AUKUS and the Labor Tradition: Has Albanese completed or betrayed the Curtin legacy?

The Albanese government’s commitment to the AUKUS partnership—a defence and technology-sharing partnership between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom—has been supported by the parliamentary Labor Party. But Stage Three tax cuts are set to erode the revenue base after 2024, and Australia’s resource exports are projected to fall by $158 billion by 2028. In these circumstances, the opportunity cost of AUKUS will become increasingly stark as the government struggles to finance expenditure on domestic programs dear to the Labor heartland. This is not to mention the anti-US and anti-nuclear sentiment in sections of the party and the union movement.

The focus of this article is the extent to which the AUKUS partnership challenges fundamentally important principles in Labor’s defence and foreign policy tradition.i Despite bipartisanship in the decision and solidarity in the parliamentary Labor Party, AUKUS has several implications at odds with positions taken by Labor in the past. These include uranium and nuclear non-proliferation, the right way to defend Australia, Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region and the degree to which alliances should be allowed to impair Australian sovereignty, particularly Australia’s right to make fundamental decisions on peace and war in ways that diverge from the interests of great powers.

The first principle of the Labor tradition was to embrace the post-Second World War alliance with the United States, but in a way that did not derogate from Australian sovereignty. Associated with this principle was Labor’s consistent support for a defence policy that emphasised the defence of the continent rather than fighting with great power allies in distant theatres (‘forward defence’).ii The second Labor principle was commitment to the United Nations Organisation and its associated agencies, and to norms developed through international negotiation, such as the goal of nuclear non-proliferation. The third—pursued by the Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard governments—was to seek greater Australian engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.iii This ‘engagement’ encompassed increased trade and economic linkages, stronger people-to-people links, membership of regional organisations and defence cooperation. ‘We get our security in Asia and not from Asia’, as Paul Keating put it.

The Hawke and Keating governments

When Bob Hawke’s government came to power in 1983, the Labor party was divided over key issues concerning the alliance. Throughout the 1970s a significant degree of anti-Americanism had developed, along with concerns about the dangers of nuclear war, which could involve Australia through its hosting of US facilities. In 1982 Bill Hayden, Leader of the Labor party, declared that nuclear-powered and -armed ships would not be welcome in Australian ports under a future Labor government.iv But Hayden was forced to retreat from this decision, which became one of the reasons for a caucus decision to replace him as leader with the more pro-American Bob Hawke. A 1982 conference also watered uranium policy down to ‘no new mines’. There was much internal angst and underhandedness in these policy manoeuvres, and not just from the party’s right wing.

By 1984 there were three factions: the right, the left and the centre left.v Some on the left of the party continued to be opposed to visits to Australian ports by US nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels. On the ANZUS Alliance, a minority in the party was sceptical of its value, while leading figures on the Right, including Prime Minister Bob Hawke, were anxious for the party to affirm its value.

Hawke managed party divisions successfully. First, following a review of the ANZUS treaty he persuaded the factions to allow the government to confirm the value of the alliance. In return, Foreign Minister Hayden was given authority to introduce a package of arms control measures that later bore fruit in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.

Under the Treaty of Rarotonga, over a dozen states in the South Pacific, led by Australia, joined together to declare the South Pacific a nuclear-free zone. They renounced the right to nuclear explosive devices of any kind. They pledged to prevent nuclear testing, the stationing of nuclear explosive devices and the dumping of radioactive waste anywhere in the region. Signatories were allowed, however, to permit nuclear transit in their territory. This was an issue over which there were strongly divergent views.

In 1984, New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister David Lange banned nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships from using New Zealand ports or entering New Zealand waters. Lange’s decision was widely seen as marking a milestone in New Zealand’s development as a nation and an important act of sovereignty and self-determination. While some in the ALP wanted Australia to follow a similar course, the Hawke government allowed the transit of US vessels to its ports. The result was that the United States suspended its ANZUS obligations to New Zealand, and the treaty henceforth operated only between Australia and the United States, which has held annual ministerial consultations (AUSMIN) since 1985. Hawke’s authority in the party was not unassailable, however. Caucus forced him to back down from a decision to support the Reagan administration in the testing of MX missiles.vi

In defence policy, the Hawke government oversaw the establishment of a policy that emphasised the defence of the continent and its northern approaches. This was a formal renunciation of the earlier Coalition strategy of ‘forward defence’ and of attracting the support of powerful allies. The ‘Defence of Australia’ (DOA) strategy operated before the rise of China and when Indonesia was considered a more likely long-term threat. Moreover, the United States, after Richard Nixon’s ‘Guam Doctrine’, encouraged allies like Australia to be more self-reliant in their defence. The DOA doctrine underpinned Australian defence strategy until the early 2000s and still has strong defenders.vii

The other hallmarks of the Hawke (1983–91) and Keating (1991–96) governments were a commitment to promoting Australian engagement with Asia and a willingness to use the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and diplomacy to achieve key national objectives. These included shoring up the nuclear non-proliferation regime, Keating’s 1995 initiative the ‘Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons’, and embedding China in the regional and international order.

Nevertheless, the decision to commit Australian forces to a UN-authorised and US-led intervention in the Gulf in 1991 illustrated the tension between Labor’s principles. This involved a conflict between loyalty to the United States, the DOA local defence strategy and the wider labour movement’s tradition of peace activism. Leftist Minister Gerry Hand’s tears highlighted the struggle with which individuals weighed competing priorities. Internal debates in Labor were at their most bitter whenever they concerned uranium or nuclear power. This was evidenced in the 1986 decision to sell uranium to France when Albanese mentor Tom Uren charged Hawke with having ‘more in common with captains of industry’ than with ‘many members of his caucus’.viii There were echoes of these debates in the Gillard government’s 2011 decision to sell uranium to India, when divisions were publicly aired on the floor of its national conference.ix

From the 2003 Iraq commitment to the ‘pivot to Asia’

The period between the election of John Howard’s Coalition government in 1996 and the defeat of the Morrison government in 2022 was a mainly barren one for Labor. In 2001 the Labor party, led by Kim Beazley, lost its third election to John Howard in a contest dominated by the Tampa controversy and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Two years later the party faced another crisis, over whether Australia should participate in the war in Iraq. Now led by the Victorian Simon Crean, the party was broadly divided into right and left factions. One prominent sub-group was loyal to Beazley (who had resigned the leadership in 2001) and included Wayne Swan, Stephen Smith and Victorian senator Stephen Conroy. This group was dubbed the ‘roosters’ by Crean ally Mark Latham, who succeeded Crean as leader of the party after a narrow victory over Beazley in December 2003.

In the approach to Howard’s decision to join President George W. Bush’s coalition of the willing in Iraq, there was considerable nervousness in the Labor caucus. An indicator was when Stephen Conroy formally but unsuccessfully moved in the shadow cabinet in January 2003 to endorse ‘Howard’s deployment of troops and an American invasion of Iraq, irrespective of the UN’.x

In the end, Bush could not even get a majority in the UN Security Council to authorise military force.xi There was no need for a French or Russian veto and the United States launched a unilateral invasion supported by key allies. Crean rested on Labor tradition (including Arthur Calwell’s opposition to the Vietnam War) when he announced that the Labor party would not support participation in an illegal war. Crean and the Labor party were, however, treated ruthlessly by a significantly pro-war media.xii Leader of the Opposition Mark Latham recorded being advised by electoral strategist John Utting not to make the Iraq war an issue.xiii Latham went on to lose the 2004 election, in part, as Paul Williams noted in the Australian Quarterly in that year, because of the perception that he was undermining the alliance by his commitment to withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq.xiv

The 2004 defeat and the increasing securitisation of foreign policy prompted some in the Labor Party to argue for closing the gap between the major parties on issues of national security.xv Illustrative of this was the Gillard government’s agreement to the deployment of 2500 US troops in northern Australia.xvi Gillard’s decision represented the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War.xvii In more recent years it has accelerated, with initiatives such as operational basing for US long-range bombers in northern Australia, something to which Keating has indicated his staunch opposition.xviii Significantly, in an address to a Joint Meeting of Congress on 10 March 2011, Gillard, a Victorian MP hailing from the left of the party, elided key episodes in Labor history (Calwell and Crean). She did so by proudly proclaiming that Australia and the United States had ‘stuck together in every major conflict, from Korea and Vietnam, to the conflicts in the Gulf’.xix

Labor’s embrace of AUKUS and the Labor tradition

In September 2021, before Labor came to government, it was forced to respond to a dramatic announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. As well as foreshadowing the end of Australia’s contract with the French for conventional submarines, Morrison proclaimed the AUKUS partnership, between Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, through which Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Given less than twenty-four hours to decide on the agreement, senior Labor Party representatives agreed to support a decision that was approved by Shadow Cabinet but not by the caucus.xx Less than a year after winning power, the Albanese government announced further details on the tripartite deal. A key element was the decision to purchase nuclear submarines at a cost of at least $368 billion.xxi

The parliamentary Labor party’s decision to support the AUKUS partnership was achieved through consensus between the right of the party (with Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, a protégé of Stephen Conroy,xxii as its most senior representative) and the left, two of whose most prominent members are Anthony Albanese, the prime minister, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong. Caucus members, in supporting AUKUS, were motivated by two considerations. One was that they did not think they could win an electoral contest with the Coalition on national security. Another was that many in the party believe that sticking with the United States is the only possible course.xxiii

The making of the AUKUS decision by Coalition and Labor governments highlights the degree to which mass-based parties of the traditional kind have declined over the last two decades. Historian Frank Bongiorno has argued that the major parties have been replaced by organisations that ‘consist largely of their parliamentary representatives and paid functionaries’.xxiv The kinds of ideological contests that operated between right and left Labor factions in the Cold War are no longer salient.

With these kinds of parties it is for the ‘political class’ to make decisions on vital matters of national security, not mass-based political parties in processes informed by green and white papers with extensive public debate and parliamentary scrutiny. Key ministers in the Albanese government, moreover, are insistent that it is for the executive and not the parliament to make decisions on war and peace, an attitude entirely consistent with their conservative opponents and predecessors.xxv This has left rank and file members of the Labor party with little room to manoeuvre.

The atrophy of parties has been paralleled by far-reaching changes in the public service. The Department of Trade defied Australia’s foreign office and US pressure in pioneering Australia’s trade with China in the Cold War. However, Trade was abolished in 1987 when it merged with Foreign Affairs to form DFAT. Over the last quarter of a century, the combined DFAT has lost influence in policy-making to the Department of Defence, the prime minister’s office and his department, the intelligence agencies, and think tanks such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the United States Studies Centre.xxvi This was evidenced by Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne being kept out of the initial decision-making circle on AUKUS.xxvii DFAT was for much of the previous decade a haven for retired politicians.xxviii And in 2021 the Morrison government appointed a public servant who had no diplomatic experience but held a senior rank in the Army Reserve.xxix DFAT’s waning influence has meant that diplomatic and trade policy arguments, for example about the importance of Australia’s relationship with China, have been drowned out by a securitised foreign and defence policy. There is little space in the public service today for a trade or diplomatic perspective on Australia’s relationship with China.

As for the Defence Department, in recent years it has come under increasing US influence and seems to have supported the AUKUS decision to acquire a capability (nuclear-propelled submarines) without a considered strategy to support it.xxx The strategic rationale for AUKUS is being reverse-engineered after the decision on capabilities had been made.xxxi With its disappointing record on defence procurement, this department will have primary carriage for a multi-billion-dollar program stretching over thirty or forty years.xxxii

Although there was little questioning of AUKUS in caucus, it has been extensively criticised by key former members of the party and the trade union movement. They include Paul Keating (Prime Minister, 1991–96), Gareth Evans (Foreign Minister, 1988–1996) and Bob Carr (Foreign Minister, 2012–13).xxxiii To these may be added former senior public servants who have raised important questions. They include Peter Varghese, the former head of DFAT, and Hugh White, Australia’s former Deputy Secretary in the Department of Defence.xxxiv

With the left of the Labor Party having largely disengaged from the debate, the most cogent criticism of the Albanese government’s AUKUS decision has come from former members of the right of the party. They stress the success of previous Labor governments in encouraging an active role for Australian diplomacy and a defence policy that allowed room for independent national action within the context of the US alliance. They foresee Australia losing sovereign control over its defence force and the ability to pursue a foreign policy that retains some independence from that of the United States. In no area of foreign policy is such independence more critical than Australian policy on China and Taiwan.xxxv They view nuclear aspects of AUKUS as especially problematic for the traditional Labor objective of ‘engagement’ with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.xxxvi

In supporting the Coalition government’s decision on AUKUS, the Albanese government has made the most significant departure from the party’s defence and foreign policy tradition in the last forty years. Apart from its exorbitant cost, it involves commitments to end the DOA strategy and return to a version of ‘forward defence’. It potentially impairs Australia’s status as a non-nuclear state and augments the alliance relationship in a way that denies Australia freedom of diplomatic action toward China.xxxvii Few in the caucus and in the mainstream media seem to have understood all the implications of the decision, and its reverberations are yet to be fully felt in the labour movement.

Note: The Author thanks Frank Bongiorno and Joshua Black for comments on the article.

i See David Lee and Christopher Waters (eds), Evatt to Evans: The Labor Tradition in Australian Foreign Policy, Allen & Unwin: Canberra, 1997.

ii David Lee, ‘Defence Policy, 1945–1994’, in Mohan Malik (ed.), Australia’s Security in the 21st Century, Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 1997, pp. 8–31.

iii Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia in the Asian Century, Canberra: Australian Government, 2012.

iv Frank Bongiorno, The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia, Collingwood: Black Inc, 2015, p. 91.

v Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Directorate of Intelligence, ‘Australia’s Bill Hayden and the Centre-Left: A New Challenge for Hawke’, 14 May 1984.

vi David Lee, ‘Australia’s Ambassadors in Washington, 1982–1989’, in D. Lowe, C. Bridge and D. Lee (eds), Australia Goes to Washington: 75 Years of Australian Representation in the United States, Canberra: ANU Press, 2016, pp. 183–208.

vii Sasha Vukoja, ‘Adapting to Strategic Uncertainty: The Development of Self-Reliance within the ANZUS Alliance in Australian Defence Policy Between 1959 and 1989’, PhD thesis, Canberra: Australian National University, 2022.

viii Tom Uren, Straight Left, Milson’s Point: Random House, 1994, p. 380.

ix Peter Garrett, Big Blue Sky: A Memoir, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2017.

x Mark Latham, The Latham Diaries, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2005, p. 211.

xi Robert Draper, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, New York: Penguin, 2020.

xii Robert Manne, ‘Murdoch’s War’, The Monthly, 6 July 2005.

xiii Latham, Latham Diaries, p. 419.

xiv Paul Williams, ‘The 2004 Federal Election: Why Labor Failed’, Australian Quarterly, 76(5), 2004, pp. 4–8.

xv Chris Wallace, ‘The 2001 Cabinet Papers in Context’ and David Lee ‘The 2002 Cabinet Papers in Context’, National Archives of Australia, 2002 and 2003; and Brian Toohey, Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2019.

xvi Wikileaks Cable ‘Deputy PM Julia Gillard Star in Rudd Government’, 13 June 2008.

xvii Jackie Calmes, ‘A U.S. Marine Base for Australia Irritates China’, New York Times, 16 November 2011.

xviii AUKUS statement by P. J. Keating, National Press Club, 15 March 2023.

xix Transcript of Julia Gillard’s Speech to Congress, Special Broadcasting Service, 10 March 2011.

xx Kim Carr, ‘Labor Was Presented with a Fait Accompli on AUKUS, but Scepticism in the ALP Is Rising’, The Guardian, 21 March 2023, and ‘The Federal Labor Caucus Did Not Endorse AUKUS’, Pearls and Irritations, 24 March 2023.

xxi Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS, 14 March 2023; Peter Varghese, ‘The Balance Sheet of the Nuclear Subs Deal’, Australian Financial Review, 16 March 2023.

xxii Greg Jennett, ‘Stephen Conroy Scratches Out, One Labor ‘Rooster Left’, ABC Analysis, 16 September 2016.

xxiii Guy Rundle, ‘AUKUS: Labor Goes to War—Against Itself, Crikey, 19 April 2023.

xxiv Hugh White, ‘Penny Wong’s Next Big Fight’, The Monthly, April 2023.

xxv Frank Bongiorno, ‘Politics by Other Means’, Australian Book Review, 442, May 2022.

xxvi Daniel Hurst, ‘Australia’s Defence Minister Advises against Giving Parliament Veto over Military Deployments’, The Guardian, 10 October 2022.

xxvii Mack Williams, ‘Senior Adviser and Principal Author of our Defence Strategic Review is Director of the United States Studies Centre’, Pearls and Irritation, 6 April 2023.

xxviii ‘Scott Morrison Kept AUKUS Secret from Cabinet Ministers’, The Australian, 11 March 2023.

xxix Harley Dennett, ‘Liberal MPs Ushered into Diplomatic Roles “undermine confidence in DFAT”’: Anthony Albanese, Canberra Times, 10 March 2022.

xxx Kathryn Campbell AO CSC announced as new DFAT Secretary, Media Release, Minister for Foreign Affairs, 9 July 2021.

xxxi Peter Varghese, ‘The Balance Sheet of the Nuclear Subs Deal’, Australian Financial Review, 16 March 2023; John Menadue, ‘The Pentagon Builds a Network in Our Department of Defence amidst Media Silence’, Pearls and Irritations, 29 October 2022.

xxxii David Livingstone, ‘Australia’s Defence Delusions Increase the Risk of Deadly Conflict’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2023.

xxxiii Brian Toohey, ‘Defence Spending Booms as Efficiency Dives’, The Saturday Paper, 12–18 March 2023.

xxxiv Binoy Kampmark, ‘AUKUS Triggers Growing Dissent within Labor Party’, Independent Australia, 27 March 2023.

xxxv Hugh White, ‘The AUKUS Submarines Will Never Happen’, The Saturday Paper, 11–17 March 2023. For academic critics see Clinton Fernandes, Subimperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2022.

xxxvi Elena Collinson, ‘Australia’s Main Parties Are More Alike than Different on China’, The Diplomat, 18 March 2022.

xxxvii Hamish McDonald, ‘Time to Rethink the Morrison Doctrine’, Inside Story, 19 January 2023.

The New Washington Consensus

Alison Caddick, Jun 2023

The United States will still be a civilisation in decline, except for the massive power of its capacity for surveillance, war and social terror, which may hold it together before e unum pluribus.

About the author

David Lee

David Lee, an associate professor in history at the UNSW, Canberra, is author of The Second Rush: Mining and the Transformation of Australia, (Connor Court 2016).

More articles by David Lee

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