News Online reports that the Howard government has today announced that it is seizing control of approvals for new uranium mines from the Martin Labor NT government:
THE Federal Government has taken control over the future of the Northern Territory’s rich uranium deposits, declaring the territory open for business on uranium.
The NT Labor Government had promised to ban new uranium mines, despite fierce opposition from the Federal Government.
But the Federal Government sought legal advice, and today said it had taken over responsibility for the development of new mines, following a meeting between the federal and NT resources minister in Darwin.
It’s hardly a surprising move on either side of the political divide. Clare Martin had pandered to the Greens in the run-up to the recent election by announcing that her government would not under any circumstances approve any new uranium mines.
Moreover, “no new uranium mines” remains part of the ALP’s National Platform, still being an article of faith of the Socialist Left and even some otherwise more moderate and sensible types. It’s a fairly meaningless, if archaic piece of self-indulgent flummery in most parts of Australia. But the Territory has large, undeveloped uranium reserves at several locations, notably Jabiluka and Koongarra within the boundaries of Kakadu National Park (though formally excised from it), so the ALP Platform was always going to become a real life problem for a Labor government in the Territory.
Federal Resources Minister Ian MacFarlane has very properly indicated that he wasn’t proposing to approve any mines unless and until indigenous traditional owners agree. But bizarrely, the Martin government seems perfectly happy to stay permanently in bed with the lunar lefties even if traditional owners, miners and the Feds are all agreed to the contrary. It’s a strange concept of fostering Aboriginal self-determination. And it’s by no means impossible to imagine traditional owners, at least of Koongarra, giving approval. Even the Mirrar people and their usually hardline senior TO Yvonne Margarula might conceivably soften their stance on Jabiluka as they discover the real world consequences of the fairly imminent exhaustion of the existing Ranger Mine. Those rivers of gold of “sit down money” are about to dry up.
On a slightly different angle, McFarlane might actually have done Clare Martin an unintentional favour. The Martin government has approved numerous uranium exploration licences across wide areas of the NT over the last 4 years. It occurs to me that in those circumstances a blanket “no new mines” policy might be legally challengeable on a variety of administrative law grounds, and might also open the Martin government to damages actions by disgruntled miners who have spent substantial sums exploring their licence areas on the not unreasonable assumption that the Mines Minister would consider any subsequent application for a mining lease on its merits.
Finally, there’s the obvious issue of global warming. Whether the greenies like it or not, nuclear power remains the only universally available mature technology capable of delivering large amounts of baseload power without emitting any greenhouse gases at all. However they twist and turn, simply stubbornly refusing to consider the nuclear option at all is just plain irresponsible in environmental terms as well as economic ones.
Moreover, the current development of modular pebble bed nuclear reactors by China and South Africa provides a very real and near-term prospect of much cheaper nuclear power with no risk of reactor meltdown. That will remove most of the greenies’ standard kneejerk excuses for opposing uranium mining and nuclear energy generally. This federal decision is a logical extension of the just-announced agreement with the US, China and India to pursue technological solutions to global warming in preference to the largely ineffectual Kyoto Protocol. The lefties will hate it, but it’s difficult to argue logically that it doesn’t make sense if you really believe that human-induced global warming is a potentially serious problem (as I certainly do).
PS – For the sake of completeness, I should point out that the NT government doesn’t actually have any constitutional authority to either authorise or prevent unanium mining. Thus, for Clare Martin to make a “no new uranium mines” election promise (as she did) was arguably more than a tad misleading. Executive authority over uranium mining was specifically withheld by the Commonwealth by the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Regulations in 1978. Thus the NT government only exercises functions in relation to uranium mining by purely contractual arrangement with the Commonwealth, and specifically in relation to the existing Ranger Mine i.e. the Commonwealth in effect delegates the function to the NT. A prospective new uranium miner (Ranger is the only actual example of the process since self-government AFAIK) would make application to the federal government for approval to mine and export uranium. The federal minister would then probably make compliance with the requirements of the NT Mining Act a condition of a grant of federal approval (at least if he followed the Ranger precedent).
Presumably, the only sensible way to interpret Martin’s “no new mines” pledge (apart from as a mere cynical ploy for Greens preferences) is that she was saying that if the Commonwealth minister followed the Ranger precedent and made compliance with NT Mining Act requirements a condition of federal approval to mine, the decision-maker under the NT Mining Act (ultimately the Minister) would refuse to approve the application irrespective of its merits. Hence it’s hardly surprising that Federal Resources Minister McFarlane indicated that in those circumstances he wouldn’t be entrusting any part of the approval function to the NT government. It’s all a bit confusing, because the Commonwealth didn’t actually “seize” control of the process (as NT Mines Minister Kon Vatskalis originally claimed), in that the Commonwealth always possessed that control, nor can it really be said that the NT government “abdicated” its responsibility (as McFarlane’s press release claimed) because the NT government doesn’t have any responsibility, at least in a constitutional sense, and never did.
The politics of all this for Clare Martin are probably quite okay. She avoids antagonising the Greens and breaching her own Party’s Federal Platform, but any new mining development (subject to normal environmental approvals and indigenous consent if on Aboriginal land) will still go ahead and fuel economic growth.