AUKUS and the Nuclear Agenda: the challenge for the labour movement

Jun 14, 2024
US Australia and Great Britain flags paint over on chess king. AUKUS defence pact.

AUKUS is fundamentally part of a global program to reassert US dominance as its power fades. That is what AUKUS is about; it’s about tying Australia to that slowly sinking ship, the United States Empire. The Labor Government has been captured by this militaristic ideology, and it is our job to shake them out of it.

Labor Against War started at the beginning of last year from a standing start.

Until that time, I had been a press secretary in the Albanese government. One of the reasons I left working for the government was because, we saw confirmation of the rotation of nuclear-capable B52s through Tindal airbase in the Northern Territory. And then came the doubling down on AUKUS.

I’m usually not very naive: the best way not to be disillusioned in the Labor Party, is never be illusioned in the Labor Party. And that’s generally been my approach.

However, I had thought that in government, the Labor Party would ‘committee AUKUS to death’, claiming the details emerging about the program made it impossible to continue and it could be dumped on the big pile of ‘Scott Morrison bad ideas’.

However, Marles, Wong and Albanese have embraced AUKUS, much to the shame of many members of the Labor Party. And that is why Labor Against War exists. We speak for rank-and-file Labor values against war, for peace and for regional cooperation and solidarity, not warfare.

It is a mistake to regard AUKUS as merely a submarine program, however, as obscene as the cost of that is alone. I think some in the Labor Party, and I also think, unfortunately, some in the trade union movement consider that given the submarines are 20 to 30 years down the track, or they may not even come, “Let’s not rock the boat, maybe it will all disappear”.

I think that is a big mistake. Because there is AUKUS Pillar II and other aspects to AUKUS that are already having real impacts on Australian society.

We heard from the AEU President Correna Haythorpe about attempts by arms manufacturers and the defence establishment to get into our schools to promote militarism and the nuclear industry.

This is happening now. And there are impacts on scientific cooperation affecting and narrowing the scope of research in our universities. The impact extends to small technology companies considering leaving Australia because of the red tape around AUKUS.

AUKUS is fundamentally part of a global program to reassert US dominance as its power fades. That is what AUKUS is about; it’s about tying Australia to that slowly sinking ship, the United States Empire.

We can see that with the ASPI propaganda, the constant anti-China propaganda hammered again and again that is designed to tie Australia to just one possible strategic outcome in East Asia. Therefore, it is a program at odds with the interests of working Australians.

Working-class Australians have no interest in a war with China, the country’s number one trading partner.

And we’ve seen in the recent Lowy poll, that yes, some of the propaganda is having an impact, but in that poll we also see fears from 70 percent of the Australian people who believe that the alliance with the United States will lead to war in the region.

Seventy percent of Australians think that; and I know you are all worried about that in the union movement.

Unfortunately, the Labor Government has been captured by this militaristic ideology and it is our job to shake them out of it. The union movement needs to do it. And us in the rank and file of the Labor Party need to do it.

We are seeing a growing rift between the political establishment and the general public on issues of militarism. It is obvious on the question of Gaza where no statement is made by this government and nothing is added unless it passes some sort of implicit Washington test. You see that in the UK as well, nothing is uttered until it passes that test – that is the world we have allowed ourselves to enter.

US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, the so-called Asia Whisperer of the US State Department, has made it clear that even if Australia receives or builds these submarines, he said, “It’s not like we’ve lost them”, he told a dinner in Washington last year. He has repeated these sentiments this year at the Center for a New American Security, where he said the impact of Australia having nuclear submarines would have “enormous implications in a variety of scenarios, including in cross-strait circumstances”.

This is a clear indication the US regards these assets as vital in any war it fights with China over Taiwan.

The AUKUS submarines will effectively operate as part of the US war machine. We have the war hawk think-tanks and their fellow travellers in the media fuelling that propaganda saying that Australia cannot fight a war on its own. This is all about locking us irreversibly into the United States war aims for East Asia. And this in a US election year where, odds-on, we could see Trump returned to the White House.

Now there are some people hoping that Trump in his isolationism will abandon AUKUS. I don’t believe it. This is a guy who knows a good deal. He’ll ask who’s paying for it. And when he hears Canberra is paying for it all, he’ll love it.

What this is, is an attempt to supplant a foreign foreign policy onto the Australian people. It’s foreign in two senses. It’s foreign in the terms that this represents the strategic interests of another power, but it’s foreign to our class interests as working Australians.

And so, we need to come to the response of the labour movement. We’ve seen Labor Against War kick-off from a standing start with mixed results.

We did manage to force the question of AUKUS onto the conference floor of the ALP National Conference last year in Brisbane. Albanese and Marles initially said it would not be debated.

At that conference we found an alliance that went all the way from the rank and file through some of the trade unions into the caucus itself, with a brave and principled Josh Wilson speaking against AUKUS.

It was great to see the ETU’s Michael Wright speak up against AUKUS at that conference and to get the support of the MUA, MEAA, the meat workers, AMWU, and CFMEU among others.

Even though support for the government position went through on the voices, there was strong opposition to AUKUS – and we know who voted with us.

Workers need their own foreign policy, and so we need a union and Labor leadership willing to develop and carry that out, not one that is craven to US war plans or sits on the fence hoping for some job crumbs.

All other things aside, AUKUS is possibly the worst job creation program in history. The Albanese government and its feeble attack dog, Pat Conroy, try to talk up the job benefits of AUKUS. This is what’s being pushed, particularly here in Adelaide.

However, among the first jobs being funded by Australia’s AUKUS money are in San Diego. Up to $4 billion over the next four years siphoned out of Treasury into the nuclear shipyards of the United States, and billions more destined for the UK.

And if these subs are ever built in Australia, were told it will mean 20,000 jobs for an investment of up to half a trillion dollars. We’re looking at $25 million per job.

I’m not an economist, but if you do the maths, that’s not a great investment for job outcome, is it?

The ACTU already has an anti-nuclear policy. Many unions have an anti-nuclear policy. That is something to be built on. The ETU has spoken very strongly on this.

At the May Day rally last year in Port Kembla, ETU NSW Secretary Allen Hicks said: “Should the Albanese government not change its mind with respect to nuclear-powered submarines and building a base in Port Kembla, they better be ready for a hell of a blue.”

He said any base will not be built with ETU labour.

The challenge for the ACTU and all the unions, is that no aspect of AUKUS should be supported with union labour. The ACTU has to develop this.

As a movement, we can’t just accept jobs as they come to us. The whole meaning of being union is to shape our industries, shape our working lives so that we have moral, ethical lives.

If nothing else, the labour movement should be about the dignity of labour, and we shouldn’t just accept any job, we shouldn’t accept working for the US war machine.

Any union worth its salt should say I’m not stepping into that. I’m not going work for the US war machine. I’m not going to work for machines that will potentially be killing millions of people.

The ETU has been fantastic on this. And the AEU, too. Teachers’ unions around the country have started campaigning against the infiltration of militarism into schools. Other unions must join with this and say they will not work on these projects, so that’s the challenge before the labour movement.

In Labor Against War we’re doing what we can in the branches, we are taking motions to conferences where we can. Already the Queensland branch of the Labor Party has rejected AUKUS. The Victorian branch last week passed a motion, calling for a review of AUKUS.

And in NSW there are motions before the state conference in July saying three things: there should be no nuclear base built in NSW; there should be no nuclear waste shipped, stored or transported across NSW. And we should echo what Victorian Labor Premier John Cain did in 1982. He wrote to then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser saying Victoria will not allow any nuclear vessel into Victorian ports.

Let’s run that across the country. As a movement, should not be accepting the nuclear industry.

The other dangerous impact of AUKUS is that it has opened a wedge for Peter Dutton to say, well, if nuclear energy is safe in the water, we should have it on the land.

Dutton is consistent. He is pro-nuclear. We in the labour movement need to be consistent. We need to be anti-nuclear on the land and in the seas.

– Marcus Strom, National Convenor, Labor Against War


Edited speech given at ACTU Fringe Meeting, 3 June 2024, AEU South Australia offices, Adelaide.

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