Criticism of Labor’s support for AUKUS grows

June 10, 2023
The opposition to the AUKUS deal grows
There is growing opposition to the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, with critics saying the $368 billion would be better spent elsewhere. Photo: Isaac Nellist

The irony of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore pledging support for a “nuclear free Asia Pacific”, while defence officials and ASEAN leaders talked up the AUKUS deal was lost on the mainstream media.

The Singaporean and Australian leaders’ joint statement revealed the hypocrisy. They said they are committed “to achiev[ing] a world free of nuclear weapons and to strengthening the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as its cornerstone”.

Australia is a signatory to the 1963 Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which acknowledges that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war”.

But it is yet to sign on to the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and seems reluctant to do so, presumably because the United States has not (and neither have other nuclear powers).

While acting Singaporean Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and Anthony Albanese agreed “the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons is serious and inadmissible” and “called for urgent implementation of nuclear risk reduction measures”, the AUKUS deal, in fact, does the opposite.

Crossing themselves, they quoted the January 2022 comments from five leaders of nuclear weapons’ states: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

The PM has sought to drum up support for AUKUS as being an “upgrade” to “defence” and an “opportunity” for jobs and skills and the shipbuilding industry in Australia. Canberra’s commitment to shell out upwards of $368 billion on nuclear-powered submarines in the middle of a cost-of-living and housing crisis has been the trigger for greater investigation into what else AUKUS has committed Australia to.

There was no public or parliamentary discussion on AUKUS and neither was it part of the major parties’ election campaigns. So, the details are only slowly coming out.

But the changes are significant.

United States Ambassador and former Labor PM Kevin Rudd is helping lobby US Congress to change the law to categorise Australia as a US domestic source for military production.

He told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on June 6 that “our critical task in the course of 2023 is to work with our friends in the administration and the United States Congress to support the passage of the key elements of the enabling legislation. This is not just a piece of admin detail”.

Rudd believes Australia is “entering a phase” which has been “brought about by a radical change in our strategic circumstances with the rise of China”.

He said the Defence Strategic Review makes it clear Australia must “reach out further” into the “southwest Pacific, Southeast Asia” and “into the wider Indian Ocean more broadly and beyond where necessary”.

Apart from the AUKUS submarines, Rudd is also enthusiastic about ”the creation soon of a seamless Australia-US-UK defence, science and technology industry” — the interoperabilty of three imperialist militaries and Australia stepping up its manufacturing of weapons and components.

Abandon nuclear safety?

Meanwhile Labor is pushing to abandon nuclear safety elements of two environmental laws.

The Defence Legislation Amendment (Naval Nuclear Propulsion) Bill 2023 was introduced on May 10 and sent to a committee. If it passes, as it probably will with bipartisan support, it will exempt nuclear plants on nuclear-propelled submarines from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Despite the concern about AUKUS, a record short time for submissions meant that only 117 were sent in, including 23 from unions, anti-war, environmental and faith-based groups. Most were individual submissions which opposed the changes.

Retired Major General Michael A Smith, Adjunct Professor at the Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance at Griffith University and on the National Consultative Committee on International Security Issues to the Foreign Minister, was unapologetic in his criticism of Albanese and foreign minister Penny Wong.

Together with Professor John Langmore, Smith (submission 23), he said Australia is “locked on a collision course to war with China in support of the United States”. He said the assumption underlying AUKUS — that Chinese assertiveness will automatically lead to military aggression — “is shallow”.

Albanese has not provided an opportunity for public discussion about AUKUS and, in opposition, “irresponsibly accepted the plan only after overnight consideration”, Smith and Langmore wrote.

They said Albanese “adopted the same autocratic approach to AUKUS as Morrison” with no opportunity for political or public reconsideration before the detailed AUKUS framework was announced by Albanese, US President Joe Biden and British PM Rishi Sunak.

China military threat?

“The fact that two of the three national leaders changed in the 18 months between the first announcement and March ’23 shows the political vulnerability of the plan,” they said, adding that British Labour voted by a large majority at its 2021 National Conference to reject AUKUS and it is on track to win the next elections due before early 2025.

“Well-informed scholarly experts on China conclude there is no military threat,” they argued. “Australia should not acquire weapons systems that are clearly intended to supplement US forces to contain China. This means that we should not procure overly expensive nuclear-powered submarines and/or long-range missile systems.”

The Australian Manufacturers Workers Union (AMWU) (submission 6), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) (submission 7), health practitioners, anti-war activists and faith groups argued the current moratorium on nuclear power has to remain.

Amendments to the two environmental laws would lead to the development of the nuclear industry in Australia or lead to a breach of the moratorium — a point Coalition MPs emphasised in the positive in the bill's first and second readings.

AMWU national secretary Steve Murphy said in the union’s submission that it supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and Australia’s “commitment not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons”.

The ETU supports “the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones in our region” and does “not support any changes to legislation that would facilitate a breach of our international commitments to international non-proliferation — or to the dumping of nuclear waste on Australian facilities or on Australian land”.

The ETU submission argued that while Labor “inherited” AUKUS from the Coalition “there is no broad public support for the decision to acquire nuclear submarines nor is there consensus within the defence establishment or parliament”.

It pointed out that there was no detail, in either the bill or the explanatory memoranda, as to what work or activity “needs to occur and by when” that the existing laws prevent.

The ETU reaffirmed it does not support the “watering down of long-standing nuclear prohibitions to allow for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines”.

It said it was “seriously” concerned about the “erosion of these prohibitions for military undermines the peaceful intent of the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons”.

It warned of the safety risks to workers and sailors from “dangerous high level nuclear waste requiring costly management for tens of thousands of years”.

The ETU is one of the unions which has strongly opposed AUKUS — a debate which will also be had at Labor’s national conference in August.

Smith and Langmore believe Paul Keating is correct to say that AUKUS (and the Defence Strategic Review) “relegates Australia’s sovereignty”. “There is no doubt that given the absence of a credible nuclear industry in Australia and the time required to develop this capability that the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines would put Australia’s defence under an unacceptable level of American control.

“Many countries which seek peace would regard this abandonment of sovereignty as misguided because it increases the risks of being drawn into an unwanted war and ultimately contributing to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

[A Rally for Peace, not War — No nuclear subs, no AUKUS protest is being organised by the Australian Anti-AUKUS Coalition outside Labor’s national conference in Brisbane on August 18.]

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