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Richardson: Weatherill faces his Monarto moment

Opinion

No matter what his Citizen’s Juries decide, Premier Jay Weatherill will have to push ahead with a nuclear waste facility for South Australia or his legacy will be undermined, argues Tom Richardson.

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It was strangely apt that Kevin Scarce’s final report was released in the same week as Radiohead’s new album, A Moon Shaped Pool.

Because the vexed question of a future locally-based repository for the world’s high-level nuclear waste is a lot like a new Radiohead album.

It will take us a long time to work out exactly what we think of it. And perhaps 10 to 15 years more before we reach a broad consensus about its true worth.

Like Radiohead’s latter-era material, the waste dump question elicits strong debate, both for and against. There are those who want to keep things as they were, who rail against experimenting with technology.

It’s clear that our former governor Kevin Scarce is not one of them.

He is an In Rainbows kind of guy.

“The commission’s firm conclusion is that this opportunity should be actively pursued, and as soon as possible,” his report concluded.

A report that held, as Radiohead themselves would say, “No Surprises”.

Because this exercise has always been about legitimising a significant policy shift on nuclear storage.

When Jay Weatherill took on Kevin Foley for Labor’s deputy leadership after the 2010 election, he famously argued against the Rann-era practice of “announce and defend” politics, advocating his own alternative catchphrase: “Debate and decide.”

This, then, is the epitome of Debate and Decide.

A Royal Commission, not one but two Citizens’ Juries, various further guises of public consultation…

Of course, it could be more aptly called: “Decide and Debate. And Decide.” And then Defend.

Because it’s hard to conceive any Government would take on such an exercise without anticipating the likely outcome.

If nothing comes of it, the basis of Weatherill’s future legacy is undone. It will be his Monarto, his Multi-Function Polis, his Olympic Dam (literally, perhaps!)

The entire Royal Commission process is arguably the biggest policy safety net in the Weatherill Government’s history. It will do little to win over the nuclear sceptics, those who prefer to stick with Pablo Honey and maybe The Bends when they’re feeling really adventurous.

But it gives Weatherill what he needs most in this debate: critical acclaim.

The Scarce report is like Rolling Stone magazine’s four and a half star review of Moon Shaped Pool. It is something that can be constantly referred to in the face of inevitable criticism, with the retort: “Oh yeah? Well, this is what the experts say!”

And as Scarce reached his inexorable, inevitable conclusions, so too will the Citizens’ Juries wend their way towards an unavoidable policy outcome.

Talk within Government has already informally turned towards not if this should happen, but where.

Don’t get me wrong, the juries are likely to be, as a random cross-section of the community, divided on the nuclear question.

But in the end, they can only work within the prism of the Scarce report.

And that will not countenance arguments against the economics. It will only seek guarantees about safety and potential damage to the state brand.

And in the end, as Weatherill has made clear: “The Government will decide.”

The “debate”, in essence, will help hone how best to justify the policy once it’s announced.

So it’s still Announce and Defend; it’s just a really nuanced, protracted version of it.

Because if nothing comes of this – nothing at all – this Government will be deemed to have led the state on a pointless expensive frolic, and this whole nuclear adventure would have been a weird, surreal sojourn (like listening to Kid A for the first time.)

That’s an outcome the Government politically can’t afford.

By its own design, there is an expectation that there will be a positive policy outcome at the end of this process.

If nothing comes of it, the basis of Weatherill’s future legacy is undone.

It will be his Monarto, his Multi-Function Polis, his Olympic Dam (literally, perhaps!)

And if nothing else, it would condemn his “Debate and Decide” mantra to history.

Because at least with Announcing and Defending, something actually got done.

Even if the critics didn’t always like it.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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