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Maeve McGregor

‘A travesty’: Labor debate over AUKUS hangs in the balance

The most extraordinary thing about AUKUS, one of Australia’s foremost intelligence and foreign policy experts pointed out in early April, was that neither the current government nor the former Morrison government had taken it upon themselves to publicly make the “case [for it] beyond the generalities”. 

“There has been no formal articulation for the reasons for the decision, no report, no speech to Parliament, no speech at all, other than the sales patter of successive governments,” said the late Allan Gyngell, citing the usual refrains around threats to the “rules-based order” and an ascendant China.  

The most the nation had been treated to from government, Gyngell went on to say, were those “deeply irritating nose-tapping asides from politicians to journos” along the lines of “‘oh, if only you knew what we knew, you would agree with us’,” which he called both a “nonsense” and a departure from the approach of previous governments in conflicts past. To Gyngell’s mind, the scale and sheer secrecy — even deception — of the AUKUS pact was nonpareil in Australian history. 

As of late Wednesday, the arc of this narrative had been careening towards an inflection point, with a burgeoning movement of discontent among Labor rank-and-file over AUKUS manifesting on the eve of the party’s three-day national conference in Brisbane. 

More than 50 Labor branches across the country — including six in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s seat of Grayndler — as well as a handful of federal electorate councils have passed motions directly opposing AUKUS, calling for debate on the conference floor and amendments to the party’s draft national platform

Among the demands are calls for the removal of any reference to AUKUS in the draft national platform along with either a withdrawal from AUKUS or the suspension of any further funding for the defence pact pending a parliamentary inquiry into its aims, objectives, costs and associated risks. 

Spearheading the push is Labor Against War, a grassroots anti-AUKUS Labor campaign founded by Marcus Strom — a former journalist and ex-adviser to Labor minister Ed Husic — who on Thursday announced the movement had appointed former Labor senators Margaret Reynolds and Doug Cameron as national patrons.  

“Labor’s rank-and-file overwhelming oppose AUKUS and see it as a loss of sovereignty, opening the door to nuclear industry,” he said, adding that it dangerously and unnecessarily put Australia on a “war footing” with China.  

“National conference is just the start of our campaign. It will be a victory for the rank-and-file just to force the debate onto the conference floor.”

But in a nod to the anxiety seizing Labor leadership over what could prove an incendiary moment, the prospect of any debate on Friday was, as of Thursday afternoon, hanging in the balance, with a power struggle gripping the Left faction. 

Crikey understands that leading union figures within the faction were being persuaded to pull back from demands for a debate, and instead advance a watered-down motion that merely calls on the Albanese government to provide assurances around AUKUS as well as an explanation of the national benefits it supposedly affords.  

Strom, for his part, said any assurances in the context of a three-decade-plus long program were “frankly meaningless”, given they would only last for as long as the life of this Labor government. 

“If there’s no debate tomorrow, that will be a complete travesty of democracy and it’ll show that they’re running scared of the rank-and-file,” he told Crikey.

The moves to stifle rank-and-file debate over AUKUS on Thursday morning echoed similar reports Wednesday evening of an unprecedented intervention to control who may take to the conference floor for debate, with an internal memo circulated within the Left faction introducing a requirement to fill out an expression-of-interest form. 

Though some dismissed the significance carried by the new requirement, others, such as firefighters’ union boss Peter Marshall, said the eleventh-hour change ranked among the “most graphic example of how democracy in the ALP has been depleted”. 

Taken as a whole, the developments run contrary to assurances provided by Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who on Monday evening had informed an online town hall meeting of trade unions and Labor faithful that he was “absolutely anticipating” debate on AUKUS come Friday morning. 

They also appear to reflect an enduring belief on the part of the Albanese government that no dissent over AUKUS can seriously be countenanced. And beyond this, that erring on the side of overzealous secrecy and next to non-existent disclosure over AUKUS and its relative risks, merits and guiding rationale continues to constitute smart politics. 

Such a sentiment found reflection in Marles’ town hall address this week, where he segued seamlessly through his usual AUKUS talking points, painting an ominous picture of great power rivalry, a crisis of uncertainty and undefined threats to the (US-led) “rules-based order”. 

He also condescended to the Labor faithful, pointing out that though the world was impossibly “complex” and the weight of the current moment immense, the correct or necessary response was “clear”, notwithstanding their opposition to and legion of concerns over AUKUS. 

Though the tone and content of Marles’ address appeared to imply questions of national security were unworthy of national conversation, at least to some it wasn’t surprising. 

For one thing, said Hamish McPherson, president of Labor’s Benalla-Euroa Branch in Victoria and the state’s Labor Against War representative, it was telling that Marles carefully ignored inconvenient truths regarding global defence spending, for which the United States accounts for 39% and China 13%. The same holds for his failure or unwillingness to offer any specifics about the nature of the supposed threats emanating from China, much less the dangers of any policy of hostile alignment against it. 

Indeed, he scarcely spoke of China in direct terms at all, even though no-one credibly supposes AUKUS is not intended to preserve US strategic influence within the region.    

On the question of sovereignty, he took issue with the suggestion AUKUS in any way militated against it, inviting Labor rank-and-file members to believe the converse. And as part of that stance, he categorically rejected the notion Australia would ever lack control over the submarines secured under the deal: “As soon as there’s an Australian flag on a submarine,” he said, “we are in complete control: full-stop, no qualifications.” 

Except, of course, as McPherson pointed out, there are qualifications, stemming not least from direct observations to the contrary by US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, and the practical reality Australia simply can’t operate nuclear-powered submarines alone

“This is all very much part of their strategy to be like, ‘we’re the experts in the room — this is too complicated for ordinary people so you should defer to us’,” McPherson said. 

“But, look, there’s always been two traditions and two souls of Labor — one that’s got a very strong nationalist outlook, and another that’s committed to peace and international solidarity. What AUKUS shows is that contest is fading in favour of that dominant military view as the party becomes more pragmatic — and that’s the real concern we have.” 

The closed briefing, of which Crikey was provided a recording, also covered a range of other thorny issues, such as nuclear weapons, nuclear disposal and the broader surrender of sovereignty occasioned under the Australia-United States Force Posture Agreement (FPA). 

On the one hand, Marles attempted to provide a guarantee that under no circumstances would nuclear weapons ever be stored or based on Australian land and waters, before qualifying his answer, saying that America retains a “policy of ambiguity” over the weapons “rotating” through Australia on a permanent basis. 

He insisted, however, that these realities didn’t necessarily imply any loss of sovereignty, given any new “capability that comes to Australia requires our consent” — even if the FPA expressly says full control over and use of such equipment remains with the US. 

On the whole, the only new thing to emerge from the briefing was Marles’ attempt to sketch AUKUS as not the product of pre-election small-target politics but something squarely within Labor Party tradition and history, notwithstanding its deep Morrison-era roots. 

“If you look back through our history,” he said, “from [Labor prime minister Andrew] Fisher establishing the navy, [Labor prime minister John] Curtin’s role in the Second World War, Gough’s [Whitlam] role in unifying the services, Kim Beazley, who I think is the great modern defence minister …getting defence policy right has always been our province — we are the ones who are the most thoughtful about it.

“We see defence as something which has been our historic strength, and everything we are doing now we are trying to make sure is grounded in that traditional and that legacy.” 

No mention, in this connection, was made of former Labor leaders Arthur Calwell and Simon Crean, who respectively led opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Nor was any reference made to Labor’s distinguished history of engagement with China and Asia generally over the last half-century, from Whitlam’s recognition of China in 1972 to the founding of APEC in 1989 and the East Asia Summit under the Rudd government.

So, as things stand, a degree of rewriting or at least selective quoting of Labor Party history to justify AUKUS is likely to find reflection in the 32-paragraph statement Marles will move to include in the national platform on Friday, whether or not hostile debate from Left delegates ensue.

In the meantime, it seems decidedly unlikely the nation will be afforded that basic courtesy of any justification for what is, to borrow British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s words, an “epoch-defining” shift in Australian defence and foreign affairs policy; much less an insight into the magnitude of that known, as distinct from vague and uncertain, security threat: climate change.

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