Outside In: AUKUS and the contradictions of sovereignty

Richard Marles, Defence Minister and acting Foreign Minister—he acts like he’s Foreign Minister, which he will be once there’s a factional shift-around—is in South Korea as I write, playing out Australia’s increasingly complicated foreign minister. The Seoul visit includes a number of Pacific Islands representatives, part of an attempt to ‘counter China’s influence in the Pacific’—by which is meant, to rebuild an anti-China coalition, something that has been stopping and starting since Barack Obama proposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an alliance masquerading as a commercial deal.

The TPP at least gave some face-saving cover for manoeuvres. There appears to be none in what we do now. In Seoul, Marles commented on Prime Minister Albanese’s upcoming visit to China, our greatest trading partner and yet also the nation we are organising against. This comes on top of the stop-start negotiations with the Quad—Australia, the United States, India and Japan—which appears to flicker in and out of existence. All of this is improvised and reverse-engineered, and means very little beyond the photo op.

Regional collective defence would be a good idea, although South Korea would appear to be a bit of a forward front line—but it will never be real, because there is AUKUS. It is an alliance of nations whose realpolitik is anchored in the rhetoric of a shared culture. Whatever actual feels of residual Anglo loyalty it might or might not draw from the population as a whole, AUKUS presents to the world as an extension of the Atlantic arch—of the UK and the US. The Atlantic arch is based on a double rhetoric of connection. It is not simply that of shared Anglo heritage, nor of the English-speaking peoples as the founders of modern parliamentary democracy and liberalism. It is both: the idea that Anglicity is, among other things, an expression of liberal parliamentary values as more or less a natural effusion, part of our ethnos. With that tight bonding, Australia could be easily be added. Now there is talk of Canada joining.

Yet at the same time as the Defence Minister was selling Australia’s image in Seoul, the Australian parliament was passing the motion for the final wording of the referendum on the Voice to Parliament—the ‘expansive’ model, which included the guarantee of executive consultation for the Voice assembly’s members. This was greeted with a degree of justifiable celebration, shading into self-congratulation for a wording that some believe has put the chances of a ‘yes’ vote in deep peril.

The conjunction of the two events underlines a contradiction that is unfolding alongside both foreign and domestic policy in the second year of the Albanese government. First Nations people, through the Voice, are making a claim to the special character of the Australian state and nation. Mild though the authorised actions of the Voice might be, it would represent an embedding in the founding document the notion that the nation is not one and indivisible. This is a pretty radical thing to do to a Constitution, as it is far more than a standard amendment. It is a sort of de- and re-constitution of the nation, given some small and undetermined power by the addition of executive consultation.

Yet at the same time as the Albanese government has committed to the referendum, to the strong version wording and to advocating for a ‘yes’ vote, it has barrelled on with an external transformation of sovereignty via the commitments that will hold AUKUS together. The intermeshing and interoperability of Australian and US defence systems will go well beyond that required for genuine national defence, and will constitute a material surrendering of the most crucial part of sovereignty—not the capacity to wage war, but to not wage it, to not be drawn in.

These material transformations will have collective cultural effects on our national being, as we note in our forthcoming special Arena issue on AUKUS. They will put beyond reach what remained of an independent sovereignty within our longstanding US alliance. As the bases, US troop footprints, spy facilities and interlacing increase, so too will our interlacing and dependence at every level of social and political life. Repudiation will be near impossible once these facilities, practices and relationships are in place. Those who argue for cynicism—that these grand arrangements will never happen—mistake the previous non-government, a late, final post-Thatcherite remnant of the New Right which never really wanted to actually govern, for a Labor government which is aiming for ten, twelve, fifteen years in power and a remake of the country in the image it has chosen. Which in the case of AUKUS is the image of someone else’s country.

What is striking, and cannot but be significant, is that there has been no discussion of this in the politics of the Voice. One can understand why, for tactical reasons, those who have championed the ‘narrow’ version of the Voice, with parliamentary consultation only, would stay relatively schtum on this. But the problem with a total silence is that it leaves unmentioned the gaping hole created by the total division between foreign and domestic relations, which is that the sovereignty we are offering to divide at its root, however partially, is simultaneously being given away.

Materially, this makes a mockery of the Voice process, especially if it is considered to be part of a Truth and Treaty process. To give something away is to claim ownership and total right, which are enacted in the very act of giving. So AUKUS evacuates any claim that a Voice/Treaty might gain a form of fuller legitimacy. This is especially piquant because, as I have noted, the Voice and reconciliation process are being used in our international relations to rebrand us to the world. Having abandoned the embarrassing ‘European-descended Asian nation’ idea of the Rudd-Gillard years—imagine trying that in Seoul!—we have become the ‘transforming settler nation’, using our backwardness in this matter as a way of leaping ahead of others. The Voice would be more constituted than many First Peoples’ assemblies, but less powerful, since most of the others have delegated authority.

Such a process also exposes the false dichotomy at the heart of the Voice specifications—the idea that the Voice will only be required to be consulted on matters affecting First Nations people as a distinct group. How can the external, treatied fate of the nation be treated as a matter that does not apply to First Nations people as a distinct group, even if it applies to everyone else as well? The same could be said of any number of politics. How does the entire health or housing budget not also apply? Or those departments’ allocation within the budget, as opposed to that allocated to defence? The Voice, by being powerless and petitionary in form, already subalterns First Nations people simultaneously with the act of giving them a distinct ‘establishment’ within the nation-state. It does so a second time by narrowing its areas of specific consultation to those matters that are predecided by someone else as being germane to them. The Voice need not be consulted on which matters it should be consulted on, which makes this strange political object even stranger.

The question is whether First Nations groups who are asking critical questions about the Voice can afford to not speak out about the vast de facto reconstitution of our actually existing sovereignty that is currently being carried on. This can be seen from the very fact that we are lacing ourselves into AUKUS rather than a regional alliance. A regional alliance would recognise postcoloniality. There would be a basis for First Nations people to make representations on it, official or otherwise, as a people, or peoples, of the region. Instead the AUKUS Anglosphere alliance reinscribes the founding colonial act. The treaties that govern it, now and in the future, instantiate themselves as real at the same time as they render future internal Treaty less than such, in the same way that the eighty treaties the Victorian government is busy signing were pre-undermined by the wanton attempt to destroy the destroy the Djab Wurrung trees in order to lay a stretch of asphalt and cut a couple of minutes off a trip to Ararat. What could be more symbolic than laying thick, annihilating, characterless tar over a site whose significance radiated from every strip of bark?

The dilemma for Australian First Nations people is that they are getting a foothold on sovereign claims within the nation at the same time as the sovereignty that was to be divided is being given away as a whole package. A nuclear AUKUS Australia will have nuclear waste to dispose of—a lethal, land-killing eternal poison. It is an inherent contradiction of the idea of Country. But it will have to go on someone’s Country, somewhere. And so, in the very provision for that process, shared or reciprocal treatied sovereignty is actively pre-voided.

But this is also a moment of advantage, if taken right. AUKUS, Ukraine, Taiwan and many more all raise the question of what sovereignty is as it is actively recombined and redefined by the shifting plates of history. That includes the Albanese government’s co-option of the Voice process to a cause that undermines it, the more that AUKUS and other commitments are laid down. Given the moral seriousness with which many, many Australians are treating the Voice process, and the building opposition to AUKUS as it is, any claim of a right for First Nations people to have an active and distinct role in it would not only meet with substantial support, but serve to bring the transfer of our sovereignty further into question.

AUKUS, Nuclear Technology and Australia’s Future

John Hinkson, 6 Apr 2023

To survive in this region Australia has to change its spots profoundly. It needs a form of cultural re-generation, in significant combination with its First Peoples, to justify its presence outside of the strategies of colonial power.

What Are the Submarines Really For?

Clinton Fernandes, Dec 2021

The decision to acquire nuclear-powered boats reflects what has been the Australian Way of War for more than a century: to operate inside the strategy of a superpower by contributing a well-chosen, niche capability to augment the larger force.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

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