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Time for Abbott to play the nuclear power card

By Malcolm Colless - posted Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The time has come for Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, to stop playing political pingpong with Julia Gillard over the introduction of a carbon tax.

The Prime Minister's decision to release the details of this tax at the weekend is not only designed to avoid any parliamentary debate during the long winter recess but also to lock Abbott into a drawn out, reactive, tit for tat response to the implications emanating from this political can of worms.

But Abbott should step around this trap and use the seismic shift in the government of Australia, which came this week with the Greens taking control of the Senate, to lay down a broad ranging energy policy for the future development of the country.


In doing so Abbott should be proactive, step up to the plate, and call for a full scale debate on the role that nuclear power could play in meeting the future energy demands of a rapidly growing population.

This will involve not only engaging critics of nuclear power in the Labor Party and the Greens but also within his own conservative ranks. It would, however, demonstrate a constructive and realistic vision to meet the inevitable challenges that will arise in the years ahead.

And it would give the lie to the Labor mantra that Abbott is just a knocker operating in a policy vacuum. He should hijack the Labor structured debate, centred on the merits of a carbon tax, by delivering a forward thinking policy which embraces a transition to cleaner energy sources beyond the wind, wave and solar alternatives advocated by the Government's power sharing partners. With the country's energy generating grid already coming under mounting pressure, not just from increased demand but because it is in dire need of upgrading and replacement particularly in Queensland and NSW, any debate on meeting Australia's long term needs would be impotent if it did not include the use of nuclear power.

Abbott is already on the record supporting nuclear power as the only realistic way to cut carbon emissions and maintain living standards. But he baulked at taking this up to last year's federal election saying it was not the policy of the Liberal party. It was nevertheless a debate which the country should have, he added.

A smart tactical move for Abbot would be to give Liberal Party carriage of this debate to Malcolm Turnbull who is a strong supporter of the use of nuclear power as a clean energy source. Broadening Turnbull's current portfolio of communications would not be that hard to justify as the Government is already arguing that its $43b National Broadband Network will lower greenhouse gas emissions - effectively building a bridge between communications and the environment. But what the Government is not detailing is how much of a power guzzler a fully operational fibre based NBN would be.

Putting Turnbull into this high profile visionary role would give him the opportunity to pursue this debate with the vigour and passion he demonstrated when he was driving the case for Australia to become a republic.


Positioning nuclear power into the energy policy debate will draw out the Greens on their vision for a sustainable Australia without coal mining and other resources they consider environmentally unfriendly. It will also create a policy dilemma for the unions which see huge numbers of jobs going out the window if the Greens have their way.

It also puts Labor in a bind .For example, Energy Minister Martin Ferguson came away from discussions with the Obama administration in Washington earlier this year saying nuclear technology was proven, available and a constantly evolving clean air source.

While daring Gillard to seek a popular mandate on the introduction of a carbon tax, a policy she promised not to introduce in the run up to the last election, Abbott may again decide that the nuclear power issue is still too controversial to flag when another poll could be around the corner.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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