Those on the ALP Left might now fondly recall the days when Julia Gillard was considered a potential liability for Labor because of her fiery left-wing views. On foreign policy, as prime minister she’s rigidly in the Beazley/Hawke line of enthusiastic Washington acolytes. In the past two weeks, her government joined a tiny minority voting against Palestinian membership of UNESCO, plans to welcome the US President with a training facility for US troops, and now she’ll push to overturn Labor’s ban on uranium sales to India.

The latter two have been carefully dropped with selected media outlets in advance.

The issue of uranium sales to India had its genesis in Washington, with the Bush administration keen to cultivate India as a counterweight to China, and its eagerness to push nuclear power as a key response to climate change. The Howard government was an enthusiastic supporter of the latter — Howard readily signed up to the Bush Administration’s “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership”, and the 2007 APEC meeting was used to craft an elaborate figleaf for climate-change inaction in the form of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, intended to promote “cleaner” technologies such as nuclear power.

In 2005, the Bush administration had begun a process to establish full nuclear technology trade with India and the Howard government followed in 2007, agreeing to sell uranium. The incoming Rudd government promptly reversed the decision, in line with Labor policy.

The decision had minimal effect on India’s nuclear power program since it has long obtained uranium from Russia and other sources such as Kazakhstan, Argentina and Namibia. The only significant benefit to India from Australian uranium sales will come from offsetting Russia’s declining supplies, and the competitive pressure Australian uranium producers will place on other suppliers. And while India may commit to safeguards to prevent Australian uranium from being used for anything other than a strict set of purposes related to its civilian nuclear power program, plainly it would free up uranium sourced from elsewhere for use for military purposes.

In 2008, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties looked at the issue of future uranium sales to Russia, another legacy of the Howard government. The inquiry brought to light both the laxity of safeguards in Russia and the tendency of DFAT’s Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation office, under then-head John Carlson, to act as a lobbyist for uranium sales (readers may recall the WikiLeaks cables outed Carlson as having worked with Bush Administration officials to attempt to derail the re-election of Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency). After learning of such reassuring facts as that there had not been an IAEA inspection in Russia since 2001, the committee recommended that there be no exports to Russia until there was independent verification that it had separated its civilian and military nuclear facilities and IAEA inspections of facilities that would be handling Australian uranium resumed.

The government dismissed the committee’s concerns, and the treaty entered into force just over one year ago. In the intervening three years, there has been exactly one IAEA inspection in Russia.

Under an agreement with the IAEA, India permits limited inspections of just over half its nuclear facilities. The rest are off-limits, and the inspection regime is nowhere near as tight as that for Non-Proliferation Treaty countries. The best that can be said is that it’s not as bad as Russia.

Ultimately this boils down to a moral issue. India will maintain a civilian and military nuclear program with or without Australian uranium. Supplying it with uranium will simply make it somewhat easier for the Indians to maintain both, regardless of the safeguards we put in place on exports. How you feel about that depends largely on how you feel about nuclear weapons. How Labor feels is a mystery. It opposes nuclear power domestically but supports other countries’ nuclear power programs, and campaigns for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation while telling the Americans their nuclear arsenal is necessary for deterrence.

The best outcome from the national conference might be for the party to work out a coherent policy of any kind.