MAC: Mines and Communities

The afterlife of uranium's militant opponents

Published by MAC on 2006-04-05

The afterlife of uranium's militant opponents

5th April 2006

OLD anti-uranium campaigners never die: they maintain their rage — or occasionally cool off a bit and change their minds.

The "old" bit refers not to the state of mind or body, or even to the number of years veteran warriors such as Terry Norris, Joan Coxsedge, Ian Cathie and Joseph Camilleri have between them, but simply acknowledgement that opposition to uranium mining in Australia probably peaked about three decades ago.

The comparison between then and now pains actor and former Victorian Labor MP Mr Norris, as he struggles to digest the Federal Government's decision to sell uranium to China and Taiwan.

"There's barely a ripple of protest," says an explosive Mr Norris, who accepted an invitation from The Age to meet at the Collingwood headquarters of environment group Friends of the Earth yesterday.

"One looks back at what reaction you'd have had bloody 30 years ago — there'd be bloody thousands of people in the streets."

Mr Norris gives Friends of the Earth anti-uranium campaigners Jim Green and Louise Morris an admiring glance. "You guys are young, and you've got energy and that's just great," he says. "My position (on uranium mining) hasn't altered in the slightest, but the position in the general community has altered."

"I don't think the general community gives a toss," suggests his former parliamentary colleague Ms Coxsedge, who has since dumped Labor over what she regards as a series of sell-outs. She is enraged about the prospect of Labor abandoning its opposition to new uranium mines, but says the ideological contamination began in the early 1980s when the party adopted its three-mines policy. "I was a delegate and teller at the national conference when it (the policy) was passed and people were actually crying because they knew it was a fundamental betrayal."

Mining uranium should never be acceptable because of environmental hazards posed by nuclear waste and the risk of weapons proliferation, Ms Coxsedge says. She blames a docile Australian media for letting the heat out of the debate and thinks the profit motive is blinding Canberra: "These guys would sell their grandmothers for a bloody stale cheese sandwich."

But not all their former comrades agree. "I think it (the stance) probably made sense at the time, but the debate's very different now," says Ian Cathie, a former Cain government minister and once staunchly anti-uranium mining. Today it is clear that coal is a far dirtier energy source than nuclear power, he says. Nuclear proliferation might be a risk but it is one to be handled by "the United Nations and common sense." When Mr Cathie's position is put to Mr Norris and Ms Coxsedge they say, almost in unison: "Ian was always a pragmatist."

Joseph Camilleri, who helped establish the Movement Against Uranium Mining in Australia in the late 1970s, remembers the days when "tens of thousands" of anti-uranium activists would meet weekly in Melbourne alone. Teachers, nurses, doctors, churches and eventually the Labor Party joined the push to limit Australia's involvement in the industry.

The passions are still there today, but the detail is lost as issues such as global warming tend to take precedence. "It wouldn't surprise me if in the next four to five years there's a resurgence of interest … especially if a few unpleasant things happen," Mr Camilleri says.

The young guard, Mr Green and Ms Morris, agree. They point to the recent campaigns against the nuclear waste dump in South Australia and the Jabiluka mine as evidence the issue can still galvanise. They plan a fun "yellowcake protest" in the city today.

These days, says Mr Green, only about 70 campaigners meet each week — and that's across the country.

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