Labor’s old guard follow Keating into the trenches over $368b submarine deal

Former federal cabinet minister Kim Carr has joined Labor colleagues in raising deep concerns about the AUKUS pact after federal MPs questioned the deal in parliament and some party members sought to mobilise against the decades-long commitment.

Carr voiced doubts about the$368 billion cost of the agreement on nuclear-powered submarines as well as the strategic risk of a “forward defence” policy that he compared to the approach that drew Australia into the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

The Member for Fremantle Josh Wilson's concerns include construction taking longer and costing more and what to do with nuclear waste.

The comments intensify the row over the sweeping defence plan after former prime minister Paul Keating,former foreign minister Bob Carr and former foreign minister Gareth Evans challenged it with opinions ranging from ferocious criticism to cautious doubt.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese backed the defence policy in the regular Labor caucus meeting in Parliament House on Tuesday after three MPs raised questions about its cost,the concerns from voters about Australian sovereignty and the need for 20,000 workers to complete the task.

But Kim Carr,who held portfolios such as industry and defence materiel during the Rudd and Gillard governments andleft parliament at the last election,said AUKUS was a “huge leap into the dark” that depended heavily on the United States.

“The fundamental question is whether this is the best use of $368 billion of public money in defence of Australia,” he said.

Former Labor senator and defence materiel minister,Kim Carr.

Former Labor senator and defence materiel minister,Kim Carr.Alex Ellinghausen

“I don’t believe the question has been answered. And I am deeply concerned about a revival of a forward defence policy,given our performance in Vietnam,so there are several levels on which we should question this plan more closely.

“Given it’s 20 years since Iraq,you can hardly say our security agencies should not be questioned when they provide their assessments.”

The growing public debate highlights the unrest within the party membership and the test for Albanese in shoring up support from Labor voters who may shift support to the Greens after the smaller party came out strongly against AUKUS.

Bob Carr,who was premier of NSW for a decade before serving as foreign minister in the Gillard government,also expressed concern about the way the AUKUS agreement could take Australia into a conflict alongside the United States.

“I want upheld the notion that even under ANZUS,there should be no assumption of Australian engagement,” he said.

Last Friday,former Gillard government environment ministerPeter Garrett voiced his own objections to the deal,saying in a social media post that “AUKUS stinks”.

While some Labor members said they saw the submarine plan as a “fait accompli” after Albanese announced it with United States President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week,one member said Keating’s fierce objections had given the branches permission to question the outcome.

Western Australian Labor MP Josh Wilson aired his concerns on the floor of Parliament on Monday night by saying Australia was yet to solve the problem of low-level radioactive waste,let alone the waste from a future fleet with nuclear reactors.

“While I support the work of the government,I am not completely convinced that nuclear propelled submarines are the only or best answer to our strategic needs,” he said. His electorate of Fremantle is near HMAS Stirling,one of the bases for nuclear-powered submarines.

Albanese fielded questions in the caucus meeting from Jerome Laxale,the member for Bennelong in Sydney;Michelle Ananda-Rajah,the member for Higgins in Melbourne;and Libby Coker,the member for Corangamite near Geelong.

“I fully support the government’s announced AUKUS plan,” Ananda-Rajah said in a statement after news leaked about her question. Her office also said she was satisfied with the answer she received in the caucus.

Coker also backed the defence agreement,saying:“The AUKUS plan is important for our security,it responds to the challenging times we face and it will create thousands of jobs for Australian workers. It has my support.”

Zoe Daniel and other teal independents have voiced concerns over AUKUS.

Zoe Daniel and other teal independents have voiced concerns over AUKUS.James Brickwood

While the defence plan has bipartisan support and was the subject of planned questions in Parliament to cabinet ministers on Monday and Tuesday,members of the crossbench expressed concerns about the implications.

“I’m concerned about the cost/benefit analysis of AUKUS and the risk of losing sovereignty over Australian defence resources,” said Zali Steggall,the member for Warringah.

Zoe Daniel,the member for Goldstein,said constituents had been in touch about the major shift in Australia’s strategic approach.

“On their behalf,I will be seeking to understand whether such an unequivocal and long-term alignment with the United States is in Australia’s best interest,” she said.

Kylea Tink,the member for North Sydney,said she was worried about nuclear proliferation and Sophie Scamps,the member for Mackellar,said she wanted more information about funding.

“The Albanese government needs to explain to the Australian people how it intends to pay for this program,” she said. “The vulnerable should not be sacrificed to pay for this additional budgetary spending.”

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David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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