The Politics    Thursday, September 16, 2021

Whatever it takes

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the new AUKUS partnership alongside UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden (not pictured). Image via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the new AUKUS partnership alongside UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden (not pictured). Image via ABC News

Scott Morrison says we will spend whatever we have to on defence. Why doesn’t the same apply to climate change?

Today’s news has been dominated by the announcement of the “momentous” trilateral security pact with the US and the UK (the awkwardly named AUKUS), including a switch by Australia to nuclear-powered submarines, which is all a thinly veiled bid at muscling up to China. The move has, unsurprisingly, pissed off China, but it has also angered the French, with whom Australia held a $90 billion submarine-building contract, which will now be scrapped. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drien and Defence Minister Florence Parly have labelled it “contrary to the spirit and the letter” of the agreement between Canberra and Paris, while France’s former ambassador to the UN was a little more blunt, calling it a stab in the back from the US and the UK (“C’est la vie,” he added wistfully). The decision has also annoyed Paul Keating, enraged the Greens, and prompted questions over strategy, including from ANU strategic policy expert Hugh White and independent senator/former Navy submariner Rex Patrick. But it’s been praised by News Corp commentators, as a “historic defence of democracy”, and a “decisive” move that will be well regarded by history. There’s little doubt we’ve now got a khaki election on our hands. Labor – whose leaders were invited to the yesterday’s urgent high-level briefings – has chosen to back the defence pact (with conditions on the use of nuclear technology), but has hit out at the Coalition over its “mismanagement” of the French contract, noting that the government has spent years insisting everything was going just fine. The cancellation of the French deal is expected to cost Australia around $400 million in compensation, and Morrison today revealed that $2.4 billion had already been spent on it, though he rejected the characterisation of the word “wasted”, preferring “invested”. When asked how much Australia was willing to invest in defence in the coming years, Morrison boasted of his government’s increased spending: “We will need to do what it takes, because that’s what you have to do to protect Australians.”

It’s a strange commitment, coming from a government that has long said that it couldn’t possibly act on the other great security threat of our time – climate change – without knowing the full cost to the Australian taxpayer and where it would come from. Speaking in August, after scientists sounded the most dramatic climate alarm of recent times in the UN’s IPCC report, Morrison told reporters that he “won’t be signing a blank cheque on behalf of Australians”, while once again attacking Labor for its uncosted plans. “Australians deserve to know the cost,” he said. (This, despite the fact that it’s now widely acknowledged that climate change is a threat to global and national security, amid warnings from the Climate Council and the defence community, including from the department’s former head of preparedness and groups of high-ranking former security officials.) But the Coalition, it seems, is more than happy to spend whatever it takes on defence assets, even if that means wasting billions (talk about a sunk cost). The new submarines are expected to cost much more than the $90 billion the French ones were costing us, though it’s still not clear how much more. It’s not the only area in which the government has mismanaged its defence spending recently. Defence officials were questioned yesterday at a parliamentary hearing about the government’s second biggest defence acquisition ever, new frigates being built for the navy, with the timeframe and costs having blown out by years and billions, according to Labor.

Defence, in fact, seems to be the only area of spending where the “whatever it takes, even if we waste money along the way” mentality applies. As journalist and academic Mark Kenny noted earlier this week, this need to protect Australians at any cost didn’t seem to apply to the government’s attitude towards acquiring vaccines, with Health Minister Greg Hunt having dawdled over meetings with Pfizer, supposedly because of some non-disclosure arrangements the government didn’t like. “If only we conceived of national security in the fullest sense,” Kenny tweeted. Nor, of course, does this “whatever it takes” approach apply to supporting Australians financially through lockdowns, or to keeping women safe, or education, or healthcare.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the new trilateral arrangement is aimed at sending a message to China – not that anyone made any mention of the superpower in this morning’s announcement. But it’s odd that such a “momentous” security pact didn’t include some mention of what is actually the most alarming security threat of our time: climate change. Perhaps the UK prime minister and the US president, who are probably the best placed global leaders in terms of putting pressure on Morrison, managed to extract some climate commitments from “that fella down under”, as Biden referred to him when he appeared to forget his name. But there’s not much point to submarines (or indeed for a “forever partnership”, as Morrison referred to the new arrangement a few hours after the joint announcement) if there’s no liveable planet to fight over.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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