Kevin Rudd has accepted the right of state and territory Labor governments to veto his new uranium policy.
The ALP national conference decision to lift the party’s current ban on the development of new uranium mines was widely praised as a change of direction, as Mr Rudd imposed his new agenda on the Labor Party.
For over 30 years, successive Australian governments have approved the mining, processing and export of uranium from just three of about 20 known uranium deposits, to provide a safe and reliable source of electrical energy to many of the major developed nations of the world, including Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Finland, France, Belgium, South Korea and Japan.
The uranium is exported under very stringent conditions to ensure that none of it can be diverted into nuclear weapons production.
The Australian people were assured that Mr Rudd’s new policy would assist an export industry whose development has been crippled for 30 years by extreme environmental ideologues.
But will it? Most if not all state and territory Labor governments have enacted legislation to ban new uranium mines, or have firm anti-uranium policies.
Before new mines can obtain operating permits, this state legislation will have to be repealed. The first question is whether the existing legislation will now be changed enabling the development of commercially-viable uranium mines in Western Australia, SA, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Despite the conference vote, a reversal of existing policy is far from certain.
At the ALP conference, the policy change was proposed by Kevin Rudd and the SA Labor Premier, Mike Rann, in whose state there are already two uranium mines (Olympic Dam and Beverley), and a third with the necessary approvals to commence mining next year.
But it was opposed publicly by three state premiers, from New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland.
In the Northern Territory, where substantial uranium deposits have been discovered, mine development has been delayed by issues such as mining in or near national parks and the opposition of some Aboriginal communities.
The new policy was strongly opposed by ALP infrastructure spokesman, Anthony Albanese, and Peter Garrett, the ALP’s climate change and environment spokesman.
At the ALP national conference, Garrett said, “I have long been opposed to uranium mining, and I remain opposed to it. I am unapologetic about this. In fact, I am proud of it.”
Mr Garrett also foreshadowed that the opposition to uranium mining within the states would continue: “For those that argue uranium mining will benefit indigenous communities, I can point to indigenous communities clear in their opposition to uranium mining.” He added, “We must [also] ensure that National Parks and World Heritage Areas are properly protected”, that is, should be excluded from uranium mining.
The relevance of this is that it may prevent the development of the large Jabiluka deposit in the Northern Territory, discovered over 30 years ago, because it is surrounded by the Kakadu National Park, and its development is opposed by some of the local Aboriginal people.
This uranium mine was ready to go into production 24 years ago, when the incoming Hawke Labor Government withdrew export permits for the mine’s production, and it has since been mothballed.
Similarly, the rich Koongarra uranium deposit, located nearby on Aboriginal land which extends into the Kakadu National Park, is also mothballed.
Interestingly, in his speech at the ALP national conference, Mr Rudd made clear that he would approve state-based vetoes of his new policy. He said, “I fully recognise that individual states and territories, consistent with the fabric of our federation, will be taking their own approaches when it comes to individual land-use decision-making processes. I understand that. I accept that.”
Mr Rudd reinforced the uncertainty of his new policy by stating, “I understand the position taken by the premier of Queensland. I understand the position taken by the premier of Western Australia and have said publicly on many occasions and over many months my respect for the integrity of state-based land-use decision-making processes … Equally recognised [are] the rights of states and territories to apply their own land-use decision-making processes as individual proposals are put before them, all by way of general policy.”
In other words, the ALP has adopted a policy which permits an expansion of uranium mining, but leaves state and territory Labor governments with authority to veto that policy.
This is the policy which Labor will take into the federal election.
Despite the flaws in Labor’s policy, the Federal Government seems to have missed the key point, instead playing up the inconsistency in Labor’s policy of permitting the expansion of uranium mining, but opposing the development of a nuclear power industry. This may be true, but it is largely irrelevant.
– Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.