Will 'Dig It Up Fergo' Get His Way?


Julia Gillard insists she won’t shirk debate at the ALP National Conference this December in Sydney — but has made it very clear she’ll be voting ‘yes’ to uranium and ‘no’ to gay marriage.

With her popularity only just creeping up, the PM’s gluttony for punishment appears impossible to satisfy given that the majority of Australians (68 per cent) support gay marriage and that India has been widely condemned in the international community for creating nuclear weapons out of the nuclear reactor gifted by Canada.

Who on earth is advising Julia Gillard on uranium? Martin Ferguson, the Minister for Resources, obviously.

A simple but direct man, Ferguson keeps his sentences short. His very favourite sentence appears on a tree carved by Burke and Wills: "Dig". Menzies is remembered as Pig Iron Bob, Hawke as Yellowcake Bob. Dig It Up Fergo will be remembered for digging Australia up quick and shipping it out cheap. Iron ore, gold, copper and uranium — dig first, worry later.

Martinisms are scattered throughout the PM’s comments on her change of tack on uranium sales to India: "One of our nearest neighbours is India. Long a close partner. The world’s biggest democracy. Growing at 8 per cent a year."

The ALP policy needs modernising, Ferguson argues. The change won’t just be breaking ALP policy but also treaty obligations, international law. Selling uranium to India is illegal under Article IV of the Treaty of Raratonga. It also violates the 1995 nuclear non-proliferation agreement that full scope safeguards should be a condition of supplying uranium. It would undermine the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the rules every country on earth has signed up to — except India, Pakistan and Israel. Australia’s prudent and principled stance for the last 41 years is based on these foundations and should be maintained.

George W Bush overturned the international taboo on nuclear trade with India in 2006, with the support of John Howard. At the time Martin Ferguson said, "As the second biggest supplier of uranium, Australia cannot have one set of rules for some countries and another set for others … Labor calls on John Howard to clarify his support for the NPT and rule out the export of uranium to any state unless and until that state joins the NPT."

Gareth Evan’s Commission got it right when it described the US India Deal as, "giv[ing]India access, effectively, to the nuclear cooperation benefits of the NPT while making no significant commitments in return."

The argument Ferguson tries to run today is that IAEA Safeguards will cover some of India’s facilities. This has very limited merit; India will pick and choose which facilities that can be inspected. For one state to be able to negotiate its own tailored safeguards regime undermines the very notion of regimes and international standards.

And what lesson exactly is Iran likely to learn from such blatant contempt for, and hypocritical application of, the NPT?

Ferguson’s mantra of jobs will get trotted out in this debate too. Yet uranium accounts for just one-third of 1 per cent of Australia’s export revenue and an even smaller contribution to employment in Australia — much less than 0.1 per cent.

There are strong anti-uranium sentiments in the ALP that should win this debate. If Ferguson and other nuclear advocates within the party presume that Fukushima is fading from the headlines, they should keep an eye on the plume of radiation contaminating the Pacific, very likely from Australian uranium sold to TEPCO. On a good day Australian uranium becomes radioactive waste. On a bad day it becomes fallout. On a really bad day, it ends up in nuclear weapons.

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.