June 2023 Guest speaker, David Lee: AUKUS & the Quad, and where they take us

Garrett welcomed David, a former long-time member of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs & Trade, and now at the University of NSW Canberra (ADFA).

David unfurls his complimentary Vintage Reds tea towel
(blurry photo by an anonymous member).

David’s most recently published article ties into today’s talk: “AUKUS and the Labor Tradition: Has Albanese completed or betrayed the Curtin tradition?”, one of seven articles dealing with AUKUS in Arena Quarterly, no.14, June 2023.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, “Quad”, began in 2007 as a security agreement between Australia, India, Japan and the US. The agreement was seen as a diplomatic and military counter to China. Kevin Rudd distanced himself from it; but Malcolm Turnbull reestablished it.

Now we have AUKUS, a product of the Morrison government. $368 billion has been allocated by Australia to the AUKUS deal over three decades. This will get us eight nuclear-powered submarines and various side benefits.

David asked how we should understand Labor support for the deal. We know that Paul Keating thinks that AUKUS and the Quad are “strategic nonsense and a waste of time”. He sees it like the old anti-communist SEATO agreement. John Menadue is also a critic, and suggests that it looks like Western countries telling Asian countries what is best for them.

David gave us a run down on Labor defence thinking. The ALP split during World War I over its opposition to conscription, and still stands by this policy. Post war, Labor stuck with a policy of continental defence, whereas Robert Menzies preferred “forward” defence. The Hawke government’s “Defence of Australia” strategy (1987), emphasised self-reliance and a “strategy of denial” to deter potential enemies from bridging Australia’s air and sea approaches.

The recent history of the ALP now brings us to a situation where policy making is less democratic. A small group of parliamentarians and functionaries make policy. The right includes Richard Marles (traditionally strong on support for the US, associated with Stephen Conroy and Kim Beazley); the left has agreed to go along with the right on this.

David considers that we are more at risk of war as a result of the AUKUS agreement; he prefers a continental strategy and a multi-polar world. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t work; the assumption that we can be protected by a powerful USA falls over when we see the instability there.

How can those opposed to the Government’s policy on AUKUS and the Quad move Labor away from these policies? Civil society may help, specifically an organisation which focuses on opposing AUKUS, and can get generals and former prime ministers to join.