SA Premier urges referendum on unpopular nuclear waste

Citizens' jurors listen to Premier Jay Weatherill and Nuclear Fuel Royal Commissioner Kevin Scarce.
November 25, 2016

Usually, when people mention dying in a ditch, they are discussing something they would much rather avoid. But for the South Australian state Labor government of Premier Jay Weatherill, dying in a ditch seems a positive ambition.

For Weatherill and his cabinet, the “ditch” is the government’s plan to host up to a third of the world’s high-level nuclear waste in a giant dump in the state’s remote north. The dump scheme was rejected decisively on November 6 by a government-organised “Citizens’ Jury”.

Two-thirds of the jury members, selected as a representative cross-section of South Australians, recommended that the dump not go ahead “under any circumstances”.

Indigenous traditional landowners have always strongly opposed the dump scheme. Since the “citizen’s jury” delivered its verdict, the plan has also been rejected by an apparent majority of state parliamentarians and, clearly, by mass public opinion.

Even the Liberal opposition, if we are to believe their statements, are now off-side. In a bizarre act of political cross-dressing, the Liberals — for many years zealous backers of the nuclear industry — have pronounced the dump plan dead and called for it to be abandoned.

Liberal parliamentarians were solid in their support for the Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which put its stamp of approval on the dump scheme in May. The Liberals’ change of heart only came in the days after the Citizens’ Jury delivered its verdict, and the trend of public opinion became clear. The Liberals, it seems, can small a winning election issue.

Referendum call

Still, the Labor government is pressing ahead in a last-ditch defence of its radioactive love-child. Weatherill has now issued a call for the dump to be the subject of a referendum at some unspecified point in the future.

Before the Citizens’ Jury verdict, the Premier had dismissed suggestions that a referendum would be useful. But a November 14 press release said: “The government has concluded the only path forward is the resolution of bipartisanship and broad social consent through a state-wide referendum.”

Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis argued that citizens wanted discussion on the dump plan to continue. “There’s a silent majority that want to talk about this a bit further,” Koutsantonis told the ABC.

“I think a referendum is a great way of having South Australians actually talk about this.”

Weatherill weighed in again on November 18 saying: “I believe we have started an important debate … Our judgment is that the only path to achieve social support is through a referendum, which will provide the broader community with the opportunity to provide consent or otherwise.”

The trouble for the government however, is that South Australians are in no mood to agree to the dump scheme and keeping the issue alive is merely irritating them further.

Most people in the state appear satisfied that the Citizens’ Jury did its job well, hearing testimony for and against the scheme over a series of weekends before delivering a thoughtful, informed verdict.

And there, a Channel 7 poll on November 7 indicated strongly, is where the public wants the issue to end. “Should the state government now abandon its nuclear storage plans?” the poll asked. Yes, said 86% of respondents.

On the dump question, other political forces in the state have proved much less tin-eared than the ALP leadership. Whether from opportunism or conviction, these forces have now come out against the referendum proposal.

For a referendum to be held, a bill would need to pass through parliament — the chances of this are effectively zero. Between the Liberals, the Xenophon group and the Greens, the legislation is certain to be voted down.

South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon describes the dump plan as “a stinker of an idea” and said on November 14: “I supported a referendum when it looked as if both sides of politics supported the dump, but now that they don’t there is no point. The next state election will be in 2018 and will itself be a referendum if Labor continues to support the idea.”

Greens MLC Mark Parnell voiced the thoughts of many South Australians when he observed: “A statewide referendum would be throwing good money after bad. The government has already wasted more than $10 million on this project and a referendum would cost tens of millions more.”

Weatherill accepts that a referendum on the dump scheme cannot be a short-term prospect. “We won’t be pushing ahead with a referendum until there’s bipartisan support,” he said on November 14. “But if the mood in the community shifts and bipartisanship is re-established, we will remain open to this question.”

Marginalising the jury

For the present, Weatherill is trying to marginalise the Citizens’ Jury decision in the minds of South Australians, by suggesting the outcomes of the government’s “consultation” program should have more weight. Carried out between July and October, this “consultation” centred on government-organised teams travelling about the state spruiking the pro-dump findings of the royal commission.  

On November 11, the government released a “Community Views Report” based on various types of opinion sampling during the months of “consultation”. This report notes a modest plurality for the view that discussion on the dump plan should continue. In randomly-selected telephone surveys and focus groups, 43% of respondents supported further exploration of the proposal, while 37% were against.

Weatherill has seized on these figures and used them in his arguments for a referendum. But the Premier can justly be accused of “cherry-picking” data to suit his case. On the whole, the “community views” held little comfort for supporters of the dump scheme.

Most survey respondents (53% to 31%, with 16% unsure) rejected the importing of nuclear waste. On the question of whether government-sponsored discussion of the issue should continue, various types of “self-selected feedback” recorded a massive thumbs-down, by 64% to 29%.

A reasonable conclusion is that among South Australians who had formed views on the dumps issue and felt motivated to express them, solid majorities wanted both the dump plan and further “consultation” on it buried.

The Community Views Report also found that participants “showed low levels of trust in government” and “wanted to hear all sides of the topic, not just the side the government wanted to share”. The report’s findings were recorded amid a barrage of pro-dump views from the Murdoch-owned Advertiser and the government’s “nuclear roadshow”, while most South Australians had little access to opposing views.

Now, the verdict by the Citizens’ Jury has itself become a major factor hardening public opinion against the dump. For Weatherill to claim a mandate for pressing ahead in these circumstances is pure political fraud. It also carries extraordinary electoral dangers.

Unions SA Secretary Joe Szakacs accused a “tone deaf” Weatherill on November 14 of sticking with a “pet project” that threatened to hurt Labor at the ballot box in 2018. “The Premier is opposing his own party’s policy, the decision of the citizens’ jury, the union movement, the conservation movement [and] Aboriginal people.”

Nuclear vision

Weatherill’s crazy-brave behaviour does, however, have a certain perverse intellectual basis. He is gripped by a naive vision of saving the economy of his rust-belt state through promoting broad investment in the nuclear industry.  

His referendum proposal was linked to the long-awaited unveiling, on November 15, of the state government’s responses to the recommendations of its royal commission.

Several points in the responses make clear that in the long term, building nuclear power plants is very much among the premier’s objectives: “9. Promote and collaborate on the development of a comprehensive national energy policy that enables all technologies, including nuclear, to contribute to a reliable, low-carbon electricity network at the lowest possible system cost. SUPPORT.

“10. Collaborate with the Australian Government to commission expert monitoring and reporting on the commercialisation of new nuclear reactor designs that may offer economic value for nuclear power generation. SUPPORT.”

Weatherill also committed his government to “a new statewide mineral exploration drilling initiative to support the discovery of new mineral deposits … with a particular focus on uranium”.

As the Labor government has thrown in its lot with the nuclear industry and large numbers of South Australians have reacted with repugnance, the state Liberals have been almost incontinent with delight. “The Liberal Party is 100% behind me,” opposition leader Steven Marshall exulted on November 14.

We do not support a referendum … If Jay Weatherill is so wedded to this, he can take it to the next election.”

No-one, however, should believe that the Liberals have switched to the anti-nuclear camp — or even that their opposition to the dump is ironclad.

As if to signal their real attitudes, the state Liberals recently named Richard Yeeles, a 20-year veteran of the nuclear industry, as their policy director. A former corporate affairs manager with BHP Billiton and Western Mining Corporation, Yeeles last year backed the dump scheme in a 270-page submission to the royal commission inquiry.

In the Festival State, nuclear issues are at the centre of a new festival — of political subterfuge, hypocrisy and power-lust. The survey respondents who showed “low levels of trust” in the state’s major-party politicians clearly had a point.

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