Australian Labor Party debates on defence policy are often full of passion and vigour, especially those involving regional security, nuclear issues and the alliance with the United States. A combination of all three has made the AUKUS agreement a lightning rod for debate in the party—so much so that in the lead-up to last month’s ALP National Convention it was reported that the political wrangling in the party represented an ‘internal Labor rebellion over AUKUS.’

Smouldering opposition from elements of the party’s left to the plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) generated headlines for weeks. Reports tallied opposition from local party branches and high-powered former Labor figures, including former prime minister Paul Keating and former senators Bob Carr, Doug Cameron and Margaret Reynolds. As the conference reached its conclusion, we were told the ‘Labor debate over AUKUS hangs in the balance’.

This was simply not the case.

The local branch opposition highlighted in the lead-up to the conference represented a small fraction of the party. Reports of 40 local branches across the country passing motions questioning or opposing the AUKUS pact amounted to less than half of the 101 branches in Western Australia alone.

As the conference reached its conclusion, we were told the ‘Labor debate over AUKUS hangs in the balance’. This was simply not the case.

At the conference, the party’s parliamentary national security team led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had its way. Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy sealed deals with union and factional bosses to include a statement on AUKUS and SSNs in the party’s national platform. The Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union all backed down after negotiations over investment and policy pledges on housing and jobs in manufacturing and clean energy transition. Despite legitimate concerns about AUKUS, it appears opposition was artfully traded for bargaining on domestic party-political issues.

As far as revolts go, it was more about colour and movement than action. There was no manning of the policy barricades and no metaphorical storming of the stage.

There was no rebellion.

In the end, support for AUKUS was resoundingly endorsed by delegates.

Indeed, the conference represents the most important revolution in Labor’s approach to defence policy in 60 years.

Nuclear propulsion for Australia’s next generation of submarines now represents a central element of Labor’s national platform for regional peace and stability. This is no small outcome. Ideological opposition to nuclear issues runs very deep in the party. Hard-nosed national-security pragmatism triumphed over idealism. As The Australian’s Paul Kelly wrote: ‘The Labor Party has turned on the hinge of history.’

Nuclear-powered submarines are now a core Labor value and a critical part of the party’s platform to support both deterrence and self-reliance. This expands Labor’s approach to defence into a new era that embraces national resilience and industrial revitalisation. Resilience is a core component of Labor’s new doctrine of ‘national defence’ delivered by the defence strategic review led by former Labor foreign and defence minister Stephen Smith and former chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Houston. As Albanese noted at the conference, ‘maximising [national] resilience is an opportunity to maximise Australian jobs’.

The AUKUS agreement and the acquisition of US Virginia-class SSNs in advance of a fleet of Australian-built SSNs constitute the most visible and tangible evidence of Australia’s long-term commitment to the common defence of the Indo-Pacific and the alliance with the US.

This makes support for AUKUS the most significant move in the party since the 1963 Labor Federal Conference.

The 1963 conference dealt with the establishment of the North-West Cape naval communications installation, which it accepted on the basis that the facility was under joint control and available to Australian forces. It noted that ‘in the event of the USA being at war … Australian territory and Australian facilities must not be used in any way that would involve Australia without the prior knowledge and consent of the Australian government’. Australia’s involvement in a war, it made clear, was a sovereign decision.

These conditions were applied to the agreements over the joint installations at Pine Gap and Nurrungar later in the decade. ‘Prior knowledge and consent’ was cemented by the Hawke government in the 1980s, and Australian participation was agreed in the management and operations of the facilities at all levels. They effectively became part of the Australian order of battle.

Back in the 1960s, the federal conference, not the parliamentary party, determined this outcome. Numerous subsequent reforms have changed the Labor Party from a federal party of state machines to a national party. It includes federal and state parliamentary leadership and some federal politicians, with the other delegates proportionately elected based on state population sizes.

The national conference reflects those changes and provides greater authority to those effectively elected by the people. It reinforces a new era of the US alliance, with sovereign control and self-reliance at its core. This is why its embrace of AUKUS as a core Labor value is so significant.

Labor’s new AUKUS platform represents the views of the broader Australian community. The 2023 Lowy Institute poll noted that two-thirds of Australians (67%) support the decision to acquire SSNs under AUKUS.

The conference debate fundamentally reflects a wider debate within the nation. At the core of this stands our understanding of the changing regional order and Australia’s role and approach to maintaining peace and prosperity.

Labor’s stance reflects broader community concerns about the Indo-Pacific strategic order, increasing foreign interference, espionage and cyberattacks on Australia.

Labor’s stance reflects broader community concerns about the Indo-Pacific strategic order, increasing foreign interference, espionage and cyberattacks on Australia. It’s an acknowledgement of the risks posed to Australian interests and values in our region including by the massive and opaque increase in China’s military capabilities, its use of coercive tactics across the region, its extensive nuclear weapons modernisation, its support for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and it’s ‘no limits’ friendship with Russia.

AUKUS also recognises that this is not a Labor problem, or a national problem, or even a problem for the US alliance to resolve. It’s an Indo-Pacific regional problem. It’s about the type of multipolar order emerging in our region. As Foreign Minister Penny Wong noted at the National Press Club in April, it’s about how ‘we contribute to the regional balance of power that keeps the peace by shaping the region we want … to avert conflict and maintain peace. That is what the countries of the region want too.’

Labor’s 2023 platform represents a genuine change in its approach to defence and national security. As with the issues addressed in 1963, this platform is driven by the changing risks our nation faces, and 2023 goes down in history alongside the revolutionary changes at the 1963 Labor conference. No one wants to have to spend more on defence or to adopt new capabilities to increase our national security. But Labor’s adoption of the AUKUS pact is reflective, as the prime minister noted in his conference address, of ‘analysing the world as it is rather than as we would want it to be’.