A subservient defence policy undermines Albanese’s successful first year

Jun 22, 2023
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

There were celebrations and high expectations when Prime Minister Albanese and his talented front bench formed the government in May 2022. The language and style of the national agenda appealed to Australians wanting realistic policies and a two-way conversation about what is in the best interests of our community. There were inspiring speeches and commitments that introduced policies and programs of reform and social justice.

After a decade of conservatism, it seemed there was a mood for innovation in managing old debates …constitutional reform, pay equity, public housing, climate change, aged care. The newly elected government moved swiftly to implement a reform agenda and many Australians were impressed with the pace and scale of positive change.

After the election of the Albanese government, the actions of the former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and his government were closely interrogated. The Bell Inquiry reported on November 25th, 2022, that “Morrison’s appointment to multiple ministerial positions was corrosive to trust in government”. On June 6, 2023, the National Audit Office released a scathing report of the Morrison government’s health funding program. Currently there is a major internal review of local government community grants and road funding. Clearly the new government was determined to assess the extent of bad practice and restore faith in government decision making.

Yet Scott Morrison’s secret overseas defence negotiations have received no such scrutiny. When the former Prime Minister announced AUKUS, the then Opposition immediately accepted it with no consideration of the impact of this wide- ranging and long term defence agreement. It is understandable that the leadership team heading towards an election was determined not to be “wedged” on defence policy. However, that does not explain why as a new government, the Cabinet did not demand the same scrutiny of Morrison’s AUKUS commitment as it did of his role in other policy areas.

Why would an intelligent forward-looking government fail to fully assess the implications of secret international negotiations made by an unreliable former prime minister in the dying days of a discredited government?

Why is our apparently very capable leadership team so timid about questioning the terms and range of preconditions for the AUKUS agreement? We know that any Australian defence minister will be enthusiastically welcomed to comply with U.S and UK interests, but our military history records the devastating results of these past loyal agreements.

Surely in 2023 there is opportunity for a new progressive Australian Government to assert our collective national interest and priorities. AUKUS needs an independent review and open debate so that Australians themselves can determine the direction and scale of such an alliance.

Increased militarisation and war with China are firmly on the U.S agenda, but such a dangerous course is certainly not in Australia’s national interest. In relation to our major trading partner, China there is much equivocation and mixed messages from those ministers with competing responsibilities for foreign policy, trade and defence. The ALP draft Foreign Policy platform “Australia’s Place in a Changing World “further entrenches this confusion “We will cooperate with China where we can, disagree when we must and engage in the national interest “This statement is in sharp contrast to the deferential recognition of the United States as “our closest security ally formalised through AUKUS.”

If the Albanese Government is so confident about this relationship, then surely there is no problem with similar cooperation, disagreement and independent assertion of national interest!

There is serious concern among many Australians about the way AUKUS has been so enthusiastically accepted by the Albanese leadership team without questioning the economic cost or social impact that this policy will have on Australia over at least the next thirty years.

Former Prime Ministers Paul Keating, and Malcolm Turnbull, as well as experienced Foreign Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans each of whom have recognised expertise in managing international relations, have expressed their disquiet about the way the Albanese Government is risking Australia’s sovereignty by signing up to an uncertain open-ended alliance. It means Australia is looking backwards to old and geographically distant allies rather than charting a more independent foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region.

In just a few months hundreds of detailed and perceptive articles have been published by academics and former diplomats questioning the direction of Australian foreign policy being subsumed by U.S/UK led militarisation. There is a national Australian Anti AUKUS Alliance campaign increasing its community influence as churches, unions, ALP branches, peace organisations and individuals, demand informed debate and analysis about the scale and potential impact of AUKUS on current and future generations.

The draft Australian Labor Party Foreign Affairs Policy, to be debated at National Conference in Brisbane in August, is particularly alarming because it is neither evidence based nor reliant on a clear United Nations rules-based order. Instead, it parrots jingoistic Washington rhetoric about a so-called American style” international rules-based order “and makes sweeping assertions that are inconsistent with diplomatic standards.

Australians want to be assured that our government will provide national security, good relations with our regional neighbours and enhanced opportunities for our nation to contribute to peacebuilding and humanitarian support. It would be reassuring to see a policy that includes clear statements of actual commitments like

-The Australian Government will expedite the signing of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty.

-The Australian Government will maintain its commitment to the One China Policy, along with 181 nations which recognise that Taiwan legally is a province of China.

The first successful year of the Albanese Government has been seriously undermined by a subservient defence policy which effectively outsources Australian leadership and puts at risk a more independent foreign policy.

There is still an opportunity for the Prime Minister to reassure Australians that our growing concerns are acknowledged.

This will require our government to listen to the many voices that have the experience and understanding of international relations to reset the terms of the AUKUS agreement in accordance with Australia’s national interest and in harmony with our place in the Asia Pacific region.

Margaret Reynolds

National President

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

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