Labor Signs Up To The Arms Race


Paul Howes dropped out of left-wing socialist party politics and left-wing activism just over a decade ago, claiming to have had an epiphany and to have been reborn as a "committed democrat". Stirring stuff. He headed straight to Sussex St, to the right wing of the NSW Labor machine — committed democrats one and all.

In fact Howes said at the time that he saw a choice between activism and pursuing a career and he chose the latter. Fair enough, but spare us the Martin Luther King democracy speech. From Sussex St of all places! I gave up left-wing party politics because of burn-out but I manage to avoid the temptation to dress up that mundane reality as a tale of biblical redemption.

Later I saw Howes at a meeting to build support for the Mirarr traditional owners’ campaign against uranium mining at Jabiluka; he was representing Unions NSW. He had another epiphany on his first day at work for the union he now heads, the pro-uranium Australian Workers Union (AWU): suddenly it was OK to trash Aboriginal land rights and Aboriginal land in order to mine uranium, and to trash Kakadu National Park and the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and anything else, and to sell uranium to dictatorships, nuclear weapons states and anyone else, with or without safeguards.

I pointed out in 2008 that most of his pro-nuclear-power comments at a Sydney Institute talk were demonstrably false. Howes appeared to justify his ignorance on his lack of schooling: "Whilst it is true that I left school in Year 9, unlike Dr Jim I do believe working people and their representatives have a right to speak out on matters of public importance and it shouldn’t be left solely in the hands of the academic elite," said. He didn’t attempt to defend a single one of the points I’d taken issue with.

Of all the idiotic, asinine contributions to Labor’s faux-debate on uranium sales to India, Howes trumped the lot with his assertion that "The Cold War is over and it’s time for Labor to embrace that fact".

Since the end of the Cold War the existing weapons states have been busily "modernising" their nuclear arsenals:

  • Pakistan and North Korea joined the nuclear weapons club by testing nuclear bombs for the first time.
  • France, India, the US and Russia have also tested weapons.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains in limbo, with the culprits including India and some of Australia’s existing uranium customers.
  • Pakistan has spread weapons technology (originally stolen from a European consortium) to Iran, North Korea, Libya and probably elsewhere.
  • The tradition of bombing nuclear plants in the Middle East is alive and well with strikes on nuclear plants in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Israel’s attack on a suspected secret reactor in Syria in 2007.
  • South Korea (one of Australia’s uranium customers) ‘fessed up to a secret nuclear weapons research program.
  • Japan continues to separate and stockpile obscene amounts of plutonium (some of it produced from Australian uranium).
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency still doesn’t have reliable "core" funding even for its basic inspection program let alone a rigorous safeguards program; and so on.

No point trying to explain any of that to Howes — as an AWU member said of him, he’s quicker to send than to receive. And he deals in Bob Katter-like revelations ("the Cold War is over") and straw-man inanities ("working people have a right to speak out"; "Indians have a right to power") rather than conventional, logical argument. All the better to paper over the breadth and depth of his ignorance and indifference.

The Labor conference heard all the usual furphies from Right faction delegates:

  • We should sell uranium to India because it is democratic (and to China and Russia and the United Arab Emirates because they aren’t).
  • We should sell to India because it hasn’t exported nuclear weapons technology (though it has, and we should sell to China and Russia and the US and France because they have too).
  • The bilateral safeguards agreement will ensure peaceful use of Australian uranium (though it won’t and can’t — Australia has no capacity or authority to independently monitor uranium exports).
  • The Labor Party respects and supports the Non-Proliferation Treaty (but should undermine and weaken it by selling uranium to non-NPT states).
  • India is a responsible nuclear weapons power (even as it expands its weapons arsenal and its missile capabilities). And so on.

As expected, the vote went along factional lines with the Right narrowly defeating the Left and overturning Labor’s policy of opposition to uranium sales to countries refusing to sign the NPT.

A reliable source — well, a journo — tells me Kevin Rudd is filthy with Prime Minister Gillard’s uranium decision and thinks India ought to have been forced to make some concessions in return for uranium sales, such as ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If so, Rudd ought to say so publicly.

The push to open up nuclear trade with India began with the US government of George W. Bush in 2005, leading to the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement three years later. The politics were neatly summed up by Mian and Ramana in Arms Control Today:

"Recruiting India may help reduce the immediate costs to the United States of exercising its military, political, and economic power to limit the growth of China as a possible rival … India is seen as a major prize, and support for its military buildup and its nuclear complex seems to be the price the Bush administration is willing to pay. This goal is, it seems, to be pursued regardless of how it will spur the spiral of distrust, political tension, and dangerous, costly, and wasteful military preparedness between the United States and China, between China and India, and between India and Pakistan."

The US-India agreement contains no requirement for India to curb its weapons program. The consequences have been predictable. Pakistan is citing the US-India agreement to justify its intransigent attitude towards a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. China is using the precedent of the US-India agreement to justify plans to sell more reactors to Pakistan.

Both India and Pakistan continue to develop nuclear-capable missiles; both are expanding their capacity to produce fissile material; both refuse to sign or ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; both are estimated to have increased the size of their weapons arsenals by 25-35 per cent over the past year alone.

US cables released by Wikileaks warn of the potential for incidents such as the Mumbai terror attacks to escalate into warfare and for warfare to escalate into nuclear warfare. Scientists warn that a "limited" nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could cause catastrophic climate change in addition to the direct impacts. Wikileaks cables reveal Kevin Rudd privately urging the US to ignore its NPT disarmament obligations and to maintain a ”reliable” and ”credible” nuclear arsenal, and to be prepared to use force against China.

South Asia is a dangerous nuclear minefield. All the more so in the wake of the US-India agreement, and all the more so in the wake of Labor’s decision to sell uranium to India with no conditions which would curb its weapons program or de-escalate the South Asian nuclear arms race. It is spineless, cringeworthy sycophancy which puts Australia to shame and makes the world a more dangerous place.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.