As Australia joins the US war on Yemen, Labor is a house divided

Jan 26, 2024
Yemen and United States flags together textile cloth, fabric texture

Not since the DLP split in 1955 has Labor been so divided on foreign and defence policy. And always for the same reason.

Members are wide apart on how Labor, State and Federal, can keep its promises for social progress while continuing to give tax cuts to those who don’t need them. Labor has to meet its CO2 reduction goals while supporting coal and gas exports. Labor has to pay for decent schools and healthcare while subsidising the bloated private system. And more.

But on foreign and defence policy, Australians across the political spectrum are more divided and confused than since Vietnam. A nation that is notoriously ill-informed about events in much of the world has been easily led in one direction over Ukraine, in another over China, a third over Gaza, and a fourth over Yemen. And always by the US.

Much of the Australian media provide slimmer pickings on international affairs every day. All of them have unquestioningly backed Ukraine since 2022; Nine cranked up a Sino-phobic Red Alert last year; and now as always, Murdoch vociferously backs Israel.

Yet today’s splits in Australian opinion are of Labor’s own making. The Prime Minister could have reversed them if he brought vision and conviction to foreign relations like Whitlam or Keating or Crean. Instead, Anthony Albanese appears more concerned to keep his ratings up and win the next election or by-election than to improve Australia’s reputation abroad, its independence, and security.

Creditably as Albanese has performed at foreign gatherings, including those President Biden didn’t manage to get to, when he’s travelling he has largely left Labor’s factional division over war and peace to his Defence (right) and Foreign Minister (left) to resolve. They differ on essential issues: Australia’s sovereignty (which Richard Marles repeatedly acclaims) and Australia’s independence (which Penny Wong occasionally asserts). Neither of them can reconcile those positions with the ALP’s declared commitment to the US alliance.

It must be hard for an intelligent and diligent Australian Foreign Minister, born in Malaysia and brought up as a Christian, to have watched for years the colonisation by Israeli settlers of more and more Palestinian territory. She knows that Malaya was a British colony, that Australia’s majority population are the descendants of British invaders and colonial settlers, and that the same applies to Australia’s other three Five Eyes partners: the US, Canada, and New Zealand.

Penny Wong’s Labor predecessor, Bob Carr, fought and won for ‘abstain’ over ‘oppose’ in the UN Security Council about a Palestinian state, only to have that overturned by his Coalition successor. Perhaps with this in mind, Wong managed in the UNGA on 12 December to reverse Australia’s earlier ‘abstain’ and join 152 nations in condemning the ‘catastrophic situation in Gaza’. She led Canada and New Zealand in making a joint statement condemning Hamas ‘terror’ attacks of 7 October, in calling for release of hostages (not mentioning Palestinian prisoners in Israel), recognising Israel’s right to exist and defend itself (but not Gaza’s), and saying Hamas should not (but not saying who should) have any role in the future governance of Gaza.

The three nations added support for the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and to re-occupation of their territory, and of course for a two-state solution, which after Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Gaza will not be possible. They even-handedly condemned rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in their own and other countries.

Soon after the 12 December UNGA non-binding resolution on Israel, Richard Marles announced Australia’s support for the US and UK against the Houthis in Yemen. As the ICJ met to consider South Africa’s submission about Israeli genocide, the Prime Minister said Australia would not intervene because he was ‘focussed on a political solution’, whatever that may be. Penny Wong agreed that Australia did not accept the premise of South Africa’s case against Israel.

Neither she nor Albanese explained why, when Ukraine took Russia to the ICJ, Australia rushed to support Ukraine. In her Whitlam Oration (13 November 2022), Penny Wong spoke of Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, causing ‘unspeakable human suffering, including death, injury, destruction and sexual violence as a weapon of war’. She called for more international pressure to be applied to Russia. She added that ‘All of us have a responsibility. We can’t just leave it to the big powers to decide our fates. And we cannot be passive when big powers flout the rules. We are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics, on a stage dominated by great powers’.

Well said, but with the US and UK now bombing Yemen, Australians have not been asked or told why the ADF should again be involved in acts of war unauthorised by the UNSC, in breach of international law, which support Israel’s accused acts of genocide.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

‘A frightening precedent’: New Zealand to send military personnel to target Houthis

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