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The Clock’s Ticking as Workers and First Nations Fight for Nuclear Disarmament

The Doomsday Clock - a symbolic marker of our proximity to nuclear catastrophe.

The Doomsday Clock - a symbolic marker of our proximity to nuclear catastrophe.

This week, because apparently Australians are feeling too chill right now, President Joe Biden and “that fella from downunder” (ouch - he apparently forgot Scott Morrison’s name) announced that Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines for the first time.


It’s an alarming new step increasing the nuclearisation of Australia’s military capacity. And the Nobel Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Australia), situated at Trades Hall, says it’s now more urgent than ever that Australia take action against nuclear weapons.



“I see it as everybody’s business because we all live under the constant threat of nuclear war,” says Gem Romuld, Director of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. 

The Doomsday Clock is the symbolic marker of our proximity to nuclear catastrophe, which has been administered by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. The clock currently sits at 100 seconds to midnight. It’s the closest we’ve ever been. 

But even short of total destruction, the mere presence of nuclear weapons on our planet is harmful to us. In 2020, ICAN research shows that $72.6 billion was spent by the nuclear-armed states on nuclear weapons while a pandemic tore through their countries. 

“Working people don’t benefit from nuclear weapons,” says Gem, speaking from her home on Dharawal land, Wollongong. According to Gem, the ones who do benefit are the nine leaders of nuclear-armed countries “because they think it gives them some kind of prestige” - along with the weapons companies themselves.

“The heads of companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop-Grumman make huge profits by taking us ever closer to destruction,” she explains.

In a year where government priorities were laid bare by a pandemic, nuclear weapons stood out as an aberration. 

“We’ve seen workers struggling, losing their jobs… Meanwhile, we’ve also seen the inequitable allocation of resources into nuclear weapons instead of supporting workers and healthcare systems. You can see a direct correlation - nuclear weapons are undermining workers and everything we’re working towards.”

Gem predicts dire repercussions if the weapons are not eliminated.

“If nuclear weapons are used, we’ll see total destruction of social systems, environments, cities - and that’s not a risk we can allow to continue.”

There is, however, progress being made internationally - none of which is down to our own Federal Government. 

The Planet-Saving Ban Our Government Won’t Back

In 2017, after years of organising, campaigning and lobbying by ICAN and its partners, including VTHC, the ACTU and several affiliate unions, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was passed by the United Nations. It came into effect earlier this year, with 86 nations signing on. Nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law. This is in line with previous sanctions on biological weapons and more recently, land mines. 

There are, obviously, some notable absences from the Treaty. In addition to the nuclear-armed countries there is… us. Australia. Under direct instruction from the US. This is despite the fact that our very own home-grown ICAN activists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 in recognition of their ground-breaking work.  

“Our current government doesn’t have the political spine to stand up and support a ban,” says Gem. “That means we are currently supporting weapons of mass destruction in our defense policy.”

Gem is adament that change is possible - after all, ICAN’s research shows that 79% of the Australian public supports the ban on nuclear weapons. 

“We’re in a good position to change this. There’s no legal agreement or treaty that requires us to have nuclear weapons in our defense policy. We can have a non-nuclear military alliance with the US. It’s purely political will that’s required to get there.”

Peace is Union Business

While the Australian government has a pretty shameful record on this stuff, Australian workers and unions have a long, proud history of resistance against war. Union members were the driving force that beat back two plebiscites on conscription during World War I, and they refused, on humanitarian grounds, to load ships full of pig iron bound for Japan to be used in its war against China. 

Perhaps the most visible example of union anti-war campaigning was during the Vietnam War. Seamen’s Union members refused to crew the MV Boonaroo, which was set to carry supplies and troops to bolster Australian forces in South Vietnam. They also later placed the same ban on the Jeparit. Both vessels were eventually pulled into official Navy service, but only because of the direct action.

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More broadly, union members brought our might to demonstrations and protests that took place all around Australia. On May 18, 1970, the country came to a standstill as demonstrations of up to 200,000 protesters in some cities were supported by unionists. That momentum ultimately resulted in the Whitlam Government withdrawing troops from the conflict.  

Gem and her team at ICAN are continuing in this tradition. When not locked down, they work from Trades Hall; collective organising and grassroots activism is a cornerstone of their work. 

“We know that change comes when there is an organised, effective and powerful social movement,” says Gem. “We know that meaningful change is very hard-won, and it always comes from the bottom.”

ICAN members and Victorian union representatives photographed with ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize in the Executive Council room at Trades Hall

ICAN members and Victorian union representatives photographed with ICAN’s Nobel Peace Prize in the Executive Council room at Trades Hall

There is, of course, another strong tradition of resistance that ICAN draws from and fights for: that of Indigenous resistance. 

Radioactive Racism

While Australia does not possess any weapons of its own, our complicity in their proliferation is a stain on our nation. This is no more evident than in the suffering that has been inflicted on Indigenous people across generations. 

“All of Australia has been contaminated through these nuclear testings that was done by the British and Australian governments,” says Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine, Kokatha elder and nuclear test survivor from Ceduna, South Australia. She made a statement last week to the high-level plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly to commemorate and promote the International Day against Nuclear Tests. 

“They did it in secret. There is so much cancer around my country, as well as thyroid disease, defects in babies.”

Sue was just two when the British Government, through the Australian Government, tested its nuclear weapons in Central Australia. Allegedly, they believed the land was empty. It was not.

Indigenous peoples all over the world have suffered similarly, with colonial powers almost universally failing to recognise that “uninhabited” places are either very much inhabited, or failing to understand the interconnectedness of the natural world and the consequences of their actions. From the Pacific to the deserts of New Mexico to Maralinga and Emu Fields, the term “radioactive racism” has been coined to describe this shared experience of indigenous peoples all over the world. 

“I wasn’t on ground zero, but the wind brought the radiation fallout to us and the rest of Australia,” recalls Sue. “We didn’t know the dangers of the fallout, and no one told my old people about it, but they knew it was poisonous stuff coming our way. It was their instincts telling them.”

Aunty Sue has been all over the world - to Vienna, to New York, to Japan - to tell her story and campaign for all countries to join the Treaty.

“It’s up to us now to make sure that we finally put these destructive weapons where they belong – in the past.”

Gem Romuld says that a big part of the Treaty is aimed at addressing the intergenerational harm suffered by First Nations people, not just in Australia but all over the world. 

As part of ICAN’s Cities Appeal, Darebin City Council recently commissioned a mural recognising Yankunytjatjara Elder, Yami Lester. 

The mural of Yankunytjatjara Elder, Yami Lester, at Darebin City Library in Melbourne’s north.

The mural of Yankunytjatjara Elder, Yami Lester, at Darebin City Library in Melbourne’s north.

Yami, like Aunty Sue, survived the nuclear testing that took place near his home in northern South Australia. He was blinded as a child by the “black mist” that came in from the testing sites, killing many and making others sick. He spent his life fighting tirelessly for the Federal Government to acknowledge what they had done and compensate the Aboriginal people affected. 

Get Involved

Gem and the ICAN team are putting the call-out for people to advocate far and wide for this Treaty - “whether that’s to your super fund, your local council, your Member of Parliament,” she says.

“The time for activism on this is now. The reason nuclear-armed states are pushing back against it so hard is because they know it’s a game-changer. That’s an indication to us that this is the key to progressing nuclear disarmament - which has been in a stalemate for decades.” 

ICAN have recently completed Ban School, a series of education sessions for activists to increase their understanding of the issues and learn the skills necessary for winning change. Videos of all sessions are available here. Activists are also encouraged to sign up to receive information about future actions and the progress being made towards a nuclear free future!

“We all live under the constant threat of nuclear war,” says Gem Romuld, Director of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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