'Sometimes you've got to take the hardest line'

Kevin Rudd, ALP national conference and uranium mining. By Marcus Strom

Kevin Rudd is gearing up for his first ALP national conference as party leader. Labor loves a winner and the boy from the back blocks of rural Queensland seems to be the party's best hope to take the required 16 seats from the coalition at year's end.

The bickering has simmered right down, grudges over stymied careers put to one side and the party is backing our Kev.

Despite John Howard and his dogs throwing as much mud as they could over Rudd's unwise meetings with Labor apostate Brian Burke in 2005, the opinion polls remain steady; whether it be Roy Morgan or Newspoll, the ALP is in front by about 20 percentage points and Rudd is preferred prime minister.

Not a bad place to be for Rudd as he prepares for national conference over April 27-29.

Rudd and the ALP machine will do whatever it takes to make sure the national jamboree is Kevin's weekend. The ALP's national website says as much: "Labor’s new team under the leadership of Kevin Rudd will be the focus of the ALP’s 44th National Conference."

With a political mettle borrowed from Tony Blair, defiance of the leader's direction will be stared down. My way or the highway. Go with Rudd or be rudderless. So close to a federal election, disunity will be seen as disastrous. Maximum pressure will be put on dissenters and those with alternate platforms for Labor.

While it's too early to tell what all the fault lines will be at conference, uranium mining is bound to be the centrepiece debate. This fight will not be along clear factional lines. The Left's Martin Ferguson supports digging up yellow cake and shipping it out. With factions being more about personality and patronage than principle and politics, the debate will cross factional and union lines.

This could and should be a good debate for Labor to have. It could draw upon up-to-date science, environmental theory, energy professionals and employment models. But it seems the battle lines being drawn up are false.

And much of the blame for this rests with the Left.

The Labor Right sees the no-new-uranium-mines policy as an albatross around the neck of a future Labor victory. While it probably recognises that this debate matters little in terms of crude psephology, the symbolic shedding of this totem will be received well in business circles.

Chapter 12, sections 66-70 of Labor's National Platform will be the sacrificial lamb to pragmatism; a sign that federal Labor is ready to manage Australian capitalism. If the vote is looking close, Kevin Rudd will put his leadership on the line over this debate in much the same way Tony Blair put his credibility on the line over British Labour's abandonment of its clause IV commitment to socialism.

The ALP Left around incoming president John Faulkner and recently demoted shadow cabinet member Anthony Albanese will fight hard to retain Labor's existing "no new mines" position. They will do so with principle and honour. And when it comes to a vote on this, delegates should back them. But this fight is the wrong fight.

The current policy on uranium mining was born out of a compromise in 1984 between the Left, which wanted to hold on to the 1977 policy which opposed all uranium mining, and the Right which wanted an open door to uranium sales.

The Right of the party is forthright and honest about its pragmatism. Principle with no grunt or electoral mileage bogs the party down, it claims. Its philosophy - to the extent it has one - has more to do with John Dewey's instrumentalist pragmatism than with coherent theories of social justice and equality.

The Left tends to get its knickers in a twist. In a party dominated by ruthless pragmatists, it dares not fight for a platform of consistent democratic socialism yet remains tied to a genuine desire for liberal reform of society.

The no new mines policy is a nonsense. The Left will be fighting for a policy it doesn't believe in and knows it can't win. Either commercial uranium mining is legitimate or it isn't.

If any form of commercial uranium mining is legitimate then dump the policy.

If it isn't kosher, then the Left should be at the forefront fighting against all commercial uranium mining. Defending the existing policy is a warped mix of the worst of the Right's pragmatism with a forlorn nod to liberalism or political correctness.

Labor Tribune opposes all commercial uranium mining. Guarantees that exported uranium won't end up in the nuclear weapons cycle are rubbish. And even if they could be guaranteed, it is only freeing up uranium from other countries to enter the weapons cycle.

And there is the whole nuclear energy debate. Labor is not about to embrace nuclear energy. But if uranium is good enough to export to other countries for fission reactors, why not have them here?

On this, the Labor Left must take the hardest line. Going down defending a policy you don't really believe in is not clever politics. After all, as one Labor frontbencher once sang, it's better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

The Labor Left will almost certainly lose this fight. Rather than fight for a nonsense policy, it should take the opportunity to stake out a space in the ALP for the birth of a principled and committed socialist left under a Rudd Labor government.

On the matter of uranium it's time the Left fought for principle and not defend a failed pragmatism from a forgotten era.

March 12, 2007

Marcus Strom is editor of Labor Tribune and secretary of Summer Hill ALP


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