When Jay Weatherill first announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into the state’s role in the nuclear fuel cycle, critics derided it as a distraction: more sound and fury to drown out the sombre realities of South Australia’s parlous economic outlook, its burgeoning unemployment, the inexorable decline of its manufacturing base.
Sound and fury, they argued, that in the end would signify nothing.
It was the same charge levelled at the Premier when, around the same time, he instigated an inquiry into the merits of changing the state’s time zone, one way or another.
It was, came the inevitable charge, a ‘look over there’ red herring, designed to incite the water-cooler chatter but never intended to actually achieve anything.
Similar cynicism greeted Weatherill’s backflip on the GST, when he publicly advocated a national debate around his own proposal to bolster Commonwealth revenues by raising the rate to 15 per cent, while allowing the states to cover their oft-cited shortfalls in health and education by pocketing direct income tax receipts.
The cynicism is understandable, given the wearyingly familiar gulf between hyperbole and achievement to which we are long accustomed.
Much of Weatherill’s tenure has been spent in that boundless and bare desert alluded to by Percy Bysshe Shelley (evidently an influence on the Premier himself, given his penchant for politically-hued Romantic poetry).
He is trapped in the “decay of that colossal wreck” that was once the kingdom of the great OzyRanndias, he of the “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command”.
It was an empire built on defence contracts and mining expansion, epitomised by the audacious, game-changing transformation of BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam.
“Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!”
And of all this, nothing beside remains. Nothing like we were led to expect, in any case.
Which is not necessarily the fault of the Government, but they were happy enough to reap the political rewards before they realised the economic ones.
Which explains why almost anything in the public policy realm that arrives pregnant with the possibility of change is almost instantly derided and dismissed.
Such ventures, as the naysayers have it, are at best a brain-fart and at worse a cynical con-job.
And in this context, Weatherill has given his critics some powerful ammunition.
…the electorate is quite rightly weary of hearing lofty rhetoric about game-changers and billion-dollar bonanzas. It is tired of talk-fests and red herrings, all ultimately discarded because of political timidity or shifting market forces.
Having promoted his Government’s interest in pursuing the time-zone change to align with Eastern Standard, it was quickly dropped without a yelp in the face of a moderately hostile Upper House.
The case for change was never even promoted inside parliament; the debate was never called on.
While a call on the GST was always out of Weatherill’s hands, it became increasingly clear he never believed it was a serious option for the Commonwealth. It was never anything but an ambit claim to push the case to increase revenues to the states. The fact he so quickly returned to his sledgehammer approach of canvassing publicly-funded PR campaigns and amassing angry unionists – who, incredibly, all agreed that cutting funds to their respective sectors was a Very Bad Thing – suggests the consensus-seeking national statesman act was all part of the façade.
A mirage in the desert.
So after all this, comes the tentative findings of Kevin Scarce’s nuclear royal commission.
Findings that found exactly what the Government hoped, expected and knew they would find.
A compelling economic case for a nuclear waste dump.
Parenthetically, Scarce and others have chided reporters about using this terminology, arguing it is not a “dump”, but a sophisticated technological marvel, a repository for the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel.
Maybe so, but it has long been referred to – by advocates as well as opponents – as a nuclear dump.
I have written about it as such for more than a decade without anyone suggesting it was a loaded term.
To change tack now would be to engage in meek complicity with the prevailing spin – a charge levelled at much of the media throughout the reign of OzyRanndias – and I don’t propose to do so.
It is what it is, and that is comprehensively spelled out in the royal commission’s findings.
The question is not one of semantics, but of whether the Weatherill Government – having invested more than $5 million in the inquiry – is prepared to not just commit to its findings… but to fight for them.
Weatherill always knew this would come down to a debate over nuclear storage. A waste dump. The same nuclear scarecrow Mike Rann used to frighten away the flocking feds, whose hamfisted entreaty in 2002 was politically akin to tanks on our lawn (or in our outback, at any rate) and who never once spelled out a compelling argument for SA.
And if Weatherill was always confident about the findings of the commission, the rationale for instigating a Royal Commission – as opposed to any other form of high-level inquiry – becomes clear.
From May, when the final report is handed down, the waste dump debate will still have the same arguments and counter-arguments.
But it will also have the authority of a Royal Commission that, having heard all those arguments and counter-arguments, has made a considered adjudication.
That is an authority that no other form of inquiry can bestow, an authority that will take at least some of the political and ideological heat out of the debate.
But it will still be heated.
The question is, will Weatherill be able to stand the heat?
Having last year promised a “bold” policy agenda, one to make us collectively gasp, will he put his premiership on the line if he believes this is of significant benefit to SA?
Because the electorate is quite rightly weary of hearing lofty rhetoric about game-changers and billion-dollar bonanzas.
It is tired of talk-fests and red herrings, all ultimately discarded because of political timidity or shifting market forces.
It is the Weatherill Government that has set this debate in train, confident of where the conversation was headed. If the Scarce commission’s tentative findings find echo in its final report, the Government has a responsibility to not just react, but advocate.
To prove this whole exercise wasn’t just more sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This Labor Government, with a left-aligned Premier, is uniquely positioned to achieve a broad consensus on nuclear waste.
But if it walks away from the challenge, it will lose not just a genuine opportunity to achieve something significant. It will lose its moral case for re-election.
Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.
Help our journalists uncover the facts
In times like these InDaily provides valuable, local independent journalism in South Australia. As a news organisation it offers an alternative to The Advertiser, a different voice and a closer look at what is happening in our city and state for free. Any contribution to help fund our work is appreciated. Please click below to donate to InDaily.