Labor demands Scott Morrison’s assurance Australia will maintain military freedom from US

Penny Wong says PM is in ‘damage control’ after failing to do ‘diplomatic legwork’ before Aukus announcement

Labor has fired a warning shot at the Morrison government over its nuclear-powered submarine plans, demanding assurances that Australia will maintain its freedom to make different decisions from the US on military engagements.

The senior opposition frontbencher Penny Wong will pose the question in a speech on Thursday, saying maintaining autonomy is important for Australia’s sovereignty as the country becomes more technologically dependent on the US.

Wong will accuse Scott Morrison – now in the US for talks with President Joe Biden and other world leaders – of failing to do the “diplomatic legwork” before announcing the Aukus defence cooperation plan to replace the $90bn French submarine project.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson will say a lack of preparation means Morrison is now in “damage control” before the Quad leaders’ meeting with Biden and the prime ministers of India and Japan on Friday.

“Last week Mr Morrison had the air of ‘mission accomplished’ about him – when the response to the announcement made painfully obvious that only a fraction of the job has been done,” Wong will tell the United States Studies Centre on Thursday.

While not departing from her party’s qualified support for the announcement, Wong will renew calls for the Coalition to set up a bipartisan process that includes Labor so the success of the multi-decade acquisition is not “at the mercy of changing political winds”.

Morrison joined a virtual hookup with Biden and the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, last week to announce a new security partnership called Aukus, widely seen as a response to China’s military modernisation but angering France, which says it was deliberately kept in the dark.

Australia, the US and the UK will spend the next 18 months “identifying the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia” with expectations they will be built in Adelaide.

Labor – which has long criticised the government for its handling of the French submarine acquisition amid cost blowouts and lack of certainty over the scale of domestic involvement – has avoided attacking the Coalition over the new plans.

Wong says the opposition will “take a mature and considered approach” to the new plans and accepts advice that nuclear propulsion is the best option for Australia’s future submarines.

But she says reports indicate the first nuclear submarine Australia might acquire under these arrangements is not likely to be operational until 2040.

Labor has vowed to hold the government to its promises not to set up a domestic civil nuclear industry, nor to acquire nuclear weapons, and to comply with the non-proliferation treaty.

Wong will say it is also reasonable to expect the government to answer “valid questions about Australia’s sovereign capability” – including how Australia will control the use of technology and capability that is not its own.

“There is an important question here for Australia’s sovereignty,” Wong will say, according to speech notes distributed in advance of the event.

“With the prospect of a higher level of technological dependence on the US, how does the Morrison-Joyce government assure Australians that we can act alone when need be? That we have the autonomy to defend ourselves, however, and whenever we need to?”

With an election looming by May, Wong will say these concerns “will be priorities for us through the consultation phase over coming months, whether from opposition or government”.

She will urge Morrison to accept a proposal by the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, for a bipartisan consultation mechanism to protect “the long term national interest”.

Wong says this will be “a moment of truth for Mr Morrison’s stewardship of the alliance”.

“Will he bring the alternative government into the tent, in pursuit of a shared national interest?

“Or will he do what he has done consistently on issues foreign and domestic – from the Jerusalem embassy decision to the Trump rally, to picking fights with premiers – and seek to use this as an opportunity to further his immediate political interests?”

Wong will also say diplomacy “still matters”, arguing submarines “might help protect the region, but on their own they won’t build the region we want – a region that is stable, prosperous, as well as respectful of sovereignty”.

She will declare that south-east Asian nations have been clear that they “do not want to be forced to pick sides in US-China competition” and more preparatory work should have been done to assure Australia’s partners of the practical implications.

Wong will also say that France – which has recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the US in protest – “ought to have been shown the due respect of a partner with shared Indo-Pacific interests”.

In the latest sign of Paris’ displeasure, the ABC cited the French defence ministry as saying Australian officials wrote to their counterparts to say they were “satisfied” with how the submarine program was progressing on the same day the cancellation was announced.

Guardian Australia has sought a response from the Australian government.

Contributor

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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