All the way with Anthony A – Labor locks in AUKUS support despite union opposition

by Zacharias Szumer | Aug 19, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

The Labor Government’s continuation of the Morrison-era AUKUS agreement, and a $350 billion spend on nuclear-powered submarines, was expected to be the most contentious issue at the Labor conference this week. After a minor scuffle, the PM emerged victorious. Zacharias Szumer reports.

Going into the conference, the way AUKUS debates would proceed still seemed a partially open question. Most presumed backroom deals would minimise any open conflict, but there was still a few unknowns.

As it played out, delegates were only able to vote on whether those submarines should be nuclear, and after the Government’s side prevailed, another motion that proposed removing all references to AUKUS from the platform was shelved.

In the end, debate over AUKUS came down to two different amendments.

The first was a proposal for a 1,300-word pro-AUKUS “statement in detail” to be added to that party’s platform, which was brought by Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy.

The other – brought forward by Electrical Trades Union (ETU) national secretary Michael Wright and supported by Member for Fremantle Josh Wilson – was essentially that statement with all references to nuclear technology taken out.

One proposed amendment was:

“Making our contribution to the collective security of our region … is at the heart of Australia’s strategic intent behind acquiring a conventionally-armed, modern and fit for purpose nuclear-powered submarine capability.”

And another:

“Labor will ensure that the nuclear-powered submarine program will deliver secure, well-paid unionised jobs…”

There’s plenty more for those interested in plumbing the depths. They can read the entirety of the amendments here and here.

After a day and a half of largely frictionless procedure, the AUKUS debate saw not just the first moment of open conflict, but the first animated audience participation of conference proceedings.

Marles’ received a strong round of applause from delegates when moving to the lectern to make his opening statement, but was met with boos from some as soon as he mentioned the word “nuclear.”

The obligatory Curtin references

Marles said AUKUS followed in the footsteps of WWII Labor prime minister John Curtin, who “made the decisions which gave Australia its independence.”

“This isn’t giving us independence … It’s tying us to the US,” shouted a voice from the stands.

The word “bullshit” emanated with regularity from the back of the room.

Conroy’s similar reference to Curtin, and comparison of anti-AUKUS attendees to Robert Menzies, was also met with a mixed reaction.

Conroy’s declaration that “Strength deters war, appeasement invites conflict,” triggered a melange of applause and jeers.

Delegates who planned to vote in favour of AUKUS were far quieter than their counterparts – a civility perhaps born from knowledge of their imminent victory.

The only interjections made during anti-nuclear speakers were from their supporters.

“Is this (AUKUS) the best way of securing our national interest?” quizzed Wright at one point, to several shouts of “no” from the stands.

Political theatre

Ultimately, the debate had the feel of a game with a pre-arranged outcome, more concerned with maintaining the optics for each side than a genuine attempt to win over undecided minds.  

A delay of the debate to ensure that Albanese, who was at a veterans’ event earlier in the day, could speak to Marles’ motion, felt like a particularly well-staged piece of political theatre. 

And of course, having been through the backroom negotiations themselves, those supporting the alternative motion knew from the get-go that their opposition would fail. 

A senior party figure told MWM on the condition of anonymity:

The objections were more theatre than reality … they wanted to be seen to oppose it and lose ceremonially.

He said that the result has broader implications for the internal dynamics of the ALP, saying “the left has always wanted control of the Labor party. They’ve now got it and nothing’s changed.”

The ayes have it – ALP conference flashpoints fizz out

Rank and file opposition to AUKUS

With that motion carried, it was declared that the conference wouldn’t hear a third amendment that would remove all reference to AUKUS from the party’s platform. That motion was brought by NSW Legislative Council member Anthony D’Adam, who told MWM that the outcome was “predictable” but still “disappointing.”

Nevertheless, he said forcing AUKUS onto the agenda “was a victory for the rank and file.”

Around 50 of Labor’s roughly 800 branches have passed broad anti-AUKUS motions, and two former federal senators, Doug Cameron and Margaret Reynolds, have signed on as the founding patrons of Labor Against War (LAW).

National convenor of LAW Marcus Strom told MWM that it was only a “partial victory” for his group because “what we’re having is a partial debate.”

In addition to not hearing the stridently anti-AUKUS motion, the party also reportedly knocked back an application from LAW to hold a stall and event at the conference fringe, which hosted a series of panel discussions on the sidelines of the main proceedings.

However, Strom said that the anti-nuclear proposal received support from “a broad coalition, and it’s something to build on.”

As far as MWM understands, that motion was supported by the ETU, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, Energy Union (CFMMEU), the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), as well as the Labor Environmental Action Network and a smattering of rank-and-file supporters.

“I’ve heard Richard Marles and Albo say that one of the strengths of the Labor party is that we have debates in public … well, okay, bring ‘em.”

I know there are members of caucus who are opposed to AUKUS, it’d be great to hear them.

Wilson – who, as mentioned above, backed the ETU’s anti-nuclear amendment – was the first sitting federal MP to raise concerns about AUKUS. Very few have followed his lead.

Until February of this year, Strom worked as a press secretary for Industry Minister Ed Husic, but resigned citing AUKUS policy as “one of the main reasons.”

“I accepted a job in government soon after the election … I like to think I’m not naïve, but maybe I was.”

I had thought AUKUS would be put in the pile of dumb Scott Morrison ideas …

Who gets priority, the members or the media?

D’Adam also said that the way the “statement in detail” was presented to the conference didn’t respect internal party democracy.

“The other major problem with the way the party’s conducted this conference is that there’s been very little visibility of the text of the proposals that have been put before the conference,” D’Adam said.

He said that, as many delegates were only able to see all 1,300 words of the motion once the AUKUS session had commenced, “The delegates didn’t know what they were voting for”.

The vast majority of motions were only a couple of paragraphs or lines long. This one stretched out for several pages.

A second anonymous party insider agreed with D’Adam, telling MWM that, before the debate started, “the vast majority of delegates, whether they’re for or against the government’s motion, wouldn’t have actually seen the full text of the ‘statement of intent’ at all.”

However, some media outlets appear to have obtained the full amendment, or large sections of it, on Thursday afternoon. The Guardian, the Australian Financial Review and the Australian published stories that quoted large chunks of the text that would only be presented to the conference 12 hours later.

“[Writer for the Australian] Troy Bramston has probably got better access to what’s on the agenda of the conference than an ordinary rank-and-file delegate from one of the states,” D’Adam added.

MWM reached out to Marles’ office on Friday afternoon to discuss the merits of Marles’ approach but didn’t receive a reply.



Zacharias Szumer is a freelance writer from Melbourne. In addition to Michael West Media, he has written for The Monthly, Overland, Jacobin, The Quietus, The South China Morning Post and other outlets.

He was also responsible for our War Power Reforms series.

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