Nuclear Poker: The Premier declares his hand, but who will win?

You don’t generally establish a Royal Commission on a major economic question unless you have an answer in mind.

Tom Playford initiated a Royal Commission into the Electricity Industry in South Australia to bring the industry under greater public control. He was fed up with the privately run Adelaide Electric Supply Company (AESC) and was open to radical change. By the mid-1940s, most states had nationalised their electricity industries.

The logic of the argument was compelling at the time. The AESC was extracting unacceptably high dividends for its shareholders and was slow to bring electrification to South Australia’s regions. After some cajoling, Playford managed to get enough of his Liberal colleagues to join with Labor to pass the necessary legislation, creating one of the state’s most influential public enterprises – the Electricity Trust of South Australia.

Unlike Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry in South Australia, Playford had history on his side. Nationalisation of the electricity industry followed a global popular movement for change. Most believed the industry needed to be a servant of the community rather than one of its masters. Bringing the industry under public control was part of the great post-war social democratic revolution, one that profoundly shaped Australia’s post-war development. This was the nuclear age, a time when the terrifying power of atomic energy was unleashed as a terrifying and cataclysmic weapon. The memories of this horror live on like a long dark shadow over post-war generations. Though there have been few of them, each nuclear accident awakens latent fears, reminding us that they can have horrific consequences.

It is against the weight of this history that the Premier and the State Government push. They also push against great disappointment – disappointment that the state’s prosperity should, in any way, be tied to becoming a nuclear waste dump. Surely we can do better than that, many South Australians are saying. More than 3000 protestors on Parliament House steps made it clear that a dump was not an option.

What frustrates many about the latest twist in the nuclear waste dump debate is the apparent abuse of process when the State Government didn’t get the result it wanted. It has created an expectation that the Citizens’ Jury would guide the decision. When the Jury came out against the dump, the Premier had a plan B – put it to a referendum.

The election of Donald Trump sharpened views about the political cost of not listening to the Citizens’ Jury. While the Premier was prepared to take the risk and face accusations of having a tin ear, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall made a captain’s call to oppose the dump on economic grounds. While the Premier alienated many in his traditional support base by being the architect of the impossible, he won new friends on the other side of politics by daring to do what they would not have done themselves. Whether this translates into Labor votes from disgruntled Liberal voters at the March 2018
State election is difficult to know.

Having criticised the Opposition Leader for abandoning bi-partisan support, the Premier has few cards left to play in his game of nuclear poker. There has been talk of trying to lock in a customer nation to demonstrate that there is real demand for the dump, but customers will remain cautious, preferring not to declare their hand. Steven Marshall has laid his cards on the table and so too has the Premier. Their parties are divided on the stance they have both taken. The commentariat is despairing. Many are asking: how could an opportunity like this get away from us?

Beyond the nuclear dump hyperbole there is the prospect that we might begin to debate some genuine industry development alternatives for South Australia. This must not be done from a position of desperation, as it seems to be at the moment. Nor should we be blinded by the allure of any more Eldorado’s when there are so many real and valuable industrial transformation opportunities available.

Just why the development of a nuclear industry in South Australia should be so attractive to some is a fascinating question. Those who support a waste dump generally also support the enrichment of uranium and nuclear power generation. Some also see merit in South Australia manufacturing nuclear-powered submarines. I doubt that the pursuit of a dump will satisfy the ambitions of the nuclear lobby.

John Spoehr is Director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University
@JohnSpoehr

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