April 2014


The Royal Australian Navy's struggle for our hearts and minds

By Claire Corbett
A woman greets her fiance aboard the HMAS Sydney, 1969. Photo by Cliff Bottomley. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.
A woman greets her fiance aboard the HMAS Sydney, 1969. Photo by Cliff Bottomley. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.
The time of the modern mariner

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is blessed. From where I stand on the deck of HMAS Success at Garden Island, the waters of Sydney Harbour glitter in the light breeze and sunshine of early October. Yesterday, 16 elegant tall ships battled to enter the heads against strong winds and heavy rain, but today the sky is cloudless.

Warships from 17 countries steam past (the modern navy likes to preserve such traditional parlance) to help the RAN celebrate. It’s 100 years since the battle cruiser HMAS Australia led the “Magnificent Seven”, the original seven warships of our very own navy, into Sydney Harbour on 4 October 1913. Alongside the International Fleet Review are two other big but much less public events: PACIFIC13, an international maritime trade show for defence contractors, and the Sea Power Conference.

I glance at the media kit. “Prepare to be amazed by the biggest event Sydney Harbour has seen in 100 years,” promises the press release. “Forty warships, 16 tall ships, 8000 sailors, nine days and one harbour … the most incredible fireworks and lightshow Sydney has ever seen.” The press release emphasises the navy’s role in national sovereignty: “It was a moment of immense national pride that signified a coming of age for the fledgling new Australian nation that was now taking responsibility for its own defence.”

A naval lieutenant from Darwin is assigned to look after the media as we watch the ships. He is working with Customs on Operation Sovereign Borders, the turn-back-the-asylum-seeker-boats policy that the recently elected Coalition government is still putting together; he says he has no idea exactly how the new arrangements will work. Later, he pulls out a glossy magazine and shows me photos of some very large ships that are being fitted out for the RAN in Melbourne and are due for sea trials in Sydney within months.

“Do you know about these?” he asks, adding, with undisguised pride, “Sydney won’t know what’s hit it.”

These new Canberra Class Amphibious Assault Ships, or “fat ships”, as army officers enjoy calling them, herald one of the biggest transformations in Australian Defence Force (ADF) history. They are bigger than the aircraft carriers Australia used to have. Their acquisition has been in train for years, yet outside of defence circles few people have heard of them.

At 230 metres long and 27.5 metres high, displacing 27,500 tonnes, the sheer scale of these behemoths is well evoked by former Australian Army captain James Brown in his book, Anzac’s Long Shadow:

The new amphibious ship has a flight deck that is bigger than twenty-four tennis courts and longer than the Rialto Towers, and which can fit four Anzac-class frigates on top … When fully equipped, it carries a combined battle group of 1100 soldiers with all their equipment and stores, as well as 100 armoured vehicles. Eight medium helicopters, as well as attack helicopters, can operate from six landing zones on the flight deck. Amphibious craft, including hovercraft, can be launched from the steel beach at the rear of the ship. It is a floating city designed to land a fighting force ashore within an operating radius of 9000 nautical miles.

The Australian government has bought two of them at a total cost of more than $3 billion. Another senior naval officer laughs when asked what impact these ships (known as Landing Helicopter Docks, or LHDs) will have on Sydney: John Laws’s flat on Woolloomooloo Wharf, he says, might not get any sun till around 10.30 in the morning.

The following day, Saturday, 5 October 2013, is the day of the fleet review itself. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Governor-General Quentin Bryce arrive at Garden Island naval base for the 100-gun salute, but the journalists who are waiting to be escorted to their official media boat, including a Chinese television crew in military uniform, are more interested in Prince Harry. The prince, fourth in line to the British throne, was a last-minute addition to the guest list.

Our media launch heads north, touring around the ships moored in the middle of the harbour: the Qingdao from China, the Nouméa-based French frigate Vendémiaire, the Thunder from Nigeria. All are adorned with the usual complex naval filigree of towers, antennae, guns and other equipment.

Why are they here? The publicity brochure offers a clue: “Originally fleet reviews were held when a fleet mobilised for war or when a nation wished to demonstrate the strength of its fleet to potential enemies.” So a fleet review is a form of what evolutionary biologists like to call costly signalling: expensive and showy displays of prowess, such as a peacock’s tail or a real estate agent’s red Porsche, that cannot be faked. When people deplore the amount of money spent on defence, they are partly missing the point. The amount of money is the point. The signal must be costly or it will not do its job. Look, says the nation buying the latest submarines, we can spare this much from necessities just to show you how much it will hurt to take us on.

No one believes that Australia, described by the chief of army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, as “a second-tier maritime power”, can fight a large power on our own. What might be possible is that we could drive the price of aggression high enough to make potential enemies think twice. After all, it’s cheaper to trade with us than to fight us. The costly signal works even if the weapons are never used – especially then. The medium – in this case, missiles, warships, fighter jets and all the things that bestow the capacity to be (in Morrison’s resonant phrase) “the deliverer of violence” – is the message. Though it’s worth keeping the ancient warning of the Odyssey in mind: the blade itself incites to deeds of violence.

The fleet review is also a signal of international co-operation among naval allies and an opportunity to renew and display bonds of friendship. There are mixed signals from some of the navies invited. The Russians agree to send warships and then withdraw. Are they upset about our stance on Syria? Or is it because of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, whose crew has just been taken into custody in Murmansk? The Canadians are embarrassed that two of their warships collided en route to Hawaii and they cannot spare another ship. The Americans make it clear that the event is important to them by sending the cruiser USS Chosin, as well as Admiral Cecil Haney, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, who also attends all of the subsequent Sea Power Conference.

The Chinese message is opaque but seems to be the equivalent of a forced smile. They send the destroyer Qingdao, which is nice, but they don’t allow anyone to come aboard and inspect it, and none of their officers or crew may mingle with locals or personnel from other navies. Their absence from Sea Power is also noted. This is not how you do naval diplomacy, as James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, writes on the Diplomat website. The purpose of a fleet review is to engage and to strut your stuff, with phalanxes of alpha males resplendent in dress uniform and enough gold braid to make a magpie swoon. “While we make much of the rise of China,” notes Holmes, “this is not the behaviour of an aspirant to regional leadership. It betrays a shortfall in self-confidence.”

Crew of the HMAS Penguin march through Sydney during the International Fleet Review, October 2013. Photo by ABIS Chantell Bianchi. © Commonwealth of Australia

That the Chinese navy hasn’t got the hang of this naval diplomacy thing is confirmed a month later by their dismal response to the disaster of Typhoon Haiyan, which hits the Philippines on 8 November. Holmes again weighs in on the Diplomat, writing that China’s paltry US$100,000 in direct aid “razed its own soft-power edifice to the ground”.

As our media launch heads further north, the power of the British presence at the fleet review is startling. They have sent the strongest message, the most costly signal of all. It’s HMS Daring, the Royal Navy’s air-defence destroyer. More futuristic-looking than even the “fat ship” LHDs, it is one of the most advanced warships in the world. The photographers spring to life and shoot enthusiastically as we approach the Daring, so smooth and blocky it looks as if it were designed by Le Corbusier. Or Lego. Brutalism has come surprisingly late to naval design.

The purity of the ship’s lines springs from the singleness of its function, which is to shield ships from air attack, obviously from aircraft but also from drones and supersonic sea-skimming missiles. The price of security on the open seas, the “global commons” as strategists call it, is becoming astronomically high. Our own Air Warfare Destroyer program, currently Defence’s biggest project, is troubled with delays and rising costs. (The massive overruns of about $800 million for the three Hobart Class ships are presently under investigation.)

The global commons is also becoming increasingly contested and uncertain, as virtually every speaker at Sea Power asserts. A crucial change is the spread of relatively cheap precision strike missiles, which can send billion-dollar ships to the bottom of the sea in an instant. The Daring is one response. The entire ship is a platform for its radar systems, which it uses to mount a protective bubble over a 400-kilometre radius of air and sea, capable of shielding an entire armada. The clean lines give the ship a reduced radar signature – some speculate it’s no more than that of a fishing boat.

As our launch heads back to Garden Island, all at once it seems the vessels of “Review Line 1” are bearing down upon us. It’s an impressive sight, this line of warships, steaming at speed down the harbour towards HMAS Leeuwin, where the governor-general, Prince Harry and the prime minister await.

That night, Sydney is wowed by fireworks and a lightshow projected onto the Opera House. The lightshow’s vivid seven-act narrative uses animation, archival footage and photographs to show the RAN’s history, dwelling on intense scenes and images of battle with the usual themes of courage and sacrifice. The RAN’s motto is, after all, “To fight and win at sea.”

But that depiction of the navy in what the military calls “warfighting” is only part of the story. It gives little clue to either the navy’s current day-to-day priorities or the challenges of maritime strategy that Australia now faces. Early the next Monday, 7 October, PACIFIC13 is open for business at Darling Harbour, next door to Sea Power. The list of exhibitor companies runs to six pages. A poster of an anti-submarine helicopter looms large along one wall: “Some things you never leave to chance. Maritime security is one of them.”

Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the head of the Royal Navy and First Sea Lord, and Dr Andrew Murrison, the UK minister for international security strategy, have made themselves available for interview. The UK is keen for Australia to help defray the enormous cost of developing its new frigate, the Global Combat Ship; still, the minister assures us he is not here to sell anything, but to build relationships.

In his speech to Sea Power, however, Zambellas confirms that the British are banking on traditional ties with Australia, noting that the RAN sailed the world under the white ensign until 1967. “We’re still proud of that, that’s part of our connection.” No wonder Prince Harry turned up; he has come to remind us of the old ways, too, as part of the Firm, doing his bit for the British economy and defence. With few exceptions, Australia hasn’t bought major British defence systems in years. Now the Daring is here partly to win us back, showing off its Sampson radar, probably the best tech of its kind in the world.

Later, over informal drinks, the ex–commander of a Collins Class submarine says he thinks that the UK’s investment in warships as advanced as the Daring is partly about shoring up British credibility on the UN Security Council. Also present is Captain Lee Goddard, commander of the Anzac Class frigate HMAS Perth. In summer white dress uniform, he’s carrying in one hand an intricate model ship given to him by one of the contractors. “It’s my ship,” Goddard explains. Two months earlier, as another article by James Holmes described, Goddard had overseen “an effort of significant moment for Australia’s navy”. In an exercise near Hawaii last August, HMAS Perth “engaged seven sea-skimming targets with Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles. Perth demonstrated that it can take on the deadliest threats out there.” Holmes was puzzled that “a feat of this magnitude” received virtually no attention in the Australian media.

Yet how many people would understand it? Incursions into Indonesian waters, cracks in vessels, blown-out construction costs: these things are easy to grasp. “A navy looks like an expensive, wasting asset … until you need it,” Holmes concluded.

Back at the expo, I stop at the display for a company from Western Australia, manufacturers of very large gyros for stabilising warships and cargo ships. But the salesman tells us the earliest adopters of this specialised product are often superyachts: “The wives don’t want to spill their wine.” This might sound like the very definition of a first-world problem, but the stabilisers are also symbolic of the primary role of navies around the world, which is to ensure the flow of maritime trade, thus underwriting their respective national economies while packing enough firepower to look credible as guarantors of national sovereignty. According to the military historian Peter Stanley, the expansion of that role has made the navy more important today than it was 100 years ago:

There was no concept of Australia’s economic zone, there was no concept of Australia’s border protection. They’ve become very live issues for Australia in recent years. So the Navy is at the forefront of the redefinition of Australia’s national interests. It gets the job of carrying that on every day, right through the year.

Next door, no other journalists appear to be attending the first presentations at Sea Power. The conference is opened in turn by the chiefs of navy, army and air force, to emphasise that maritime strategy involves more than naval strategy. The speech by the chief of army is particularly emphatic. Morrison says Australia is a maritime nation with a deeply entrenched “continentalist mindset”, which lacks a “pervasive oceanic consciousness”. He notes that “the digger legend is powerful but it skews the way Australians view security”, in that it leaves us inclined to turn inwards and think of defence as being about protecting our shores from invasion. Morrison says that the vast seas surrounding Australia are “ubiquitous highways” and not, as many like to think, a blue moat. As another speaker, Paul Dibb, an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, later tells delegates, Australia’s strategic interests in the eastern Indian Ocean, the northern archipelago, the western Pacific and the Southern Ocean require it to cover a maritime environment amounting to more than 20% of the Earth’s surface. This is challenging, Dibb notes drily, for a defence force of less than 60,000.

HMAS Farncomb at the Fleet Review. Photo by POIS Paul Berry. © Commonwealth of Australia

The popular conception of the navy’s role is that it either stands on guard against invasion or supports expeditionary forces in far-flung conflicts. We give little thought to the international “good order at sea” that secures the safety of global sea lanes as a result of co-operation between navies. We accept, Morrison argues, “the fruits of our maritime security as a free public good … Our trade flows freely, our petrol stations are replenished, our supermarket shelves are full … Yet Australians collectively do not reflect on the enormous national investment involved in sustaining the maritime conditions for that happy state of affairs … nor do they consider overly that much of [our security] is also underwritten by the United States as the leading global power of our era.”

Though the ADF is drawing down from its longest war, in Afghanistan, Morrison says Australia is “in the midst of the most comprehensive re-equipment and modernisation program since the end of the Second World War”. He describes the introduction of the LHDs as transformative, a definitive step in seeking what the ADF likes to call “amphibiosity”. “Delivering land effects from sea platforms is the most demanding military task that can be asked of a joint force. Few nations on earth can achieve it. We will soon be joining that elite club. But the price of admission is high and we need to bring our society with us if we are to achieve it. It requires a national commitment, not an ADF plan.”

This process has barely begun, even though planning for the “fat ship” LHDs has been in train since 2000, following the ADF’s experiences in leading the East Timor peacekeeping operation. The decision to acquire LHDs was made during the tenure of Robert Hill as defence minister in the Howard government. Noting the 2013 Defence White Paper’s outline of proposals for major capital acquisitions such as the Future Submarine project for new subs to replace the ageing Collins Class submarines, I realise that defence procurement demands a level of predicting the future that, always difficult, must verge on the impossible now that the rate of political and technological change is accelerating even faster. And predicting strategy 14 years ahead is no easier. After all, no one foresaw we’d spend a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of their stratospheric cost, capital purchases tend to set strategic policy in stone for decades, enforcing some bipartisanship between defence ministers even if they don’t like to admit it. This is why it’s important to understand the LHDs and their capabilities: they are a concrete expression of defence policy and of what the ADF sees itself doing, at least in part, for the next 30 years.

For example, the current projection of the cost of 12 new submarines (not nearly as many as analysts such as Hugh White believe we need) is around $30 billion. In the unlikely event that they are acquired for that price, Dibb points out, the lifetime maintenance costs will likely be double or triple that. A costly signal, but potentially effective. (A two-day conference will be held in Canberra this month to discuss the complexities of acquiring the new submarines.)

The sixth session of the conference is ‘Naval Diplomacy and Maritime Power Projection’. Sharing the stage with his “old friend Kim Beazley” is Robert Hill. The good humour between the former defence ministers from opposing parties is striking.

Hill says “we [the conservatives] used to tease Kim” by describing ALP defence policy as the “policy of concentric circles”, in which the defence of Australia begins somewhere around Alice Springs and radiates outwards. This continentalist mindset was seen as a legacy of post–Vietnam War attitudes to defence within the ALP. “We saw the globe differently,” says Hill, describing the other pole of the traditional defence policy debate, the expeditionary approach of sending forces to meet potential threats and undertake tasks further afield.

Hill emphasises the need for flexibility in force structure in order to meet unexpected demands. Describing the breadth of naval operations during the Howard era, he lists routine duties, such as search and rescue, surveillance and hydrographic support for commercial shipping, through to Australia’s contribution to sanctions against Iraq, fisheries patrols off northern Australia, and the suite of operations in Bougainville, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Yet most Australians would be hard-pressed to remember all of these actions.

Hill’s proudest achievements as defence minister were the epic chases after vessels that were conducting illegal longline fishing for Patagonian toothfish. “Operation T-bone,” he rhapsodises. “A 2200–nautical mile pursuit across the Southern Ocean.” He lists the name of each apprehended vessel like a litany: the South Tomi, the Viarsa 1, the Maya V. “After that, the whole game changed. And that area is largely free of what I refer to as the pirates now, and it wouldn’t be so without the efforts of the Royal Australian Navy.”

This was not warfighting but marine conservation. “I knew,” says Hill, “that the officers and men weren’t all that keen to go down there.” Their ships were not built for such a task in “most inhospitable waters”. “But I do remember,” Hill adds, “the same men … were so proud … with what they achieved.” Ministers often have to accept that their good work does not outlive their time in office; Hill clearly believes this is one example where it did. In time, there may well be issues in these waters in which national sovereignty needs to be enforced, not simply asserted, especially if, as expected, coveted regional resources spark territorial tensions ahead of the review of the Antarctic Treaty in 2048.

Yet there remains the challenge highlighted by Morrison, to “bring our society with us” in transforming the ADF for new roles and capabilities. Aside from one self-described “concerned civilian” (possibly the only person to have paid the admission fee himself), the conference auditorium is packed with naval men (and a few women), a handful of army officers, and a few academics and policy analysts. These experts are still only talking among themselves. How do they expect to draw the public into the conversation? I speak with a woman who crews patrol boats out of Townsville about her work. “We’re not feeling the love,” she says mournfully.

Events after the fleet review don’t help. Australia’s relations with Indonesia sour after Edward Snowden’s revelations of spying, including on the Indonesian president’s wife, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s handling of the fallout rubs salt into the wound. Indonesia cancels a number of joint military exercises in late 2013. Then it emerges that Australian navy and Customs boats strayed deep into Indonesia’s sovereign waters at least six times over the summer months. These incursions would likely not loom nearly as large if political relations with Indonesia had not already been damaged.

As if that isn’t enough, early in March it transpires that at least six of the Armidale Class patrol boats used to deter asylum seekers are docked in Darwin for repairs to structural cracks near their engine rooms.

Still, there is love. Or, at least, there is believed to be enough patriotic regard for our sailors for the prime minister to brazen it out with reporters when faced with claims that asylum seekers were forced to grip hot engine pipes during a tow-back operation to Indonesia. “Who do you believe?” Abbott asks. “Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law? I believe Australian naval personnel.” How can the allegation even be taken seriously, huffs the defence minister, David Johnston, when the person making the claim is “not even Australian”?

Abbott rejects calls for navy footage or photos to be released to clarify what happened, floating the rather specious argument that releasing such evidence might cast aspersions on the professionalism of navy and Customs personnel and assist people smugglers. Yet the very suggestion that the navy can do no wrong is, as Judith Brett writes elsewhere in this issue, a risk to its reputation.

“This sorry episode,” Ian McPhedran writes in the Daily Telegraph, “has once again exposed the Defence Force’s inability to respond quickly and effectively when its reputation is trashed.” The chief of navy, Admiral Ray Griggs, does try, taking to Twitter to defend his personnel, only to be labelled a “dickhead” for his trouble. This, at least, is bracingly Australian, for in how many other countries can a citizen freely insult a defence force chief without fear? And surely the ADF would do better to leave itself open to irreverence than to be drawn into the sort of manufactured outrage we see in March, following the ALP senator Stephen Conroy’s robust questioning of Lieutenant General Angus Campbell about the secrecy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders.

I wonder how that female sailor from Townsville is feeling at this point. By pretending to furiously defend the honour of the military in general and the navy in particular, the government is deflecting criticism by hiding behind ADF uniforms. You don’t see the government springing to the defence of its forces in quite the same way over (not infrequent) allegations of sexual harassment, for instance.

Having been silenced about “on-water operations” in relation to deterring asylum seeker boats, the navy now struggles to communicate with the public about anything else. Perhaps this explains why, when I send the RAN’s public relations team some post-conference questions about how Australians might foster a maritime consciousness, the chief of navy himself makes time to talk to me, in late February.

The LHD Canberra in Sydney Harbour, 13 March 2014. Woolloomooloo wharf is in the background. Photo by ABIS Bonny Gassner. © Commonwealth of Australia

 By this time, it seems any public relations benefit from the fleet review has well and truly ebbed, and the admission of accidental incursions into Indonesian waters is a topic of mirth. Just a few days earlier, the cartoonist Michael Leunig rhymed in the Age: “’Twas on the good ship ‘Venus’ / My God you should have seen us / the GPS was more or less / a little joke between us.” Meanwhile, in response to a news tweet that “Climate Change Could Lead to Disappearance of 1500 Indonesian Islands”, the ABC journalist Mark Colvin responded: “Making it easier for RAN.”

At the start of our interview I already know there are many questions Griggs cannot answer. On 4 February he is reported as saying he could not comment on operational matters to do with border protection because operational material was held by Border Protection Command, and the navy was not the lead agency in Operation Sovereign Borders. It seems the splitting of responsibilities by government is quite an effective tactic for evading scrutiny, though I don’t know if that is all it is. Somehow the relevant person is never in the room. At one point, the secrecy surrounding “on-water” operations led to this exchange, worthy of Yes Minister, between Senator Conroy and the secretary of the Department of Defence in a recent Senate estimates committee hearing:


SENATOR CONROY: This is clearly an Australian boat towing another boat, which is identifiable as one of the orange vessels that we recently purchased.

DENNIS RICHARDSON: We have no intention of commenting on a video that you are showing.

CONROY: It is on YouTube.

RICHARDSON: I do not care what it is on. We are not commenting on it.


Droll as it sounds, something is going very wrong here. Ministers and public servants must be answerable to parliament. If exceptions to this are to be made on the grounds of national security, then those interests must be narrowly defined if democratic accountability is to be maintained.

Griggs appears unfazed by criticism that the focus on border protection is undermining core naval warfighting skills such as anti-submarine warfare and sweeping for mines. “We work at that as hard as we can,” he says. “We can always do more, but we do have to balance our constabulary role – which is a legitimate role of navies around the world and that’s what our border protection role is – and we are committed to that heavily at the moment in accordance with the government’s priority.”

Naturally, Griggs concurs with Morrison’s view of the navy’s primary peacetime role as a protector of the sea routes that secure Australia’s economic health and standard of living. “Ninety-eight per cent of our trade by volume is by sea … our fuel imports, our oil and gas exports, our bulk commodity exports, our agricultural exports … Obviously, there’s the security dimension, but the prosperity dimension is something that I think we have underplayed over the years.”

It’s likewise appealing to focus on the navy’s other peacekeeping roles, such as anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, humanitarian relief, and the stabilisation of regional tensions. Unlike the Chinese navy, both the RAN and the Royal Navy (the Daring happened to be in the area) came to the immediate aid of the Filipino people after Typhoon Haiyan. Says Griggs: “Contributing to the clean-up of the typhoon in the Philippines last year, in my mind that was a power projection activity. [It was] projecting soft power, but it was power projection.”

But we cannot lose sight of the fundamental reason for the navy’s existence. As Paul Dibb put it at Sea Power, “In the end, the defence force is about fighting. It’s warriors.” As if this point needs further emphasis, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, announces at the opening of the National People’s Congress in March that China’s leaders will “resolutely uphold China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power”. China has lifted its annual defence budget by 12% to $US132 billion (still far below the US’s $526.8 billion for defence in 2014).

Griggs counters criticism that the ADF should focus more on strike capability. “What I worry about is any force structure that is very heavily skewed to one dimension. And I think the ‘let’s have 40 submarines and 400 fighters’ [argument, as advocated by the likes of defence strategist Hugh White] might satisfy some sort of ethereal discussion, but in terms of the day-to-day, being out there doing your job, protecting your ability to trade and being able to project power, it doesn’t give you a force structure to do that.”

Griggs is more concerned by statistics showing that Australian students are shrinking away from enrolling in maths and science. He says the navy is taking steps to ensure that all prospective personnel study maritime technology at the Australian Defence Force Academy “because I’m desperately keen to lift that base level of technical literacy across the navy … and when you’re talking about radars and sonars and command and control systems, you really need to understand some of that basic stuff.”

Yet we have a government without a minister for science (the portfolio has been annexed by the minister for industry) but with a “minister assisting the prime minister for the centenary of Anzac”, leaving one to wonder about its priorities. At a time when Australia faces urgent challenges over education, innovation, infrastructure, security and the environment, the government appears consumed with offering the theatrics of Anzac commemoration and border protection as an expensive pantomime of sovereignty.

A week after my meeting with Griggs, I receive a navy press release detailing the commencement of the first sea trials for the LHD “fat ship” Canberra, sailing under her own propulsion to enter Sydney Harbour a fortnight later. Once again, I’m prepared to be amazed, just as I’d been five months earlier at the fleet review. Unfortunately, the “fat ship” lolls in a day early. I’m yet to see if it robs John Laws of his morning sun at Woolloomooloo.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.




From the front page

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

In This Issue

A funny thing happened on the way to Adelaide

A car accident brings an unlikely collection of people together

Craig Sherborne’s ‘Tree Palace’

Text; $29.99

Karl Ove Knausgaard. © Anders Hansson

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘Boyhood Island’

The third volume of the epic autobiographical novel ‘My Struggle’

Harry Seidler in 1997. © Michelle Mossop / Fairfax Syndication

Helen O’Neill’s ‘Harry Seidler: A Singular Vision’ and Vladimir Belogolovsky’s ‘Harry Seidler: Lifework’

The man who revolutionised Australian architecture

More in The Monthly Essays

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The slow fade of music education

An elegy for music, learning and impoverished culture

Image of Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Teal and loathing: On the campaign trail

The seismic shift that saw voters around the country turn on the Coalition and deliver a Labor victory

Image of red-paint hands on Yuendumu Police Station

The death of Kumanjayi Walker

On the shooting in Yuendumu and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Morrison’s power without purpose

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

Online exclusives

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime

Composite image of Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields (image SMH/supplied) and actor Rebel Wilson (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Two sides of the same Shields?

Editor Bevan Shields’ attempts to handle the backlash over his masthead’s treatment of Rebel Wilson points to the dismal and fragile state of news media