Oppose Garrett's sell out — leave uranium in the ground

July 19, 2009

He occupied a (somewhat self-appointed) position as a hero of Australia's environment and Indigenous rights movements for decades. Yet these days, former Midnight Oil frontman and current ALP environment minister Peter Garrett works overtime to prove his credentials as a defender of big business and the big polluters.

Indeed, his sell-outs of the environment and Aboriginal people have become so common you could be forgiven for thinking the whole Midnight Oil thing was some extended, Chaseresque joke that no-one twigged on to.

His latest exercise in political surrender was his approval of the Four Mile uranium mine in northern South Australia. The deposit is the biggest uranium discovery in 25 years. It is just a few kilometres from Beverley uranium mine, the expansion of which Garrett approved last yeat.

Four Mile will be run by Quasar resources, a company owned by US weapons dealer and nuclear energy corporation General Atomics. General Atomics makes the Predator aerial drone vehicles the US is using so effectively to kill civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

James Neal Blue, a US billionaire who was a strong supporter of the United States' covert wars in Latin America in the 1980s, chairs the company.

The Four Mile mine decision has also affected the traditional owners, the Adnyamathana people. Some in the community have welcomed the potential royalties from the mine. Yet many feel they have been left out of the process and that the development will destroy significant sites.

Once again, an Indigenous community is being forced to give up its heritage to have access to basic services and living standards. Garrett is dividing a community where people would have expected the Midnight Oil-era Garrett to be promoting Indigenous empowerment and ownership.

Yet the decision is not so surprising if you look at the other decisions he has made since becoming the federal environment minister.

He approved the unpopular Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania, and gave the go ahead to the dredging of Port Phillip Bay.

As arts minister, he cut all funding to the Australian National Academy of Music without notice. He backed away from the proposal to stop tourists climbing Uluru and backed away from a logging ban in the Riverina-Murray.

He approved the Sugarloaf pipeline, which will take scarce water from the Goulburn River and approved the Huntlee development in endangered scrubland in the Hunter Valley. He also approved the expansion of the McArthur River Mine, requiring the diversion of the McArthur River, sacred to the Borroloola people.

And he's accepted that far from being a setback for our country, US forces are, in fact, a positive boon. In 2004, he reversed his long-standing opposition to the US-run Pine Gap military facility. In 2007, he supported the establishment of a new US military spy facility near Geraldton.

Many people have had fun trotting out old Midnight Oil lyrics to wave in his face, but, as Garrett says, that was years ago. So, to be fair, what's he been saying more recently?

In 2002, when he was still the Australian Conversation Foundation president, he said: "The Australian nuclear story is a tale of woe" and "a tale of staunch resistance". He said: "We support Aboriginal peoples having a right of veto over nuclear projects on their traditional lands."

Three years ago, he told Sixty Minutes: "Nuclear is a dirty word because the stuff ends up in nuclear weapons, because the waste is highly toxic, highly carcinogenic, lasts for incredibly long periods of time ... it's not the right path for Australia to take."

And at the ALP national conference two years ago he 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."

Garrett may have forgotten the strong arguments against uranium mining, but there are many who still proudly oppose it. And with good reason. Apart from the risks associated with actual mining, such as groundwater contamination, the significant and still unsolved problem of nuclear waste remains: there is no safe, lasting way to dispose of it.

Similarly, who can know that the resources company Quasar — owned by military hardware company General Atomics — will run the mine without thinking immediately of the potential the uranium will end up in nuclear weapons? The only safe place for uranium is in the ground, undisturbed.

But such matters as environmental threats and nuclear proliferation are apparently not the issue: faced with accusations of hypocrisy, Garrett told the media he was following ALP policy — that it showed he was a "team player".

Party solidarity and discipline is fine when it is coupled with real processes of internal democracy and political honesty, when policy is properly debated and voted on by the membership then clearly and openly presented to the public.

The ALP, however, is a party whose leadership has complete contempt for democracy. Decisions made at ALP conferences are often overridden, and the opinions and desires of its members denigrated or ignored. The insertion of Garrett as the candidate for Kingsford-Smith in 2004, against the wishes of the local ALP branch, is just one example.

And as for political honesty, the ALP has shown it is willing to do tricky preference deals with anyone to ensure that progressive candidates don't get near electoral victory. One such deal was done with the Nationals in 1984 that made sure Garrett, then a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, just missed out on a Senate seat.

Disdainful and dismissive of old supporters who believed in him, rolling in money, and willing to keep trading on his past activity for political and personal gain, Garrett may not hold much political sway within the modern ALP, but he and it are a perfect match.

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