AUKUS gets embedded but no clear rationale

Aug 22, 2023
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons. American, British, Australian security alliance pact design.

Labor has its political fix on national security. But what has been deferred once more is a fully developed explanation of the policy in real defence and strategic terms.

Out of Labor’s national conference emerged the fact that AUKUS is now embedded in the party platform, and a stirring narrative from many observers about the reassurance this sends to allies in Washington and London.

But beyond all the noise over the weekend, the AUKUS debate in Brisbane revealed much else.

It compelled senior Labor ministers to articulate their own version of the ‘‘China threat’’, with Defence Minister Richard Marles naming 2030 as his D-Day for Beijing’s growth in military power. This is the first time Labor has put its fear of China into figures.

It also displayed at times an intolerance among some party elites towards rank-and-file members who don’t speak the language of ‘‘great-power competition’’, ‘‘deterrence’’ and the ‘‘rules-based order’’.

That the conference compelled the government to articulate a partial case for AUKUS to the party was in itself revealing. Because neither Scott Morrison nor Anthony Albanese has ever gone to the people through the parliament or in a major speech to explain the strategic rationale behind the acquisition of the nuclear propelled submarines.

In a significant move, the party dissent forced Labor to include in a national security statement that Australia’s acquisition of submarines ‘‘does not involve any ante facto commitment to participate in, or be directed in accordance with, the military operations of any other country’’.

Washington is likely to raise more than just eyebrows here. Or is Labor managing the Americans and keeping them gulled? It is doubtful that the clause would withstand the intense demands of a great-power protector at a time of crisis. Can it pierce the new faith of Australian-US military ‘‘interchangeability’’? That has to be proved. Scepticism has to be met by the Albanese government with clear detail of this new policy. And some party members expressed a resolve to keep questioning the policy.

We do know that the Americans, who rarely bring sophistication to their analysis of Australian politics, are continually worried about Labor governments and national security, and say so.

But the conference also showed that the government’s strategic vision is caught in different time zones. Their stopwatch tumbles in an ominous countdown to Chinese military prowess, their timetable for the actual defence capability to meet the new circumstances coddles old father time.

By the time Marles’ doomsday arrives in 2030, Australia will not have received even the first of the three mooted Virginia-class submarines from the US. What are the consequences of this for Australia’s ability to be able to defend itself?

Oddly, the conference barely mentioned the pillar measures of AUKUS – on technology transfer, cyber-security and AI – which are critical to Australia’s defence posture. This tightly controlled debate also involved no small measure of humbug to have Labor memory sanctify AUKUS.

Each of the national security ministers and the prime minister were as monks turned tomb raiders, piling into the chapel of Labor history to extract benediction from party saints and revive the spirits of past defence policies.

The ghosts of Andrew Fisher, John Curtin, HV Evatt – though not Paul Keating – were summoned to endorse the apotheosis of Labor’s AUKUS embrace, ministers craving the approval of  Labor gods, believing the party could be won over by sentiment and emotion.

But what the party cannot bring itself to admit, still, is its quick adoption and ready genuflection at the altar of Morrison’s strictly-wedge pursuing AUKUS policy.

Marles said if Curtin could oppose conscription in World War I and then introduce it in World War II the Labor Party could cross the Rubicon on AUKUS submarines. He did not mention that Curtin only did so by limiting the service of those conscripted to the South West Pacific Area for the immediate defence of the continent.

And in one of the crudest speeches on Australian foreign policy in decades, the Minister for Defence Industry, Pat Conroy, hurled the charge of ‘‘appeasement’’ at party delegates opposing the AUKUS motion. He said they would be marching beside Robert Menzies, not Curtin. It was too much for some, and met a stiff rebuke. Bizarrely, Conroy claimed the submarine purchase is ‘‘progressive’’ policy, akin to supporting human rights. His tone was hectoring, the voice shrill, the finger pointed.

To write off the dissenters as part of a whining Labor fringe is a mistake: none who were given a formal speaking role criticised either the US alliance or US Asia policy.

What they did express was genuine concern about what all this meant for peace, the terror of nuclear weapons and the kind of Australia they wanted to live in.

Labor MP for Fremantle Josh Wilson, who also spoke against the AUKUS motion, lamented the lack of an ‘‘appropriately rigorous process’’ in the Morrison government’s original decision, and sounded a rare call for ‘‘contestability’’ in the making of policy. His speech defined the ‘‘risks’’ of the project.

And behind the scenes, a senior Albanese government cabinet minister, speaking on the condition of anonymity, likewise voiced strong concerns about the ‘‘high risk’’ of the submarines. The same minister also confirmed how completely rattled the cabinet was by Keating’s AUKUS critique.

Labor has its political fix on national security. It can now boast its achievement of having AUKUS confirmed by its national conference. And there is very little Peter Dutton’s opposition can do to criticise the government as wavering in any way on its commitment to the US alliance.

But beyond prime ministerial appeals to this being an act of a ‘‘mature nation’’, or of ‘‘clear-eyed pragmatism’’, what has been deferred once more is a fully developed explanation of the policy in real defence and strategic terms.


First published in the Financial Review August 20, 2023


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