As part of rebranding Australia’s military alliance with the United States and United Kingdom, the Morrison Government’s decision to purchase nuclear-powered submarines at a cost of over $100 billion, is yet another example of how opportunism and shallow political thinking continue to place Australia, and indeed the world, at risk.
The justification for these purchases, and the costly, poorly managed abandonment of existing deals, has presented war and conflict as inevitable external threats, rather than products of choices made by governments. The logic, such as it is, has used the supposed risk of war, or “security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”, to justify acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, which are described as likely to “promote security and prosperity”. The clear risk factor that massive military investments of this nature may be read as hostile and provocative has not been addressed by the Government, nor has any specific risk or action been identified to justify this particular expense or technology.
By treating conflict as inevitable, the Morrison Government is therefore once again trying to shirk responsibility for its actions, claiming that it has no choice over decisions entirely within its control. Statements made by the MUA, ETU and NTEU in response to this decision, on the other hand, have set out clear alternatives, and highlighting the risks these policies pose not only to Australia but the world at large.
As the MUA noted in their release, the Morrison Government’s wasteful expenditure and time-consuming pursuit of “secret deals” has taken place at the same time as its neglectful oversight of the pandemic response, and its inertia on climate change action. This is especially relevant as long-term nuclear waste disposal has proved particularly vulnerable to climate change, meaning that Australia’s opposition to meaningful climate change action will pose even greater dangers. As the ETU’s Assistant Secretary Michael Wright noted, “Has Mr Morrison given any thought to where the spent fuel rods from these nuclear submarines will be stored?”
More broadly, as the NTEU noted, Australia has not ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; and historically, “possession of nuclear-powered submarines is linked to the development of nuclear weapons capacity in the countries concerned.” Moreover, Australia’s adoption of nuclear powered submarines also “exercise[s] a loophole that allows it to remove nuclear material from the inspection system of the International Atomic Energy Agency”, risking setting a precedent for global nuclear non-proliferation measures and oversight to be bypassed. This means as well as risking provoking other countries to arm themselves further, this decision actually opens further pathways for nuclear proliferation around the world.
These unions’ statements form part of an important tradition of anti-nuclear and peace activism in Australian unions history. At key points during the Cold War, Australian unions participated in a range of protests and civil actions to limit nuclear proliferation and testing, emphasising their risks to health, the environment, and their divisive geopolitical influence. These protests and secondary boycotts, similar to the 1970s’ Green Bans and Black Bans, focused on workers’ decisions about what kinds of causes their labour should contribute to, and what kind of future they wanted to build. These acts stand alongside transnational acts of solidarity such as the anti-apartheid protests, the Chilean solidarity movement from 1973 onward, and the support for Timor-Leste in 1999. These ideals of solidarity across and in support of difference, focusing on collective, shared wellbeing and prosperity, are the true heart of the often misquoted adage “touch one, touch all”.
The Morrison Government frequently claims that it is not responsible for its own choices. Yet there is nothing inevitable about war, nor is there any clear benefit to these obscenely wasteful displays of power and aggression. There is nothing inevitable about under-resourcing of the healthcare system, or refusing to invest in renewable energy. There is nothing inevitable about deciding that weapons manufacturers should profit while people on JobSeeker should continue to go without food and medical care on below-poverty line payments. As the MUA statement lays out, all of these are policy options that could, and absolutely should be funded as priorities using that budget which the Morrison Government has chosen to fritter away on expensive military provocations.
As with those other responsibilities the Morrison Government tries to escape, these decisions reveal the moral vacuum at the heart of their policies, and their fundamental cruelty. Their position is clear, and so too is the extent to which they oppose a safe, secure and sustainable future for anyone other than a handful of corporate profiteers. As Australia likely approaches a federal election, union history offers examples of how it can be possible to genuinely stand for and fight for change, yet also highlights how important it is to clearly identify the real risks posed by governments focused on profits over people. Developing and maintaining this focus will be crucial to pursuing a more peaceful future.