Universities make astounding discovery: AUKUS lacks a social licence!

Mar 21, 2024
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons.

A not-so-happy anniversary: Usually, a first anniversary is an occasion for all-round rejoicing and back-slapping. So, it was to be expected that there’d be universal self-congratulation on the first anniversary of Anthony Albanese’s, Rishi Sunak’s and Joe Biden’s announcement on 13 March 2023 that Australia would purchase nuclear-powered attack-class submarines from the US as part of Australia’s participation in the AUKUS agreement.

Of course, there were the usual nay-sayers: the Australian Anti-AUKUS Coalition urged the Australian government to ditch the agreement and spend the estimated $368 billion cost ‘on health, education, affordable housing and fix the climate crisis! Not on nuclear submarines and US led war!’

Mobilise Against AUKUS and War (MAAW), representing 30-odd organisations across NSW, blitzed shopping centres with leaflets on the theme ‘Opposing a war between the US and China means stopping preparation for it’.

They were not the only ones to rain on the naval parade. Joe Biden led the way, with the announcement that the US was halving production of its Virginia-class nuclear submarines, with pundits almost universally agreeing that Australia’s acquisition of these subs was now in doubt. Even the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to note that ‘US anniversary brings a sinking feeling’.

Sydney and Nottingham universities to the rescue

Bolstering PM Albanese’s and Defence Minister Marles’s reassurances that all was going swimmingly, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) and the universities of Sydney and Nottingham (UK) marked the anniversary by issuing a glossy report, The university sector’s value proposition for AUKUS.

Written by three supporters of the agreement, two from the USSC and one from Nottingham, the report discusses findings by ‘two major roundtables with university, business and senior government leaders from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States’.

The report acknowledges that, although AUKUS lacks a ‘social licence’, all is not lost. It asserts that the way to acquire that licence is to think beyond nuclear submarines (Pillar I) of the AUKUS agreement and focus on Pillar II:

To that end, participants underscore the need to expand the appeal of AUKUS beyond submarines, noting Pillar II provides a unique opportunity to build social license. This is because breakthroughs in Pillar II technologies such as AI and quantum technologies may increase economic value and productivity in the industries of the future. To appeal to a wide range of students and researchers, universities recognise they must demonstrate the breadth of Pillar II opportunities beyond Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). (p.4)

Why AUKUS lacks a social licence

The report acknowledges community opposition to AUKUS and outlines the reasons for the public’s refusal to fall into line. Here are the report’s own words:

  • USSC’s own polling, released in late 2023, finds that support for Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines has fallen below majority (49 per cent) (p.3)
  • Research published by USSC analysts suggests that Australian concerns about cost, nuclear waste disposal and safety, workforce and sovereignty will become more pronounced as AUKUS travels along the optimal pathway. (p.4)
  • concern does exist around a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality coming into greater focus as the government makes decisions about nuclear waste disposal. The court case won by the Barngarla people against the federal government in July 2023, regarding plans to dispose of nuclear waste on their land, is one example of what may lie ahead. (p.4)
  • concerns about criticism of the partnership being framed as a ‘retreat to the Anglosphere.’ (p.4)
  • This concern has become more acute following the release of the Australian government’s draft defence trade controls legislation. The draft defence trade controls legislation elicited strong reactions from the higher education sector, including the Group of Eight universities, who worry expansive definitions of ‘fundamental research’ will curtail scientific collaboration in dual-use technologies with countries outside of the AUKUS tent, to the detriment of Australia’s broader innovation base. (p.4)

One might expect a university report that details the Australian public’s misgivings about AUKUS to examine whether or not those objections were well founded. But no. Its sole purpose is to suggest how universities might contribute to AUKUS acquiring a social licence, not whether it deserves one.

What is a social licence?

One definition of a social licence is that it represents

an agreement between a business and its stakeholders and the wider public. It is based on the understanding that the business is not just meeting its legal obligations but also taking into account the interests of its stakeholders, its impact on the community and environment, and its role in the wider society. It is earned through responsible behaviour, transparency and accountability. [emphasis added]

Under this definition, it is difficult to see how AUKUS can ever come within a bull’s roar of a social licence or even aim to acquire one.

Impact on the community and environment

A naval base servicing submarines and their nuclear waste will inevitably be a very large, high-security area from which the general public will be excluded for health and safety reasons as well as to bar prying eyes. Like the US Pine Gap facility, its activities will be shrouded in secrecy.

In the event of war, nuclear submarine bases would be prime targets because their elimination would not only destroy any submarines docked there, but also prevent their ongoing use as maintenance and servicing facilities for subs at sea. The ongoing impacts on the community and environment would not be negligible.


While the general outline of the AUKUS partnership is known, the fine detail is not. There is no formal treaty or detailed agreement that can be tested in court. The purpose of an increasing amount of legislation is, however, to put flesh on the bones of AUKUS undertakings. So far, public knowledge and scrutiny of such laws has been minimal.


The AUKUS agreement and the assumptions on which it is based have never been debated by the Australian parliament. AUKUS legislation is, however, characterised by a deliberate disregard of accountability.

The ‘Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Bill, 2023’, is one example. It empowers the Minister for Defence to override any existing legislation, be it federal, state, or local, and to designate any area as a zone for nuclear activities. It permits nuclear waste from US, UK and Australian submarines to be processed and stored anywhere in Australia that the Minister chooses. Should an accident occur in the handling or disposal of nuclear material, an agency accountable only to the Minister will investigate and report on it.

Responsible behaviour

Australia is a party to the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and it is Labor policy that Australia should sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Despite this, AUKUS legislation will encourage American and UK submarines and fighter planes capable of carrying and deploying nuclear missiles to routinely rotate through Australian bases where they will be serviced at specially built facilities.

Australian government policy is not to ask whether those submarines or planes are carrying nuclear weapons; US and UK policy is to neither confirm nor deny their presence on Australian soil. It beggars belief that wilful burying of heads in the sand qualifies as responsible, accountable, or transparent behaviour.

The role of the university

A university’s reputation commonly rests upon its preparedness to engage in robust, unbiased, critical analysis of public policy. In this report, however, Sydney and Nottingham universities rely on their prestige to foist a manifestly shoddy bag of goods onto the Australian community. To suggest that engagement with any aspect of the AUKUS agreement is a socially responsible act deserving a social licence is a supreme example of social irresponsibility and displays an arrant disregard for the community the universities are supposed to serve.

Share and Enjoy !

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


Thank you for subscribing!