By Nick D.
The South Coast Labour Council convened the annual May Day rally in Port Kembla for the first time, to protest use of the port to base the Federal Government’s planned fleet of nuclear submarines.
The May 6 action was organised under the slogan: ‘March for Peace, Jobs and Justice: No Place for a Nuclear Base!’
By 12 o’clock, roughly one thousand local activists and unionists had gathered at the top of Wentworth Street in opposition to the plan to use Port Kembla as a nuclear submarine base. By the time the march commenced, at least two thousand workers and activists from the Illawarra, Sydney and elsewhere had joined.
There were workers from a variety of trade unions including the Nurses and Midwives Association, Teachers Federation and the Australian Services Union (ASU). Wollongong Against War and Nukes (WAWAN) – who organised a successful public forum on AUKUS the week before – led a strong contingent of local activists.
Other political groups included the Greens, rank and file members of the Australian Labour Party (ALP), Food Not Bombs/IWW, various peace and environmental groups, Socialist Alternative – both from Wollongong and Sydney – and the Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist (CPA-ML).
The Sydney contingent almost doubled the size of the rally. It prominently featured the Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition (SAAC) and the Sydney Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), as well as Solidarity, Young Labor Left (YLL) and others.
Before setting off, Alexander Brown from WAWAN delivered a stirring condemnation of AUKUS and called for a mass movement to “stop the base, sink the subs and build a movement for peace in our region”. He concluded:
“We need all of those who dream of a better world and who want to work for a just peace here and around the world to join our movement…
To stop the future of war, conflict and climate crisis they have planned for us from becoming a reality, we need to re-build our movement. In the workplace, in the home, in the communities where we live, in the streets, the picket lines and on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
We have to build our power, our organisation and our autonomy from all of those that would seek to dominate us and then use that power to change the world.”
Wentworth Street March and Speeches
The rally marched down Wentworth Street chanting “Whose port? Our port!” and “money for health and education, not for war and devastation!”
A packed program of nine speakers saw over an hour of speeches. Dharawal elder Richard Davis began by giving a welcome to country and also paid credit to the union movement for “keeping the bastards honest”.
Gem Romuld from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (IPAN) and WAWAN called on the federal government to immediately ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). She said that the ALP have committed to ratifying TPNW since 2018 and three quarters of the Labor Caucasus – including Anthony Albanese – formally support Australia doing so.
Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge was introduced by MC Mick Ross – President of the May Day Committee – as a “friend of the South Coast Labour Council and the labour movement in the Illawarra and elsewhere”.
Shoebridge gave a scathing rebuke of AUKUS and called for a complete opposition to the deal, “not in Port Kembla and not anywhere on this beautiful country. No nuclear submarines anywhere in Australia!”
Shoebridge pointed out that $368 billion is only for five submarines, and the real cost will be half a trillion dollars. He said that this amount could solve “any problem that can be fixed with money” but was instead being used “not to protect Australia, but to project war and threaten people in the South China Sea”.
Shoebridge argued that the Illawarra region is being denied the opportunity to become a renewable energy hub, “you can’t do that if you’ve got a nuclear submarine base with an exclusion zone that kills all of that activity in Port Kembla. It’s not just bad for the globe, it’s a killing off of this amazing renewable future that Port Kembla otherwise has”.
Ron Watt – a Port Kemba local and member of the local ALP Branch drew parallels with the Cold War against the Soviet Union. “We’re being led by the nose to contain China,” he said. “Why would we want to contain our biggest trading partner? …China is not a threat to us…But this [AUKUS] is all about China. That’s the elephant in the room”.
ETU NSW Branch Secretary Allen Hicks highlighted the ETU’s long opposition to uranium mining and the nuclear power industry. He ended his speech,
“I can guarantee you this: should the Albanese government not change their mind with respect to nuclear-powered submarines and building a base in Port Kembla, they better be ready for one hell of a blue! Because we will work tirelessly and collectively with other like-minded unions and I guarantee you we will work with the community in Illawarra to make sure that a submarine base is not built in Port Kembla and under my watch it won’t be built with ETU labour!”
National Indigenous Officer of the MUA Thomas Mayo delivered a powerful speech in favour of the ‘Yes Campaign’. He said, “it is one thing to get your land back, but if you have no say over the laws and policies that control how you are able to enjoy your land then you have not lived the dream you want to dream… to live on our land our way”.
Jamie Roberts – a NSW Nurses and Midwives Association delegate and Secretary of the Wollongong Branch – emphasised the fight for safe ratios and said it was “imperative that we [the ALP] won” the NSW and Federal elections.
President of the Illawara Teachers Association Elizabeth Scott thanked the union movement for supporting the teacher’s “more than thanks” campaign and said, “our union will do whatever it can to stop this nuclear base from happening in Port Kembla”.
The final speaker was South Coast Labour Council Secretary Arthur Rorris who said that in the Illawarra, the submarine base is “about as popular as dog turds” and “is not a question of the government doing something for us. It is the defence bosses foisting something on this community that we don’t want, we don’t need and we will never accept.” Like Greens senator David Shoebridge and ETU state secretary Allen Hicks, Rorris highlighted the need to build a renewable energy industry in the Illawarra:
“For 13 years the union movement – and I’ve got to pay credit here to our coal miners, our steelworkers and our wharfies and everyone whose been in the gun – they stuck with us as we worked towards a strategy to get thousands of jobs so that our people would have jobs in this town…
The treasury says we’ve got more than $40 billion already earmarked for investment in this town in renewable energy and that does not even include the wind farms. Eight thousand plus jobs in this town and they reckon we’re going to trade that for a nuclear base? A nuclear parking lot?”
A Growing Movement
The Port Kembla action was the largest mobilisation against AUKUS in Australia so far – clearly indicating there is growing opposition to the deal in NSW.
Notable at the rally was the opposition to AUKUS among rank and file members of the ALP like Ron Watt – who was the only speaker to explicitly say that China is not a threat to Australia, although David Shoebridge highlighted the submarines are for aggressive (not defensive) purposes.
No ALP members of parliament addressed the rally. The sitting ALP member for Cunningham – which includes most of Wollongong – did not attend and Shoebridge delivered the speech that a social democrat ALP MP may have given a few decades ago.
It is not yet fully clear whether he sees the Greens as actively working to build a mass movement outside of parliament to defeat the AUKUS deal, or simply politically representing such a movement in Canberra if it were to arise.
A positive sign is that the NSW Greens are now prioritising the anti-AUKUS campaign. In the lead up to May 6, the NSW Greens formed the ‘Anti-AUKUS Campaign Working Group’ (GAAC) and their members are active in the Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition (SAAC).
It remains to be seen whether the anti-AUKUS movement can grow into something powerful enough to force the Australian government to backflip on the submarine deal. However, it will take years, even decades, for the various stages of the program to get underway. The government will have to justify the huge waste of money against a background of failing living standards, increasing austerity and potentially rising discontent.
This campaign may have a long way to run. Having achieved its first action involving thousands of people and mass media coverage is a positive start. It has the potential to help inspire further actions in other locations that can propel the campaign into the national spotlight and begin to really turn up the heat.