The Politics    Friday, June 10, 2022

The Opposition leaker

By Nick Feik

Image of then defence minister Peter Dutton on a visit to TAE Aerospace near Ipswich, Queensland, April 22, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Then defence minister Peter Dutton on a visit to TAE Aerospace near Ipswich, Queensland, April 22, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Former defence minister Peter Dutton has shown he is willing to risk national security for political gain

An article in yesterday’s Australian trumpeted “Peter Dutton’s secret plan [as defence minister] to fast-track nuclear submarines”. It was accompanied by an opinion piece by Dutton himself, and was followed up today by an editorial op-ed concluding that “his plan as outlined makes eminent sense”. The plan was apparently for Australia to acquire two new nuclear-powered submarines this decade straight from the US production line, thus filling the defence-capability gap caused by the ageing of Australia’s existing submarine fleet. “Labor must not torpedo crucial submarine plan” was the headline on Dutton’s comment piece. “I am speaking out on this topic,” Dutton wrote, “because Labor is on the cusp of making a very dangerous decision which would clearly be against our national security interests.” Our national security interests? It was an incredible accusation, given what he had just done. Having spent his years in government insisting on national security secrecy, the former defence minister was now divulging sensitive discussions about this critical defence issue in an op-ed. Dutton was claiming, without any substantiation, that despite the process the Coalition government had set up – an 18-month study led by Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead on how Australia would acquire nuclear submarines – he actually had a better plan that would have overridden this process. Like magic, the heroic Dutton would single-handedly have been able to deliver Australia two nuclear submarines way ahead of schedule, despite the fact that this taskforce – set up under his own defence portfolio – hadn’t even settled on which submarines it was going to purchase. Was he really flagging that Labor was planning to ditch his plan, or was he simply making it up to make himself look good? Unsurprisingly, the criticisms of his outburst have come thick and fast.

To wind back for a moment, recall that it was the Coalition government (under Malcolm Turnbull) that first signed a deal to replace Australia’s old Collins-class submarines with diesel versions of the French nuclear-powered Barracuda submarines. It was then the Morrison government that ditched this deal (at a cost of up to $5.5 billion) on the justification that these very submarines weren’t fit for purpose, because we needed… nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison and Dutton proclaimed that a new defence arrangement with the UK and US had been set up (AUKUS) and it represented a new era of defence cooperation – this despite the terrible mishandling of the initial announcements. Dutton as defence minister then set up a taskforce to decide which submarines Australia would purchase, and the choice was between the US Virginia-class and the UK’s Astute-class.

Cut to the present day, with this selection process still in its early days, and the now Opposition leader has blurted out that he had essentially already decided which subs to purchase (either bypassing or undermining the taskforce), while also revealing that he had already had discussions with the US about getting two of their boats early. Needless to say, this would have come as a great surprise to the United Kingdom. Was this the AUKUS arrangement the UK agreed to? One in which the other two partners are running around behind its back making secret deals? The Coalition had already wrecked its relationship with France, and here was Peter Dutton jeopardising the UK relationship too. (Not to mention the US/UK relationship.)

Labor’s new defence minister, Richard Marles, has unsurprisingly responded furiously to Dutton’s comments. “This is rank politics and is completely inconsistent with everything Peter Dutton was doing and saying in government,” Marles said. “This outburst today, from someone so recently in the chair, is damaging to Australia’s national interest. The comments are loose and undermine the AUKUS agreement. The government has made no decision on the preferred submarine. All options remain on the table.”

Marles wasn’t the only critic. As The Australian reported, University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute director Peter Dean was “flabbergasted” by Dutton’s article, accusing him of disclosing “secret and confidential discussions”. 

The ABC reported that a Coalition adviser who worked on AUKUS also criticised Dutton for revealing how Australia’s ageing submarines could soon be detected by emerging radar technologies. Another defence figure, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the ABC that Dutton’s editorial had “buggered” plans for a joint announcement by the end of the year between Australia, the UK and the US.

What’s more, it seems unrealistic that the US would have actually provided Australia with two nuclear submarines ahead of schedule anyway, because it’s struggling to supply its own navy. Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Marcus Hellyer told The Australian that the Dutton plan appeared “far-fetched” because production lines in Connecticut and Virginia were running “flat out” to deliver submarines for the US Navy.

Dutton’s attempt to reframe the submarine debacle like this is an indictment on his judgement, but also an early indication of how he intends to play his part as Opposition leader: hard, fast and loose. It’s bad enough when our major parties act together to cut the public out of debates about such significant matters of national interest. But it’s worse when one of them tries to use national security as a partisan political weapon. That Dutton would treat this $100 billion project as an opportunity to gain cheap domestic advantage, while such a massive defence-capability gap looms, is frankly alarming.

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Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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