Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Forget Wikileaks: what about the Labor-leaks? [December 14]

While the Australian media pack salivates over the scandalous morsels being dished up by Wikileaks, it may be missing an equally delicious manoeuvre going on right under our noses. Although The Greens weren’t able to outwit the major parties in the recent Victorian State election, the party seems to have learnt some lessons from the cunning preference deals which kept them out of the lower house. And I have to applaud their chutzpah. Blackmailing a member of the NSW right of the Labor Party into advocating a new debate over the party’s anti-nuclear power policy was a stroke of genius.

You doubt my conspiracy theory? If not the result of a blackmail attempt, how else can we rationally explain the timing of NSW Senator Steve Hutchins recent demand that a change in Labor’s nuclear policy be on the agenda at the next ALP conference? Surely no one in their right minds would want to alienate once and for all the remaining green-left rump of this formerly progressive party?

The ALP has been steadily leaking first preference votes to the Greens for over a decade. Not only that, it has been leaking membership, too. When I was working as an environment activist twenty years ago, many of my fellow campaigners were also active members of the ALP, attending local branch meetings, initiating and supporting the passage of green policies through the labyrinthine policy processes of their party. They saw value in working simultaneously with independent interest groups and within a mainstream political party.

Over time, though, most of those people (and the younger campaigners who’ve followed in their footsteps) have migrated to the Greens. Disappointed by ALP policy reversals on key environmental issues like uranium mining and, more recently, by the parliamentary Labor Party’s spectacular failure to tackle the threats posed by climate change and our unsustainable use of natural resources, green-left activists and voters opted to support a party which puts those concerns at the centre of its policy platform.

According to Labor historian Rodney Cavalier, author of Power Crisis, ALP membership in Senator Hutchins’ state of NSW dropped from 19,609 in 2002 to 15,385 in 2009, representing a decline of over twenty percent. In contrast, the Greens national membership climbed from 4889 in 2002 to 10,429 in 2009, representing an increase of over one hundred percent.

The ALP is not alone in facing this leakage problem. Speaking on ABC Radio National last week, Berlin-based politics professor Wolfgang Merkel claimed that in Germany, the membership of traditional social democratic parties has effectively halved over the past decade. In many European and Scandinavian nations, young people who are interested in politics join ‘either NGOs or environmental parties such as the Greens’, leaving labour parties to become ‘elite cartel parties losing their link to the population.’

If the ALP wants to reverse this trend and re-energise its membership base, the last thing it should be doing is trashing its remaining environmental credentials by adopting a pro-nuclear policy. Not only might it be the last straw for many ALP members who are considering abandoning the party, but it makes no economic or environmental sense.

Judging by the US experience, a nuclear power industry would require huge government subsidies to produce energy at an affordable cost for consumers. According to physicist and President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Professor Ian Lowe, direct subsidies to the US nuclear industry totalled $115 billion between 1947 and 1999. Decommissioning nuclear power plants is expensive and dangerous, and no one has yet found an economically or environmentally sensible (or indeed a politically acceptable) solution to the problem of radioactive waste.

Furthermore, building new nuclear power stations would lead to a short term increase in our carbon emissions, at a time when we need to be quickly and efficiently reducing emissions to slow the pace of dangerous climate change. And even if we were willing to cop that increase, maintaining a reliable, long term supply of uranium ore to fuel those stations would also require increasingly carbon-intensive extraction and processing.

I challenge any Labor Government to persuade the residents of a major Australian city that a nuclear power station is safe enough to be built in their backyard. Our memory banks may be shrinking as digital technologies take over the work of our brain cells, but few Australians over the age of forty won’t shudder at the mention of the word Chernobyl. And which insurance companies would agree to insure an Australian nuclear industry without iron-clad government guarantees to underwrite the risks?

Given the astounding success of Team Wikileaks in sniffing out any dirty political underwear left lying around, surely it’s only a matter of time before this ingenious blackmail strategy is revealed to the world and Senator Hutchins is forced to back down from his patently ridiculous attempt to send more Labor members and voters into the waiting arms of the Greens. Watch this space.