ALP left crumbles on French tests

Issue 

By Lisa Macdonald

Three weeks after the French government's decision to resume nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll, pressure is mounting on the federal government to act in accordance with the widespread public opposition to the tests.

Not for decades has popular opinion been so united on an issue. A Newspoll survey conducted for the Australian on June 24-25 found that 95% opposed the French tests. Only 27% of respondents thought the Australian government's response has been adequate. Over 60% said it was too weak.

Intent on maintaining good relations with its fellow imperialist friends in the Asia-Pacific region, and with the other major nuclear powers which have tacitly supported France's decision, the Keating government is paying the political price at home — and it knows it. Comments from deputy prime minister Kim Beazley, indicating that the federal election, previously mooted for later this year, may not go ahead until 1996, and federal cabinet's belated decisions on June 25 to recall its ambassador to France and cut some defence ties, are clearly responses to the pressure of public opinion.

An opportunistic populism has allowed the Coalition — despite its consistently pro-nuclear, pro-imperialist stance over the years — to appear to the left of Labor on this issue. The ALP has had to scramble to salvage its increasingly tarnished image as the major party of peace and the environment.

To this end, the ALP left faction crawled dutifully out of its mothballs. On June 25, the left's national convener, Bruce Childs, announced that the faction was demanding that the federal government cancel all uranium contracts with France, coordinate economic sanctions by the South Pacific Forum nations against France and push for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Chirac government's decision.

After making all the right noises for the media for a couple of days, the faction then crawled back under cover. By June 27, it had abandoned its demands, announcing that it would no longer press federal caucus to take stronger action against the tests.

The ALP left's spectacularly brief stand on principle leaves only the Democrats and the WA Greens in parliament pushing the (already limited) demand of halting uranium sales to France. Despite all the posturing over tactical differences for the mass media, the unity between the major parties was clearly revealed on June 27, when Labor and the Coalition joined forces to shut down debate on a bill introduced that day by Democrat Senator John Coulter to ban uranium exports to France.

The federal government is not alone in feeling the pressure of public anger. In the absence of national leadership, individual trade unions and Trades and Labour Councils are calling for and placing bans on work involving French services. This is pushing the ACTU in a more militant direction.

The ACTU has called for mass participation in Hiroshima Day protest activities on August 6. This is an important and welcome step. The support and mobilisation of workers through their trade unions is vital to winning demands for social justice and environmental sustainability.

The ACTU is one of the few remaining organisations in the country with the resources and membership base to mobilise large numbers of people on a nationwide basis. What it does (or doesn't do) to activate and organise the massive anti-nuclear test sentiment is central to forcing decisive action by the federal government.

The ACTU can and should do much more. Its call for a consumer boycott of French products, for example, is mere tokenism and will not bring any real pressure to bear on the French government. Neither does it have extensive community support. (The Newspoll survey revealed that 49% of people are not participating in the consumer boycott.)

While the various bans imposed by individual trade unions are a positive step, a nationally coordinated campaign of union bans with the aim of forcing a full trade and finance boycott would be much more effective. Knowing this, the ALP, the Coalition and the press barons have united to resist any discussion of moves down this path.

True to form, the ALP-dominated ACTU has toed the line. Whether or not it holds that line, and for how long, depends on the ability of the independent left in this campaign to draw on, activate and organise the will of the overwhelming majority of Australians that no tests are carried out in the Pacific.