The Federal Labor Caucus did not endorse AUKUS

Mar 24, 2023
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons. American, British, Australian security alliance pact design.

The $368 billion AUKUS deal raises many more questions than we have had answered to date.

The Labor Government has followed the Morrison Government as if the plan unveiled by Mr Morrison was a fait accompli.

On September 15th 2021, following a two hour briefing from the then-government in which no documentation was presented, key ALP shadow ministers agreed to endorse the proposal.

The Federal Labor Caucus did not endorse the deal – it simply noted it.

This is to be the biggest procurement in Australian history. It is only fitting that it is properly analysed and debated. There are profound consequences for the people of this country if we get this project wrong.

Given the scale and implications of this project and the fundamental assumption that we should be seeking to secure the best technology the country can afford, it is not unreasonable that questions continue to be raised. It is surely not appropriate to expect or demand the suspension of critical judgement or the blanket approval of signing blank cheques.

We hear a range of claims, including the speculation that over the next thirty years that there will be 20,000 direct Australian jobs arising from the project. Leaps of faith on the operation of these matters won’t suffice.

Much has been said of the historic changes in our region that are claimed to be the basis for undertaking this project. How much of that understanding goes to changes that will not be reversed by wishful thinking of the capacity of great and powerful friends to turn back the tides of history? We should not be persuaded by the jingoism of pro-war hawks: rather there needs to be a pragmatic assessment of our own national interests in the contemporary strategic environment.

The United States is no longer the region’s unrivalled economic and military power.

There needs to be a hard-edged assessment of the capacity of ‘great and powerful friends’ to prosecute a war in Asia.

The points made by Professor Hugh White in the Quarterly Essay 86, 2022, “Sleepwalk to War” remain highly pertinent.

It is now twenty years since the illegal and catastrophic war in Iraq into which we were led by accepting spurious intelligence briefings on weapons of mass destruction. In light of that experience, we know that it pays to reflect critically on what we are being told by security agencies.

There have been too many occasions where the intelligence agencies have simply got it wrong. Paul Keating has forcefully argued that security agencies should not determine policy – they are simply advisors on policy.

Relying on a revamped forward defence strategy, given our historic experience, seems particularly strange. Given the historic patterns that have seen Australia participate in so many regional conflicts since the 1950s, the questions remain as to how our national interest is served by locking Australia into the strategic priorities of the United States for the next 50 years, regardless of regime changes in the United States, the United Kingdom or our own national interests.

The proposition that the AUKUS deal is really about protecting our sea lines requires careful examination. The suggestion that we will have three second hand Virginia class boats in ten years to do this overlooks the fact that most of our trade is with China. Of the three, only one will be on station at any one time.

The $368 billion claimed to be the cost of this project leaves open the question of how we verify the amounts to be spent in Australian rather than American or British shipyards. The issues concerning our own industry development, given the long history of procurement failures, need close scrutiny.

The ability to maintain our sovereign capabilities regarding civilian as well as military personnel also needs closer examination.

The opportunity costs of other defence procurements that will have to be foregone to fund this project require particular attention. We are entitled to ask: is this the best value for money in the defence of Australia?

Time will tell how much of the stated rationale for Morrison’s deal developed at a time of his own political failings, will survive close scrutiny. Given that it has taken us forty years to develop a low-level waste dump, the establishment of a high-level nuclear waste dump will be fascinating to watch.

We’ve seen already the divergence of views amongst state premiers.
But this highlights a much broader problem. Assuming that consensus remains in the United States about the export of defence materiel and investment in Australia, the establishment of a regulatory regime in Australia is fraught with profound difficulties. Australians need to understand just how strong the sentiment is in the United States for ‘buying American’ and the legal foundations that underpin that sentiment.

Dozens of commonwealth and state legislative instruments will need to be changed. The most significant at the commonwealth level include the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Protection (ARPANS) Act; the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Safeguards Act; the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Act.

The ARPANS Act specifically prohibits the construction and operations of certain nuclear installations, but section 7 of the ARPANS Act could be overridden by the Defence Minister. On the other hand, the EPBC Act prohibits the Environment Minister (Section 140A) from approving the construction of nuclear fabrication, fuel fabrication, power plants, enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

Will reactors be required on hard stands on shore for training and research purposes, and will a nuclear reactor at a dockyard meet the criteria of the current legislation?

It’s a remarkable proposition to suggest that we can have a nuclear navy without a nuclear industry to support it.

This was a proposition first advanced by Mr Morrison and continued by the current government. It is quite clear that this proposition will have major implications for the ALP National Conference.

Universities and training institutions will fall over themselves to gain access to government funding for additional training. Currently we have an acute shortage of nuclear physicists for our existing nuclear industries that centre on the Synchroton and the Lucas Heights Reactor. The development of a highly skilled workforce cannot rely on blind trust. The real answers to serious problems require a detailed response.

To date, the media debate has been profoundly one-sided. We should not forget that the public response to the initial decision to join the war in Vietnam was initially positive too. Attitudes then soon changed quickly. There may well be a different response to the more contemporary policy as time goes on.

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