1977-78: anti-uranium movement debates strategy

Issue 

Picture

1977-78: anti-uranium movement debates strategy

By Greg Adamson

Following delays under the Labor government of 1972-75, the uranium mining industry felt it was set for a major boost with the election of the federal Coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser. The rise of the international anti-nuclear movement changed that. By mid-1978, tens of thousands of people and many organisations were fighting to keep the deadly ore in the ground.

During 1978, activists' attention was focused on the battle waged against the federal government and the uranium companies by Aborigines in the Northern Territory, represented by the Northern Land Council.

When the go-ahead for mining and export of uranium was announced in August 1977, Aboriginal affairs minister Ian Viner said the government had accepted all the Fox report's recommendations on Aborigines, including that no mining in Kakadu National Park begin until Aboriginal title to the area had been granted and the necessary control mechanisms set up.

Despite this, and over the angry objections from the NLC, mining companies carried out widespread exploration of the area. Ranger Uranium made substantial preparations on its mine site inside Kakadu. In November 1977, in reply to protests, the government endorsed the mining companies' preparations.

The huge investments being made by the companies indicated that the government had given them clear assurances that the Aboriginal people would not be allowed to prevent mining. In May 1978, Canberra allowed Pancontinental Mining to carry out test drilling at Jabiluka.

The terms for the extraction of uranium were being negotiated in mid-1978 between the federal government and the NLC. The Aborigines had not relented in their opposition to mining, but pressure and threats from the government had convinced many that mining would be allowed to proceed whether they agreed or not.

On August 4, it was reported that the talks had reached a stalemate on environmental questions and on the royalties to be paid to the Aboriginal communities by the mining companies. Fraser promptly threatened to appoint an arbitrator whose decision would be binding.

Bullying tactics

Late in August it was announced that agreement had been reached between the government and NLC representatives, and that the Ranger project would go ahead once the agreement was ratified by a full NLC meeting on September 15.

But on September 21, a judge of the NT Supreme Court granted an injunction restraining the NLC from signing the agreement. Several Aboriginal communities applied for the injunction because of their dissatisfaction with the way the September 15 NLC meeting had been conducted. Only half of the council's 42 members had been present.

An especially sore point with the Aboriginal communities was the crude threats Fraser and his ministers had used against NLC leaders to get them to recommend that the agreement be approved. At a meeting on September 8, Fraser told NLC chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu: "I have the power to block any law in the NT. I'm the number one man in Australia. We're not going to negotiate. Shut up and sit down. We're going to dig that hole anyway. It doesn't matter if you don't want it. We're still going to do it.

"If this agreement is not signed you will lose the Northern Land Council. I will take it off you ... you won't have anything."

Moved by a groundswell of opposition within the Aboriginal communities, the NLC told the Supreme Court on September 22 that it would review its decision to ratify the agreement. With this announcement, the NLC blocked mining until mid-1979, because the wet season was impending. On October 11, the Ranger agreement was rejected by a meeting of 40 NLC delegates.

On November 3, yet another NLC meeting signed the agreement. Under ruthless pressure from the federal government, NLC chairman Yunupingu caved in, and began campaigning for the agreement to be accepted.

The final NLC discussions on the matter were a shameful affair, in which Yunupingu and Aboriginal affairs minister Ian Viner exploited the confusion of the delegates to present the agreement as an accomplished fact which the Aboriginal people had no right to continue to oppose. According to NLC member Leo Finlay, the traditional owners of the Ranger mine site were not asked their opinion; the consultation required by the Land Rights Act never occurred.

During December an agreement was signed covering mining at Nabarlek, where mining officially began on June 8, 1979, with a $25,000 party for 200 guests. Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony unveiled a plaque, and Galarrwuy Yunupingu and two Japanese power company executives used a silver spade to turn the first sods. Aboriginal children were given party hats, balloons and sweets. The Ranger mine was officially inaugurated three days later.

Hiroshima Day

With at least 40,000 people taking part around the country, the 1978 Hiroshima Day demonstrations established clearly that the anti-uranium movement had not lost ability to involve large numbers of people in political struggle.

Particularly significant was the turnout of 25,000 people in Melbourne, equal to the largest of the 1977 demonstrations. For the first time, the Victorian ALP had been drawn into mobilising its members and supporters to join the campaign.

Large numbers of people, including trade unionists, secondary and university students and professionals, were beginning to take visible political action against the nuclear menace. Just a few years earlier, a movement against the US war against Vietnam had played an important part in ending one of the most vicious military invasions in history.

The government and the capitalist media dismissed the mass actions. Not surprisingly, the views of the Australian ruling class were echoed by some people within the movement. They argued that the mass of people are powerless, and that there is no point in trying to mobilise mass opposition to uranium mining.

Advocates of this position on the right looked for an elite of scientists, entertainers or politicians as the force that could end the uranium threat. This position was mirrored on the left by those believed that the bravery of a militant minority of activists could substitute for mass action by broad numbers of people.

Elite or mass campaigning

One left-wing version of this political elitism was expressed in the August 19, 1978, issue of the Battler, the newspaper of the International Socialists. An article entitled "Which way now for the uranium movement?" stated: "People are more and more questioning the value of street marches ... No-one, least of all Fraser, is going to take the movement seriously if all we ever do is march and make speeches."

This was a caricature of what the movement had been doing. A typical example of the impact of the movement was at the University of Queensland, a major organising centre for the anti-uranium movement. In preparation for the 1978 Hiroshima Day, a group of 50 or so engineering students had formed an "Engineers Against Uranium" group, and marched behind their own banner.

The mass orientation of the movement was convincing millions of Australians of the need to oppose the nuclear fuel cycle. Students, workers and many others were convinced of the value of joining mass protests. Trade union protests were possible because individual unionists were convinced by the mass movement.

By the late 1960s, there was no tradition of environmental education within the Australian union movement that could explain why unions across the political spectrum were willing to take up the issue. What was convincing rank and file unionists was the mass anti-uranium movement itself.

Street march ban

In Queensland, the government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen banned the right to march on the city streets. Some in the movement argued that mass civil disobedience to the ban, involving hundreds of people walking into police lines to be arrested, was the highest priority.

The alternative view was that the anti-uranium movement should oppose this restriction but continue to mobilise the largest possible number of people in public demonstrations against uranium mining. Turning anti-uranium demonstrations into exercises in mass civil disobedience, they argued, assisted neither in focusing on the anti-uranium message nor in building the anti-uranium movement.

It was not only the mining of uranium that the anti-nuclear campaign would have to combat. In March, deputy PM Anthony announced that Japan had agreed to take part in the building of a uranium enrichment plant in Australia during the next two years. While in Paris in July, Anthony announced that France would also be a partner. Western Australia's premier, Sir Charles Court, supported moves by the Western Mining Corporation to set up an enrichment plant near its Yeelirrie uranium deposit, north of Kalgoorlie.

In October 1978, it emerged that the Atomic Energy Commission was planning to have nuclear power stations operating in several states by the mid-1990s. AEC officials revealed that the commission was already working on plans for nuclear power with state government authorities in WA and Victoria. In June 1979, the Court government named two prospective sites, both in an earthquake-prone area.

[This is the third in a series on the history of the anti-

nuclear movement. Greg Adamson has been active in the movement since the 1970s and is the author of We All Live on Three Mile Island: the case against nuclear power (Pathfinder Press, 1981). He is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]