At first sight, Kim Beazley’s
decision to commit himself to revising Labor’s uranium policy is
puzzling. It may amount to good public policy, but Beazley’s tenure so
far has shown no signs that he believes development of good policy to
be the job of an opposition. Nor does it look like a vote winner:
people who support uranium mining generally feel less strongly about it
than those who oppose it, and the strong supporters are quite likely to
be voting Coalition anyway.

Perhaps Beazley judges that the
policy will have to be changed in government anyway, so he might as
well get the fight over with now. But a Beazley government is an
uncertain prospect, so it would seem to make more sense to leave it
until then: if he does win next year’s election, his standing will be
high enough to get whatever policy changes he wants.

The
appearance of courageous, disinterested policy-making, however, is
probably just what Beazley is aiming for. It reminds me of John
Howard’s decision in 1997 to put the GST back on the agenda: his
government was in the doldrums, and he wanted a bold stroke to regain
credibility. There were no votes in the policy itself, but there were
(apparently) votes in the appearance of principle. One of Beazley’s big
problems has been the perception that he doesn’t really stand for
anything; this could be one way to address it.

That’s not to
deny that Beazley sincerely believes that the three-mines policy is
obsolete, just as Howard sincerely believed in the GST. But if politics
was only about sincerity, the careers of both men would look very
different to the way they do.

The uranium decision also suggests
that Beazley doesn’t share the commentators’ obsession with Labor’s
primary vote. He knows that a weakening of the nuclear policy will
drive some of his voters to the Greens. But as long as they come back
to Labor in preferences, he doesn’t care about that: and realistically,
with Howard promising to pepper the country with nuclear reactors,
anti-nuclear Greens voters have nowhere else to go.

Peter Fray

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