The ALP and the US alliance

12 October 2023
Mick Armstrong

Internal ALP opposition to the AUKUS pact, and to the Albanese government’s decision to announce hundreds of billions of dollars of spending on nuclear-powered submarines at a time of sharply falling working-class living standards, proved to be a damp squib at the recent ALP National Conference. The conference, dominated by union powerbrokers, overwhelmingly endorsed AUKUS and even wrote support for nuclear-powered submarines into the party platform.

This wholehearted backing for militarism and imperialism should come as no great shock. From its earliest years, the ALP has been a strong supporter of Australian imperialism. Labor Prime Minister John Curtin was typical when he told the 1943 NSW ALP conference: “This land may remain free only by Australia remaining the policeman in the Pacific.”

Labor has long supported increased military expenditure and has repeatedly criticised the conservative parties for not spending more on armaments. Labor pioneered the establishment of the Australian Navy and, under Andrew Fisher’s Labor government, military spending increased 300 percent between 1910 and 1913.

As well, Labor has consistently backed the broad consensus among the capitalist class that Australia needs the support of a major imperialist power if it is to advance its strategic and commercial interests in its clashes with rival regional and imperialist powers. That orientation initially meant looking for support to Britain, the long dominant world power.

The quid quo pro for British backing of Australian capitalism in the Pacific region was Australian support for Britain in its imperial wars of conquest. Thus, in the lead-up to World War I, Fisher notoriously declared that Australia would defend the British Empire “to the last man and the last shilling”.

To fulfil that promise, living standards were slashed and the lives of tens of thousands of workers were needlessly sacrificed on the battlefields of France and Turkey. Meanwhile, capitalist war profiteers flourished without Labor lifting a finger to control prices, and Australian capitalists grabbed their share of the spoils of war: the former German colonies in the Pacific.

If it had not been for the enormous working-class rebellion that defeated Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s attempt to impose conscription, the casualty toll would have been hugely higher. And it was only a wave of mass strikes that prevented a complete collapse of wages and working conditions.

Because of its roots in the trade unions, the working-class rebellion had profound ramifications inside the ALP. Hughes had gone too far in his pro-conscription stance, and the union leaders, under pressure from a radicalised rank-and-file, forced his expulsion from the party.

Nonetheless, the mainstream Labor anti-conscriptionists continued to emphasise their support for the war effort. They were for voluntary enlistment, not conscription.

By the time of World War II, Britain was a declining power and Australian capitalism needed another “powerful friend”. Accordingly, in 1942, newly installed Labor Prime Minister John Curtin proclaimed: “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom”. Australia went on to play a pivotal role as a supply base for the US in its war with Japan.

Labor, as the traditional champion of Australian nationalism, arguably was better placed to make this shift than the conservatives, whose voting base identified as British. Liberal leader Bob Menzies, a strident monarchist, proclaimed that he was “British to his bootstraps”.

After World War II, Labor Foreign Minister Doc Evatt strove to establish a firm basis for US military support for Australia. Evatt wanted the US to maintain troops in the Pacific and lobbied the US administration to establish a military base on Manus Island in New Guinea, then an Australian colony.

Labor leaders were fervent supporters of Western imperialism in Asia. Australia was seen by Labor as a bearer of the supposed virtues of Western civilisation in this corner of the globe, with a vital interest in the preservation of European domination.

However, Labor ideologues, unlike the Liberals, eventually recognised that the Second World War had destroyed the old colonial system and that attempts to reimpose it were foolhardy. Thus, Labor supported formal decolonisation and limited reforms to avoid revolutionary upheavals while leaving the basic colonial relationships intact—the classic pattern of “neo-colonial” imperialism of the postwar period.

The postwar Labor government moved quickly to sign up for the US side in the emerging Cold War with Russia. Under the Chifley government in 1947, a secret agreement was reached between the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to integrate their electronic surveillance, code breaking and security intelligence networks.

Nonetheless, the American spy agencies, coming from a country with no tradition of social democratic governments and under the sway of Cold War anti-communist hysteria, worried that Chifley, an old-fashioned right-wing Laborite, was soft on the Reds. They threatened to cut off the exchange of intelligence material if Labor did not establish a new security apparatus. In March 1949, Chifley, in response to this US pressure and at the urging of the UK, established the notorious Australian spy agency ASIO.

Throughout the Cold War, leading union officials and key ALP powerbrokers—such as Jim Kenny, assistant secretary of the NSW Labor Council and ALP state secretary, Laurie Short of the ironworkers’ union, Australian Workers’ Union Secretary Tom Dougherty and ACTU Secretary Reginald Broadby—developed strong links with the CIA, the US State Department and Cold Warriors in the US trade union movement.

Bob Hawke trod a similar path, establishing close friendships with three US embassy labour attachés. Hawke was also a strident backer of the Israeli state—the US’s enforcer in the oil-rich Middle East.

Following the split with the right-wing Democratic Labor Party in the mid-1950s, for a brief period Labor expressed more concern about the threat of world war and flirted with a non-aligned foreign policy. However, in 1960, Labor criticised the Liberals for the lack of military spending, and by 1963 strong support for ANZUS and regional cooperation with the US were entrenched, with Labor strongly opposing isolationism and anti-Americanism.

Labor apologists like to make out that the ALP strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. That is very much exaggerated.

In 1964, Labor supported sending Australian military instructors to Vietnam and then, in February 1965, backed the US bombing of North Vietnam. However, Labor leader Arthur Calwell, though far from being a radical leftist, was a longstanding opponent of conscription.

Calwell stridently attacked Menzies’ November 1964 decision to introduce conscription and in May 1965 opposed sending troops, conscripts or regular soldiers, to Vietnam. Calwell declared that Labor would fight the 1966 elections on the issue of conscription for Vietnam and that he would “live or perish politically” on the issue.

All of this was anathema to his deputy leader, Gough Whitlam, who shared the Australian establishment’s pro-war stance and was unswervingly devoted to the US alliance. Indeed, on the eve of the elections, Whitlam helped sabotage Labor’s campaign by declaring at a press conference that he disagreed with Calwell’s policy of withdrawing regular troops from Vietnam.

In the wake of Labor’s severe electoral defeat, Calwell was dumped as leader in favour of the more right-wing Whitlam, who then pushed through a watering down of Labor’s opposition to the war. Disgracefully, this right-wing retreat was backed by much of the Labor left, including Jim Cairns.

Labor’s two-faced stance is typified by Don Dunstan, the supposedly progressive South Australian Labor premier. Dunstan claimed to be a critic of the Vietnam War, but in September 1970 unleashed the state cops to smash up the mass anti-war Moratorium march. On the same day, Dunstan flew from Adelaide to Canberra for a dinner engagement at the US embassy.

The ALP has also strongly supported US military bases in Australia. In May 1962, the Menzies government announced the construction of the North West Cape base in Western Australia. Menzies made out that it was only a communications base, but it was used to direct the operations of US nuclear submarines, which would put Australia at the front line of any global nuclear war.

Jim Cairns, Tom Uren and other figures on the Labor left opposed the establishment of the base, appealing to Labor’s official policy of support for a nuclear-free southern hemisphere. However, Calwell and Whitlam backed the base, spuriously claiming that it would be subject to joint US and Australian control. Their position was narrowly upheld at a special federal ALP conference in March 1963.

Labor raised no criticisms of the establishment of other US bases, such as Pine Gap in 1968. Australia had become the largest single operational centre, outside the US itself, for US missile and outer space activities.

The 1969 Labor platform stated: “The alliance with the United States is of crucial importance in the foreign policy of Australia and it should be an instrument for justice, peace, political and social development”.

With the ALP long out of government federally, the Labor left of the 1960s voiced criticisms of the US bases, but once back in government under Whitlam, they toed the party line. A classic case was that of the most prominent Labor leftist of the period, Jim Cairns.

Cairns had been a long-term critic of the US spy and military bases, but on becoming deputy prime minister in 1974, he shut up about them. He made no effort, despite being thoroughly entitled to do so, to obtain from the Defence Department information about the operation of the bases. Nor did he seek to tour them.

By the 1990s, there were more than a dozen US military bases or supposed joint facilities in Australia backed by the Hawke/Keating Labor government of 1983-96. The three most important—North West Cape, Nurrungar in South Australia and Pine Gap near Alice Springs—were vital elements of US strategic command, control, communications and satellite systems for launching a nuclear attack.

These were crucial facilities for command and target fixing for US missile launchers, submarines and bombers. The launch of any “first strike” US attack would come through Australia, which would also make Australia a nuclear target for any rival nuclear power.

In 1989, the Hawke government agreed to extend the lease of the Nurrungar base for at least another ten years, which provoked anti-war protesters to storm the isolated base in the South Australian desert. Labor Defence Minister Kim Beazley then sent in troops to secure the base. The police made 492 arrests.

Similarly, the Hawke government defied significant anti-war protests to allow nuclear-armed US warships to visit Australia—in sharp distinction to the New Zealand Labour government, which had banned them. Hawke had, on his first trip to the US as prime minister, fulsomely assured his hosts that Australia and America would be “together forever”. Hawke backed up his words by quickly jumping to support the US in its war on Iraq in 1989.

Hawke also played a central role in undermining opposition to uranium mining. Uranium is vital for the development of nuclear weaponry, and Australia has extensive deposits of this key strategic resource. As early as the 1950s, a uranium mine was established at Radium Hill in South Australia, largely as a US initiative.

In the late 1970s, a strong grassroots movement developed against uranium mining, which combined street protests with concerted working-class industrial action. Waterside workers banned the loading of uranium on ships, and railway workers staged a nationwide strike.

In the face of rank-and-file working-class pressure, Labor, which at that stage was out of government, adopted a policy banning uranium mining. But by 1982, with the prospect of forming government in sight, the ALP conference, at Hawke’s urging, overturned the ban in favour of a “one mine policy”.

This was just the thin end of the wedge. The 1984 the ALP Conference voted for a three mines policy and the right-wing powerbrokers in the party continued to agitate for even more mines. The uranium mining industry was given extremely generous government support in tax concessions and the provision of infrastructure such as roads, railways, energy and water supplies to serve the mines.

Unfortunately, the mass movement against uranium mining had been weakened by the fact that many activists had illusions in Labor. They put too much emphasis on lobbying Labor MPs and party conferences, rather than on building a powerful movement on the streets and in the workplaces to confront the nuclear industry. When Labor inevitably betrayed the movement by ditching its anti-uranium policy, many campaigners were disoriented and demoralised.

This simply underlines the point that we can’t rely on Labor to stand up to the current drive to war against China. Labor is thoroughly wedded to the strengthening of Australian capitalism and the US war alliance.

We have to build an alternative—a socialist party that is committed to breaking the US alliance and that stands for ending the imperialist system that threatens to engulf us in war after war and potentially nuclear destruction.

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