18 August 2023

PM steps up to shut down party dissent over AUKUS

| Chris Johnson
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Hon Anthony Albanese MP, Prime Minister of Australia

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has expressed his support for AUKUS at the ALP conference. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has hit back against members of his own party who called for the AUKUS defence agreement between the US and the UK to be scrapped.

The Prime Minister stared down attempts to debate a motion at the Labor Party national conference aimed at striking nuclear-powered submarines off the ALP’s policy platform.

A number of delegates wanted a clear sign from the party that the government should opt out of the nuclear subs deal.

Electrical Trades Union secretary Michael Wright said many Labor members did not support the AUKUS pact.

“Serious questions must be asked,” he said. “Is this the best way of securing our national interest?

“Is this the best spend of $360 billion?”

The union boss urged the government to allow further debate on the issue and not lock the party into endorsing nuclear-powered submarines as part of its platform.

READ ALSO Australia and Japan to tighten military ties

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles had moved a motion to support the defence agreement but was heckled during his speech on the topic.

“In the year 2000, China had six nuclear-powered submarines. By the end of the decade, they will have 21,” Mr Marles said.

“Now these are not our decisions, these are not our choices.

“But this is the world we live in and it is our unavoidable obligation to navigate our way through it.”

He said in the future diesel-electric submarines would become increasingly detected, so Australia had to take the step of nuclear propulsion.

“In a difficult moment, Australians are looking to us,” Mr Marles said.

“I know the word ‘nuclear’ evokes a strong reaction, but we are not talking about nuclear weapons.

“We will never base nuclear weapons on our shores.”

Labor Environment Action Network convenor Felicity Wade said there was deep concern in the party over the AUKUS deal.

“I’m scared that a world that has more nuclear power is more dangerous,” she said while speaking in favour of an amendment to remove nuclear submarines from the Defence Minister’s resolution.

“I’m scared nuclear-powered submarines means militarisation at our ports.

“And no one really knows what the heck to do with the waste and it’s bloody dangerous and toxic stuff.”

Labor backbencher Josh Wilson broke ranks on AUKUS, saying there was no justification for nuclear submarines.

“To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” he said.

“Deterrence is not a one-word justification for every defence position.”

READ ALSO Opposition calls out government’s ‘downgrading’ of Australian space programs

Mr Albanese intervened in what was initially an unscheduled speech.

He said AUKUS was very much in line with Labor policy because it was a partnership with two of Australia’s oldest friends.

“It is consistent with the Labor values that I have been a part of my whole life,” the PM said.

“If you come to the position, as I have, that Australia as an island continent needs submarines, then it is compulsory that nuclear-powered submarines are what Australia needs.

“We have to analyse the world as it is rather than as we would want it to be.

“We have to bring our defence capabilities up to speed and AUKUS is central to that.”

A large majority of the 399 conference voting delegates gave Mr Albanese a standing ovation.

The motion to support the defence policy, which includes AUKUS, was carried on the voices.

It didn’t have to go to a count of delegates’ cards.

The government had blocked the rebellion from within its own ranks but had also appeased members by moving to recognise “the growing danger that nuclear weapons pose” and committing to work harder towards nuclear disarmament.

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