It must be the silly season. The old arguments are all back on the agenda, and none of them is more thoroughly worn than the one about Australia going nuclear.

We have endured it in one form or another for at least the past 50 years and there is every prospect that another generation will be rehashing the same debate at the end of this century. The impasse over nukes has a half life longer than that of plutonium.

The basics are simple. There is no doubt that nuclear power is a viable source of industrial and domestic electric power; it has proved itself over large areas of the world and will presumably continue to do so unless and until an equally reliable alternative (perhaps the holy grail of controlled fusion) becomes commercially available.

Once the plants are in place they are non-polluting; when working efficiently the only gas they emit is water vapour. This, of course, is the basis of the case for using them as a replacement for coal-fired plants; they may be more expensive, but they’re clean.

Well, up to a point. There is still the intractable problem of disposing of the nuclear waste or at least of safeguarding it; as the quantities increase and maverick states and terrorist groups proliferate, the chances of theft or misadventure become greater and graver.

And while the design of modern plants is a huge improvement on Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there are still very few people who would choose to live next door to one — or indeed, anywhere within rocket range. The buggers don’t even like living next to windmills. The political cost of making the switch might well be comparable to the financial one, and that in itself would be huge.

Julia Gillard has made it clear that she just doesn’t think it’s worth it and it is pretty certain a large majority at next year’s national party conference will agree with her. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott doesn’t even want to talk about the subject. He is happy to see it as a wedge within the Labor Party but he is not prepared to risk a similar debate among his own troops. So Realpolitik suggests that the nuclear debate will end, again, not with a bang but a phut.

But there is another line of argument: the moral one. Australia is happy, indeed eager, to sell its enormous deposits of uranium for other countries to use. We say we’re only doing it under stringent conditions to countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty but we know that is sophistry; once the stuff’s on the boats, we effectively relinquish control of it. We certainly aren’t interested in taking responsibility for the nuclear waste it generates.

So if it’s so dangerous and evil that we won’t use it ourselves, what is the justification for flogging it to others? Are we no better than merchants of death, on a par with arms salesmen and drug dealers?

Gillard and most of her colleagues would see this line as out of date. They no longer claim that nuclear power is dangerous and evil; it’s simply unsuitable for Australian conditions. And of course even if we went down that path, it would be many years — perhaps decades — before we could build enough plants to close down the coal-fired stations. We can’t afford the delay — climate change again is a real and urgent problem. We need action now! A carbon price, that’s the ticket.

Meanwhile, keep those freighters moving. Of course most of them are carrying coal, which we have now realised is definitely dangerous and evil. But we’ve already decided this is a debate about practicality, not ideals.

The Australian should really have a new kicker under its masthead: not “The Heart of the Nation” but “It’s All About Us!” It s preoccupation with its own self-importance has reached the level of self parody.

The case of Julie Posetti finally proves it. It started when Posetti tweeted a report of what a former writer for the paper, Asa Walquist, said at a small and closed conference. No one too much notice until Crikey ran some of the tweets and The Australian’s unusual editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell decided that Walquist’s remarks were defamatory of himself and announced that he would sue not Walquist for making them, but Posetti and Crikey for publishing them.

Actually still no one took much notice; as The Australian’s own environment editor Graham Lloyd noted rather complainingly, “the story has barely raised a ripple in the mainstream media”. So to remedy that, and incidentally to ensure that the alleged libel was spread as widely as possible, The Weekend Australian devoted an entire page to self justification.

The argument, such as it was, maintained that Mitchell had been eminently fair and reasonable about climate change, even if the paper had given the sceptics and denialists a lot of space. But the paper really, truly believed in man-made climate change and had said so, and now Mitchell wished he had sued Clive Hamilton as well.

And that, in about 40,000 not very well chosen words, was the news. The Australian. Think. Again.

And as an unenthusiastic outpost of the sport in the wrong hemisphere and the wrong time zone we never had any real chance of hosting the 2022 World Cup, and should never have been in the bidding.

But since we apparently had a lazy $45 million to spend on the caper, wouldn’t it have been simpler to cut out the middlemen and just sling the 22 voting delegates a couple of million each? Sure, we still would have lost, but at least we would have had enough left over for a decent piss-up.

Peter Fray

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