Labor and the Bomb: The Non-Nuclear Option


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The current round of nuclear weapons talks between the five declared nuclear powers (the US, the UK, Russia, France and China) and Iran provides an ample opportunity for the world to revisit the issue of nuclear disarmament. It is not enough to simply ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons: this is a chance for the international community to build momentum on this issue and take the necessary steps towards the long path of global nuclear disarmament.

The Labor Party has a strong record in this area, going back to the Cold War era. As Opposition Leader, Gough Whitlam put pressure on the moribund Liberal government to ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Once in office, ratifying the NPT was an early act of the Whitlam government, and in his first international trip as PM, Whitlam boldly reiterated Labor’s complete opposition to nuclear testing with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The Whitlam Government was also buoyed by the success of Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in the International Court of Justice, after he led the first successful application to the court for an interlocutory injunction against another country, pursuing a halt to French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Under Bob Hawke, Australia signed the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, with Hawke playing a crucial role in talking America through the treaty and their concerns about it. With Labor’s period in office under Hawke and Keating covering the end of the Cold War, the world was presented with a real opportunity to rid itself of the scourge of nuclear weapons. The nuclear issue was to re-emerge in Australian public discourse in 1995 when the French government broke an international moratorium on nuclear testing by resuming such a program in the South Pacific. Keating has spoken about how this caused him to reflect on the long-standing Labor goal of international nuclear disarmament and the role that Australia could play. Ultimately, this led to the creation of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Labor believes in an idealistic goal, but one that is eminently desirable, reasonable and realistic.

The Canberra Commission was the first of its kind: a unique attempt to put the weight of a sovereign national government behind a highly expert commission that consulted, researched and reported on the goal of nuclear disarmament. The group of experts that was put together was outstanding, and included a Nobel Peace

Prize winner, a General who had been head of US strategic nuclear forces, a former chief of the British Defence Staff, a former US Secretary of Defence, a former French Prime Minister, and a number of disarmament experts and diplomats. In short, not a group of peaceniks or starry-eyed idealists.

This was a group that included people who had previously had nuclear weapons in their control alongside peace activists and those with a political eye for things. This group was labelled a “stunt” by the Liberal fool Alexander Downer.

The group engaged in wide research and consultation, ultimately producing a detailed report that provided a workable roadmap towards a world free of nuclear weapons. The report put the case for nuclear disarmament clearly and simply, in a phrase that has been quoted many times since its publication:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any such weapons remain, it defies credibility that they will not one day be used, by accident or miscalculation or design; and any such use will be catastrophic for our world as we know it.

Following the change of government in 1996, the report of the Commission was received by the Howard Government, who lodged it in the United Nations but ultimately did not pursue its recommendations. Australia remained silent on the issue of nuclear disarmament, with our foreign policy sycophantically being outsourced to Washington.

While there was some international progress on the issue, including the report of the Blix Commission in 2006, Australia did not seriously re-enter the field until the election of the Rudd Labor Government. In June 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed the creation of a new International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, to be co-chaired by former Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans, who had been instrumental in creating the Canberra Commission over a decade earlier. Later that year, Prime Minister Rudd and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda agreed to establish the Commission and announced that former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi would co-chair the Commission. The Commission consisted of expert members from across the globe, including former Prime Ministers and Presidents, senior academics, military generals and experienced diplomatic personnel. The Commission engaged in lengthy consultations and produced a detailed report in November 2009 titled Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.

Without rehashing the excellent work of the Commission, which is available for free online, the title of the report is indicative of what is contained within: a realistic, workable roadmap towards a nuclear-free future for the world. The report includes a convincing argument for the moral necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons, a comprehensive rebuttal against the arguments for maintaining nuclear weapons, and a plan towards working for their abolition broken into short, medium and long term stages. Crucially, the report includes a section on mobilising and sustaining political will towards its important goal.

Labor has long held a belief in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The National Platform of the Labor Party proudly and correctly states:

Labor affirms its unequivocal commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. Labor will continue its support for nuclear weapon free zones.

Recent reports that we have shifted away from this goal are disheartening. The Labor Party has a proud history in this area and we should continue to build upon our past efforts and work towards the goals articulated by the two masterful reports discussed here that were the result of Labor initiatives. A world free of nuclear weapons is a bold and challenging ideal but an achievable one, and it is precisely the sort of goal that we should aim for.

This goal can be starkly contrasted with the Liberal Party’s views on this issue. As stated above, the Howard Government did little when handed the report of the Canberra Commission in 1996, in keeping with their general approach of downplaying the role that Australia can play in disarmament and indeed in international affairs more broadly. Following this episode, the Liberals remained silent on nuclear disarmament for their time in office. Worse, the Howard Government supported the Bush administration’s missile defence shield folly, which could only encourage nuclear proliferation, and supported their decision to walk away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, further weakening international progress on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

We pursue a multilateral, internationalist agenda that is ambitious for a country of our size, but one that has been proven to yield results in the past.

In this sense, this issue encapsulates so much of the differences in foreign policy between the Labor Party and our conservative opponents. Labor believes in an idealistic goal, but one that is eminently desirable, reasonable and realistic. We pursue a multilateral, internationalist agenda that is ambitious for a country of our size, but one that has been proven to yield results in the past. The Liberals choose instead to downplay these kinds of goals, tiptoeing around any delicate issues and leaving them up to others, unless one of our great and powerful friends gives us permission.

In our current position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (a goal ridiculed by the Liberal Party) Australia has a real chance to lead on this issue once more, and push for its inclusion on the international agenda. On top of this, we have strong relationships with each of the five declared nuclear powers, particularly the US, the UK and increasingly, with China. These factors put us in a position that is almost unique in the world to push for a new round of international action on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. We should not squander this opportunity.