Does fear of US intervention explain Labor’s support for AUKUS?

July 14, 2023
Gough Whitlam at the Whispering Wall in China, October-November 1973, as relations with China were established. Photo: National Archives of Australia

As community and union opposition grows to Labor’s AUKUS spend of $368 billion for nuclear-powered submarines, so too is opposition in Labor’s branches. But why is Labor’s leadership seemingly so undeterred? Is it connected to a fear that the United States will intervene directly as it has before?

The Anthony Albanese government’s embrace of the Coalition’s AUKUS policy surprised some and angered many, including inside Labor with the Labor against War (LAW) group emerging in New South Wales.

LAW defines itself as a “grassroots network of Labor members and unionists opposed to Australia being dragged into another US-led war.

“We oppose involvement in the AUKUS alliance and the acquisition of nuclear submarines. AUKUS is against the interests of the Australian people. The Australian Labor Party and Australian unions have long opposed Australia’s involvement with the nuclear industry and in wars of aggression. We will not be dragged into a war against China.”

A number of Labor branches have passed resolutions opposing AUKUS and the acquisition of nuclear submarines. The Queensland Labor Party Conference adopted a motion which “categorically opposes the manufacture/construction of nuclear-powered/armed submarines or vessels in Queensland, including, but not limited to, Brisbane or any other Queensland port facility, current or future.

“This opposition is based on concerns over safety, environmental impact, and public sentiment”.

Why is Labor’s leadership so willing to ignore this rank-and-file opinion and so determined to implement the Coalition’s commitment to AUKUS? Why is Labor so prepared to be subservient to US foreign policy?

Does the same motivation underpin Labor’s unwillingness to rescue and free Julian Assange, who remains unconvicted of any crime in a maximum security British jail, pending a decision on his extradition to the US.

There is one answer that tends to explain all. Labor wants, at all costs, to stay in office for as long as possible. It is fearful that any deviation from US foreign policy may bring political and economic destabilisation, which would bring Labor down with it.

Labor’s leadership is only too aware of the US political and economic de-stabilisation in 1972–75, which led to  Gough Whitlam’s Labor government being dismissed.

Such interference in domestic politics in 1975 is not in doubt. Hansard records that Whitlam told Parliament in 1977: “I never met President [Jimmy] Carter but I had a significant meeting with his Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and South Pacific, Warren Christopher.

“On Wednesday, 27th July, 1977 at 8am, [US ambassador to Australia, Philip] Alston had arranged a breakfast meeting in the Qantas VIP room at Sydney Airport. Those present were Alston, Christopher, his Aide, my Aide Richard Butler and I.”

Whitlam continued: “[Christopher] made it clear to us that he had made a special detour in his itinerary for the purpose of speaking to me. The President had asked him to say: That he understood the Democratic Party and the ALP were fraternal parties. That he respected deeply the democratic rights of allies of the US.

“I ask the honourable members of Parliament to note what he says next:

“That the US administration would never AGAIN – I repeat those words: Would never AGAIN interfere in the domestic political processes in Australia; and

“That he would work with whatever government the people of Australia elected …”

White House displeasure with Labor

White House displeasure with Labor went back to its condemnation of the US carpet bombing of Hanoi (before they formed government in 1972).

But US interference began after Whitlam demanded to know if and why the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was running a spy base at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.

As National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed it allowed the US to spy on everyone. Snowden also revealed that, in the minutes of a meeting with the US Ambassador, Whitlam warned: “Try and screw us or bounce us and Pine Gap will become a matter of contention”.

Victor Marchetti, the CIA officer who helped set Pine Gap up, told journalist John Pilger: “The threat to close Pine gap caused apoplexy in the White House … and a kind of Chilean Coup was set in motion.”

Former Victorian Labor MP and anti-war activist Joan Coxsedge, in an article on fugitive banker Nugan Hand, the CIA and Whitlam’s ousting, wrote: “There was, however, no statement of intent from Whitlam that his government intended to close Pine Gap.

“The Pine Gap Treaty was signed on December, 1966, for an initial 9 years and either party could terminate the Treaty thereafter by giving one year’s notice.”

The critical date for continuing, or giving notice, was December 9, 1975. Whitlam told parliament his policy on foreign military bases on April 3, 1974.

Hansard records Whitlam saying this: “The Australian Government takes the attitude that there should not be foreign military bases, stations, installations in Australia. We honour agreements covering existing stations.

“We do not favour the extension or prolongation of any of those existing ones. The agreements stand, but there will not be extensions or proliferations.

“Nor in my view or my assessment is there any prospect of installations or stations with military significance being introduced for the first time into Australia by any other nation.

“And we do our best to see that in the Indian Ocean the present installations and bases are not expanded and that their numbers are not increased.”

On December 9, 1975, Whitlam would have been empowered to act on Pine Gap, but he didn’t get the chance as he was sacked a month earlier.

On November 6, 1975, the Department of Defence head reportedly met with Governor General Sir John Kerr and afterwards declared: “This is the greatest risk to the nation’s security there has ever been”.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported on April 28, 1977 that another senior defence official held a meeting on November 8, 1975, with Kerr in which he was briefed about the CIA’s allegations that Whitlam was jeopardising the security of US bases in Australia.

The AFR reported on April 28, 1977 that on November 8, 1975, the CIA informed ASIO’s chief that all intelligence links with Australia would be cut unless a satisfactory explanation was given about Whitlam’s decision.

On November 10, 1975, Whitlam was shown a top-secret message sent from ASIO’s office in Washington and sourced to Theodore Shackley, head of the CIA’s East Asia division and who had helped run the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile two years earlier.

The message simply said: “The prime minister of Australia was a security risk in his own country.”

On November 11, the day Whitlam was to inform parliament about the secret CIA presence in Australia, Kerr invoked the little known “reserve powers” to sack him and the government. The “Whitlam problem” was solved, and the nation lost its independence.

Do Labor’s fears of another such US intervention underpin its enthusiastic acceptance of AUKUS?

[Bevan Ramsden is a long-time peace activist and advocates for Australia’s independence. He is a former member of the coordinating committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network and edits its monthly E-publication, Voice. Come to a public forum  by Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition and IPAN on How to stop AUKUS on July 23 at 4pm at Redfern Town Hall.]

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