Monday, September 20, 2021

Today by Nick Feik

Nuclear fallout
The waves from Australia’s cancelled submarine contract keep building

Australia’s decision to tear up its French submarine contract caused a shock when it was announced last week, and the fallout has, if anything, intensified since. In both trade and defence terms, it is causing deep damage, and not just to Australian bilateral relations.

It has led to a serious rift in the NATO alliance, between the United States and the United Kingdom on one side and Europe on the other. As The New York Times put it, France “appears to view the American decision [to pursue a deal with Australia on submarines] as not only offensive in its secretive preparation but also indicative of a fundamental strategic shift that calls into question the very nature of the Atlantic alliance”.

French president Emmanuel Macron has recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra (though not before the latter could launch some scathing broadsides at the Australian handling of the whole business). A UK­–France defence summit was also cancelled by the French. And negotiations on Australia’s trade deal with the EU are likely to be delayed too, with The Australian reporting that “France is seeking to scuttle the proposed EU–Australia free-trade agreement, asking fellow European nations to ‘reconsider’ the deal in retaliation for the government’s cancellation of the $90bn submarine contract”.

France’s European affairs secretary told POLITICO that it would be “unthinkable” to continue talks for a free-trade agreement with Australia after such a breach of trust. (Australia was hoping that these talks could be concluded by the end of the year.) The EU is Australia’s third-biggest trading partner.

The initial response of Australia’s largest trading partner, China, was also one of anger, and while the material effects are as yet unknown, they are unlikely to be positive.

Until recent days, Macron had made France’s defence ties with Australia “a cornerstone of a strategy to expand Europe’s role in meeting the challenge of China’s rise”, according to the NYT. And because an American company, Lockheed Martin, was a partner in the French submarine deal with Australia, the contract was viewed in Paris as an example of how France and the US (and Australia) could work together in Asia. “That belief has now been shredded, replaced by bitterness, suspicion and a measure of incredulity that the Biden Administration would treat France this way.”

In another embarrassment for Australia, American officials have been briefing the NYT that they regret leaving the communications with France about the submarine contract up to Australia.

We will be living with the consequences of this conflagration – not to mention the submarines’ increased costs and the delays – for a long time. “The old plan was to build a conventionally powered version of a nuclear-powered French submarine. It was crazy,” Hugh White wrote in The Saturday Paper. “The new plan – to buy a nuclear-powered submarine instead – is worse.”

In the meantime, good luck to the Australian climate negotiators heading to Glasgow next month. Their bargaining position has never been worse: even the US and UK are unlikely to support Australian climate intransigence, and the EU and most of the rest of the world will be looking for someone to kick, to set an example for other laggards and freeloaders.

In fallouts closer to home, Christian Porter resigned from the ministry yesterday.

Morrison was at pains to repeat that Porter had resigned in order to uphold ministerial standards, rather than being pushed, but in the end Porter had little choice. The stink around the anonymous donation had become too great.

But this is not the end of the saga. It certainly shouldn’t be. Setting aside that Porter is an MP accused of a rape (he denies it) that has never been investigated (it was revealed today that NSW Police shut down its investigation the same day it received the dossier of allegations against Porter), he is also an MP collecting a parliamentary pay cheque, upholding the government’s majority in parliament with his vote, and has yet to declare who gave him (approximately) one million dollars for his personal use.

Former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell resigned over receiving a bottle of wine, but Porter thinks his donor’s privacy is more important than the public’s right to know that its MPs aren’t at risk of being corrupted.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan told ABC radio this morning that Porter has said that “he will provide the information required under the member in this register of interest”. But he hadn’t yet.

MPs are obliged to declare pecuniary interests, but the disclosure provisions are so weak that it’s not at all clear whether Porter is obliged to declare who provided the money. The commonsense/principle case is open-and-shut: it’s not okay for politicians to accept massive “anonymous” donations while sitting in parliament, because it is an invitation to corruption. Porter might as well be arguing, “but it was wrapped in brown paper and dropped off by a mystery bagman! How could I know?”

And in fact Porter himself promised in May to reveal who his donors were, though this seems to have been forgotten by everyone. As usual, Porter’s declaration was couched in conditional sophistries (“If at any point in time anything arises that requires me to make disclosures that members of parliament regularly do …) but it’s indicative that even he understood that anonymous donations didn’t pass the public-interest test.

Labor thinks that the MPs’ register of interests requires a fuller declaration and has referred Porter’s case to the parliamentary privileges committee, which determines whether MPs’ disclosures are within the rules. It will meet in October. If Australia had a national integrity commission (which Porter helped Morrison announce back in 2018! Whatever happened to that?), it would already be investigating.

Porter’s ministerial responsibilities (industry, science and technology) were immediately handed to Angus Taylor, who would be a strange choice if perceptions of propriety were valued by Morrison. Taylor has himself still never revealed or even sought to investigate who were the ultimate beneficiaries of a certain $80 million water purchase a few years ago, despite it being linked to a Cayman Islands–based company he helped to set up.

Meanwhile acting prime minister (!) Barnaby Joyce, speaking on the Seven Network this morning about Porter and his future, said, “I’ll put money that we’ll see him back again.” And given Joyce’s own chequered history, and the record of the government more broadly, who would bet against that?

“Each premier has been handed the gift of status and power and none will easily give it back; as a result, the balance of power in Australia’s federation has changed in ways that will extend well beyond 2021.”

Alan Kohler outlines the many ways in which Morrison’s federal government has abrogated key responsibilities, and left them to the states.

“He’s made a decision, he’s upheld ministerial standards and that’s – I guess that’s where it lies.”

Stuart Robert expressed more sympathy and understanding for Christian Porter (“It’s heartbreaking reading when you look at what he’s been through” in excusing Christian Porter than anyone in the federal government ever summoned for his accuser.)

The healing power of MDMA
A major new study has found that the therapeutic use of the illicit drug MDMA, more commonly known as ecstasy, could help to treat people suffering from PTSD. Now an Australian psychologist is finally embarking on Australia’s first ever clinical trial using the drug.


The number of new daily COVID infections in NSW falls below a thousand for the first time in weeks, although experts warn it will rise again as the state opens up next month.

“I have never … said I support mandatory vaccination. I will address the concerns of CFMEU members … Are you going to let me talk or shout over the top of me? … I can’t even hear myself think.”

CFMEU boss John Setka attempts to outline the union’s policy on mandating vaccinations for workers in the construction industry, to mixed reviews.

The list

“Perhaps owing to the limitations and tropes of its genre conceit – the caper novel has a much larger history in the United States – Harlem Shuffle, I confess, did little for me. Whitehead’s typically fizzy writing aside, the novel’s narrative, though diverting and amiable enough, is somewhat programmatic and workmanlike in its execution.”

“Albeit counterintuitive, pop as a genre – glistening, danceable pop – tends to chart best during times of economic downturn. Disco began its mainstream takeover in the mid 1970s, on the back of an oil crisis, a sharemarket crash, rising unemployment and inflation. The global recession of the early 1980s was soundtracked by synth-pop and the New Romantics, while the dot-com crash of the early 2000s was countered, in the charts, by a teen-pop bubble, the chief stock of which was Britney Spears. Just over a decade ago, as the global financial crisis unfolded, Katy Perry, Rihanna and The Black Eyed Peas were all racking up massive sales.”

“The move to parachute senior Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally from the Senate into the safe lower house seat of Fowler has become a proxy war for future would-be leaders jockeying for position. Keneally’s preselection for the Western Sydney seat involves two separate but intersecting sets of manoeuvres and some key shadow players in the background. Keneally has displaced a 30-year-old local lawyer of Vietnamese heritage, Tu Le, who was recruited and publicly endorsed by the retiring incumbent, Chris Hayes. The move has sparked a public fight about Labor’s commitment to diversity and a private fight between future leadership contenders.” 

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



The Monthly Today

Image of former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Protecting Porter

Why does the government keep doing this?

Composite image of Deputy Nationals leader David Littleproud and former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian. Images via Twitter / ABC News

Money spinners

From the Nationals’ mercenary tactics to Gladys Berejiklian’s “sweetheart deal”, sometimes you gotta say WTF

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Images via ABC News

Morrison’s mandate

Barnaby Joyce acknowledges that a net-zero target is cabinet’s call. But what exactly is their mandate?

Image of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in Question Time today. Image via ABC News

Rush hour

The Nationals have had far more than four hours to figure out their position on net zero

From the front page

Image of former industry minister Christian Porter in the House of Representatives, August 24, 2021. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

Protecting Porter

Why does the government keep doing this?

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of ‘Bewilderment’

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner