As everyone’s attention turns to questions of sovereignty around the question of the Voice, we might consider that other realm in which sovereignty remains a moot question. If in reality we have sold our national soul to the United States, AUKUS throws even the issue of First Nations sovereignty into question.
For all its shouting about sovereignty, Labor under Anthony Albanese may turn out to be the most under-delivering government we’ve ever had on the matter. ‘Sovereignty’ has become the most used and abused word in the Canberra bubble since those inside it moved on from the ‘international rules-based order’, while Australia’s sovereignty—if it ever existed at all—is eroding rapidly. Australia’s war powers are a central issue here, and a litmus test of whether the Australian people have sovereign power to exercise at all.
In fulfilment of a longstanding promise, the ALP undertook to to hold a Parliamentary inquiry into how Australia goes to war in its first term, and did so in September 2022. Deriving from the Royal prerogative and devolved to executive governments, sovereignty includes the right to declare war. In Australia both major parties guard this jealously. It enables a prime minister to get the word for war from an US president and act on it, just like that, without having to seek the consent of the people via any representative body. And as Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong intended, the cosmetic changes the inquiry proposed in March 2023 did not achieve any of the real reforms recommended by 94 out of its 111 submissions. Instead, the executive government’s sovereignty over the dispatching of troops will remain unchanged, as it does in other old Commonwealth countries—the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.
Marles often refers to Australia as a sovereign nation. He argues that it is sovereignty, not democratic consent, that underpins the ‘compact between a government and its citizens’. That means that there was no need for the government to consult with Australian citizens about AUKUS in 2022, just as there was no need for Labor under Julia Gillard to consult either citizens or most of their elected representatives in 2014 before surrendering to the United States even more Australian sovereign control over large slabs of territory in the north than governments since Menzies had done.. Thus its details are still withheld.
The effects of that 2014 Force Posture Agreement on Australian sovereignty are now playing out in AUKUS. They include the United States storing its aggressive Tomahawk missiles and useless (to Australia) Abrams tanks in Australia and rotating Marine forces through multiplying military bases. Still to come are B-52 bombers in hangars and nuclear-powered submarines home-ported somewhere in Australia. Australian Defence Force personnel will serve ‘interoperably’ alongside (or under) their US counterparts, and by 2024 US intelligence analysts will be embedded in a Combined Intelligence Centre: Australia in the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). Already the US State Department and US weapons companies largely fund the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which has a prodigious influence in the media and on government in Australia. Biden’s ‘Asia Tsar’ Kurt Campbell thus believes the US has Australia ‘locked in now for the next 40 years’. That’s a derogation of sovereignty that must eliminate the AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only) classification.
As if none of this were happening, ministers told the ALP national conference (17–19 August 2023) that Australian sovereignty and self-reliance are fundamental principles in Labor’s defence policy. Australia’s defence partnerships, they claimed, are anchored in Australian sovereignty (on this, however, see Rex Patrick’s demolition of Marles’ position). AUKUS and ANZUS, more than 2000 Labor delegates likewise heard, underpin Australia’s defence partnership with the United States and do not diminish Australia’s sovereignty or self-reliance. In fact, AUKUS enhances it, said the 32-paragraph statement on AUKUS that Marles and Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy attached to the party’s national platform. Conroy even declared that it was against Australia’s interest to have ‘one power dominate our region, especially one that breaches international laws’, though without specifying which power. Aafter Chinese officials objected, however, he said he would not ‘go into what other countries are doing’, and he still didn’t mention the United States. Labor, the ministers claimed, will ensure that all Australian warships, including US nuclear-powered submarines, are Australian sovereign assets commanded by Australian officers and under the sovereign—there’s that word again—control of the Australian government.
Conroy harangued delegates: ‘If you’re pro-human rights, you need to be pro-AUKUS. If you’re pro-peace, you need to be pro-AUKUS. If you’re pro-advanced manufacturing, you need to be pro-AUKUS’. As a commentator wrote soon after, however, ‘Exit logic, enter the irrational. In this fantasy world, to militarise the region, to threaten war, to arm for war, to destroy an economy for war is to be pro-human rights, pro-peace and pro-jobs’. Albanese was more candid, admitting to delegates that winning and holding government was of the essence for Labor and rationalising that by saying, ‘What we have begun can be undone unless we are there to protect it.’ In fact, what the Morrison and Albanese governments have done with AUKUS cannot be undone. As former foreign minister Bob Carr argues, Australia has no bargaining power, and ‘will have to settle for anything—including steep increases in cost’. When ministers told the ALP conference that AUKUS was like John Curtin’s decision ‘which gave Australia its independence’, a delegate shouted, ‘This isn’t giving us independence … It’s tying us to the US’. But that tie began in 1941, with the Labor prime minister’s famous announcement of Australia’s switch in dependence, after which we went waltzing together, all the way, joined at the hip, interoperable and interchangeable. Eight decades on, indistinguishable must be next. The ties that bind us to the United States have eroded Australia’s sovereignty.
Australia’s history is replete with missed opportunities for asserting sovereign independence, for peacefully relating to our region, for sustainable development and for conciliation between settlers and Indigenous peoples. At this unique moment, when sovereignty is being raised in diverse contexts—and especially as a key to arguing for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament—it is well to remember just how far from the truth the sovereignty of the people is in the Australian mainstream, and how much the term is used and abused for political posturing.