So with Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday proposing Australia begin selling uranium to India, it appears to me successive Labor governments are fumbling their way through nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues.

But few appear to be committed to seriously debating the uranium deal in the gritty terms of arms control and international security (it is, for example, shirked by political commentators hereherehereherehereherehere and here … and it is touched on inadequately or incorrectly herehere and here with such lines as “the Howard government overreacted to India’s nuclear weapons test in 1998” and “Why won’t it abandon [their nuclear weapons]?… [because that would be] rejected by its people”).

Australia’s chief political analysts therefore appear wholly uncommitted to discussing uranium exports in the context of nonproliferation and disarmament.

I am. Over the past 12 months, Labor’s position has shifted from one giving primacy to international arms control norms so that Australia had in place a non-negotiable recipient adherence requirement, to one in which Gillard has deemed those very same principles as incurring “all pain with no gain” since exports to India “will be good for the Australian economy, and good for Australian jobs”.

Overnight on ABC Lateline, defence minister Stephen Smith answered general questions concerning nuclear weapons and arms control norms by instead focusing solely on the “proliferation record” of India — a common, and deliberate, obfuscating strategy. He responded to a question concerning how a relaxed uranium export policy might impact Australia-India relations by reasoning that India was “entitled to be accorded the status [of a superpower alongside the United States and China], particularly given the track record of non-proliferation that it has”. Then referring in some detail to IAEA compliance, Smith then went on to make the utterly bizarre justification that:

“So, how do we bring India under the umbrella of international regulators? India made it clear that it would cease nuclear testing. It hasn’t tested for a long time. It made it clear that it would open itself up to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors to effectively track the use of its civil uranium.

“It made it clear it would separate and distinct civil use from military use. These are all sensible things, and in a de facto or a de jure sense, reflect substantially what we find as a result of the arrangements that take place under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Wisely, foreign minister Kevin Rudd as recently as last month strongly opposed any deal with India; rightfully giving primacy to arms control compliance over any number of compelling political and economic gains unquestionably to be had from such a deal.

Yesterday he too backed down and toed what looks to be party line.

One of the most reasoned advocates of “principled” uranium sales as well as the broader Australia-India relationship has been Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute.

Since 2007 Rory has been of the view that India needs uranium in order to assist in what is the “largest experiment in peaceful, democratic development in history”. For India we are told, uranium supplies are necessary in order to enable socio-economic development, the alleviation of deprivation and poverty brought about by lack of access to power in general, and a responsible contribution to combatting global climatic change by way of atomic energy.

Peter Fray

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