South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill has dramatically stared down his cabinet waverers and laid down the gauntlet to the Liberal opposition, vowing to continue down the nuclear path — with the question to be determined by a referendum.
Weatherill told media the government had determined “that discussion should continue” on the divisive question of high-level nuclear storage, which was dramatically rejected last week by a citizens’ jury before Opposition Leader Steven Marshall withdrew Liberal support.
However, the Premier said, “the only path forward is the restoration of bipartisanship and broad social consent”, which he hopes to achieve through a referendum at an unspecified future date.
Weatherill was widely expected to drop any further pursuit of the nuclear option in the face of significant opposition — including within his own party. However, as forecast in InDaily, he has opted to forge ahead in a move that will put his leadership — and his party’s re-election hopes — dramatically on the line.
While royal commissioner Kevin Scarce had indicated the need for broad community consent, he had explicitly rejected a referendum as a “snapshot” poll. However, it is perhaps the only remaining way forward for a process upon which the Premier had staked his “bold” vision for the state.
“I believe continued public debate about SA’s role in the nuclear fuel cycle is important and ultimately it is a matter that the people should decide, not political parties,” Weatherill said.
“This would always be a test of our democracy. I am supportive of continued debate on this issue — I am not supportive of shutting down democracy.”
Weatherill — who insisted his “leadership is secure” — said his government had “listened to the diverse points of view and have tried to carefully balance what we’ve heard to map out our next steps”.
“We will not pursue a change to our policy, but if the mood in the community shifts and bipartisanship is re-established, we will remain open to this question.”
The move effectively returns serve to Marshall, whose Liberals expected Labor to be backed into a corner by the public reaction to the divisive waste dump proposal.
However, it also means Weatherill will now become a key advocate, having resisted the overwhelming pressure to remove the issue from the political agenda altogether.
Crucially, Weatherill said local indigenous groups would be given a “right of veto” over any proposed dump “if a proposed facility would impact upon their lands” — a key factor in the citizens’ jury’s rejection.
“The message we heard from the jury was about trust,” Weatherill said.
“The best way forward is to restore that trust by putting this decision in the hands of the people. For Aboriginal people there was enormous distrust of non-Aboriginal people [but] by providing a right of veto to a local Aboriginal community … these concerns can be allayed.”
The Premier said he had “reached out to the Liberal Party” to re-establish a bipartisan approach, saying: “There’s no point in promoting a referendum that has no chance of success.”
However, Marshall poured cold water over the prospect at a late afternoon media conference, saying: “Jay Weatherill is a desperate man trying to cling to some tiny shred of an economic framework.”
“Jay Weatherill’s entire leadership is on its last legs … I think we’re seeing the last weeks, the last months of [his premiership],” Marshall said.
“The people of SA don’t want this project, the Liberal party room in SA is against this.”
Marshall emphasised that despite his unilateral move last week to “dump the dump”, the position was “passed without dissent” at yesterday’s party room meeting.
“The Liberal Party is 100% behind me,” he said.
“We do not support a referendum … if Jay Weatherill is so wedded to this, he can take it to the next election.”
The referendum proposal will need crossbench, if not opposition, support to pass Parliament, but Weatherill has indicated it can only proceed as a jointly sponsored proposal — a move that will now ramp up the political brinkmanship ahead of the state election in March 2018.
The Premier’s gambit will be met with incredulity from conservation campaigners who had all but declared the dump a dead issue.
“Most of state Parliament have said ‘no’, the Citizens’ Jury have said ‘no’, economists have said ‘no’, ordinary South Australians have said ‘no’, and most importantly, traditional owners have very clearly said ‘no’,” Conservation SA chief Craig Wilkins said today.
“There is clearly no support or consent for this investigation to continue.”
Greens MLC Mark Parnell said the “remarkable announcement … defies belief and shows a government completely out of touch with the public”.
“What the experience of the last few months shows is that if you give citizens more facts and allow them access to all sides of the debate — they vote no … that’s what the citizens’ jury delivered,” he said.
“With almost every other political party in state parliament declaring they are opposed to a nuclear waste dump, it is hard to see how the necessary legislation for a referendum would get through both houses of Parliament … a statewide referendum would be throwing good money after bad.
“The government has already wasted more than $10 million on this project and a referendum would cost tens of millions more … if the Premier wants this to be an issue for all South Australians, then he should go to the March 2018 state election with a nuclear waste dump as part of Labor’s platform — that would test public opinion.”
*This article was originally published at InDaily