Canberra — Prime Minister Bob Hawke's decision not to cooperate with the United States on testing MX missiles off the Australian coast has infuriated both his supporters and his opponents in the Labor Party. He is certain to receive a caustic reception when he briefs his Cabinet and the party on his return to Australia from his visit to the United States.
Only the fact that the US recognized his difficulties at home, and in effect withdrew its request for Australian support in the tests, has prevented the episode from becoming a complete fiasco for the prime minister.
The initial US request for facilities for aircraft monitoring the proposed MX tests was made to the previous Liberal government headed by Malcolm Fraser, and approved by him.
Mr. Hawke was told of the secret proposal when he became prime minister in 1983, and after consulting with his defense and foreign ministers, agreed to continue to offer porting facilities.
The Defense Committee of the Cabinet subsequently reconsidered the issue but did not refer it to the full Cabinet or the party caucus.
The nuclear issue has been a sensitive one for the Hawke government, particularly in the past year.
Last July the government was able to narrowly persuade the party's national conference to agree to Hawke's proposal to allow mining of uranium in what is expected to become the world's largest uranium mine at Roxby Downs in South Australia.
Then in the federal elections at the end of the year, nuclear disarmament became a major issue, with the emergence of a new Nuclear Disarmament Party, which won a Senate seat from Western Australia.
The small Australian Democrats Party also adopted a tough antinuclear position, and won five Senate seats. It now holds the balance of power in the Australian Senate.
When news of the Australian decision to provide support for the MX missile tests was leaked, those antinuclear parties and the left wing of the Labor Party expressed anger at the decision to support what they saw as an escalation in nuclear arms.
Members of the prime minister's own faction, and of the center-left faction headed by Foreign Minister Bill Hayden, also expressed their disapproval of the decision, and the way it had been made and kept secret from the Cabinet and the caucus.
In Brussels, on his way to the US, Hawke was told by his supporters that he would narrowly win a vote to cooperate with the US in caucus, despite the strong opposition being publicly expressed in Australia.
However, Hawke decided to reverse the decision, and made this clear to journalists traveling with him.
That decision shocked and annoyed Foreign Minister Hayden and other senior ministers who had agreed to stand by the original agreement. Hawke is accused of having dumped them in order to avoid the risk of being defeated in the Labor caucus.
The US decision to go ahead with the tests without Australian assistance will not reduce the criticism which Hawke will receive when the issue is debated in Cabinet and caucus on his return.