By Peter Murphy
There were three big protests at the ALP National Conference in Brisbane last week (17-19 August 2023) – on housing, on the environment, and on AUKUS. Two unions were very prominent – the CFMEU held the largest rally on the morning of the first day, and the Electrical Trades Union was the next largest union contingent at the anti-AUKUS rally on day 2. The ETU has an uncompromising anti-nuclear policy.
While the media mainly reported that the ALP leadership group easily managed the AUKUS debate, even claiming that Labor was now united behind AUKUS, the reality is that the Labor Party is deeply divided over this nuclear-powered submarines policy, and so is Australia.
All voting delegates were provided with leaflets criticising the AUKUS policy and also leaflets linking it to the need for War Powers Reform. These were crucial issues for the 2023 National Conference, Labor’s 49th.
There were many efforts to change Labor policy – on taxation, on climate change, on refugees, on forests, on overseas aid, on the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. The leadership group managed these by providing some recognition of the issue in an amended section of the Platform, or in a resolution, but providing little or no actual change, and avoiding a debate and vote.
So the first goal was to avoid being managed in this way, to have a debate and to have a vote. The Platform chapter on Australia and the World was set for Friday morning. It was adjourned late in the morning because AUKUS was being contested, but eventually the leadership accepted that there would be a debate and vote and the AUKUS issue came forward.
It was moved by Defence Minister Richard Marles and seconded by Defence Industry Minister Patrick Conroy, and supported by a delegate from the Australian Workers Union, with the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaking in reply.
It was opposed by ETU National Secretary Michael Wright, seconded by Josh Wilson MP for Fremantle, and supported by Felicity Wade from the Labor Environment Action Network. The opposition was asking that the words AUKUS and nuclear-powered be removed from the policy.
In the Observers gallery, activists from Labor Against War (LAW) held up letters spelling out NO AUKUS, skirting around security which banned placards and banners.
Meanwhile a number of voting delegates vacated the chamber rather than be forced to take sides, such was the level of pressure being applied.
The leadership team argued that only experts could know which submarines were needed and they had the un-named experts’ advice, that there was a threat to the region which required deterrence, and that their policy was the “progressive” “peace” policy. The laughable AWU argument was that there is no such thing as a solar-powered submarine.
The critics argued that the case had not been made for nuclear, that there had been no democratic process, that the high level nuclear waste would last longer than the 65,000 years of First Nations continuous culture and would be imposed on First nations people.
Felicity Wade noted that she had yet to meet an ordinary ALP member who supported AUKUS and that Labor’s tradition is anti-nuclear, that the members hate nuclear.
When the AUKUS vote was taken the Chair Wayne Swan decided that the Yes vote was loudest and called it for the leadership and that ended the debate.
Some on the left were happy for the vote to be on the voices, to evade the retribution that would come with a show of hands or count.
But the victory for the AUKUS case is hollow, and a profound division within Labor is now manifest. Labor Against War will continue the campaign inside the ALP, and the anti-war and anti-nuclear movement will continue to build in the trade unions and the community against AUKUS.
August 23, 2023