AUKUS – “These are the horrors”

Mar 24, 2023
Yellow Reds under Aussie Beds.
Image: Kindly supplied by George Burchett

AUKUS. This is a horror for which I now fear for the lives of my children and their children. Every time a Labor member of parliament or senator puts foot outside their office to appear in public, turns up at a public meeting, we need to ask them: why have you betrayed us? Why have you allowed this to happen? What are you going to do?

Transcript of a speech at the Anti-AUKUS Rally, Naarm, State Library of Victoria lawn, 18 March 2023.

These are horrors.

This is a horror for which I now fear for the lives of my children and their children.

This is now changing the direction of Australia for the next forty or fifty years.

We have never seen anything like this in peacetime Australia. At any stage.

This must not stand.

But it’s with the suite of profound horrors that we must start with.

The horrors of AUKUS

Firstly, the automatic involvement in war.

We have already been tied to the United States by the bases – by Pine Gap, by North West Cape, by the Space Surveillance Telescope that take us into space warfare, by the many other Australian bases to which the US has access.

We are already tied in, hard-wired in many cases, to the American war machine.

And the ADF is barely an autonomous force today.

But AUKUS takes us very much further down that road.

We already know what the submarines are there for.

In a rational world I actually think submarines are very important for the defence of Australia – but not in the form of this politically-driven, call-from-Washington-inspired scheme for long-range, long-endurance nuclear-powered submarines whose only rational use is to attack China.

Not on their own – Keating’s right about that calling them toothpicks thrown at a mountain – but in concert with American submarines and carrier task forces.

Maybe not immediately nuclear-armed, but almost certainly capable of nuclear-attack as well.

The AUKUS submarines will not be here to defend Australia, but only to attack China in a subordinate role with the American forces.

The horror of that fiscal black hole.

What does that $368 billion actually amount to? As if we have any idea of what the value of a dollar will be in forty years time – the lifetime cost of AUKUS will be an order of magnitude higher, certainly two or even four trillion dollars.

But what that means in terms of the sacrifice from what’s needed from government for decent health and survival for the Australian people is itself horrific.

This moves us towards what I think is an almost irrevocable position of enmity as far as the Chinese are concerned.

Principally because the only rational strategic role for those submarines is to contribute, potentially, to an American existential threat to China.

Even if we stop tomorrow, is China going to forget that?

Why should they?

We’ve revealed our hand.

We have a Minister for Defence who is effectively the minister for Washington, and this is where we have come to.

The horror of the sacrifice zone that the high-level nuclear waste storage site that is to be somewhere built in Australia.

I have to say that of all things that have shocked me about this scheme, this is one that has shocked me most.

Not just because I made the mistake of thinking that Albanese might be halfway reasonable because in my role as a former president of ICAN I had relations with those people, and he pledged he would support a nuclear ban treaty.

Well, that’s not happening now unless we make it happen.

But the announcement of a nuclear waste dump for high-level toxic nuclear waste, radioactive for thousands of years, is another world all together.

I had foolishly thought that they would follow their own mantra for the past year of saying that ‘this will be a sealed reactor full of highly enriched uranium, and to prevent diversion to nuclear weapons, the US will deliver it sealed, and when the fuel is exhausted it will return to the United States sealed for disposal, somewhere safe, where no-one else can get at it …’

More fool me. More fool me.

They betrayed us again, and that nuclear sacrifice zone of high level waste is going to be a huge problem – and struggle – for decades and decades.

What really troubles me as someone who works on strategic issues and thinks that defence issues are real and important, is that this the largest defence expenditure – if we can use the word ‘defence’ with a straight face in this context – this massive defence expenditure actually disables our genuinely necessary defence capabilities.

There will be very little money left over for anything else in defence.

Worst of all, it disables the possibility of what we have come here today to call for – an independent defence and foreign policy – because there will be nothing left.

I heard one of those defence experts quoted in that authoritative source, Nine Entertainment’s Red Alert on the front pages of The Age – the same report that said yes, we have allies, we have Diego Garcia – all 27 square kilometres of it grabbed by the Brits and rented by the Americans, and we have Guam – the tiny American colony almost wholly taken up by US military bases – it would be funny if it wasn’t so awful and so telling about the government’s grasp of the actual facts – I saw that one of those experts said ‘we have to accept that if there is a war with China ‘that means Pine Gap goes’.

Actually I think that’s quite true, under certain circumstances. But the blitheness, the casualness with which that is said tells us a lot about how these people think.

Because if ‘Pine Gap goes’ in a nuclear missile attack, then Alice Springs and most of its 25,000 citizens ‘go’ too. No need to think about that, is there?

Just the casualness with which this is proposed and debated, apart from the ignorance, is stunning and revealing.

And the last part of the horror for me is the nuclear permissiveness which is now beginning to swell in discussions in Canberra security circles.

The momentum that is going to be built out of this first step of nuclear-powered submarine will mean we’re already going to have naval training for this; we’re going to have expanded nuclear engineering programs at places like the ANU.

We’re going to have military and naval careers built around this.

We’re going to have an industry here which has a deep interest in going the next step from naval nuclear propulsion to a civilian nuclear power industry.

We also know, because this is preceded by the US B-52 bombers at RAAF Tindal near Katherine in the Northern Territory – not nuclear-armed bombers at present, but quite definitely possibly nuclear-armed in the future at the stroke of a presidential pen –that those bombers will be used as part of an attack on China.

And what’s really important to understand now is that the South pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone, which Australia signed and says it’s proud of, has a loophole in it sponsored by the Australians to meet US needs, which says there are to be no nuclear weapons in the territories of the member states, like Australia, except in the case of ‘transits’ or ‘visits’.

Transits and visit in these days of American rotational deployments can cover an awful lot of interpretations.

The Albanese government could do one very simple thing to address this fear: it could declare that under no circumstances will any nuclear weapons from any country be allowed into Australia.

Not for a visit, not of layover in transit, just never.

No nuclear-armed aircraft, warships or submarines will ever be allowed to enter Australia.

The USS Asheville nuclear-powered attack submarine in Perth at the moment at Stirling Naval Base, and its successors, will never be allowed to return without a verifiable declaration that they come without nuclear weapons.

Instead of humiliatingly accepting the smirking American ‘we neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons visiting your country’, the Albanese government could reassert a little of our lost sovereignty by stating up front, no nuclear weapons never.

The strategy of AUKUS

The strategic part of what’s happening at the American bases in Australia (aka ‘joint facilities’) is part of all this.

You know what is happening at Pine Gap, the giant American-built and American-paid for joint surveillance station outside Alice Springs.

You know about the wonderfully-named Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station on the tip of North West Cape in Western Australia – a critical submarine communications base for American nuclear submarines and in the future for these AUKUS submarines. It’s immensely important, and probably another priority target, most likely nuclear under certain circumstances.

But just down the road the US has built a giant and highly advanced space telescope.

That doesn’t sound very much, does it.

But what it’s there for is our contribution to American plans for space warfare, to ensure what the US calls ‘space dominance’. And you understand perfectly well how critical space is for all militaries – and indeed our whole society – today.

We are deeply and increasingly plugged into that activity.

All governments have talked for the last thirty years about ‘the joint facilities’ – we don’t have any American bases, of which Australia has full knowledge and concurrence of any activities conducted at these bases.

When you peel that back, and when you talk to ministers – I can tell you I am continually shocked by their ignorance, as well as their deceptions.

The Minister for Defence in the Albanese government made a ministerial statement last month, in which he talked about the joint facilities. But he also introduced a new category of bases under the US-Australia Force Posture Initiative that the previous Rudd-Gillard-Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison alliance supporting government had not thought of – collaborative bases.

Collaborative – an interesting word in its double meaning, isn’t it.

At the moment we don’t know how many Agreed Locations and Facilities there are on this list of collaborative bases identified in a secret part of the Force Posture Agreement – the bases given over by Australia to the US to be under varying degrees of US operational control. The most recent example is RAAF Tindal thanks to Scott Morrison, and we are going to see a lot more of that.

And the last part of nuclear permissiveness is the atmosphere that fills the room in Canberra when you listen to certain senior officials, compliant academics, and insider journalists talk about nuclear weapons for Australia.

In the past few years we have already had three former deputy secretaries of defence – the people who do the planning – saying in public it’s time for us to reconsider the decisions taken by the Fraser and Whitlam governments half a century ago to stop our development of nuclear weapons.

It’s time, they say, to think again about Australian nuclear weapons.

No, they say, we’re not advocating nuclear weapons for Australia, we just need to think about it.

But in the context of half a century of nuclear restraint, of full knowledge of what the possession of nuclear weapons will mean in our region, or what the actual effects of nuclear weapons use will mean in human and environmental terms, ‘just considering’ nuclear weapons acquisition means clearly much more than that.

The ideology of AUKUS

Ideology’s a funny word. Usually it’s used about other people. Like bad breath, ideology is something that afflicts the other guy, not us. Well, that’s nonsense. We all suffer from ideological thinking at certain times.

Ideology is that category of thinking that actually stops thought, which by its emotional logic takes means you don’t have to think about what’s actually being said.

In the ideological nonsense in The Age’s ‘Red Alert’ we saw a kind of triple equation, born of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and American plans to take the opportunity to reshape its alliances.

Russia = China – we don’t need to think about that, do we – they’re autocracies, and we’re not.

Putin = Xi. I’m happy to see that President Putin is to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for the war crime of his invasion of Ukraine. President Xi is not a particularly nice man, but a long way from Putin’s desperate criminality.

Ukraine = Taiwan. Putin invaded Ukraine, so Xi must be about to invade Taiwan – without any serious evidence, and in contrast to the behaviour of China since 1949.

This is the kind of talk that disables critical thinking. None of that makes any sense of the biggest historical defence spend we’ve ever seen, and nothing to say what will happen over the next forty years.

I think that China has some problems. If I lived in Tibet or Xinjiang I would be extremely concerned about what is happening to most of the people in those provinces of China in a deeply repressive kind of way.

If I lived in Vietnam I would know from a thousand years of history there’s a lot of pushing and shoving between China and its neighbours.

But the Vietnamese are still there – they have survived on their own resources.

I would be very concerned about some of the ways China treats its own citizens.

I would not like the concrete islands that China has made – and militarised – in the South China Sea.

True, China now has its first overseas base, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa – a little one across the bay from giant American and French bases of longstanding.

There may be, may be, some kind of PLA naval access to a port in the Solomon Islands, largely, if it eventuates, because of the arrogance with which Australia has treated the Pacific Islands for decades – ‘family’ when we wanted; shoved into the outhouse of history when we don’t care.

I don’t know. That might happen. That would mean, oh dear, they will have two overseas bases – just 798 or so to go before they equal the Americans.

We need a country-agnostic policy of opposing all foreign bases in our neighbourhood – all.

I think Australia needs to be a little more careful and self-reflective about the way in which it talks about some of these undoubted sins of China.

We know something about islands that have been taken over for military purposes.

The forced removal of the people of the Chagos Islands so the US could build Diego Garcia – a British crime even recognised in the World Court.

Guam, an unvarnished American military colony since the end of the Second World War.

We know that China has bullied countries whose policies it doesn’t like with economic coercion – including Australia. We might, though, remember the seven decades of crushing US sanctions against Cuba – for the crime of defeating American plans. And now, again, the people of Afghanistan facing punishing sanctions for the crime of winning a war against the US.

We just need to be a little more honest and self-critical about this.

What China is doing in Xinjiang and Tibet is pretty recognisable as settler-colonialism with an overlay of ghastly pre-emptive counter-terrorism.

We know a bit about that sort of thing here.

And it doesn’t matter how we weigh the balances of these sins, whether we think any of these are equal or not.

We need to take a great deal more care about the way we talk about this without looking in the mirror.

What should we do?

The first thing we need is a rational defence policy.

We need to get involved about this. We need a way of thinking about this. We need people who know how to argue about this.

But the important thing is that this must not stand.

I heard Lenore Taylor, the excellent editor of The Guardian Australia talking in a podcast the other day in an interesting way about a small sense of optimism buried in the Albanese proposal.

Taylor pointed out, and other people have noted the same thing, that in terms of the finances, the only thing that has been agreed to by the Albanese government concerns the forward estimates, the four year commitment from the budget in May.

The forward estimates, Taylor reminded us, amount to about $9 bn over those four years – probably mostly as an industrial subsidy to expand the US submarine-building yards.

Now, to you and me, $9 bn is a lot of money, but to the Defence Department, I suspect they waste something like that every month with costs overruns, white elephants, and renegotiating contracts when they change their minds.

This optimistic view suggests that the Albanese government, wedged by Morrison’s brilliant stroke of madness, has done the only thing it could do – gone along verbally, and got itself as much wiggle room as possible by pushing the serious spending out for years.

Events, they may be hoping, will save them from going through with the whole plan.

And on that they may not be wrong. The AUKUS scheme is so poorly conceived, so grandiosely conceived, so incalculably expensive, and so contingent on so many highly risky contingencies that it is very likely to go badly wrong.

So, they have, on this view, left themselves a back door out of the trap.

May be. Maybe not.

But the US has a long history of keeping recalcitrant junior partners in line, and Australian political, academic and media life does not lack for alliance supporters and enforcers who will keep a foot on that back door to keep it shut.

But it doesn’t matter, whichever view is right.

What we need now under either the optimist or the more realistic pessimistic view is a massive campaign, a campaign that starts today against the background of this terrible shock, this awful sense of betrayal.

A campaign which is made up diverse community-based groups, which has branches in suburbs and branches in country towns, broadly based with all sorts of elements and streams of opinion about peace.

Making the argument very clearly, based on experience, that the only times we have known Labor governments to stand up to the will of the United States have been on the back of huge long-running popular campaigns.

The first, now a long way back, was in the days of the Vietnam War, when Gough Whitlam became prime minister in 1972, and immediately responded to that high public pressure by ending our war in Vietnam, and of course, conscription of 19 year-olds for that purpose.

That only happened because of the pressure.

And the second was in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration, the most extreme rightwing administration since the early 1950s was pressuring Australia to take a greater role in the war against the then current demon, the Soviet Union.

It was again public pressure that forced the Hawke government to back down – in this city the role of the coalition of groups around People for Nuclear Disarmament and similar groups across the country – and then the electoral success of Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1984 federal election.

We need that pressure – whether there is in fact a back door way out of this or not, there has to be huge public pressure on the Albanese Labor government.

Every time a Labor member of parliament or senator puts foot outside their office to appear in public, turns up at a public meeting, we need to ask them why have you betrayed us. Why have you allowed this to happen? What are you going to do?

We have to make it personal and objectionable and we have to make a whole lot of noise.

This must not stand.

Thank you.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!