By Greg Sheridan
February 25, 2022

If Australia does end up getting nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS agreement with the US and Britain, these powerful boats will have a most unlikely hero.

Scott Morrison initiated the idea and brought the process to agreement. So he’s the prime mover. US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made it happen.

But one other individual could have stopped it and had to make the biggest political adjustment of any of them to support it.

Anthony Albanese, Labor Party leader, was uniquely positioned to destroy, or to enable, the nuclear-powered subs initiative. He led Labor to support nuclear-powered subs, a genuinely historic change.

In his most wide-ranging interview on foreign affairs and national security, Albanese, fresh from a fortnight’s scolding from the government for allegedly being soft on China, explains to Inquirer: “I don’t think it’s much understood that a precondition of American support was that there be bipartisan support for it in Australia. Without Labor’s support, it wouldn’t have happened.”

In the past the idea of nuclear-powered submarines was widely discussed in Liberal and Nationals circles. But one obstacle always was the idea that Labor would oppose it. Modern strategic threats, and Albanese’s leadership of Labor, changed that.

To effect that historic change, Albanese moved fast but followed proper Labor Party process: “We were briefed on the Wednesday by the (security) agencies and the Defence Department. As an example of our good faith on national security issues, I didn’t speak to any journalist about it but the Prime Minister’s office briefed out the fact of our meeting.”

Present at that critical first briefing were Albanese, his deputy Richard Marles, opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong and defence shadow Brendan O’Connor.

“I was convinced by our capacity needs, that these could be filled by nuclear propulsion rather than by conventional subs. I was convinced it was necessary. It was the right call based on our changing strategic needs,” Albanese says.

“We had a number of preconditions: that it not breach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and that it not lead to a domestic nuclear industry. We came to a preliminary view quickly and called a shadow cabinet meeting for very early the next morning. Then we called a full caucus meeting and by 11.30 we had gone through our processes.

“That was an example of our determination to look after the country, to protect our national security and to not play politics with it.”

 

Albanese, naturally for an opposition leader, has criticisms of the government on defence and national security policy, but not on the basic structures of that policy.

He is resentful, in a generally good-natured way, about the government claiming he’s soft on China: “This government seems to really not like it when you agree with them. It looks for distinctions when they’re not there. On national security we’ve been very consistent for a long time.

“But the government impugned the motives of the entire Labor Party. That says more about the desperation of the Prime Minister and government than about our positions.”

So let’s go through national security issues one by one.

What does he think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Moscow’s actions, he says, show “contempt for the rule of law, for international law, for the sovereignty of Ukraine”.

And the de facto alignment of Russia and China? “The tragedy is that there was great hope when communism fell that we would see the rise of democracy in Russia, and what we’ve seen is the development of an authoritarian regime which centres power on one man and his cronies. The joint statement by China and Russia, which was quite belligerent, which was done during the Olympics, that is a great concern.”

The alignment of autocracies, Albanese says, is a challenge to democracies and “that is one of the reasons that democratic countries need to stand together”.

So why, in Albanese’s view, does Australia have such problems with Beijing? “China has changed under Xi Jinping. It is more forward leaning, it is more aggressive. An example of that is the quite extraordinary list of 14 policy changes they expected of Australia. For that to be forwarded was a very provocative move against a democratic state. It was quite rightly rejected by the government and the opposition.”

Albanese is referring to a list of 14 preposterous demands of the Morrison government made by the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

 

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Would Albanese keep the ban on Huawei participating Australia’s 5G network? “Yes, I would. I support the decision that was made. It was the right decision.”

On a range of issues including the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and the treatment of the Uighur minority, Albanese says Labor would implement exactly the same policies as the Morrison government today. He backs the laws countering foreign interference in our politics and volunteers that a number of nations want to interfere improperly in Australian politics.

“Continuity of national security policy is very much in Australia’s national interests,” he says.

“What has been said by those with a long track record, like Dennis Richardson and the current director-general of ASIO, Mike Burgess, is that the only countries which benefit from creating false divisions in Australia over national security are those which seek to divide us.” Namely China.

So how does Albanese feel about the national security and intelligence agencies themselves, especially ASIO, once a hostile obsession for the far left of the Labor Party, where Albanese, all those many decades ago, began his political odyssey? “I’ve developed a very good relationship with the security agencies and have a level of trust with them. And I have a high regard for all the current heads of the national security agencies.”

Without actually guaranteeing anyone their job, that’s as close to a promise that there will be no night of the long knives for security agency heads if Albanese becomes prime minister. It’s also a complete repudiation of Paul Keating, and the bizarre view he pronounced before the last election that the security agency heads had “gone troppo” on China. Keating also argues that Australian policy towards Beijing is too hostile and Canberra is far too close to the US.

In words of absolute clarity, and more completely than he has before, Albanese tells me he rejects the Keating view. Further, he no longer thinks Keating’s views on these issues represent a significant section of the Labor Party: “Paul Keating is someone who is well respected in the Labor Party for his achievements in opening up the economy and setting Australia up for 30 years of consecutive economic growth. That doesn’t mean his analysis of the role of China in 2022 is correct. Paul Keating retired from parliament more than 25 years ago. I know Paul and I know him well and I respect him, but most people in the shadow cabinet would not even know Paul Keating.”

Albanese doesn’t think the Keating worldview will be a problem for him in Government, citing Labor’s strong support for the American alliance, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS.

“Compare that,” Albanese says, “with the very different views of some people in the Cabinet. (Employment Minister) Stewart Robert had to resign from the cabinet (in 2016) in part because of a visit he made to China.” (The Robert visit was in 2014, when he was Assistant Defence Minister, and was undertaken, Robert later said, in a private capacity, with DFAT uninformed. Robert later returned to the cabinet.)

Albanese also has a diametrically opposed view of the US from Keating’s desolate pessimism. I ask Albanese if he has confidence in the Biden administration and in the ability of the US, despite its inter­nal divisions, to continue to provide strategic leadership: “I cer­tainly have confidence in the Biden administration. I know Joe Biden, I’ve met him a number of times. I hadn’t met Secretary of State Antony Blinken until I met him recently in Melbourne. I know a num­ber of the Biden administration’s key people, including Kurt Campbell, and I have every confidence about them.”

Albanese also has faith in the US: “The thing about the US, it’s resilient. It’s such a big country, its structures are more important than any individual. I have confidence in the US going forward. Australia needs a strong US and we need a strong US in the region.”

Albanese makes a reasonable argument that a Labor government would be an easier fit with a Biden administration on issues such as climate change, among others. But any US administration, Democrat or Republican, wants Canberra to do more in defence.

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Albanese commits Labor to a floor of 2 per cent of gross national product: “It’s at least 2 per cent of our GNP on defence, it may well need to be more in the future. One of the absolute obligations of a government is to defend our nation. That’s front and centre before anything else. A Labor government will take that absolutely seriously.”

His big problem on defence is that spending fell so low in the last Labor government. However, he has three lines of argument: the record was actually not as bad as it looks; in the long history of Australia Labor has been strong on defence; and look at how little new defence capability the Coalition has delivered in eight years in office. Albanese mounts a longer historical defence of Labor. Defence spending as a percentage of GNP peaked under Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley. Of course, that is entirely because they were waging World War II.

Albanese claims the average defence budget over the life of the Howard Government was 1.78 percent, and the average over the Rudd and Gillard Governments was 1.75 percent, so the difference is just 0.03 percent. However, in Gillard’s worst year, defence spending fell to way below 1.6 percent.

Nonetheless, Albanese argues, it is external circumstances that substantially determine a Government’s defence response. The average defence spend over the Turnbull/Morrison years is 1.9 per cent, he says (defence is 2.1 per cent now). Under Whitlam, defence averaged 2.4 per cent of GNP and in the Hawke/Keating years it was 2.3 per cent. Neither side of politics, it is fair to say, has shone in delivering defence capability since 2007. The only way that Labor’s six years of no subs does not look absolutely terrible is to compare it with the coalition’s eight years of no subs, notwithstanding the very long term ambitions under AUKUS.

Nonetheless, Albanese mounts a vigorous historical defence of Labor. In a time of great national peril, Australia turned to Curtin for leadership in World War II. When there was a crisis in the ANZUS Treaty, when New Zealand banned visits by US nuclear-propelled or armed navy ships, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley drew the Australian alliance with the US even closer. Julia Gillard concluded the agreement with Barack Obama that saw US marines rotating through Darwin. This decision, which Albanese strongly supported as a cabinet minister at the time, has laid the groundwork for steadily expanding US military involvement in northern Australia, which Albanese supports. Then, he says, there was Kevin Rudd’s work in convincing the Americans to elevate the status of the G20.

 

Albanese sees himself as part of the “sensible” social democratic tradition in national security. And it’s perhaps worth noting that historically the people the communists hated most were social democrats because they convinced the working class that reform was better than revolution

His final line is a critique of the Morrison government’s performance in delivering defence capability, which is one of three substantial criticisms of Morrison government foreign policy Albanese makes.

The government wasted billions of dollars and many years on submarines it did not pursue, he says. “We had the Japanese submarine arrangements, then the French submarine arrangements. What we actually need is to deliver some defence capability, not just talk about it. No one ever successfully defended a country with press releases. This government’s rhetoric needs to be matched against its delivery.”

Albanese also criticises the government for cuts to foreign aid. Other countries are more than willing to fill the gap, he says, in thinly veiled reference to China. He also believes Canberra’s position on climate change alienates it from South Pacific governments.

Let’s finish with an anecdote, and a sense of Albanese’s journey. He did start political life as an activist on the radical left within the Labor Party, although he has said his mother raised him in three great faiths: the Catholic Church, South Sydney and the Labor Party. As early as 1990, however, he took a trip with the US State Department and spent six weeks falling in love with the US.

I first met Albanese in about 1989 or 90, at the old Labor building in Sussex St, Sydney. I was there to see Michael Easson, then secretary of the Labor Council, an intellectual giant of the Labor Right, a deeply thoughtful anti-communist. We ran into Albanese in the lift and Easson jokingly introduced him as the “leader of the Erich Honecker faction of the Labor Party”. Honecker was the East German communist boss and a dull and dusty Stalinist bureaucrat. “No, mate, I’m in favour of reform,” the young Albanese shot back.

Even then, Easson was essentially joking about Albanese’s already banished undergraduate past. Last July Easson, now an eminent businessman, in a scholarly piece for the Pearls and Irritations website, strongly praised Albanese’s sensible approach to the Middle East, as evident in his rejection of the label “apartheid state” for Israel and his many other positions of friendship with Israel, even as he is also a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and a two-state solution.

He’s come a long way, Albo.   

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