The Australian

By Stefanie Balogh and Dennis Shanahan

Labor has watered down its ­language on the US–Australia ­alliance, abandoning references to the ANZUS Treaty as “one of Australia’s great national assets" and “the bedrock of regional stability" as part of its policy blueprint for government.

The significant foreign policy shift, which could hand a future Labor government more room to balance the relationship between the US and China in the Asia–­Pacific, was drafted by foreign affairs spokeswoman and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, in consultation with members of the party’s shadow cabinet national security committee.

Labor’s draft national platform drops a reference to Japan being “Australia’s closest partner in Asia", and strengthens the party’s position on China’s re-emergence, describing it as “one of the most significant developments of the 21st century".

The changes did not “cause any ripples” with committee members who include right and left-wing Labor MPs: Bill Shorten, Ms Plibersek, Stephen Conroy, Mark Dreyfus, David Feeney, Richard Marles and Jacinta Collins. But The Australian understands the US has noted the shift in Labor’s stance.

The party’s existing national platform, agreed to in December 2011, states: “Labor believes that the ANZUS Treaty, which is central to the alliance relationship, is one of Australia’s great national assets.”

It says: “Labor’s response to the security challenges in our region is multifaceted. Labor strongly supports the US Alliance and continued US military engagement in the region, which has provided the bedrock of regional stability for decades.’’

The platform was endorsed a month after then prime minister Julia Gillard hosted US President Barack Obama in Australia, and the pair visited Darwin where they launched to great fanfare the stationing of US marines on Australian soil.

Labor’s draft platform, to be ­debated at the ALP national conference in Melbourne at the end of next week, has streamlined the language on the ANZUS Treaty and US–Australia alliance. The changes come amid an internal Labor push to give greater foreign policy prominence to the relationship with China, despite the party’s industrial wing running a ­protectionist-style scare campaign against the China-Australia free trade agreement.

The Left’s greater sway on the conference floor is expected to influence policy changes.

In the updated draft national platform, Labor continues to endorse the US as Australia’s “closest security ally, formalised through the ANZUS Treaty, and a vital ­global partner” but the description of the treaty as “one of Australia’s great national assets” has been ­jettisoned.

Instead, Labor vows to “maintain and strengthen Australia’s close relationship with the US, a relationship founded on our people’s common democratic values and our mutual commitment to international peace and security”. It says the alliance is “essential to Australia’s national security ­requirements in critical areas such as intelligence on terrorism, defence equipment and broader stability in the region”.

Senior Labor sources yesterday downplayed the changes, arguing they were designed to modernise the ALP platform because the world had moved on from the Cold War and there was widespread recognition and consensus, both inside and outside the party, of the importance of the US–Australia Alliance.

James Brown, director of the United States Studies Centre’s Alliance 21 Program, told The Australian the US closely watched ALP policy changes, particularly since Mark Latham’s leadership of the party. But he described the reworking of the platform as “more sophisticated’’.

“The last was very focused on the ANZUS Treaty and was a broad and unqualified endorsement of US military engagement in Asia,” he said. “This one is more of an attempt to focus on the relationship with the US and what it brings to Australia rather than the treaty itself and that makes sense.’’

He said the decision to remove the phrase describing the ANZUS Treaty as “one of Australia’s great national assets” dialled down the hyperbole.

“I’m not exactly sure when that phrase came into play — maybe it was around 2011 when Julia Gillard was on stage with Obama in Darwin — but it does in retrospect seem a little bit over the top.”

Mr Brown said the new policy did not appear to have the “same ringing endorsement for US military presence as a guarantor of stability in Asia”.

“Now that is the part that could indicate there is some rethinking going on about the role of America in the region, or it might simply be trying to make the language a bit more moderate,” he said.

Mr Brown said the shift in language could give a Labor government more room to manoeuvre in balancing the relationship between the US and China.

The ALP’s national platform, approved by delegates to the party’s triennial conference, is ­designed to provide its members and supporters with a clear statement of Labor’s beliefs, values and policy direction in government and is developed with the party’s parliamentary leadership.

Labor’s positioning on the Middle East is expected to flare on the final day of the conference, with NSW right heavyweight Tony Burke spearheading a proposed shift in the party’s position on the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Ms Plibersek, who is in Ethiopia discussing sustainable development goals, will be crucial to any change in position.

Any movement by Labor, which would face opposition from elements of the Victorian Right, would effectively signal a historic shift in Labor’s position. It comes amid a greater recognition of the demographic shift in western Sydney and the make-up of many of Labor’s local branches with Islamic community members. There has been, however, no change in Labor’s official policy platform between the 2011 document and the draft blueprint on the issue of Israel and Palestine. It reads: “Labor supports an enduring and just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the right of Israel to live in peace within secure borders internationally recognised and agreed by the parties, and reflecting the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to also live in peace and security within their own state.’’

A resolution, likely to mirror changes passed at the NSW Labor conference last July, is expected to be put to federal delegates.

This article was originally published at The Australian