August 2023

The Nation Reviewed

A modest proposal for submarine money

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
AUKUS is the gold standard of a major reform being implemented without sufficient detail – or a referendum

Let us for a moment walk in the shoes of those good citizens who think they might vote “No” in the Voice referendum. Not Bolt’s or Dutton’s – none of the Murdoch–LNP axis – but the footwear of humble, silent folk.

Imagine yourself not entirely unsympathetic to the struggles of Indigenous people, but thinking that no section of the citizenry should be granted an avenue to power that others lack. I know! But wait – the pounding of your progressive hearts be still! You’re in the shoes of others, and from where they stand the Voice can look unreasonable. Crippling mortgages and rents, rising energy prices, housing shortages, stagnant wages, gouging corporations. But does anyone heed their cries for help?

While the world grows more perilous each day, we talk about the Voice. Climate catastrophes, pandemics, dictators, unhinged billionaires and wars. Truth erodes, ignoramuses and cheats prosper and “superintelligent” machines, according to their inventors, threaten to destroy humanity before the climate, viruses or nuclear weapons get their turn. We dwell on the fringes of an ever more alien and unknowable reality, and fear there will be no future for our children. On none of these developments is our opinion required – but it is compulsory on the Voice.

The longer you look from this disaffected point of view the more it becomes clear that there is only one sensible way to go – vote “Yes”. Vote “Yes” to the Voice and be done with it. Get it off the table. Because if “No” wins, we can be sure the debate will not go away. There will be a few weeks of wailing and gnashing, gloom will descend on one half of the population and especially on the people whose grand idea it was to weave hope and despair into poetry. Meanwhile, much of the world will be confirmed in its opinion that we are racists, Anthony Albanese will look like the mug who gambled everything and lost, and Peter Dutton like the cat that swallowed the canary shit.

And then it will be back. And it will keep coming back, until one day a Voice or a Treaty or something of the kind, will pass. And people will ask why they didn’t do it the first time. If you wish the Voice to hell – make sure you vote for it. Then maybe the debate will shift to, well, survival – one’s own and the planet’s, or something related to both of them, such as AUKUS.

Here are some other shoes to try on. Towards the end of 2021, Albanese is desperate to win an election, and at least half the population is desperately hoping that he will. He decides that he will not jeopardise his party’s chances by allowing an awful government and an equally awful prime minister to wedge him on defence. Imagine, in the feverish mental landscape of an election, Albanese is painted as weak on China, weak on the US alliance, weak on national security. Weak on jobs in South Australia. Imagine if the weakness proves fatal, and he loses the election to Scott Morrison over a few submarines that may never be built.

So rather than hand them a hammer with which to beat him, Albanese gives the Morrison government’s $368 billion AUKUS submarine deal 24 hours’ “consideration”, and then agrees to it. Who can say they wouldn’t have done the same thing?

But 24 hours? You can wait 24 hours for Qantas to answer the phone. It can take six months to get a planning permit for a tree house in your backyard. Think of all the things in life that take more than 24 hours. Presuming the prime minister had other things to do, actual thinking time might have been eight or 10 hours. For $368 billion. Take that to the Expenditure Review Committee and see how you go. Take it to the Labor Party. Take it to a referendum.

Maybe, as leader of the opposition, Albanese could have said that given the very considerable sum of money, a Labor government would do due diligence and get some sound advice before it decided whether to sign up to the deal. It didn’t have to be PwC; there are still departments, and a raft of experienced advisers on whom to call. As it happened, most of Labor’s trusted long-time experts on foreign policy – Hugh White, Peter Varghese and the late Allan Gyngell among them – were for various reasons not convinced that AUKUS was in all regards a great idea.

They wondered, for instance, if reverting to the “forward defence” doctrine of the Vietnam years (even in its new packaging as “impactful projection”) would compromise the defence of Australia, which has been the thinking ever since that disastrous war ground to a humiliating conclusion.

They wondered if AUKUS did not mark a regression from the logical and liberating concept that Australia must seek its security “in Asia, not from Asia”. They wondered how this monumental new expression of the Anglosphere would be viewed, not only by China but by Australia’s South-East Asian and Pacific neighbours. They asked if the agreement would not limit the role and potential of diplomacy, which, positioned as we are in the world, might be considered a high priority. They wondered if we were not backing ourselves deeper into the United States corner, from which China is seen to have no business turning the South China Sea into a “Chinese lake”, even though for a century the United States has seen the whole Pacific as a “United States lake”. Or, as Douglas MacArthur put it, an “Anglo-Saxon lake”. They asked if it was not naive to think the Americans should really be considered a “forever” partner, as Scott Morrison called them the day before their president forgot his name.

Some wondered if Australian sovereignty will not be surrendered when the American Virginia-class submarines (which the deal requires Australia to buy from the US to fill the gap until the new ones are built) are delivered on the condition that they can only be used in a US war. They asked if seven nuclear submarines for $368 billion would serve Australia’s interests better than a dozen of the latest conventionally powered but very sophisticated kind available for a fraction of the money.

Some experts wondered what the government intended to do with the waste from the submarines’ nuclear reactors. Our Australian rocks are wonderfully stable, but no constituency has ever agreed to make them home to a skerrick of the waste from the little Lucas Heights reactor.

No one thought $368 billion would be the final cost. So, they asked, what would be sacrificed from the defence budget to pay for the submarines? What would be sacrificed from the national budget? What opportunities would have to be passed up?

Other respectable commentators mocked the idea that seven submarines could make a lot of difference, either to the nation’s defence or to the protection of sea lanes leading – bizarrely enough – to China. Brian Toohey pointed out that, as only about a quarter of America’s fleet of 64 nuclear-powered submarines can be kept operational at any one time, on most days the submarine component of Australia’s defences around 2050 will be two. In the 2030s, while we are making do with the three Virginia-class subs, it will be… less than one. Bearing in mind that the Pentagon’s “base budget” exceeds that of the next eight countries combined, that the US supplies close to half all weapons sold in the world, that it has 800 military bases across the globe and conducts special ops in 150 countries, the mind-blowing sum of $368 billion seems almost tokenistic, a form of tribute.

Meanwhile, for all their weaponry and military reach, and all their hubris, American interventions this century – the ones we know about – have been calamitous. There is much evidence to suggest that even if the US empire is not yet in irreversible decline, its days of global leadership are numbered. Donald Trump was both herald and agent of this trend, and should he or someone acceptable to his supporters become president next year the process is likely to accelerate. This too seems worth considering for an hour or more.

We will never know if a more cautious approach would have cost Labor the election, but it does seem unlikely. Since winning, as with the Coalition’s tax cuts he promised to pass, Albanese has made his word on AUKUS as good as his bond. In fact, Morrison himself could not have spruiked the idea with more energy and devotion, or appeared more pleased with the strategic outlook than our prime minister did on the rostrum with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak in San Diego.

On the credit side, the government claims 20,000 people will be employed when work on the submarines gets fully under way… in 2040. The prime minister says it will be “very similar to what the car industry provided for Australia in the postwar period”. But the car industry employed 45,000 workers when the Abbott government forced it to stop making cars in 2013, and it employed a lot more than twice that in earlier days. It provided more than jobs for Australia; it provided cars (about 150,000 of them in 2012), a bit of export income, a bit of insurance against international supply chain failures, a bit of an industrial base. It did this with somewhat less than half a billion dollars in annual subsidies, which is more per unit than European car makers, but nowhere near as much as the American industry continues to enjoy. The very thought of Australia making nice little electric family runabouts is an unutterable heresy, as we know, but those submarines do put things in a different perspective.

For instance, making first degrees at university free would cost around $4.3 billion over the first 10 years. TAFE courses much less than that. Our education standards are miserable: 20 or 30 billion (why not!) poured into schools and teaching colleges would likely be money well spent. While we’re at it we could get good full-time teachers into remote Indigenous communities, and health workers, including mental health workers. More scholarships – how many would just $1 billion provide? A lot of it will be wasted as usual, but it’s surely a purpose of the Voice to fix that habit.

The federal government is distributing a $2 billion “Housing Accelerator” among the states for social housing and proposing a $10 billion “Housing Australia Future Fund”. Mere berley. Doubling or trebling those sums would hardly make a dent in the submarine bill.

High-speed rail linking Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne would make a dent in it. A study 10 years ago put the cost at $114 billion. Make it twice that at least: but then compare the benefits to seven submarines. If you’re not keen on fast trains, imagine that sort of money invested in land renewal, in the transition to renewable energy, in the regions and communities, in health, in the JobSeeker allowance.

Double the $4.7 billion in overseas aid. The arts get a miserable one billion – make it five. That’s the thing about a $368 billion submarine deal: it encourages wild, outrageous, profligate thoughts about what we might do in this country. We could put it against the debt or whack $200 billion in the Future Fund. Watch it grow.

The money aside, the AUKUS thing takes a mind in all directions: back to the European empires and the ends of them, forward to… a new cold war? A hot one? The end of the Anthropocene when we have just got it going? If not that, the end of Washington’s world order will be consequential enough. Curiously, the subject led me to an old Scots Border ballad that begins:

Jellon Grame sat in Silverwood,
He sharp’d his broadside lang;
And he called his little foot-page
An errand for to gang.

It’s a particularly bloody ballad and it ends very badly for Jellon. His little foot-page goes the way of most little foot-pages: he vanishes from the record.

But it could be that the military planners have it right, and AUKUS really will take us down the path to survival. It might even make us more than a foot-page. It might be near enough to perfect, the very ticket. But how will we know?

Peter Dutton and others in the “No” camp are always asking for more details about the Voice. They say the public is entitled to know. Even if they are being disingenuous, they’re right in principle. Yet we go plunging into AUKUS without so much as a whiteboard presentation to explain it. And in the higher reaches of power, nary a yelp.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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