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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp Chief political correspondent

ACTU digs in on nuclear-free policy in headache for Labor over Aukus subs

ACTU president Michele O'Neil speaks at the National Press Club in Canberra
Michele O'Neil says unions will discuss the Aukus submarine deal in coming months in light of the movement’s decades-long nuclear-free defence policy. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Australian unions have restated their position in favour of a “nuclear-free defence policy”, creating a headache for the Albanese government over the $368bn Aukus nuclear submarine acquisition.

The position, restated by Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Michele O’Neil, on Tuesday, was seized on by the Coalition, which claimed it sent a “confusing signal” for Labor and its industrial wing to be divided on nuclear submarines.

Since the deal was announced earlier in March, the Albanese government has faced criticism from former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull, and former Labor ministers Doug Cameron, Gareth Evans, Kim Carr and Bob Carr.

The Labor caucus has united behind the government’s position, with only MP Josh Wilson expressing public concerns, despite many unions opposing the nuclear submarine acquisition.

Asked if she would have preferred the purchase of conventional submarines, O’Neil told the National Press Club that the ACTU had “a longstanding policy of opposition to nuclear power, nuclear waste and proliferation”.

“We also have a longstanding policy position that supports a nuclear-free defence policy.

“These are not positions that have been developed in the last weeks and months. They are decades long and our position hasn’t changed.”

O’Neil said although the Aukus purchase of Virginia class and SSN Aukus class submarines was a “new announcement”, the ACTU’s had been “clear about these issues”.

“The detail of the announcement that’s been made is something that we will bring our affiliates together to discuss over the coming months and we will want more detail from the government as well.”

O’Neil’s comments suggest the ACTU could revisit its policy rather than seek to persuade Labor to abandon the nuclear submarine acquisition.

The shadow defence minister, Andrew Hastie, said the Coalition had offered bipartisan defence on Aukus “because we know that it is a multigenerational, nation-building project that demands support from governments around the nation, industry and the private sector”.

“For Labor and its industrial wing to be divided on nuclear submarines sends a confusing signal to the Australian people,” he said in a statement.

“It’s particularly damaging when the government has clearly articulated our strategic need for submarines and has promised the creation of 20,000 local jobs.”

Hastie called on the ACTU to “adapt, as our strategic circumstances now demand”.

“The ACTU should drop its archaic last-century stance on nuclear power, and work on growing Australian industry in the national interest.”

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