Day 2 “ Garrett Takes One for the Party


Shortly after 4pm today, Peter Garrett completed his transformation from rock star to politician “ and a very good politician, too.

People will debate whether or not that’s a compliment, but the way Garrett argued passionately against the expansion of Labor’s ‘three mines’ policy on uranium at the ALP National Conference, copped defeat and pledged loyalty to the new policy was a model of political discipline.

Twenty-five years after then Victorian ALP Secretary Bob Hogg drafted the compromise platform, the new leader Kevin Rudd backed by every State premier and two members of the Left leadership overturned the provision, arguing it was impractical and had not stopped the expansion of uranium extraction at existing mines. (Indeed, Australia now has four uranium mines.)

Garrett, seconding a resolution from fellow frontbencher Anthony Albanese that sought to defend the existing policy, insisted he had always opposed uranium mining. As if to remind him, anti-uranium protesters outside the conference greeted delegates this morning with some of his most militantly anti-mining Midnight Oil music, blasted through loud speakers. Inside, delegates and observers wore stickers urging ‘NO U TURN.’

Recalling his visit to a memorial shrine at Hiroshima the scene of one of two 1945 atomic explosions and his protests outside the Jabiluka mine next to the Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory, Garrett declared, ‘I am proud of what I have done. I believe my views are shared by the majority of ALP members and the majority of Australians. No generation is entitled to appropriate the future.’

But two hours later, the TV lights bouncing off his sculpted face, Garrett was a loyal and convincing frontbencher, saying he had fought and lost and would now support his leader. It was what he signed up to when he joined Labor. Any doubts about Garrett’s political skills vaporised at that moment.

Eight votes yes, a mere eight votes stood between victory and defeat for Rudd, whose amendment passed 205 to 190. The debate was genuine. It lacked the table-thumping passion of the 1977 and 1982 debates   and also the spittle, according to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie who claimed that, as a delegate in 1982, he had suffered a little Left-wing expectoration.  

Image thanks to emo.

The essence of the pro-uranium argument was: that as industries in China and India expand, they need a Greenhouse-friendly alternative to coal-fired power; that the three mines policy had not prevented Australia becoming the world’s biggest producer of uranium, with 30 per cent of the world’s deposits; and that South Australia needed the tens of thousands of jobs that would flow from opening new deposits.

One Rudd supporter, the Australian Workers’ Union Secretary Bill Shorten   you know, ‘touted as a future Labor leader’ said, ‘If you think rolling a leader is a great idea, then go ahead and vote for the Albanese/Garrett amendment.’

The opponents contended that anti-nuclear safeguards principally the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had effectively broken down, making it a dangerous export; and there is no place to safely store waste with an estimated shelf-life of 240,000 years.

But if the debate was (relatively) genuine, the result was more ambiguous. So tight was the result, and so concerned was the leadership that it might lose due to dissident Right-wing delegates voting according to their hearts (meaning to uphold the existing policy), that factional leaders replaced many delegates with less committed proxies. One of the Right’s leaders, Deputy Senate Leader Stephen Conroy, voted with Albanese and Garrett, although it did not counter the votes of the Left leaders Julia Gillard, Chris Evans and Martin Ferguson who endorsed Rudd’s change.

Several delegates told me that the anti-uranium forces were, in fact, worried they might win, depriving Rudd of his ‘strong leader’ posture and stopped lobbying late Friday afternoon. They wanted a credible showing, but a win might lay waste to the best laid plans.

The practical effect of Labor’s policy change is negligible, given that the States will still have power to determine if uranium mining proceeds in within their borders. This afternoon, West Australian Premier Alan Carpenter insisted that no uranium mining would occur in that State so long as he was Premier.

The political gain for Rudd is also questionable. There is no public support for an expansion of uranium mining indeed, opinion polls repeatedly show that convincing majorities continue to oppose it   and it may even set Labor back among key constituent groups.

For example, Peter Garrett has been successful in stemming the drift of Labor’s centre-Left vote to the Greens. He campaigned, with evident effect, for embattled Labor candidates in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney in the 2006 Victorian and the 2007 NSW elections. Bracks Government Minister Bronwyn Pike in Melbourne and Iemma Minister Verity Firth in Balmain arguably owe their narrow victories to Garrett.

His message to waverers has so far been: ‘With me on the inside, the environmental cause is safe with Labor. Why squander a vote on a party of protest the Greens when you can have me at the table where the decisions are made?’ It has been a seemingly convincing pitch.

But with Garrett now defeated on such a symbolically important issue as uranium mining an issue that influences a vital, if small, segment of Labor’s constituency he loses his appeal.

Today Peter Garrett completed his transformation into a good politician, but has he and the party  lost in the process?

Listen to Andrew West talk about the ALP National Conference here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.