03/21/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Despite Gillard's Victory, Australian Uranium Exports to India Debate Far from Over

Former Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd's recent defeat by incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard was severe. With only 31 of 102 votes cast his way, many speculate that Rudd will never again be considered for prime minister. Such are the consequences of political hubris.

While the tabloid media has savored the opportunity to skewer Rudd, his failed attempt to lead the government has consequences beyond his own political ambitions. On the foreign policy front, the Gillard Coalition will likely now reorient the country's foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.

This shift away from Rudd's global foreign policy approach should prove popular with many Australian voters; possibly increasing support for Gillard which is already on the rise.

That said, a number of important foreign policy issues will continue to divide Labor as Gillard looks to consolidate her power. One of the most serious is her position on Australian uranium exports to India. This poses a chronic risk for both Gillard and the Labor Right - just as it does for the United States.

Post-Rudd Shift

Under Rudd's tutelage, Australia assumed an expansive foreign policy approach. This included launching a major campaign to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council and enhanced security and aid roles faraway from home, including Libya, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean.

Not all of these efforts have been welcomed by Australians. Many question whether Australia wouldn't be better served focusing on its core interests in Asia-Pacific, including bilateral relations with Indonesia. Some also fear that Rudd's global approach threatens to entangle Australia in the security interests of others; thereby risking global escalation of regional or national conflicts.

Rudd's replacement, Bob Carr, appears ready to right some of these perceived wrongs and slowly shift Australian foreign policy toward regional interests at the expense of those farther afield. Although it is possible that this could destroy Australia's U.N. Security Council seat bid, many feel that this better reflects the capabilities and interests of a middle power like Australia.

While Gillard's strong showing provides the political mandate for a foreign policy reorientation toward Asia-Pacific, the leadership vote certainly was not a black and white referendum on Australian foreign policy. Domestic policy positions were key to the vote, as were questions about character, governance, and leadership. Ultimately, it was about who would be best poised to sustain Labor's grip on power.

Given that Australian uranium exports to India fail to resonate with voters, it is perhaps not surprising that this issue did not propel Rudd to victory. Despite the fact that Rudd and Gillard maintain radically different perspectives, Labor members of Parliament appear to have overlooked the issue in favor of those which will determine the immediate political fate of the party.

India Debate

Still, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) remains deeply polarized following last year's Federal ALP Conference vote to allow uranium to be exported to India. Gillard's victory did little to end this bitter divide.

Although the export issue has not garnered significant media attention of late, the Labor Left and others remain fiercely opposed to uranium exports to India. They reject Gillard's argument that the economic stimulus generated through job creation in the mining sector justifies the perceived risks to global peace and stability.

The 55% of the ALP that leans to the right, on the other hand, supports Gillard's approach. They agree that the greater risk would be to deny India its rightful place in the international system.

Such political dissonance renders Gillard's pro-export policy approach susceptible to future challenges. But who could lead such an anti-export campaign?

Political Consequences

While Rudd has been vocal in opposing uranium exports to India in the past, it would be incredibly difficult for the former prime minister to lead the charge against Gillard. Having failed to fully mobilize the opposition in the leadership vote, he probably lacks the political capital necessary to spearhead such a major challenge anytime soon.

The question then is whether the Labor Left's leadership will be willing to rally its supporters, possibly in alliance with other Labor and non-Labor factions, and wage such a campaign. Only time will tell but such a political quarrel remains a distinct possibility.

The problem for Gillard is that the Labor Left can afford to be patient and wait for an opportune moment to strike. They know that they need stronger political ammunition to defeat Gillard and the Labor Right. And, they know that the passage of time could provide it.

Patience as a Virtue

There remains lengthy process and verification hurdles before uranium exports to India can fully come into force. During this period, the Labor Left can take advantage of any information which bring into question Gillard's underlying assumptions for moving ahead with supplying uranium to India's nuclear industry.

What sorts of events could trigger the opposition to take action? Any indication that Indian plans to redirect Western uranium imports to its military programs, conduct another nuclear test, or develop relations with state or non-state nuclear proliferators would suffice. A major nuclear incident, such as an accident at an Indian civilian nuclear facility blamed on poor nuclear safety compliance, could also bring Gillard's policy approach into question.

Although these examples fall outside of the Australian Government's direct control, they nevertheless could be used to challenge Gillard's leadership on the matter. Opponents can say that she individually and the Labor Right collectively have made Australia "complicit in nuclear proliferation" or "negligent on nuclear safety." Such accusations could mobilize the electorate and finally make the issue politically salient.

No matter how improbable such scenarios appear to her supporters, Gillard cannot afford to be proven wrong on uranium exports to India. Despite their present indifference to the issue, Australian voters would probably not accept a political mea culpa should serious concerns with India's civilian and military nuclear programs emerge.

What's at Stake

Under the right conditions, Australian uranium exports to India thus provide a viable mechanism by which Labor's opposition can restore their standing in the party.

There is no hiding the fact that the cards would certainly have to fall their way. But, Gillard's supporters must acknowledge that the Indian Government could gift Rudd, the Labor Left, and/or others the opportunity to challenge her leadership if the Indians fail to adhere to their part of the bargain.

While Gillard's faction has won the day, her side must accept the risk that history could prove her position flawed. If so, the Gillard Coalition (or its successors) might have to recognize the opposing Rudd and Labor Left position as proper.

Unlike Carr's recent concession that Rudd was right on Libya, the Gillard Coalition may not have the option of backtracking on this one. If their err in judgement places Australia on the wrong side of nuclear proliferation or nuclear safety history, Gillard and the Labor Right would face political kryptonite capable of removing them from power and tarnishing their records forever.

Avoiding Icebergs

In all honesty, I seriously doubt that Gillard worries about such an unkind future. Like U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, her support for uranium exports to India appears driven by a deep conviction that she is right. This sort of confidence is of course what one would expect from a world leader taking a stand on a difficult issue. One only hopes Gillard's faith in Indian intentions is not misplaced.

If her assumptions prove unfounded, the domestic political consequences for Gillard and the Labor Right will be severe. But, even more importantly, U.S.-Australian relations could be seriously strained during a crucial transition period for international security. This is because some Australians would probably condemn American "meddling" in their foreign policy decision-making given the direct role the Obama Administration allegedly played in Gillard's policy shift on uranium exports to India.

To mitigate these concerns, Australia, the United States, and their allies must remain ever vigilant in ensuring that India abides by its commitments. Any indication to the contrary should be met with coordinated diplomatic vigor typically reserved for countering one's adversaries not one's partners.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He also serves as a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting

The author would like to acknowledge Lamar Penny, a student he mentors at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. His interest in this topic following a National Press Club visit to the Australian Embassy served as inspiration for this piece.