Morrison’s submarine deal threatens to split Australian opposition


Australian politics updates

Australia’s nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK aimed at countering China is set to provide a political boost for Scott Morrison’s conservative government after the pact threatened to drive a wedge between opposition parties.

China has rapidly expanded its military capability in recent years and the submarine agreement announced last week has won broad backing in Australia as well as from the Labor party, Australia’s official opposition.

But the Greens, who were part of a Labor government between 2010 and 2013, said it would fight “tooth and nail” against the pact, in a move that could pull votes away from Labor in an election that must be held before May next year.

Adam Bandt, the Green party’s leader, described Labor’s position as “extremely disappointing”.

The Greens hold just one seat in the lower house of Australia’s parliament, yet have considerable electoral clout with Labor concerning policies. They were the third-most popular party at the 2019 election, attracting 10.4 per cent of the vote, and hold nine seats in the Senate.

The deal “makes Australia less safe, increases the risk of conflict in our region & puts us in the firing line”, Bandt wrote on Twitter.

Morrison’s coalition government, which has a threadbare majority and trails in opinion polls, was praised for its initial management of the pandemic. But it has been pummeled over its vaccination programme, with critics accusing it of not ordering enough jabs and bungling the rollout. The government has also been hit by allegations of sexual assault by officials.

The defence pact signed last week has transformed military arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing criticised the deal for threatening stability and security, and accused the three western allies of an “outdated cold war zero-sum mentality”.

Anthony Albanese, Labor leader, said the plan ensured “maximum interoperability” with US and UK fleets. But he attacked the government for years of “mismanagement” in its submarine-building programme and urged greater transparency.

The deal, however, has provided a fillip for Morrison. Rex Patrick, an independent senator and former submariner, said the prime minister had pulled off an “atomic marketing” stunt in managing to cancel the original French deal to build the submarines and seal a partnership with the US and UK.

Patrick, who assisted the government as a submarine expert in 2012-2013, added that the US decision to allow Australia to access the sensitive technology was significant. Australia and the UK, he said, were the only countries to be given access to the US technology.

An opinion poll by Roy Morgan found 57 per cent of Australians approved of the security pact. But support split along party lines, with 89 per cent of government backers saying they liked the deal, compared with just 47 per cent of opposition party voters.

Benjamin Reilly, a political-science professor at the University of Western Australia, said Labor relied on the Greens “to stay competitive at federal elections”.

If the Greens were “prepared to go to the mat” then there could be electoral consequences at the next election, Reilly warned.


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