975 hysteria. This despite the fact that Labor, when in power during 1972-75, was so gung-ho for mining uranium that it had moved for the federal government to take shares in the Arnhem Land Ranger mine, and intended doing the same in other nearby uranium mines.

That said, consider another instance of Labor’s bloody mindedness.

Few Western Australians are likely to have heard of the late South Australian Labor MLC, Norman Foster, known to journalists and mates as ‘Stormy Normie’.

Mr Foster died in Adelaide last November.

When Labor’s recent national conference decided to broaden its uranium mining policy beyond just three mines, State Scene hoped we’d see some decency on the conference floor with Mr Foster being acclaimed for his bravery and far-sightedness a quarter of a century earlier.

But there was no mention of him.

Who, then, was ‘Stormy Normie’ Foster and why should have he been recalled and acclaimed at the national conference?

In June 1982, Mr Foster crossed the floor of South Australia’s upper house to back establishment of the Roxby Downs – now called Olympic Dam – uranium deposit, 560 kilometres north-west of Adelaide.

By doing so he ensured the then Tonkin Liberal government passed that crucial mine’s Indenture Ratification Act, which meant a major mining project was opened in 1988.

Interestingly, SA’s current premier, Mike Rann, released a pamphlet opposing that mine at the time.

But on Mr Foster’s death, Mr Rann said: “I think Norm will be remembered most of all by members of Parliament and those who served around Parliament House for his nickname ‘Stormy Normie’.”

Wrong, Mr Rann; he’ll be most remembered for backing establishment of the Olympic Dam mine, the uranium output of which is helping generate electricity without contributing to climate change – something your national leader, Kevin Rudd, is constantly spruiking about across the length and breadth of Australia.

“He was called Stormy Normie because I don’t think there’s been a more colorful member of this Parliament and he’s one of the great characters that was around in the ’60s and ’70s,” Mr Rann continued.

Wrong again, Mr Rann.

Mr Foster was a man of sense; someone who followed his convictions irrespective of what the mob thought, did, or threatened to do.

And it now turns out that Labor is following the path that Mr Foster had pioneered within its ranks 25 years ago. And Mr Rudd is going around claiming Labor is the party of the future. Give us a break.

But, better late than never.

Olympic Dam has brought great economic and skills benefits to SA, something it desperately needed when Mr Foster took his principled stand, and has helped ensure Canada did not gobble up most of the international uranium market.

Now, for some background on this patriotic South Aussie.

Norman Kenneth Foster was born in Adelaide in 1921; one of 12 children, with seven brothers and four sisters.

He left school during the Great Depression, aged 13, and worked in a range of labouring jobs, including in his family’s market gardens north of Adelaide.

On the outbreak of World War II he immediately volunteered, joining the 10th Battalion of the AIF.

Five of his brothers also served, and two of his sisters served overseas during that conflict.

Mr Foster’s war record covered the full duration of the war and included service in England, Tobruk, New Guinea and as a signaller in Borneo.

He was mentioned in dispatches for bravery in action.

After the war he became a waterside worker and was briefly a federal MP before entering state parliament.

In an early 1982 ballot, Mr Foster voted against the Roxby Downs project. But he changed his mind.

As one Liberal MP said after his death: “I know from members of the Liberal Government at the time that they were aware that he and others within the Labor caucus were hoping privately that the Roxby Downs development would go ahead, albeit that there was a party vote against it.

“As everyone is aware, he then made that very difficult decision.

“I think some of the [press] articles refer to the abuse he received in the time-honoured Labor tradition of calling someone who votes against the party a scab, which was often used to describe Norm Foster.

“He received death threats, and it was an entirely unpleasant experience for not only himself but his family during that difficult time.”

Mr Foster subsequently stated: “I have no regrets because I considered it was the right thing to do by the state.”

Although unsuccessfully contesting his seat as an independent Labor candidate later that year, he was eventually readmitted into the ALP at a unanimous vote of a special 1988 party convention.

Mr Foster, like his Labor colleagues, knew full well that the Roxby Downs deposit his party wanted untouched was massive.

It was revealed to be one of the world’s largest – nearly seven kilometres long, 4km wide and 1km deep.

There was enough ore to permit mining beyond 2050.

There’s no doubt that, if Mr Foster hadn’t broken rank, at the very least, exploitation of this world class uranium, copper, gold and silver deposit would have been delayed by many years, or not mined at all.

The latest information State Scene has located says the mine, as of June 2005, employed nearly 3,000 permanent and contractor employees and the operation was supporting a 4,000-strong town at Roxby Downs.

SA’s treasury is receiving about $30 million annually in royalty payments.

Nearly nine million tonnes of ore is mined annually to produce 200,000 tons of refined copper; 4,300t of uranium, 80,000 ounces of gold, and 850,000 ounces of silver.

South Australia is far better off exploiting this El Dorado, which is generating non-polluting electricity.

The irony of all this is that, soon after Labor’s national conference wound up, Mr Rudd headed for Olympic Dam to show that Labor backs uranium mining.

It’s unlikely Mr Foster’s name rolled off Mr Rudd’s lips during that whistle-stop visit.

Even less likely would have been a few words commending Mr Foster for his farsighted stance, 25 years ago, against all those who fell in like sheep behind Labor’s short-sighted anti-uranium stance.


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