Australia's anti-nuclear movement: a short history

Wednesday, August 26, 1998 - 10:00

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Australia's anti-nuclear movement: a short history

By Jim Green

Australia's involvement in the nuclear industry began with supplying uranium for the US and UK's weapons programs during and after World War II. British weapons tests in South Australia and Western Australia 1952-63 left a legacy of health problems for Aborigines and armed service personnel, as well as significant environmental damage.

The Atomic Energy Commission, created in 1953, plotted to introduce nuclear power, was involved in a covert push towards nuclear weapons and made plans to use "peaceful" nuclear explosives for civil engineering projects.

During and after World War II, the alliance between US and Australian imperialism grew stronger. The ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951, and in the 1960s and '70s the construction of military bases at North West Cape, Pine Gap and Nurrungar tied Australia to the US nuclear war-fighting machine.

Opposition to Australia's nuclear industry and connections was weak and isolated until the 1970s, when the various threads of the peace and environmental movements coalesced into a mass movement.

In nationally coordinated demonstrations, the anti-nuclear movement attracted up to 50,000 marchers in the major cities by 1976-77. There was active opposition from the trade union movement, and the state and federal ALP began to adopt anti-uranium policies.

In Victoria, more than 100 local groups opposed to the nuclear industry had been set up by the end of 1977. The most prominent were Friends of the Earth, Movement Against Uranium Mining, Campaign Against Nuclear Energy, Campaign Against Nuclear Power and, later, People for Nuclear Disarmament.

Some of the more established groups were also involved, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the Wilderness Society.

Many issues were taken up: the link between the uranium industry and weapons proliferation; the environmental destructiveness of nuclear power; the impact of uranium mining on Aborigines and workers in the industry; and the Cold War nuclear arms spiral and Australia's contribution to it through the hosting of US bases, allowing US nuclear warships to use Australian ports and the ANZUS alliance.

Weapons testing in the Pacific, and the secret history of the British weapons tests, were also raised.

The movement disrupted and jeopardised some nuclear projects (in particular uranium mines), and undermined the credibility and authority of the nuclear industry and the state.

Despite the successes, however, the '70s movement did not fundamentally threaten Australia's nuclear industry, and the movement declined during the 1980s.

The Labor Party

As in other advanced capitalist countries, the peace and anti-nuclear movements in Australia lost ground largely because of illusions in liberal capitalist parties, such as the Australian Labor Party.

Although the Gough Whitlam Labor government, elected in 1972, completed Australia's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, it was business as usual for the nuclear industry.

While the Whitlam government did little to support the uranium industry during 1972-73, this was because of the widespread view that there would be greater profits from waiting until market prices picked up.

In 1974, the government decided to become a major player at all levels of the uranium industry, and that uranium mining and exporting should proceed apace.

After it lost office in 1975, the federal ALP made a remarkable about-face and adopted a policy of banning uranium mining and export until problems with weapons proliferation and waste disposal had been addressed. It even threatened to repudiate contracts signed by the Liberal government.

On this basis, sections of the anti-uranium movement campaigned for the ALP in marginal seats in the December 1977 federal election. When the Liberal government was re-elected, the anti-uranium movement lost energy for a time.

In the early 1980s, the ALP began to dilute its opposition to uranium mining. After being elected to government in 1983, it adopted the "three mines" policy. Ranger and Nabarlek mines in the NT, and Roxby Downs mine in SA, were allowed to proceed.

The 1984 ALP national conference that adopted the three-mines policy also gave support to the ANZUS treaty, the US bases and visits of nuclear warships to Australian ports. Shortly after, the government decided to resume uranium sales to France. A section of the ALP left resigned from the party.

The major response of nuclear critics was to compete with the ALP in the electoral arena, and the Nuclear Disarmament Party was born.

Less than six months later, the NDP had 8000 members, had polled 650,000 primary votes (6.8%) in the federal election of late 1984, and NDP candidate Jo Vallentine was elected to the Senate from WA.

The direction of the NDP after the 1984 election (which returned Labor) was unclear. The party had grown so quickly that issues of structure, accountability, policy and the involvement of members of other parties had not been properly addressed.

At a conference in April 1985, the NDP split over these issues. A walkout, led by current ACF president Peter Garrett, of some of the leaders signified the beginning of the end of the party. Jo Vallentine renounced her allegiance to the NDP, membership declined rapidly, and the party gradually faded into obscurity.

Retreat and cooption

The ALP was shaken by the initial success of the NDP, but not sufficiently to change its pro-nuclear policies. Soon after the 1984 election, it was revealed that PM Bob Hawke had made a secret commitment to the US government to provide back-up facilities for test landings in the Tasman Sea of two unarmed MX missiles. This provoked such a furore that Hawke was forced to withdraw from the deal.

Perhaps the most significant change in the ALP was that its leadership became more adept at coopting the social movements, including the anti-nuclear and environment movements.

The government appointed an "ambassador for disarmament", (primarily a spokesperson for the government's policies on the US alliance and uranium mining), and signed a "Nuclear Free Zones Treaty" in 1986, a piece of paper with only symbolic value.

These initiatives gave the politicians opportunities to appear to be contributing to non-proliferation, while their support for US bases and uranium mining and exporting remained unchanged.

These projects also gave the leaders of the anti-nuclear groups cover as the movement declined: they appeared to be doing something. But the consequence was that the movement declined even faster as resources were diverted from important battles to reverse the government's pro-nuclear policies into providing window-dressing for them.

The ALP's coopting of the movement was facilitated by the movement's growing disconnection from the working class and the trade unions, and the replacement of a perspective of building a broad, active mass movement by liberal approaches to campaigning.

Trade unions

Some trade unions played a crucial role in fighting the uranium industry in the '70s and '80s. Some rail workers and wharfies took action, even when opposed by the union leadership.

When a rail worker who disrupted supply to the Mary Kathleen uranium mine in Queensland, in compliance with the policies of the ACTU and the Australian Railways Union, was sacked in May 1976, the first national strike anywhere in the world over the hazards of nuclear power was held for 24 hours.

There are numerous other examples of active union opposition to the nuclear industry, but there were also nuclear hawks in the union movement. The Australian Workers' Union consistently supported the industry, under the guise of protecting jobs. Workers who did take action against the industry sometimes had to fight their own leaders.

The ACTU was a site of considerable struggle around nuclear issues. On occasions it adopted progressive policies, as in 1977 with its demand for a referendum on uranium mining, supported by the threat of all-encompassing bans on the nuclear industry if the Fraser government did not heed the demand. However, the ACTU's policies were generally not backed up by concrete action.

The Fraser government and the nuclear industry overcame the obstacles posed by unions and the anti-nuclear and land rights movements. The one obstacle they could do little or nothing about was the downturn in the global market for uranium.

As economic stagnation set in, and the associated capitalist austerity drive was cranked up, collaboration between workers in the uranium industry and the anti-nuclear movement weakened. With the ALP in government from 1983, the union movement was increasingly drawn into the "consensus" model of business-union-government accords.

This made it easier for the ALP-controlled union leaders to justify uranium mining and other environmentally harmful projects to their members, usually with the argument that capitalist growth would provide job security.

Working-class involvement in the social movements declined, and the power that could be wielded through union strike action was largely lost to the social movements. In turn, the movements distanced themselves politically from workers and the unions.

Liberalism

The quiescence of the labour movement leaders resulted in the anti-nuclear and environment movements appealing more and more to the very institutions they had to fight — the capitalist class and the state.

Building and broadening mass campaigns gave way to reformism and individualism, in which supporters were called on to do no more than write letters to politicians, sign petitions and raise money to fund professional activists' behind-closed-doors lobbying of parliaments and business.

These trends were summarised by Phil Shannon in his article "Red and green: too late to get together?" in Green Left Weekly on April 17, 1996: "With the labour movement hunkered down in defensive bunkers, resisting with more or less (mostly less) success the assaults of a desperate capitalist class during the 1980s recession, green strategies took on a wistful and ineffective hue. Green self-improvement versions of the biblical injunction to change thyself (half a brick in the toilet cistern, recycling, etc), elitist Greenpeace heroics, green consumerism and the perennial ballot box came to dominate the outlook of most of those with environmental concerns."

From the mid-1980s, movement leaders and theorists constructed an intellectual edifice that attempted to justify the political retreats of the movements, and which reflected the growing dominance of a bureaucratic, reformist current.

This edifice had many threads, but the abandonment of any class analysis was the main ideological retreat. The idea took hold that the social movements could fill the void left by the "corporatised" working class and become the new opposition to the worst excesses of capitalism.

Sometimes, the "new" social movements were contrasted to the "old" labour movement and glorified: "neither left nor right but out in front". In other cases, new social movements were said to be guardians of the new age, the "starting points" for the most important struggles today.

This "neither left nor right" perspective was tied to cross-class collaboration. Since all classes are threatened by environmental and nuclear destruction, it was argued, all classes must be won over to environmental and anti-nuclear enlightenment.

The fact that the capitalist class can, to a considerable degree at least, avoid the effects of environmental pollution, and that those who created and drive the nuclear industry live well away from uranium mines and other dangerous sites such as Maralinga, are ignored in this perspective.

The hope that the capitalist class, which profits enormously from the nuclear industry, can be won to an anti-nuclear perspective by the strength of the movement's arguments is pure idealism.

Far from being won, big business has become a willing player in the game of coopting the movement and shaping green public consciousness.

In the nuclear industry, the major public relations angle has been nuclear power as a solution to the greenhouse gas problem.

In October, the Association of Nuclear Science and Engineering will host a conference titled "Nuclear Science and Engineering for Sustainable Development". Get in quick or you'll miss the site tour of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor and the seminar on "The tyranny of eco-political correctness" by right-wing commentators Padraic McGuinness and Frank Devine.

Socialists

By 1977, most (though not all) socialist organisations in Australia were involved in the anti-nuclear movement.

Socialists played an important role in building the movement and developing a thorough critique of the nuclear industry and its social underpinning.

The development of nuclear power and weaponry, socialists argue, is part and parcel of capitalism: capital accumulation; technological innovation directed to pursuing profit; control over labour, no less in the domains of militarism and energy production than elsewhere; and the strengthening of economic and political power to further imperialist aims.

Socialists were also well placed to explain and expose the reasons for the cooption and conservatising of the anti-nuclear movement, and the role of the ALP and parliamentarism more generally.

However, socialist ideas lost currency within the movement as the links to trade unions and workers fell away, and the movement declined and came to be dominated by the liberal wing. In some cases, socialists were actively excluded by this liberal wing — the proscription of the Democratic Socialist Party from the Australian Greens, for example.

The future

What remains of the movement today is relatively isolated campaigns against the Lucas Heights reactor in Sydney, the Billa Kalina radioactive waste dump in SA and uranium mines in several states and territories.

The current campaign against the Jabiluka mine is stronger and has more (passive) public support than any such campaign for many years. It is nevertheless struggling to grow in a context of very little active opposition, certainly not from the organised labour movement, to Australia's role in the nuclear cycle or nuclear militarisation more generally.

There are many links to be made between current campaigns: the Lucas Heights reactor is a prop for the uranium industry; the planned radioactive waste dump in SA will boost numerous nuclear projects (not least the planned new reactor at Lucas Heights); Australia's uranium exports are tied to broader, international issues surrounding weapons proliferation and self-determination for many oppressed peoples.

There are also many opportunities to link anti-nuclear campaigns to other social issues. An important example at present is the nexus between the racist attacks on indigenous Australians' struggle for land rights and the nuclear projects at Jabiluka and Billa Kalina.

As well, there is considerable scope for collaboration between progressive trade unions and the anti-nuclear movement. The Howard government's outlawing of secondary boycott action in its Workplace Relations Act, for example, is an attack on workers' industrial rights as well as on campaigns to defend the environment. A united struggle to have this act repealed is urgently needed.

To turn this potential into reality, however, we must escape the maze of dead-end strategies. In particular, the movement must resist the temptation to fall back into the arms of profits-first, pro-capitalist parties such as the ALP and persist with building a politically independent, democratic mass movement that campaigns in the "parliament of the streets".

The nuclear industry is a child of the most powerful forces driving capitalism: the drive to profit and the drive to war. Ultimately, the revolutionary transformation of this profits-first system, to make the needs of the majority of people and their environment the priority, is necessary to break the nuclear cycle.

As Shannon states: "Strategies which don't upset class power are going to be ineffectual. You don't have to be a Marxist to recognise that the capitalist class and its executive in parliament are the fundamental obstacle to environmental health. But it sure helps."

From GLW issue 330