Transcript of Media Conference
NSW Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney
25 July 2006
E & OE – PROOF ONLY
Subject: Uranium Mining
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I am here to talk about Kim Beazley’s announcement that he would be pursuing a change in Labor’s uranium policy at the next National Conference in April; specifically that he would call for removal of Labor’s no new mines policy. I certainly welcome Kim’s statements that he will continue to oppose uranium enrichment for Australia and will continue to oppose nuclear power plants for Australia. However I do oppose any watering-down of Labor’s anti-uranium policy.
Uranium is a moderate export earner but a very big principle. It is big principle because it goes to the heart of the values of the Australian Labor Party. They are values which say that society is much more than just economic arrangements between economic entities, that the consequences of economic activity matter including environmental consequences and social consequences, and the nuclear fuel cycle is one that I don’t believe Australia should be further involved in.
Labor’s current policy balances two principles, one, the principal of economic responsibility; that Labor will not repudiate existing uranium contracts, and secondly that we will not allow any new uranium mines.
The problems with the nuclear fuel cycle are, I believe, more evident today than they were 25 years ago. The issue of nuclear proliferation is more acute today than it was 25 years ago. This policy was produced during the cold war era. The cold war era saw the world brought to the brink of nuclear war by two opposing blocks. Today, in the era of terrorism, we have to be concerned not just about States but about organisations and indeed individuals. The activity of Iran should be a timely reminder of the link between the nuclear power industry and nuclear weapons proliferation. I refer to the statement by the former Vice-President Al Gore, who stated that in his eight years in the White House each and every single issue of nuclear proliferation was related to the nuclear power industry. I think that Labor should bear that in mind.
I also believe very firmly that the issue of nuclear waste has not been resolved. Perhaps the best indication of the outstanding issues relating to the nuclear fuel cycle is with the Bush Administration’s plan for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. That partnership would see uranium producers enrich uranium, export nuclear fuel rods and then that waste would then be returned to the country of origin. That is an admission of failure by the nuclear power industry’s greatest advocates that the issues of waste and proliferation are outstanding. That the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is, in the words of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mohammad El-Baradei, in a state of disrepair, which is why he has called for a ban on further countries enriching uranium.
I want to conclude by saying that this is also a debate about the Labor Party’s internal processes. I have held policy consultations in Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth on our Platform in the lead up to next National Conference. Not once did anyone at those consultations say to me ‘I think it is critical that we change our anti-uranium policy’. Of all the ALP branches around Australia which have carried resolutions on this issue there is only one branch that I know of that carried a resolution supporting a change in our policy. So I believe that we have got the balance right. I will be arguing that in the lead-up to the next ALP National Conference. I will be arguing that we maintain our balanced position and have a very clear distinction in opposition to the pro-nuclear and pro-uranium policies of the Howard Government.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: This is not good policy but it is also not good politics. I think it is very hard to argue that there are people out there in marginal electorates, who voted for John Howard and the Liberal Party at the last election, who will change their vote to Labor if Labor changes our anti-uranium policy. I simply don’t think that is the case.
I do think that every time that the Labor Party walks away from a fundamental principle which is held by its membership then it does have an impact on Labor’s electoral standing. I believe that overwhelmingly the Australian public are very cautious about the nuclear fuel cycle and each time that it has been an election issue, including in Western Australia, it has been rejected by the Australian public. Newspoll showed that only some 22% of Australians were opposed to Labor’s no new mines policy. That indicates that out there in the public there is great concern about any further involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.
JOURNALIST: Haven’t you got a position that really equates to being half pregnant … I mean all these problems still exist with the nuclear fuel cycle. Why not ban uranium mining all together?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Because you have got two principles. One is the principle that says that we should not be further involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. The second principle, that is just as important, is that the Labor Party and incoming Labor governments will act in an economically responsible way.
The issue of existing contracts is an issue of sovereignty. Labor should respect all existing contracts and should therefore not support closing existing mines. That is why we have a no new mines policy. It respects economic sovereignty but is also environmentally responsible.
We need to put this in some perspective. Uranium exports last year were worth some five hundred million dollars to Australia, the same as Magnesium Ore and Oxide, and one half of that of cheese. Cheese has less holes in it than Uranium.
When put in perspective, the whole focus on uranium is in my view is a massive distraction in what we need to do in terms of the renewable energy industry, which is an expanding trillion dollar industry. We are currently missing out on those opportunities. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao came to Australia earlier this year his contract for exports of Australian uranium to China got a lot of publicity. What didn’t get a lot of publicity was the three hundred million dollar deal to export three wind farms from the Roaring Forties Company in Tasmania. That puts the potential for renewables in perspective.
JOURNALIST: When Kim says this is in the national interest … [inaudible]?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think the national interest is in the Labor Party having a coherent anti-nuclear position and which is also good policy as global citizens. That is why I believe our existing policy serves us well and serves that national interest well.
JOURNALIST: Obviously it is incumbent on you to make these points now, you believe in them strongly and you speak for a group in the party that believes them, but conference is going to be six months before a federal election. You wouldn’t seriously be proposing sending Kim Beazley to conference as a fatally wounded leader on an issue like this would you?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I attended a conference a few years ago at Sydney Town Hall where the Premier Bob Carr and the Treasurer Michael Egan put forward a proposition for electricity privatisation in NSW. I think they struggled to get to 5% support on the floor of the conference. It was rejected overwhelming by conference delegates and the Labor Party emerged stronger as a result; as a result of having a democratic debate and a democratic determination. I think people respect that. Labor’s vote increased at the subsequent election.
I don’t think that the Labor Party has anything to fear from a democratic debate and a democratic resolution of these issues. Unless we are prepared to do that then there is not much point people being in the Labor Party.
JOURNALIST: When Kim Beazley says something is in the national interest and can’t carry at conference do you seriously think that Howard and Costello aren’t going to rub their hands together and think that all their Christmases came at once?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think that Howard and Costello have got their own problems. We will wait and see who’s who in the zoo next April.
JOURNALIST: What kind of numbers do you have in the Party to defeat Mr Beazley on this issue?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It is very clear in terms of Party affiliates that I have spoken to, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Miscellaneous Workers Union, Miners Federation and other unions have made their position clear in support of the existing policy. Branches around the country have carried resolutions supporting the existing policy. I think there is very large support for it. I think that there’s a great deal of caution for Australia being further involved in the nuclear power cycle.
JOURNALIST: Is it going to come down to a vote along factional lines and, excuse ignorance, I don’t know how they stack up at conference?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, I don’t think it will. There are Senior Shadow Ministers from the left, right and centre who support the existing policy and there are some people from the same groups who oppose the existing policy. I think this will be a debate on its merits. The fact that Kim has put forward his position so early means that everyone knows what that position is. We will have debate and no doubt input from party units. I spoke to someone this morning who was talking of resigning from the Labor Party over this issue. I would say to people such as that to stay in and be a part of democratic processes in the Labor Party, and I would hope that people would join the Labor Party to have a voice in what the alternative government’s position is.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of [inaudible]?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think it is up to Kim to speak to for himself. I don’t intend to comment on that. Kim approached me last week. We had a discussion about the merits of changing the policy. I put my position clearly to him. He then indicated some days later that he would be pursuing his speech last night and I indicated to him that I would be making clear my opposition. So this is policy debate from the last democratic party left in Australia and we will be seeing it in full over the coming months.
JOURNALIST: Are you worried about a backlash in your own seat of Grayndler?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, this isn’t about my seat. It is about my position as Shadow Environment Minister. I believe very strongly that the Australian public want to vote for a Labor government that will have an Environment Minister who will actually speak up in the interest of the environment, who will take on vested interested interests and from time to time take risks like I am doing on this issue.
I have had this position since I was at university. One of greatest farces of this debate, with due respect to some of the nuclear advocates, is the argument that we haven’t had a nuclear debate. I have been debating these issues since I was at school and that was a considerable period of time ago. I have held those views. I feel them more strongly today because of the issue of nuclear proliferation, which I believe is much more acute than it has ever been, and because of the issue of nuclear waste. The fact is that you have the Bush Administration effectively conceding defeat on the issue of being able to control waste and proliferation.
JOURNALIST: Given that, if you lose on this issue would you leave the Labor Party?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, certainly not. I believe very strongly in the Australian Labor Party. One of my concerns about this debate is that it distracts us from what we should be talking about which is Kim Beazley’s Climate Change Blueprint; a very strong position that would actually create jobs, increase export performance for Australia. This is a distraction and what we are not doing is talking about the inadequacies of the Howard Government and our forward looking plans including to expand the renewable energy industry.
For that reason I will certainly argue my case within the Labor Party. I will accept the result at the ALP National Conference next April. If I was going to leave the Labor Party if I was disappointed at a single decision then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. You roll with the punches. But, can I say, that people are not just going through the motions. In case you hadn’t noticed we are very serious. The opponents of a change to this policy and myself and others intend to pursue this right up to the national conference.
JOURNALIST: How many lower house seats could the Greens win on this issue?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I don’t think the Greens are a viable proposition to win lower house seats anywhere. I don’t think they have been part of the main game when it comes to the serious debate about climate change. I think people out there when it comes to serous environmental politics, understand that the modern agenda needs more than slogans, which is all the Greens offer. You need a coherent policy approach. Labor has that coherent policy approach, particularly on climate change which is the most serious issue facing the global community.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.