Why Labor mined uranium

May 5, 1999


Why Labor mined uranium

By Greg Adamson

At its 1977 national conference in Perth, the Australian Labor Party adopted a policy opposing the mining, processing and export of uranium. The policy remained substantially in force until 1984. During those seven years, all three parliamentary Labor leaders — Gough Whitlam, Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke — opposed and flouted the policy.

This abuse of ALP policy-making processes by its leaders goes a long way toward explaining how the anti-uranium movement was defeated in the early 1980s. ALP numbers person Graham Richardson summed it up in his description of the 1983 government decision to approve exports from Roxby Downs, one of the world's largest uranium ore bodies:

"The decision proved to the business community that this was an economically responsible government in deadly earnest about maintaining Australia's image internationally as a reliable supplier of commodities."

The Hawke/Keating government showed that the court of last appeal on issues of policy is not ALP members, or even "public opinion". It is the country's rulers, Australian big business. While ALP policy-making processes can respond to mass protest movements, when Labor is in government they are ignored in favour of instructions provided in the editorials of the daily press.

Whitlam and Hayden ignore policy

In 1977, Whitlam was still the ALP's federal parliamentary leader. In September, he came under fire within the party for ignoring the party's policies on both East Timor (opposing self-determination) and uranium mining.

That month, Whitlam told a Monday Conference interview that the issue of nuclear waste could be easily resolved: "If the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] said that there were adequate safeguards to monitor the storage and the disposal of the waste, the radioactive waste from nuclear power generation, of course the party would accept it". The IAEA was a major proponent of the expansion of nuclear power.

Whitlam was replaced by Hayden. In his 1996 autobiography, Hayden writes of the 1977 policy, "I never understood the justification of that policy" and goes on to describe it as a "smelly albatross strung around our neck".

Despite this, Hayden was a keynote speaker at a December 1979 Labor Against Uranium rally, alongside Paul Keating.

During the federal election 12 months later, Hayden sidelined the uranium issue, despite widespread support for the party's position. By mid-1982 he was ready to fight for the mining industry. Addressing the July national conference, he stated that if the ALP policy of repudiating existing contracts was carried out, "We would almost become a banana republic".

Hayden was feted by the NSW right faction. Introducing him to the June 1982 state conference, Keating said: "He has taken on the hard decisions that none of us like to take on, but which have to be taken if we are to win government. He is a leader of courage and determination, a man of integrity and principle."

In this case, "hard decisions" refer to publicly unpopular decisions which are urged on Labor by big business.

Two years later, the New Zealand Labour government would show what could be done with a publicly popular anti-nuclear policy, banning the visit of nuclear warships. In 1982 Hayden had briefly toyed with the idea of limiting nuclear warships' access to Australia. A sharp rebuke from US deputy secretary of state Walter Stroessel on June 21 was followed by a rapid backdown.

The June 24 Australian described this as follows: "Labor's polls have shown that the question of nuclear power is a potential vote winner, but only if it is aggressively campaigned. Mr Hayden's concern is that such a campaign would split the Australian community. He would rather come to power from consensus than conflict."

The hypocrisy of this claim is that the ALP leaders were happy to undertake a major conflict with their own members and supporters, but not with the country's economic rulers.

Within months, Hayden lost the leadership of the party to Bob Hawke, who would go on to win the March 1983 federal election. It was Hayden's active opposition to the anti-uranium policy that convinced some in the Labor left faction to switch their allegiance to Hawke, a surprising decision given his consistent and ruthless attacks on uranium bans while leader of the ACTU.

Accounts of the period describe the surprise support for Hawke from Tom Uren, a prominent anti-uranium campaigner. Both Hawke and Uren describe this in their autobiographies. In The Hawke Memoirs, published in 1994, Hawke says, "I made it clear that I supported Hayden's desire to change the policy and would do all that I could to secure that change. I told Tom that if the policy remained unchanged I would, reluctantly, support it."

In Straight Left, published the following year, Uren provides a similar account of this discussion.

Labor left loses

This event epitomises the problem for supporters of progressive policy within the ALP. The election of a Labor government leaves untouched the control of the country's large business interests, and Labor rules in their interests.

These interests are aware of this, and actively intervene in ALP processes with the aim of keeping friendly forces in control. The left faction is relegated to hoping it can influence one right faction or another to implement some of its policies. This in turn creates self-limitations on the left faction, encouraging personal advancement at the expense of policy principles.

While Labor left confusion helped legitimise the rise of the prime minister who would lead the uranium sell-out, the same faction also provided the author of the new pro-uranium policy, Victorian Bob Hogg.

Hogg's three-and-a-half page amendment at the 1982 national conference pretended to oppose uranium mining. The key section, however, stated that a Labor government would "consider applications for the export of uranium mined incidentally to the mining of other minerals".

This gave the go-ahead for mining South Australia's giant Roxby Downs reserves, outraging ALP members across the country. Emergency meetings and conferences were called, including a special state conference in Victoria on October 3, which declared the new policy unacceptable.

The election of the Hawke government at no point represented a setback for the nuclear industry. While France exploded a nuclear bomb at Moruroa on May 26, 1983, Hawke opposed cutting French uranium sales. At the same time, minerals and energy minister Peter Walsh announced export licences for the owners of the Ranger and Nabarlek uranium mines in the Northern Territory.

While Hawke was willing to ignore ALP policy, he still needed the support of federal caucus to approve the expansion of uranium mining. The battle for this vote was a turning point for his government.

In an atmosphere of pressure and threats, the resolution was carried by 55 votes to 46 in late 1983. The closeness of the vote showed the breadth of opposition to uranium mining, the anti-uranium view cutting across the party's traditional factions. The broad anti-uranium movement of the past six years had been solidly reflected within the party, and a newly developing peace movement was starting to make itself felt.

One example of these threats was seen on October 25, when SA parliamentarian Peter Duncan, a previous opponent of uranium mining, made a speech supporting the Roxby Downs project. According to a report in the November 3 Sydney Morning Herald, he faced expulsion from the party had he not made the speech.

Another was the forced resignation from cabinet of immigration minister Stewart West. In this case, Hawke used the "principle" of cabinet solidarity, under which all cabinet members are bound to vote for cabinet proposals in caucus, allowing minority positions to dominate.

Hawke sent letters to all federal Labor members requesting them to publicly support the caucus decision on Roxby Downs.

Lost opportunity

The war between the party leadership and its members continued from mid-1982 to late 1984. Combined with other conservative, anti-worker positions adopted by the Hawke government at the time, this period probably represented the greatest opportunity for a left wing to emerge from within the Labor Party, in the same way that NewLabour was shortly to emerge from the New Zealand Labour Party.

The absence of any real alternative laid the basis for more than a decade of conservative Labor government.

The completion of the destruction of the anti-uranium policy occurred at the mid-1984 ALP national conference. This conference also endorsed treasurer Paul Keating's "free market" economic platform, opposition to self-determination for East Timor, support for US military bases in Australia and support for the lowering of living standards of Australian workers through the ACTU-ALP Accord.

After seven years in opposition with a strong stand against the deadly nuclear fuel cycle, the Labor Party was giving the thumbs up to its parliamentary leaders, who had already given the uranium mining companies the go-ahead.

Who were these delegates who so comfortably dismissed the widespread public and ALP membership concern? Of the 99 full delegates to that conference, 20 were federal parliamentarians, 23 were state parliamentarians, 20 were full-time union officials and six were state ALP secretaries.

[This is the sixth 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.]

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