It now appears certain that the ALP's national conference, to be held in Sydney from April 27-29, will drop the party's "no new uranium mines" policy, adopted in 1998.
This will satisfy the big mining companies' desire to expand uranium mining. Labor leader Kevin Rudd and his "left-wing" deputy, Julia Gillard, are leading the push to scrap the policy.
A decision to scrap the current policy would fly in the face of public opinion — a May 2006 Newspoll showed that 66% of Australians, and 78% of ALP voters, are opposed to any new uranium mines or want uranium mining to stop altogether.
But with the market price for uranium at record highs, major mining companies are falling over themselves to make big profits from Australia's vast, low-cost uranium deposits — 40% of the world's total. Labor's uranium push is driven by its need to prove itself a loyal servant to the interests of big business in order to get corporate backing in this year's federal election.
The widely expected latest Labor "U-turn" on uranium will not be as big a betrayal of ALP voters' wishes as its backflip in the early 1980s.
A year after winning the 1983 federal election, Labor's parliamentary caucus forced the dropping of party's position of outright opposition to the mining, processing and export of uranium — a policy Labor had held for seven years and which was a major contributing factor to its March 1983 election victory. In its place, the "three mines" policy was adopted. This allowed the continued operation of the Ranger, Nabarlek and Olympic Dam uranium mines.
Although uranium had been mined in Australia since the start of the 20th century, opposition to it did not become popular until the 1970s. The impetus for a mass movement against uranium mining was a new wave of uranium exploration and prospecting that began in 1967.
Some of the biggest uranium deposits were discovered in the Alligator Rivers area in the Northern Territory, in particular the Ranger and Jabiluka deposits. As more uranium was discovered in the region, the projected boundaries for the proposed Kakadu National Park continued to shrink until the park was half its original proposed size.
However, unlike earlier uranium mining pushes, this time the desire of mining companies to fully exploit the resources was met with a growing awareness of, and opposition to, the dangers of uranium mining. The experience of the Rum Jungle mine in NT contributed to this opposition.
During its lifetime, from the early 1950s to the early '70s, this mine discharged hundreds of tonnes of mineral pollutants into the Finniss River, including enough radium to cause 90 million cases of bone cancer, according to a 1975 report by the Australian Atomic Energy Commission.
Trade unions were also increasingly concerned about the health effects on their members working in or around uranium mines. Since the early '20s it was known that radon gas caused high levels of mortality from lung cancer among mine workers.
Between the mid-'70s and the mid-'80s, a mass movement developed that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people against uranium mining. This movement was given considerable support by the trade unions as well as the rank-and-file members of the ALP.
The anti-uranium movement was strengthened by the lessons gained by many left activists in the successful mass campaign against the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement had shown them the power of repeated mass street demonstrations around clear demands to draw large numbers of working people into extra-parliamentary political action, exerting growing political pressure for a change in government policy.
In 1976, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Friends of the Earth and the Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM) declared that they would mount a campaign as big as that waged against that Vietnam War, with the campaign as a whole deciding in November to demand a five-year moratorium on the mining and export of uranium.
The anti-uranium movement grew rapidly. The first demonstrations were held on Hiroshima Day in August 1976. By October of that year, a national day of street marches mobilised 70,000 people across the country. Demonstrations of tens of thousands of opponents of uranium mining became regular occurrences through to the end of the 1970s.
In 1975, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) voted at its national congress to ban all uranium mining except for biomedical use. Acting in accordance with the ban, in 1976 the Australian Railway Union called a 24-hour national stoppage that successfully forced the reinstatement of a railyard supervisor in Townsville who had been fired for refusing to allow the delivery of chemicals to the Mary Kathleen uranium mine in Queensland.
However, while the sentiment of many of the unions affiliated to the ACTU was for upholding the 1975 congress line, the ACTU's ALP-aligned leadership continually pushed for a watering down of opposition to uranium mining.
This tension led to the situation where in early 1978, at the same time that 10 unions participated in a MAUM national consultation and almost 3500 wharfies voted unanimously to reject all uranium shipments, a special ACTU conference, led by ACTU president Bob Hawke, adopted a compromise position allowing existing uranium contracts to be fulfilled although not supporting the opening of any new mines.
Despite the rightward pressure of the ACTU leadership, the union movement's opposition to uranium mining continued to grow. A February 1981 meeting of 24 unions covering workers with possible connections to the uranium mining industry voted to enforce work bans on all uranium mines. This was in clear defiance of the Hawke-led resolution of the 1978 special conference.
The bans seriously hurt the uranium industry. Shipments due to leave through Darwin were brought to a standstill, forcing the Fraser government to organise its own airlifts of uranium out of the country. The profits of Queensland's Mary Kathleen mine dropped from $6 million in the second half of 1980 to $1.7 million in the first half of 1981. Mass demonstrations continued around the country to support the union bans.
However, the industry was saved by the intervention of the ALP leadership. In November 1981, federal Labor leader Bill Hayden announced his opposition to the bans. In December, the ACTU executive fell into line, voting to lift all bans until the following February.
In its preparation for the 1983 federal election, the ALP leaders worked hard to satisfy big business that they could be relied on to keep the existing highly lucrative uranium mines going, regardless of what the ranks of the ALP wanted.
Already, in the 1980 federal election, the ALP had played down the issue of opposition to uranium mining, even though in the previous election it had been a vote winner. The ALP also intervened to allow the Olympic Dam uranium mine to go ahead.
In the early '80s, as Washington escalated its Cold War nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union — with plans for a Strategic Defence Initiative missile "shield" to neutralise the Soviet nuclear missile deterrent — the anti-uranium mining movement was strengthened by a renewed opposition to nuclear weapons
Until the mid-'80s, protests involving hundreds of thousands of people calling for an end to the nuclear arms race were a regular occurrence.
In 1983, Labor won the federal election with Hawke as its leader. Hawke soon made it clear that ALP opposition to the uranium mining was a thing of the past.
While France was conducting nuclear bomb tests in the south Pacific, Hawke opposed cutting uranium exports to France. He also reaffirmed the ALP's support for the Australia-New Zealand-United States military alliance, including visits to Australian ports by US nuclear-armed naval vessels.
Hawke's minerals and energy minister granted export licences for uranium from the Ranger and Nabarlek mines in the NT.
In late 1983, Hawke forced a pro-uranium resolution through the federal Labor caucus and completed the ALP's betrayal of the movement and its own ranks at the 1984 ALP national conference. The "three mines" policy was adopted.
Following the Coalition parties' electoral victory in 1996, the ALP replaced the "three mines" policy with a "no-new-mines" policy. This barred a future federal Labor government from revoking the mining licence on any uranium mine approved by PM John Howard's Coalition government.
The anti-uranium campaign in the 1970s and '80s showed that a mass movement aligned with a mobilised and militant trade union movement could succeed in almost shutting down Australia's part in the nuclear fuel cycle. But it also shows that the unions' close links with and political subordination to the pro-business ALP were the major reason for the eventual defeat of the campaign.
The experience of the 1984 sell-out should have put to rest the idea that the ALP can ever be a real friend to the environment movement. Unfortunately, many in the environment movement still hold illusions in Labor governments as a vehicle to combat the corporate polluters.
Many environmental organisations, such as ACF, which in the '70s formed part of the militant leadership of the anti-uranium campaign, devote most of their campaigners' hours on lobbying ALP conference delegates. This approach narrows the movement into the pro-uranium mining framework of the ALP.
Any decision to scrap the last remaining vestiges of an anti-uranium policy at the upcoming ALP conference will only confirm that the ALP seeks to govern on behalf of the big business magnates at the expense of the environment and the wellbeing of working people. The only way to defeat the nuclear menace is to build a movement that is genuinely independent of the meddling of pro-corporate ALP and Coalition.