Terra nullius 2.0 – what AUKUS means for First Nations peoples

15 Apr 2024

Australia will essentially become America’s military launch-pad into Asia. However, Ben Abbatangelo writes, little has been said or written about the drastic and disproportionate impacts it will have on First Nations communities in Australia.

Terra Nulls 2.0 Ben Abbatangelo

The ramifications of the military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and United States (AUKUS) will weigh heavily on First Nations communities for generations to come, as the Commonwealth of Australia cedes lands and waters that never belonged to them, in a bid to become the 51st state of the United States.

Described as the “greatest transfer of wealth outside this country in its history”, the Australian government is essentially paying the United States up to $368bn for its own acquisition. This is happening as Australia unravels a new era of ‘strategic deterrence’ against our largest trading partner, China, and brings the armageddon threat of nuclear war closer to home. 

But up until the Hamas massacre on October 7th and the intolerable bloodshed and destruction in Gaza that has continued to precede it, the United States, who has spent the 21st century projecting vast power and aggression throughout the world, had received little critique. 

While there have been fleeting moments of collective inquisition and scrutiny – namely when the horrors revealed by the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial refocused Australia’s role in supporting the United States illegal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – the broader population has largely been incapable of grasping, let alone maturely examining what the agreement actually means.

But the seemingly endless depths of misery that are commonplace in almost every pocket of the globe – and the manner in which the United States and its allies have responded to them – has again raised real questions about the integrity of the AUKUS relationship and whose interests it actually serves.

Is the United States our ‘closest ally’, or is Australia simply another client state supporting a dominative end?

In September 2021, days after Scott Morrison infamously announced the submarine deal with the French was dead, he declared Australia would instead explore a new pact with the United States and United Kingdom. 

During a White House meeting between Donald Trump and Morrison, Trump instructively gloated that Morrison was a “man of titanium”. Whilst many disregarded the comment as another moment of Trumpism, the Orange Man in the White House was making a not-so-subtle reference to the abundance of critical and rare earth minerals that belong to Australia; minerals not only quintessential for electrification and a decarbonised economy but also for advanced military capabilities and weapons manufacturing. 

In May 2023, the White House issued an Australia-United States Joint Leaders Statement. Buried in the middle of the release was confirmation of Trump’s not-so-subtle reference, with the United States planning to add Australia as a “domestic source”:

“The President plans to ask the United States Congress to add Australia as a “domestic source” within the meaning of Title III of the Defense Production Act. Doing so would streamline technological and industrial base collaboration, accelerate and strengthen AUKUS implementation, and build new opportunities for United States investment in the production and purchase of Australian critical minerals, critical technologies, and other strategic sectors.” 

Today, with the United States unable to make enough weapons to support prolonged warfare, Australia is investing in its industrial capacity to produce munitions made to Pentagon specifications. In places like Mulwala, Benalla and Orchard Hills, Australian manufacturers are producing artillery shells and thousands of guided missiles in partnership with American companies. The majority of these munitions are being used to replenish US stockpiles, and either sold off or bundled up into aid packages for American partners in prolonged wars.

In addition to repositioning itself as a central cog in the industrial war machine, the Commonwealth also sees the relationship as a commercial opportunity to transform itself into a ‘renewable superpower’ and reign in almost $900bn of national debt. Along with being added as a “domestic source” to the Defense Production Act, the government has also signed an MoU with California, the 5th largest economy in the world. The MoU seeks to “develop clean energy supply chains” that would provide Californian manufacturers with streamlined access to minerals being exploited from Aboriginal lands.  

So what does Australia’s relationship with the US mean for First Nations communities in the years ahead? 

Despite what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles say about ‘national security’, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the strategic manoeuvring is very much a low bow to US interests and the economic spoils that come with it.  

The tradeoffs baked into the agreements explicitly put the lands and waters of First Nations peoples at the bottom of the global supply chain, particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, which boast significant deposits of lithium, cobalt, copper, manganese and other ‘critical’ and rare earth minerals. 

Whilst the vitriol of the referendum undoubtedly provided Roger Cook with coverage to repeal Western Australia’s newly introduced cultural heritage laws and replace them with the same antiquated legislation that led to the destruction of Juukan Gorge and countless other sacred sites, it’s hard to imagine that the looming influence of the United States investment didn’t factor into the decision. 

Tanya Plibersek has also continued to stall on delivering long overdue changes to federal cultural heritage laws, ruling out that federal laws won’t override state laws. And the Northern Territory Government has also rewritten the mining royalties scheme, with the new regime designed to ensure that mining companies can take more and pay less

So where does all the radioactive waste go?

Access to resources is only one piece of the puzzle. Last year, another official fact sheet issued jointly by Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom declared that Australia would be responsible for the radioactive waste generated by its involvement in the AUKUS program. The fact sheet confirms Australia’s commitment “to managing all radioactive waste generated through its nuclear-powered submarine program, including spent nuclear fuel, in Australia”. 

The commitment signs Australia up to do something that neither the United Kingdom or United States has ever done before – construct a storage facility for high-grade nuclear waste, robust enough to last upwards of 1000 years. No different to the nuclear submarines, which will not only transit through but also be stationed in First Nations peoples sea Country, the burden of a high-level nuclear waste plant will undoubtedly be imposed on First Nations communities. 

While the Barngarla peoples of the Eyre Peninsula successfully thwarted the federal government’s attempts to impose a low-to-intermediate-level radioactive waste plant on their Country, the reality is that First Nations communities here and across the Pacific will find it increasingly more difficult to replicate the Barngarla’s success. 

As the weakest partner in the AUKUS alliance, with a huge land mass and relatively small human population, the only thing that will prevent First Nations communities from housing the nuclear waste is if the deal falls through altogether, which is becoming a likelihood as the US announces that it will halve the number of submarines it will build next year. A Donald Trump reelection only brings more points of failure into the fray.

The Pacific Islands are already experiencing the burden of nuclear waste, as Japan recently began releasing treated nuclear wastewater from its Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean. Last year, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, the plant’s operator, began releasing 7,800 tons of radioactive waste water. It plans to discharge an additional million tons over the next 20 to 30 years. 

The interoperability of the AUKUS relationship will also transform Indigenous territories into military playgrounds, as the presence of United States military personnel and weaponry expands. The Pentagon’s presence has steadily expanded since the Obama-Gillard era and correlated with an increase of sexual violence in the locations they are stationed.

Last August, the US Air Force announced that it is planning to build a “missions planning” and operations centre in Darwin, as part of $630M in American spending across the Northern Territory over the next two to three years. 

With the keys to the continent firmly in their hands, the US Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth, admitted that due to our “long distances and relatively unpopulated land”, the Pentagon was considering using Australia as a potential missile testing ground for them. 

In what was a jarring, yet revealing interview, Wormuth said “Australia obviously has a tremendous amount of territory where that testing is a little bit more doable — so I think that’s a unique thing, as an example, that the Australians bring to the table”. 

It’s evident that the United States views Australia through the same terra nullius lens as the original invaders did, as they strengthen their abilities to plunder, pollute and shell Indigenous lands and waters. 

AUKUS further cements Australia’s inability to say ‘no’ to the United States. No different to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the only sufficient response from Australia is ‘yes master, whatever you say’. This structural servitude is seen through the case of Julian Assange, as Australia continues to prove itself incapable of preventing its ‘closest ally’ from ruthlessly pursuing an Australian citizen for the crime of journalism.

The Commonwealth’s commitment to increased military spending, in partnership with the $368bn price tag being paid for the submarines and $558M in compensation to the French for breaking the original deal, also means other essential services and investments to lift our families out of poverty and homelessness will be neglected. 

In order to project an inclusive image and post-colonial state to the wider world, the Australian Defence Force will continue to recruit more First Nations personnel. This creates a pervasive equation where First Nations peoples are advancing the settler-state that continues to systematically dispossess us of our lands, waters and life-ways. 

Whilst Scotty from Marketing and Anthony from Rio Tinto have done their best to position AUKUS as quintessential for national security, the detail concludes it is one of significant sacrifice and another vivid illustration of how easy it is for politicians to sign away what was never theirs to begin with.



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