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View from The Hill: Labor conference gives Albanese a firm ‘yes’ on AUKUS

Predictably, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese got his way on AUKUS at Labor’s national conference on Friday.

But, ironically, he and his colleagues had to do a good deal more wrangling with the party than Albanese had done when Labor embraced the agreement in opposition and then followed through in government.

After Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and then-british Prime minister Boris Johnson announced AUKUS, Albanese had the then opposition quickly fall in behind it, in line with his small target election strategy.

When implementation fell to the Labor government, again there was no hesitation. But extensive unease about AUKUS has been rippling around the Labor rank and file. Paul Keating articulated the sentiment strongly a long time ago.

In the run up to the national conference, Defence Minister Richard Marles and other Labor heavyweights have been taking soundings and smoothing the waters where possible. Marles briefed unions and rank and file party members as the conference loomed.

Intense negotiations among factional movers and shakers continued right up until the last minute.

On the conference floor, the vote was clear. It was taken on the voices.

They didn’t even bother with a formal count (although anyone could have asked for one). That was the way the power brokers wanted things - it left no record of precise numbers.

Like almost everything at this conference, the AUKUS debate was carefully orchestrated.

Albanese came in at the end to make the final pitch. He told delegates that AUKUS “is an act of clear-eyed pragmatism that works in the context of our national interest and in the context of the greater good.” AUKUS involved “the choices of a mature nation.”

“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.” He said.

“I have come to the position, based upon advice and analysis, that nuclear-powered submarines are what Australia needs in the future”.

Government advocates put AUKUS in the context of Labor’s track record on defence.

The name of Labor icon and second world war prime minister John Curtin was invoked for some heavy-lifting for AUKUS. Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy said Curtin had argued in the 1930s for increases in the Australian air force and navy, and contrasted this with the stand of Robert Menzies.

“Do you want to be on the side of John Curtin, or do you want to be on the side of ‘Pig Iron Bob’,” Conroy asked.

In a debate where everyone was trying to be polite to everyone else - apart from some heckling from the floor - the link between appeasement and anti-AUKUS sentiment triggered some blowback. Michael Wright, from the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) who led the opposition against AUKUS, condemned any suggestion that this was akin to appeasement.

Behind the scenes and on the floor of conference, the ability of AUKUS and its submarine program to create jobs was used as a powerful argument. Albanese said it was expected to generate 20,000 well-paid, secure, unionised jobs.

In the pro-AUKUS statement the conference agreed to, jobs featured heavily.

“Labor will ensure that the nuclear-powered submarine program will deliver secure, well-paid unionised jobs and establish a skills and training centre of excellence, with Australian workers trained in the latest technologies that add to Australia’s sovereign capability,” the statement says.

“Labor commits that Australia’s SSN-AUKUS submarines will be built by Australian workers in South Australia, with a peak of 4,000 workers employed to design and build the infrastructure at Osborne and a further 4,000 to 5,500 jobs created to build the submarines.”

One speaker on the opposing side noted that the conversation before the debate was “union-led - both for and against”.

The opponents put forward a range of objections. Wright raised the prospect of a future Coalition government using the nuclear-powered submarines as “the wedge to drive the opening of a nuclear industry in Australia”.

Co-convenor of the Labor Environment Action Network, Felicity Wade, said: “Our people hate nukes”.

Federal Labor backbencher, Josh Wilson, the member for Fremantle, raised the challenge of nuclear waste, and said the decision involved “too many risks”. He rejected the appeasement argument as “ridiculous”. Wilson earlier this year spoke out strongly against the submarines deal.

The statement the conference endorsed says that Labor will “ensure that all Australian warships, including submarines, are Australian sovereign assets, commanded by Australian officers and under the sovereign control of the Australian Government”. It also provides assurances on the disposal of nuclear waste associated with the sumbarines and declares Labor “will maintain the prohibition on the establishment of nuclear power plants”.

Labor conferences are not what they once were in terms of power, but the government’s intense pre-conference efforts to get support for AUKUS showed it recognised it was important to formally sign up the party to this historic agreement.

By maximising the consultation, it minimised the fracture within Labor over this issue.

This sends a significant message to Australia’s US ally, where there is some (minority) questioning of the submarine deal.

Albanese can be well satisfied with this Labor conference, which wraps up on Saturday. It’s been smooth sailing. His authority has been highlighted.

The next few weeks, however, will be much rougher for the PM.

He must soon name the date for the Voice referendum vote. With the polls looking poor, that issue is shaping up as an extremely difficult battle for Albanese and other “yes” campaigners.

If the numbers are turned around, Albanese will end the year on a high. If, however, the double majority needed for success is not reached, it will be a significant blow for him.

That might not translate into the popular vote, especially given most people have their attention on other issues, notably cost of living. But it could diminish Albanese’s authority among his senior colleagues, who might start to question his judgement.

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