Much as I love it, South Australia is a mere microcosm of the developed world. To the best of my knowledge we are famous for wine, Don Bradman and serial killers. We have also produced a few fine scientists like Howard Florey, and were really early in women’s suffrage, but I digress. My point is I am under no illusion as to how (in)significant we are down here. However, I have been both witness and privy to a political process that is likely to be repeated across the developed world regarding the critical decisions that need to be made for our energy future. It has not been pretty, but it has been instructive and other liberal democracies should pay attention.
DSA readers will recall my request for co-signatories for a letter to Mitch Williams, our Deputy Opposition Leader and Energy Spokesperson, who was quoted making unequivocal statements in support of the consideration of nuclear power as part of our energy future. I was pleased to see this hit the press.
Now, not long after I made that request, a local DSA subscriber let me know that he had caught up with Mitch Williams and asked him about those statements. According to my friend, the back-pedalling had already started. He was taken out of context apparently. This was not encouraging.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and the Leader of the State Opposition, Isobel Redmond, made a public presentation on future energy investments in South Australia, with gas tri-generation as the centrepiece.
On nuclear, the Opposition Leader said this:
At the same time, Ms Redmond ruled out nuclear power as an option for SA, saying it was still too expensive and “I don’t think this country will ever move towards nuclear power until both major parties take the politics out of the debate”.
“I have had discussion with people who are pro-nuclear but even they think, given our population and the cost, nuclear power is still not a viable alternative for this state,” she said.
Quite who in South Australia the Opposition Leader is taking her information from about nuclear, I do not know. But this is not a position DSA holds, and the effective, nay essential role of nuclear power as the most cost effective zero-carbon power source for the State has been discussed at this site at length. This is an unfortunate change of position from the Opposition, who just earlier this year seemed set to challenge the State Labor Leader’s dogmatic refusal (contrary to the position of senior members of the party itself) to reap further economic gain from our mineral resources by expanding our involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle to enrichment or power generation. This is a position of gob smacking hypocrisy as this same Government spruiks the benefit of an impending quadrupling of our uranium production courtesy of the expanded Olympic Dam.
The Opposition Leader’s apparently favoured pathway, a feasibility study for gas trigeneration, may lead to some efficient, much lower carbon energy to specific inner city locations. It will also do nothing whatsoever to displace our major generation stock, and further commit us to a pathway of building a whole new generation of centralised fossil base load. This is not the path South Australia should be treading. This infrastructure, which lives for 50 years or more, will give us maximum exposure to both the very carbon price the Opposition Leader describes as “economically insane”, as well as very likely steep rises in the cost of gas. Politically, South Australia is now poised to enjoy another argument about nothing at all. How do you like your fossil fuels? Labor flavoured or Liberal? The directions being locked in for baseload energy by the major parties are indiscernible. The consequences will be inexcusable.
Now, what has transpired here is hardly something complex from the brain of Aaron Sorkin. A political party has tested the water on nuclear power and found it way, way too hot. So hot in fact that I received no response to my letter whatsoever. They have backtracked to wherever they have been told is “safe”.
I am not naive. Politics is a process of people manoeuvring to gain power. The dominant paradigm appears to be one of endless compromise and minimum risk taking in the pursuit of high Office, under the expectation that change only occurs from the seat of power. I disagree. Powerful mandates are secured from powerful Oppositions who have the courage to differentiate when they are out of power. Otherwise, a political party takes office with a mandate for banal, mediocre, unimaginative and reform-free policies. That is the bed our politicians make for themselves by being too frightened of the voter block to create a challenging dialogue of genuine reform. It is the reason the “safe” place is the most dangerous place of all: the place where you are indistinguishable from the other guys, waiting patiently for them to get so on the nose that a change of Government becomes inevitable.
In one of my very first DSA posts I wrote this:
My engagement with South Australia’s political leadership has, so far, been quite limited. But it has been very consistent. The message that keeps coming back from the political class about nuclear power in South Australia can be summed up thusly: The only thing wrong with nuclear power is that it is an electoral liability. Not finance. Not environmental impact. Not health concerns. Not reliability. Electoral liability.
I think there are two basic responses to this realisation. Both are true and valid. But only one is empowering.
The first is to bemoan the state of our short-term political system, where leadership and vision come a distant second to the safest route to either winning or maintaining office. There is nothing untrue about that notion; spend any time on it though, and your agency will be sapped to zero.
The other response is to twig to the fact that nothing is standing in the way of South Australia fixing this problem, and leading the world in clean electricity generation, than the word of South Australians. That’s us. It is futile to wait until the political climate is “right” for nuclear power. We make it right by bringing the vision to our fellow citizens, getting them on board, and telling our political leaders that there is now safe space to talk about it. Those of us who have done the time looking at the climate crisis and the energy options available to us will know that once you start talking honestly and openly about nuclear power, it speaks very nicely for itself.
So that’s our current priority challenge; build the conversation on nuclear power at the citizen level in South Australia, and create safe space for conversation at the political level. It’s the first step in taking nuclear power from electoral liability to electoral possibility, and then electoral certainty.
I need to respect the guy who wrote that and not dwell on this set-back. My kids won’t thank me. I need to redouble my efforts in building the conversation in South Australia. We will lead our politicians in this enterprise. It will not be the other way around. We need a movement that is growing and making its voice heard so that our politicians will have the courage to come out and talk openly about our long term state and national interests and, as the Opposition Leader said, take the politics out of the debate.
Today, South Australia’s energy future is being written in fear. Fear of most voters about nuclear power. Fear of our leaders about voter backlash. This vicious cycle is outweighing our pressing state, national and global interests, and we must overcome it.
As a little epilogue, I have received confirmation that Walkerville Council will be my host for a community event in March 2012, where I will put my case for nuclear power to that community. Could it be that political courage is not dead, it’s just local?