Home » AUKUS Tensions Surface at Labor’s National Conference as Albanese’s Ambitions for the Party Become Clear
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AUKUS Tensions Surface at Labor’s National Conference as Albanese’s Ambitions for the Party Become Clear

On one side of the discussion there was a disparate collection of people expressing concerns about a profound policy shift which has a multitude of troubling — and unanswered — questions attached to it.

On the other, a cabinet full of ministers who, before September 15, 2021, when it was announced by Scott Morrison, had never remotely considered that Australia buying nuclear-powered submarines from the Americans was obviously the strategic answer we needed.

Watching on and scoring the AUKUS debate at Labor’s national conference in Brisbane this week were those for whom the question is not the underlying issue but whether, once again, the parliamentary Labor party can hold sway over its rank-and-file members.

The mythology that has built up around the Labor Party national conference now seems so deeply entrenched that one suspects that many of the participants, as well as the journalists who watch it, don’t actually have a working memory of a time when issues were really hotly contested.

The mythology gets trotted out at every conference that unseemly fights on the conference floor can be hugely damaging when the party is in office; that they will provide unhelpful fodder for political opponents; and that the party is therefore constrained from rocking the boat.

Astonishingly, the same argument is often made when Labor is in opposition. Don’t want to scare the voters!

Well, the Hawke government seemed to survive the big brawls of the 1980s on issues like uranium mining and foreign banks, in an era before aerial spraying of delegates with Mogadon became the order of the day.

And they did so with the prime minister, his treasurer, and other senior ministers actually seeking to persuade the conference of their case, whatever deals might be being done in back rooms.

Sonar pings around the details of the subs

This week’s effort on getting the word “AUKUS” incorporated into the party’s platform is as pallid as the string of pallid positions the Albanese government has taken since winning office last year, particularly in the national security and defence space, as it has sought to close the political deficit it has long held in these areas with voters.

Yes, Labor may have shifted the dial in a lot of policy areas like workplace relations and income support.

But the prime minister was quite frank in his opening address to the conference this week: Labor’s main ambition is to stay in office.

“Each of us understands that winning and holding government is not only true to our principles, it is essential to fulfilling them,” he said.

This might be pragmatically admirable — even obvious — but a bit pointless if you can’t even persuade your own supporters about why you are taking the decisions that you are taking.

Let’s assume that the AUKUS deal — and nuclear-powered submarines — is indeed a good strategic idea.

It’s been almost two years since the decision was announced by the Coalition, and embraced with indecent haste by the Labor opposition, and five months since Albanese went to San Diego.

Yet, the search for any sign the government has made any progress on working out the details on how the engineering and manning of the subs, or the speed with which they will become available, emits a sound as hollow as a sonar ping.

The nuclear waste issue

The same is true for the impact of the decision on the nuclear proliferation treaty. And for the question of just where we are going to store the nuclear waste they will generate.

Lone Labor MP Josh Wilson bravely intervened at the conference: “In my view, the decision to acquire nuclear propelled submarines is not justified and involves too many risks to the maintenance of our future submarine capability, to the proper balance of our defence budget allocations and to our sovereign manufacturing capacity.”

Deterrence, he said, is a valid strategic concept and submarines certainly have a deterrent value. “But deterrence is not a one-word justification for any and every defence acquisition.”

The deal commits Australia “to take on decommissioning and nuclear waste storages challenges that have not been met by anyone, anywhere,” he went on.

“These are matters of legitimate concern in parts of the Australian community, including among Labor members and branches and within the Labor movement.”

Asked on 7.30 on Thursday whether the government had worked out how it would deal with the issue of nuclear waste, the prime minister said Defence had been asked to look at “defence sites, defence land” but that of course “obviously, this isn’t something that is imminent”.

The Federal Court ruled a couple of weeks ago against the planned nuclear waste dump on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, meaning Woomera is likely to be the only real option open to the government in the future.

A search for a dump site has gone around and around for at least 25 years without resolution, regularly stopping at Woomera before moving on.

Former Coalition minister Nick Minchin told The Australian Financial Review in March that his first choice for a low and medium-level waste dump was Woomera, but that he was fiercely resisted at the time by the Defence Department because of the stigma associated with nuclear waste, despite the fact that tonnes of radioactive soil have been stored at Woomera in barrels for years.

A sense of a drift abroad

Neither the prime minister, nor his ministers who spoke in this week’s debate said anything to suggest the government’s thinking on any of the complex issues associated with the purchase, construction, servicing and support of nuclear-powered submarines — let alone actions to develop the proposal — has progressed anywhere in the past 12 months.

Instead, there was a lot of very generic discussion about how AUKUS would boost jobs for union members and the obligatory references to John Curtin and Ben Chifley.

AUKUS, the prime minister said, would “reverberate throughout Australia, through our economy, across our advanced manufacturing and technology sectors”, and create 20,000 “well paid union jobs”.

“These are the choices of a mature nation. A nation that understands that a bright future calls for more than sunny optimism,” he said. (The sort of decisions you take after 24 hours’ consideration of what the political implications will be if you don’t endorse the other side’s decision).

At least, you would have to say, the prime minister spoke in the debate.

But if party conferences are also supposed to be an opportunity to showcase the government of the day to voters, it’s hard to believe that this one would have done anything to inspire them.

There is a sense of drift abroad, despite announcements in areas like housing; a sense that it is forces other than the government who are shaping important political debates, notably on the Voice.

Apparently, that is one issue that AUKUS can’t fix.

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy told the conference that “if you’re pro-human rights, you need to be pro AUKUS”.

“If you’re pro-peace, you need to be pro-AUKUS. If you are pro-advanced manufacturing, you need to be pro-AUKUS, if you’re pro-trying to bring manufacturing back to this country, you need to be pro-AUKUS,” he said.

“This is in the national interest, and it’s in Labor’s interests.”

So much hope riding on an empty vessel.

Source : ABC