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Australia’s snub to Nobel Peace win is major break from ambiguous nukes policies of past

Malcolm Turnbull: not at all in the middle. EPA

The Australian government under Malcolm Turnbull has been less than ecstatic about the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The failure to congratulate Melbourne-based ICAN has come under much criticism from anti-nuclear activists.

Following the country’s NATO allies and behaving as if the whole episode never happened is in line with recent policy utterances, however. Canberra’s latest Foreign Policy White Paper, released in November, says the country’s 60-year alliance with the US is “a choice we make how best to pursue our security interests” and “is central to our shared objective of shaping the regional order”.

There has not always been such a black-and-white split between activists and Australian politicians. Successive governments have waxed and waned considerably. At a time when nuclear tensions are running particularly high between the US and North Korea, the difference with the current administration is striking.

ICAN head Beatrice Fihn onstage at the Nobel ceremony. EPA

Atomic Australia

When the UK and US agreed to collaborate on atomic weapons in 1943 through the Manhattan Project, Australia and other British dominions were explicitly cut out. The Americans wanted to control nuclear knowledge for exploitation after the war, and wanted the research to proceed with the utmost secrecy.

When Washington decided to go it alone in 1946, it gave Australia an opening. The British proceeded in the early 1950s to develop their own bomb, and decided to concentrate the effort in Australia because of its uranium and apparently wide empty spaces.

Sir Mark Oliphant. Wikimedia

This had much to do with celebrated Australian physicist Mark Oliphant. As a professor of physics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, it was he who had first told J Robert Oppenheimer, leader of America’s Manhattan Project, that it was possible to make an atomic bomb from only a few pounds, not tons, of uranium.

When Britain and America began collaborating in 1943, Oliphant moved to California as a leading contributor. He saw at first hand the US’s desire to monopolise nuclear know-how, writing privately about how Britain had been “sold down the river”.

When British-Australian testing was getting underway in 1950, Oliphant returned to his homeland to take a senior physics post at the new Australian National University in Canberra. He was quoted in the press saying his department would focus on nuclear energy rather than weapons and would not do secret work “within the laboratory itself” unless it became necessary.

The 1950s saw Anglo-Australian tests for nuclear ballistic missiles at Woomera in South Australia, in parallel with atomic tests elsewhere in the country in preparation for a British hydrogen bomb. Yet the effort was short-lived: after the joint project successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in the central Pacific in 1957, Britain was soon brought back into the nuclear fold by the US.

Australia was relegated to supplying uranium and hosting listening posts to Asia for the Americans, in exchange for promises of nuclear protection. It has performed the same role ever since.

View from Canberra

In the intervening years, Canberra has never strayed from this overarching alliance. When you look at the details, however, the Australian view is far from straightforward. I’ll look at some former prime ministers in a moment. First a few words on Oliphant from research I expect to be published next year. He seems to almost personify these conflicting feelings.

During his time in Canberra, Oliphant came to describe himself as a “belligerent pacifist”. He is quoted in several press reports from the early 1950s calling for a world government to avert the need for nuclear weapons. He joined the Pugwash movement of leading scientists against nuclear weapons in 1957. This is quite a contrast to comments he made to the London Recorder in 1949:

The United States and United Kingdom are developing weapons designed for their own defence. They may not suit Australia’s needs if she has to defend herself. We must develop our own methods of defence and build for ourselves.

Oliphant maintained some involvement in the Commonwealth nuclear project despite his focus on energy. An archived letter shows him suggesting to a colleague that he visit Woomera to view the testing in 1953, for example, although he himself was excluded from the atom bomb tests at nearby Maralinga. He was quoted in the Australian press in 1951 expressing fears that Canberra might be considered “expendable” in its partnership with Britain if push came to shove.

In 1955, a government report refers to him telling government officers that atomic power plants built for energy could be converted to bombs manufacture within hours. “Australia could best be defended by nuclear weapons and that conventional forces and armaments could be cut”, he is quoted as saying.

Was he developing a pacifist public face while also trying to persuade Canberra to develop its own bomb? It certainly feels like it. Some Australian cabinet ministers also wanted an independent Australian nuclear deterrent in the late 1950s, though then Prime Minister Robert Menzies disagreed.

Oliphant’s ambivalence is echoed in certain Australian administrations. In 1971, the Liberal prime minister, William McMahon scrapped plans to build a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium. His Labor successor Gough Whitlam then ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, overturning previous Liberal reluctance.

Malcolm Fraser, another Liberal prime minister, introduced a safeguards regime for exporting uranium in 1978 that included only selling it to countries that were parties to the 1968 treaty – including the Americans, of course. Fraser later became involved in founding ICAN, and campaigned against nuclear weapons alongside his successor as prime minister, Bob Hawke.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN comes at a time when the pros and antis have rarely been more polarised or the choices more difficult. When the Nobel ICAN award first made news in October, Turnbull’s office made a statement acknowledging the campaign group’s commitment.

But it concluded: “So long as the threat of nuclear attack exists, US extended deterrence will serve Australia’s fundamental national security interests.” With a rogue nuclear power nearby, in other words, this is no time for contradictory policies from Australia. It raises difficult questions about where the country goes from here.

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