While many of those who voted Labor on 21 May might have hoped the new Albanese government would direct its energies towards dealing with climate change, rising inflation, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and soaring energy prices, it has other priorities. High on its list has been demonstrating its commitment to US imperialism.
Just three hours after being sworn in, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flew to Tokyo to meet US President Joe Biden at the summit of the Quad security bloc, the new alliance comprising Japan, India, the US and Australia, whose main purpose is to push back against China’s growing influence in the region.
Australia’s main contribution to this project is to secure for the US empire control over the South Pacific and the region to Australia’s immediate north. This is the region that Australian governments have for more than a century regarded as Australia’s “backyard”, containing vital sea lanes for Australian commerce, energy and military supplies along with markets for Australian business. It is the region in which Australia has long played the role of deputy sheriff for the US, freeing up US military resources for use in the Middle East and now in East Asia. It is also the region where China is fast becoming the dominant trading partner and investor, displacing Australia.
In opposition, the ALP criticised the Morrison government for jeopardising Australia’s leading role in the South Pacific. Labor argued that the Coalition had paid scant attention to the Pacific island states, seeing in them mainly a source of cheap labour and, occasionally, a threat to the political stability that has served Australia’s interests well for many years. Labor argued that the Morrison government had refused to address the island states’ concerns about global warming, which threatens them with the disastrous flooding from rising oceans and which Australia’s national security agencies and military top brass warn could imperil Australia’s interests by triggering political instability and a mass exodus of climate refugees.
The Morrison government’s neglect of the region, Labor argued, had only opened the door to China. In April, China signed a trade and security pact with the Solomon Islands, raising alarm in Canberra and Washington that it might use this to establish a military base in the Pacific. In May, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi set off on a ten-day tour of the Pacific islands, hoping to confirm a region-wide deal with ten Pacific island states. And in early June, China signed a trade and investment pact with East Timor, building on already close relations between the two.
The new Albanese government has set out to try to put Australia back in the driver’s seat. Foreign Minister Penny Wong was dispatched to the Pacific twice in a week immediately after the election, addressing a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji, followed by trips to Samoa and Tonga. Fortunately for the Albanese government, Pacific island governments rejected China’s proposed “Common Development Vision”, but China still aims to increase its footprint in the region.
On 5 June, Albanese and Wong flew to Jakarta for three days to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo and the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Leading the agenda were trade and investment, with a dozen CEOs of major Australian companies accompanying the politicians. On 9 June, Defence Minister Richard Marles travelled to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual event bringing together senior defence officials from dozens of countries. Marles’ main priority, however, will be to hold meetings with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Japan’s Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo to discuss China’s threat to US hegemony in Asia.
Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines, flagged last year with the announcement of the new AUKUS pact, significantly expands Australia’s role in the new Cold War in the Indo-Pacific. The submarines are designed not to secure the approaches to Australia, the focus of most military attention in recent decades, but to project Australia’s power far from its shores. The nuclear submarines will allow the Australian navy to patrol the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait alongside the US navy, ready to fire missiles at China’s navy or mainland. The cost to the Australian working class of these submarines will be enormous, but it is just part of a greatly expanded military budget that Labor inherits from the Coalition government and is committed to increasing further.
That the Albanese government has moved so quickly to demonstrate its support for US imperialism is of a piece with Labor’s entire history. The ALP is an imperialist party that champions the imperialism of its senior partner, first Britain, later the US. It sees their overarching hegemony as the precondition for the security of Australia’s own imperialist interests.
On its formation in 1901, the ALP was just as committed to the British empire as the conservative parties. Labor’s first majority government, elected in 1910, established the Royal Australian Navy as a unit of the British Royal Navy. It also imposed compulsory military service for males aged 12 to 26.
In 1914, Labor leader Andrew Fisher pledged that a Labor government would support Britain to the “last man and last shilling”. On taking office, it immediately took steps to establish the Australian Imperial Force, and when war started, the ALP proved a very effective recruiting sergeant with tens of thousands of young men rallying to the flag.
Carnage in Europe and growing hardship at home caused war fever to dissipate and enlistment to drop sharply. In 1916, new Labor leader Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription for overseas military service. Hughes was defeated in a referendum by a huge campaign of opposition by working-class activists in the trade unions. Hughes and 24 other Labor parliamentarians walked out and formed a new government with the conservatives. Labor may have split over conscription, but it was still solidly committed to the war.
When World War II broke out, Labor in opposition did not hesitate to back Britain and the Menzies government’s decision to send Australian troops to Europe and North Africa. In 1941, when Labor took office, Prime Minister John Curtin put the country on a war footing following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Curtin recalled Australian forces from the Middle East and announced that, with Britain’s defeat in Singapore, Australia would now look to the US as its chief military partner. To whip up enthusiasm for the war effort, Curtin lied to the Australian public that Japan was on the verge of invading, even though he was soon advised by naval intelligence that Japan had no such plans. In 1942, Curtin was able to use his own credibility as an anti-conscription campaigner during World War I to begin conscription of young men to fight in theatres beyond Australia and New Guinea.
Following the end of World War II, the Chifley government maintained its strong support for the United States as tensions with Russia began to emerge. In what was regarded as the opening salvo of the Cold War, the government backed Britain and America’s bloody intervention in the Greek civil war between the Communists and right-wing monarchists, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. The government also initially supported the return of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia and backed the formation of the state of Israel. When the new Menzies government signed the ANZUS treaty with the US in 1951, this was only the culmination of earlier discussions initiated by the Chifley government.
A corollary of Cold War with the Soviet Union was vehement anti-communism at home. The Chifley government established the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in 1949 to spy on those it deemed subversives and relentlessly played up the supposed “red threat”.
Gough Whitlam is regarded as one of Labor’s heroes by many on the left in the ALP today. But he was an arch-supporter of the US. His predecessor Arthur Calwell opposed the US war in Vietnam, along with the introduction of conscription in 1964 and deployment of Australian troops in 1965.
But Calwell was not an anti-imperialist or hostile to the US, as he made clear:
“On three great issues, there is agreement between the two parties. These issues are: the American alliance, opposition to Communism, and the common determination to keep Australia safe and inviolable.”
Calwell believed that the war in Vietnam would prove to be a disaster for the US and those countries that joined it. At the 1966 election, Labor campaigned to withdraw Australian troops and scrap conscription, but such was the right-wing hysteria about Communist advance in Asia that Labor was heavily defeated.
Whitlam took over the Labor leadership in 1967 and promptly pulled Labor’s Vietnam policy to the right. At Whitlam’s urging, the ALP conference dropped any call for the immediate withdrawal of Australian conscripts. Labor shifted back to a clear anti-war and anti-conscription position in 1970 only under the impact of a mass anti-war campaign and the fact that the US was itself beginning to look for a way out of Vietnam. The Coalition government followed the US lead, and by the time Whitlam took office in December 1972, very few Australian troops were left. Whitlam’s withdrawal of the last soldiers and liberation of imprisoned draft resisters was politically symbolic and very popular, but the evolution of Labor’s policy on the Vietnam War was an illustration, not of the triumph of principles, but of a profound pragmatism.
Pragmatism over principle was clear when it came to the Whitlam government’s response to the independence movement in East Timor, which grew rapidly as Portugal, the colonial power, started to withdraw following a revolution at home. Fearing the coming to power of a left-wing government and the weakening of the Suharto military dictatorship in Indonesia, the Whitlam government gave Jakarta the green light to invade. The subsequent Indonesian occupation in 1975 cost hundreds of thousands of East Timorese lives over the following quarter century.
Bob Hawke, Labor prime minister from 1983 to 1991, was well known for his support for the US and was keen to see its international reputation rehabilitated after defeat in Vietnam. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Hawke government sent two frigates to join the US-led naval blockade of Iraq, while the jointly managed Nurrungar spy base in South Australia guided US bombers to their targets in Iraq when air raids began in January 1991. After the US-led coalition declared a ceasefire six weeks later, Australian frigates maintained UN sanctions on Iraq over the following eight years, contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis because of shortages of medicines, food and other necessities.
The Hawke government also aggressively promoted Australian imperialism in the South Pacific and South-East Asia. One element was military. In 1985 the government announced a major upgrading of Australia’s military, including new fleets of fighter bombers, submarines, helicopters and naval destroyers. In 1991 Australia hosted its biggest ever arms fair in Canberra to boost sales of weapons to neighbouring states. The other element of Australia’s imperialist push was trade. Hawke’s successor Paul Keating initiated the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum both to promote Australia’s trade and investment opportunities in Asia and to secure the US’s continuing interest in the region.
Military and trade considerations were to the fore in 1988 when the Hawke government rushed the PNG government helicopter gunships, patrol boats, dozens of military trainers and an annual budget of $400 million to wage war on rebels who had taken control of a giant Australian-owned copper mine on Bougainville, an island province of PNG. Armed to the teeth by Australia, the PNG armed forces blockaded the island and eventually crushed the resistance after six bloody years.
The Hawke and Keating governments also aided atrocities in Indonesia and occupied East Timor, seeing in the continued rule of General Suharto the best guarantor of Australia’s strategic and commercial interests. The Hawke government provided training for soldiers from Indonesia’s notorious Kopassus special forces responsible for human rights abuses, and his government was the only one to recognise Indonesian rule in East Timor. In 1989, the Hawke government signed the Timor Gap Treaty with Indonesia, which stole East Timor’s oil reserves. In November 1991, after the Indonesian army massacred 150 people during a funeral in Dili and the US government imposed a ban on arms sales, the Keating government seized the opportunity to become Indonesia’s main military supplier.
After the Keating government was voted out in 1996, Labor was in opposition for 11 years. Labor backed the US “war on terror” in 2001 and the Howard government’s decision to send the Australian military to assist the US in its invasion of Afghanistan. While it opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that it had not been sanctioned by the United Nations, Labor supported the subsequent US-led occupation and the dispatch of Australian troops to assist.
Kevin Rudd, like every Labor leader before him, boasted of his pro-US stance on becoming prime minister in 2007, backing the ongoing US war on terror. His government withdrew combat troops from Iraq in 2008, but this was only after Britain’s decision to pull out its forces and President Bush’s declaration that the US troop presence would be scaled back. The Rudd government supported the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, however, doubling spending and urging NATO member states to follow his lead.
Rudd maintained Labor’s long history of support for Israel, and in March 2008, on the 60th anniversary of its foundation, introduced a motion in parliament to “celebrate and commend the achievements of the state of Israel”. Not a word of sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by this terrorist state nor for the victims of Israel’s subsequent attacks on Gaza. Australia saw in Israel a watchdog for US (and, by extension, Australian) imperialist interests in the Middle East.
It was during the Rudd and Gillard governments that China began to loom large as a potential threat to the US empire in the Indo-Pacific. Australian capitalists welcomed the huge injections of cash generated by China’s rapid economic growth, but the national security agencies grew increasingly concerned that China’s growth threatened US domination in the region. Imperialist competition was increasingly obvious, and Australia stood to lose if the US, its chief ally, was pushed aside by China.
The Rudd government’s 2009 Defence White Paper identified China as a threat to Australian security interests and foreshadowed the biggest boost to military spending in the country’s peacetime history, including more submarines, frigates, air warfare destroyers and F35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Rudd government was determined that Australian imperialism would not be left behind in the competition for influence in the region.
In 2011, in an address to the Australian parliament applauded by members of the Gillard government, US President Barack Obama announced the US’s “pivot to Asia”, which formalised the US’s switch of priorities from waging war on “terrorism” in the Middle East to containing China’s encroachment on US interests in the Indo-Pacific. Although ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the election of Donald Trump delayed this shift, there is now bipartisan support in Washington for the US to ratchet up its military intervention in the Indo-Pacific. The Albanese government has made plain in its first weeks in office that Australia will be standing by its side as it does so.
This historical overview shows that the Albanese government’s support for US imperialism is nothing new. First, it should be obvious, none of this has anything to do with “defending Australia”, in the popular sense of protecting the lives and homes of ordinary people. Despite the hype that has been used by politicians for more than a century about threats from Russia, China, Japan, even Indonesia, no country has had the ability to invade and hold the landmass of Australia since the initial invasion by the British was completed. This is something confirmed by successive Defence White Papers. What the politicians really mean by “defending the nation” is defending the nation’s capitalists and state apparatus. That means ensuring no hostile country secures control over Australia’s sea approaches, access to which is crucial for Australia’s continued existence as a wealthy capitalist state and regional power.
Australia’s ability to control vital sea lanes is, however, dependent on the continued presence of a friendly great power in the neighbourhood. Even though Australia’s military is now the most powerful in the South Pacific and South-East Asia, it is incapable of throwing its weight around single-handedly. It needed Britain’s help in its earlier history and today the US. The US’s Seventh Fleet and its network of close allies provide the overarching network of military power in the Indo-Pacific within which Australian capitalism and its state apparatus can thrive. That has nothing to do with the interests of the working class; in fact, the military spending and the loss of lives needed to defend this project have always come at the expense of workers in Australia and the victims of Australian militarism abroad.
Australia’s dependence on a “great and powerful friend” means that Australian governments live with a constant fear of abandonment: that the attentions of its military protector will turn elsewhere, leaving Australia to fend for itself. Australia therefore needs to constantly stoke up military tensions in Asia, to ensure the US remains focused on the region and to remind the US of Australia’s value to it as an ally—and that means diplomatic and military support for US wars. That is why, when the US goes to war anywhere in the world, it usually finds Australia beside it, sometimes even leading the charge. Not because Australian politicians are lackeys, as some on the left argue, but because Australian capitalism needs the US for its own interests.
Since World War II, Australia’s military deployments in support of the US empire have been mostly token. Today, however, with the announcement of nuclear submarines and with China a new great power in the region, Australia could be involved in much heavier fighting with great loss of life. Nothing less than US hegemony in the most dynamic sector of the global economy is at stake, something that rattles Canberra as much as it does Washington. The Albanese government, as guardian of Australian capitalism and state apparatus, has already shown its willingness to ride into battle alongside the US whatever the cost to the working class here and overseas.
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