An internal dispute over Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines has not dampened confidence Labor will endorse the security pact at its national conference on Friday.
After a first day dominated by talks on the economy, climate, and health and social services, Labor’s highest decision-making forum will move to discuss Australia’s “place in a changing world”.
Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy will move to include an extra “statement of detail”, offering specific reasons for Labor’s support of the historic deal inked by the previous Coalition government in a bid to quell internal unrest.
It will say AUKUS and nuclear-powered submarines are consistent with Labor’s values, noting that the program will offer Australians well-paid jobs and support local industry.
Debate on AUKUS has been delayed until later in the day to allow Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to be present.
It’s expected he will reaffirm his promise the deal will create 10,000 “secure, well-paid unionised jobs” in South Australia.
Speaking ahead of the conference on Friday, Mr Marles said the debate was important for the country.
“We’re not afraid of a difficult debate, that’s what happens at Labor Party conferences, and we let the country see that,” Mr Marles told Nine.
“We need to have this military capability in an uncertain world (and) if we want to be able to have submarines as a capability going forward, we simply have to take the step towards nuclear propulsion.”
In a speech to delegates, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said building the conditions that maintain peace “must be the greatest purpose of all countries”, and Labor was dedicated to ongoing diplomacy.
“But. (we must also) have strong defence capabilities of our own, and by working with partners, investing in their capabilities, we change the calculus for any potential aggression,” she said.
“That is why we are committed to openness, and that is why we are redoubling our efforts towards a world without nuclear weapons – continuing Labor’s proud tradition in non-proliferation and disarmament.”
But delegates from Labor subgroup, Labor Against War, are set to be among those speaking up against the AUKUS deal and want it removed from the party platform.
National convener Marcus Strom said many rank-and-file members had hoped the pact would be “put in a pile of bad Scott Morrison ideas”.
“But it was embraced, it’s been doubled down on and this has been done without a proper conversation with the Australian people,” he told Sky News.
“We are going down a path that could lead us to war.”
Outside the conference doors, rank-and-file and union delegates alike gathered to make their discontent known.
Holding up signs that called on the government to “end the lies, end the wars, end the US alliance” and saying “war crimes start here”, anti-AUKUS Labor members said there was a real concern about ceding not only national sovereignty but local sovereignty as well.
“There are issues around us becoming a subservient power in our own region, but there are issues on a gut level, community level,” Arthur Rorris from South Coast Labor said.
“Once you base a foreign base for … let’s be honest, the US navy, you are ceding not just our national sovereignty but your local sovereignty to the US war machine.”
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton accused the Prime Minister of shutting down debate to avoid “a bloodbath on the floor of the conference” and slammed Labor for being “dictated to” by unions.
“Australians saw the influence of the unions on the Labor Party and I’m pleased that we don’t have that influence on our party,” he told the Nine Network.
“We want the jobs but we don‘t want the unions running the show.”
Whatever amendments agreed to at national conference are binding on the federal party.