Labour organisers will escalate their concerns about the AUKUS defence pact by moving an annual workers’ march to the NSW city of Port Kembla to oppose its use as a base for a future submarine fleet.
The organisers agreed on Tuesday night to relocate the May Day march from Wollongong out of growing concern at the prospect that nearby Port Kembla could become the east-coast home for eight nuclear-powered vessels.
“The battle for Port Kembla has begun,” said Arthur Rorris, the secretary of the South Coast Labour Council, a longstanding Labor member and one of the organisers of the annual march.
The move came after former Labor cabinet minister Kim Carr added his voice to concerns about AUKUS in the wake of criticism from former prime minister Paul Keating, former NSW premier Bob Carr, former industry minister Kim Carr, former foreign minister Gareth Evans and former environment minister Peter Garrett.
With the Labor rank-and-file openly divided on the $368 billion defence plan, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and federal cabinet ministers are seeking to assure party members that the government had to commit to nuclear-propelled submarines on national security grounds.
Industry Minister Ed Husic said on Wednesday that it was healthy for a democracy to have a debate on the decision, praising Keating for his work as prime minister on foreign policy, but he said cabinet made the decision in the best interests of the country.
“We are in a position where we had to make a decision. We have done what we believe is right for the nation,” he told the National Press Club.
“And we will now go to make sure that we bring that decision to life.”
Husic emphasised the flow-on benefits for local industry from the mammoth project and said he wanted to see as much of the work going to Australian industry as possible.
But the location of the fleet is a major obstacle because the AUKUS plan includes $10 billion for an east coast base to house the submarines, with Brisbane and Newcastle named as options but the industrial city of Port Kembla seen as the government’s most likely choice.
The May Day march usually draws 750 workers and their families from the unionised industries of Wollongong but will be moved to Port Kembla on May 6 to create a platform to oppose the AUKUS plan and attract more protesters.
The protest will focus attention on AUKUS before Albanese heads to the G7 summit in Japan on May 19 and United States President Joe Biden visits Sydney for the Quad summit the same month, with expectations the president will address federal parliament.
The decision on the Port Kembla march was taken on Tuesday night by the South Coast May Day Committee, a group that includes Labor members such as Rorris but also union officials and members of the community, independent of any political party.
Rorris said the group’s concerns about AUKUS were about the national interest and not a “not in my backyard” protest.
“The name is Port Kembla not Fort Kembla,” he said.
“We will not cop lectures about the national interest from the spooks and arms dealers. There would not be a steel industry in this country today if it were not for the massive sacrifices made by the workers of Port Kembla just to keep the furnaces burning and prevent it from sailing away like the car industry.
“At least we know whose jobs and which nation’s interest we are defending.”
Defence Minister Richard Marles sought to calm concerns about AUKUS with a lengthy statement to parliament on Wednesday, saying a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines would be a “game changer” for the Australian Defence Force.
“By the 2030s and 2040s, the only capable long-range submarine able to effectively operate in our ocean environment will be nuclear-powered submarines,” he said.
“These submarines have the capacity to remain submerged and deployed for months, making them incredibly hard to detect … This is a capability that will make Australia a more difficult and costly target for anyone who wishes us harm.”
Marles said there would be appropriate public consultation, particularly with First Nations communities, about the site to store the nuclear waste generated by the submarines.
“This will not be a matter of set and forget,” he said. “We will continue talking to the Australian people about why we are undertaking this transformational endeavour.”
The federal government has pledged to invest billions of dollars in two future bases for the submarine fleet, one of them on the west coast at HMAS Stirling near Perth and the other on the east coast at one of three options put forward by the Department of Defence: Port Kembla, Brisbane or Newcastle.
The former government named the three potential locations in March last year, provoking concerns in Port Kembla within a day of the announcement.
There is no stated deadline for a decision on the east-coast base and there has been speculation that the shallowness of the Brisbane River and the congestion in commercial shipping at the Port of Newcastle mean that Port Kembla is the more likely choice by the government for the base.
The federal Labor MP who represents Port Kembla and the surrounding districts, Alison Byrnes, said any decisions about the base would depend on the Defence Strategic Review, due in about one month.
“No decision has been made on the potential East Coast naval base,” said Byrnes, the member for Cunningham.
“We’ll analyse the facts, consult with the community, weigh up the options and make an announcement at the appropriate time.”
Rorris said the march organisers would be inviting people from outside the area to join them in Port Kembla.
“We are under no illusions about who we are up against, the military bosses and the US Navy who can’t wait to move in,” he said.
“We know we can’t do this alone so we are inviting our friends far and wide to join us on May 6 and help us save our port, our jobs and to prevent a nuclear target being placed on our backs.
“The investments earmarked for Port Kembla as a renewable energy base run into the tens of billions of dollars and over 8000 jobs according to NSW Treasury figures. You would have to be a mug to trade that for a nuclear parking lot and a few more late-night bars for visiting US sailors.”
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