This year’s ALP national conference, beginning 17 August, promises to be somewhat feistier than its recent COVID-affected (and boring) predecessors.

Yet it’s unlikely to deliver a major embarrassment to the Albanese government. Issues like the Stage 3 tax cuts may irritate traditional Labor members, but there’s a general consensus that conference stoushes shouldn’t derail the government’s re-election agenda.

Unusually for a liberal democracy, where domestic affairs tend to dominate party politics, the loudest disagreements at the conference are likely to happen over foreign policy. Aidrefugees and Australia’s stance on the Israel-Palestine dispute have long been bugbears of the Labor Left.

Yet the issue causing the most consternation – the tripartite technology-sharing AUKUS agreement that will eventually see Australia operating nuclear-powered submarines – has been delivered by a prime minister from Labor’s left faction, after being announced by the previous Morrison coalition government.

And while old left warriors (including Peter Garrett and Kim Carr) have condemned AUKUS, the most vocal criticism has come from members of Labor’s right. This includes prominent figures such as former Prime Minister Paul Keating and former Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

So what’s at stake in the AUKUS debate?

There’s certainly widespread scepticism within the party’s ranks about the deal. And that scepticism cuts across the increasingly blurry cleavages between Labor’s factions.

Labor members in the South Australian electorates of Mayo and Boothby, as well as in the influential seat of Sydney, have all condemned the agreement. Labor’s ACT conference tried to pass a motion rejecting AUKUS, while Victorian trade unions also sought to marshal support for an anti-AUKUS agenda.

Apart from a concerted effort by Labor’s leadership to ensure AUKUS doesn’t derail the conference, a key reason it’s unlikely to gain much real traction is because opposition to AUKUS encompasses such an incoherent mishmash of grumbles.

They include those opposed to nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy, the reflexively anti-American lobby, and those mistrustful of shadowy military-industrial complexes.

These concerns – which are hardly new in Australian politics – are jammed together with more targeted and contemporary objections.

For instance, plenty of Australians (and not just in the ALP) remain vexed at the government’s fairly tokenistic explanation about why the agreement was necessary. So far it has only offered some inconsistent rhetoric about boosting self-reliance and a future-proof sovereign Australian deterrent capability.

Others worry about the extent to which the agreement binds Australia so firmly to America’s warfighting posture, itself increasingly dictated by Sino-US strategic competition.

With future Australian-flagged AUKUS forces essentially interchangeable with American ones, the concern is that Australia has voluntarily subordinated strategic policy flexibility to alliance loyalty at a time of significant regional uncertainty and flux.

There are also objections about the eye-watering $368 billion price tag.

Still other concerns have been raised about the capacity for Australia to crew its nuclear subs. Then there is the lengthy timeframe for delivery, and the prospect of operating three different classes of submarine at once (the ageing Collins class, US Virginia class nuclear powered submarines, and the new AUKUS class boats).

So AUKUS highlights some important questions about Australia’s national security choices, as well as the processes that will promulgate them. It has also – to an extent – reopened old wounds in the ALP, revealing persistent and deeply-held views.

While cautiously supportive of AUKUS, I wholeheartedly agree that debating it is legitimate and entirely appropriate. But if the deal falls over, it will have less to do with Australian debates, and much more to do with American ones.

US domestic politics meets bureaucratic logjams

There have already been signs that US lawmakers are prepared to include AUKUS in attempts to pressure the Biden administration. In January 2023, a secret bipartisan letter written in December 2022 by Jack Reed (the Democrat chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee), and the Republican Senator James Inhofe warned against selling Virginia class submarines to Australia without significant additional investment in US shipbuilding capacity.

More recently, in July 2023, US Senator Jim Wicker led a move to block an agreement authorising Congress to fast-track the sale of three Virginia submarines. He argued the US needed to spend more than the debt-ceiling limit on boosting defence production.

In particular, Wicker claimed the A$3 billion Australia had already tipped in was insufficient for America’s submarine industrial base to meet US Navy build schedules.

Meanwhile, the state of UK shipbuilding capacity – which will be central to building the new AUKUS-class platform – should also raise concerns.

Given the next presidential election season is fast approaching, we must expect that US national security issues will continue to be used for political purposes. And with the identity of the next president by no means clear, Australian influence in the US will struggle to overcome a concerted “America First” agenda, led either from a future White House or the Congress.

Second, it’s often forgotten that AUKUS goes far beyond nuclear-powered submarines. The so-called Pillar Two of AUKUS will be crucial to Australia’s capacity to leverage partnerships on high-end critical technologies. This has the additional advantage that many of them will be dual-use (in other words, have both civilian as well as military applications).

There is particular scope for the deal to supercharge advancements crucial to future defence needs –- in command and control (C2), electronic warfare (EW) and integration of AI systems, for instance.

But again, Australia’s ability to benefit from these advancements will have to overcome a slew of largely US-based obstacles. And these are in addition to Canberra’s historical timidity about backing innovations from concept to reality.

A key sticking point will be America’s hypersensitivities over information-sharing, which often results in over-classification via the blanket NOFORN (Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals) designation. Even more problematic are the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process.

These are costly to overcome, require ongoing investments in goodwill, and are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of American politics. As a CSIS report recently noted, the United Kingdom already spends over 1% of its total defence budget on ITAR compliance alone.

While there is broad-based acceptance that ITAR and FMS are arcane, they remain significant regulatory and political hurdles to the type of innovation agenda envisaged under AUKUS Pillar Two.

And while there have been proposals to circumvent export controls by legislating a “pre-approval” process for AUKUS projects, they have not yet progressed further than ideas. This risks being undone by a determined future US administration.

This all means it’s important to recognise that the ALP’s AUKUS debate is not happening in a vacuum. Indeed, as is often the case with having great and powerful friends, trying to shape their preferences can prove the most difficult task. For Australia, AUKUS is likely to be no exception.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Matthew Sussex is Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and a Fellow at Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, Australian National University.

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