Australia's uranium policy undermines Labor Party unity

Australia's Labor government has managed to temporarily paper over a major split in its party over its policy on uranium development. The division has emerged as one of the main problems for the government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

The Labor Party has spent more than six years agonizing over the policy it should adopt on uranium. The left wing of the party (with support which extends to many conservationists outside the party) would like to see Australia opt out of uranium mining.

The trade-union movement also has a strong anti-mining policy, but it has been unable to persuade workers in the mining industry and those involved in transporting uranium oxide for export to accept the ban it would like imposed.

At last year's Labor Party conference, a compromise was reached that allowed for the development of uranium mining where it was associated with the mining of other minerals. The development of other mines and new contracts for existing mines were banned.

The attempt to restrict and reduce uranium mining has been largely overturned by the Hawke government, which has approved new contracts for exporting uranium from two mines two existing mines in the north of Australia and for the development of a new mine in South Australia.

The South Australian mine at Roxby Downs contains what experts say is the largest single deposit of uranium ore in the world. The government says the mine falls within the ''exception'' in the party's rules, since its uranium ore is associated with rich copper, silver, and gold deposits. The exception was written in to allow the Labor Party in South Australia to campaign at the state level on a policy of development - a policy that resulted in the party being elected to South Australia's government last year.

The federal government decided against the development of two other mines in the Northern Territory - mines that would be more profitable because they held a richer concentration of the metal, though a far smaller quantity.

The chief minister of the Northern Territory immediately called an election to let people protest the federal government's move. Voters recently returned the state's National Country-Liberal government to power with 19 seats in the legislative assembly, giving Labor only six seats.

With only one seat in the House of Representatives in Canberra, the territory is not important to the Hawke government.

At a meeting of the party's national executive on Dec. 5, an attempt by two state branches of the party to condemn the federal government's new policy on uranium failed. The executive decided that it should not intervene in the dispute, and that party members should stop public criticism of the Hawke government.

The whole issue is to be thrashed out in public when the party's national conference meets in the middle of next year. The conference has the power to direct the Labor government on what policy it should adopt, and Labor Party members of Parliament are bound to follow its directions.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.