Sub-Standard

Sep 23

Sub-Standard

Posted by: George Grundy

This cannot stand. Even by the catastrophically low standards set by the current government, the announcement that Australia is to spend $90 billion on a fleet of nuclear submarines plumbs, if you will excuse me, new depths.

France, which immediately recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia, has every right to feel furiously aggrieved and humiliated. Just a few months ago, Scott Morrison visited Emmanuel Macron in Paris and was warmly embraced by France’s President. Yet we now know that behind the scenes Morrison was conducting clandestine negotiations with the US and UK, while openly lying to France about an ongoing multi-billion dollar submarine commitment. France is a major European nation, one of just five permanent members of the UN Security Council and is about to take over presidency of the EU. Australia has just ‘stabbed her in the back’.

It’s unclear just how much money has been wasted on the now-abandoned French project, but it’s in the billions. Extraordinarily, Scott Morrison didn’t even have the good grace to inform France of the change in plans until just prior to fronting the media. His claim that he ‘tried’ to speak to the French President the night before the announcement is just another example of how stupid he must think the Australian public are.

Imagine the damage this does to Australia’s reputation abroad. Just imagine trying to negotiate in good faith any kind of bilateral or multinational agreement with Morrison still in charge. Our word is our bond and Scott Morrison has guaranteed that, in the near future at least, Australia’s word is worthless and not to be trusted.

Actually, we won’t have to wait – Australia is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU, of which France is a key member. The threat of tougher tariffs for countries which, like Australia, don’t meet their Paris climate agreement targets is likely to be rigidly enforced, and France is already trying to delay negotiations in order to punish Australia. The Glasgow climate conference, in just six weeks, is now sure to be a doozy.

Then there is, as with every Morrison announcement, the sheer emptiness in the details. There is no contract, no design, no agreed budget. It’s not clear where the submarines will be built, what level of Australian involvement there will be or how the nuclear fuel will be handled. Given how inept Australia’s management of the Collins class subs has been, sceptics should be rightfully terrified about the prospect of what Adam Bandt labelled ‘floating Chernobyls in the heart of Australia’s cities’.

It should also be noted that the Collins subs were due for retirement in just a few years. This news will force our small contingent of six submarines to stay in the water for at least a further fifteen years to avoid a ‘capability gap’, something with its own national security implications, and a worry for anyone who sails in the old buckets.

Just six nations operate nuclear-powered submarines. All have active domestic nuclear energy and weapons programs. As with every other part of this project, it’s not at all clear how many aspects of the nuclear propulsion will be handled, but both obvious options are terrible.

If Australia becomes the first nation to rely solely on supply of enriched uranium from partners abroad, it means a significant element in national defense strategy is entirely dependent on another sovereign country. After all that spending, Australia’s new military posture will be more assertive yet more reliant on allies abroad. And if we even consider the second option, home-made fuel, it merely confirms very reasonable suspicions that this inevitably paves the way for a domestic nuclear program. This is something that has long been the dream of those on the far right, who will find any way to avoid stopping digging up coal, and see the fictitious ‘zero emissions’ allure of nuclear power as a salve to those who give a damn about the environment.

This all has to be placed in two pressing contexts. First, the new deal significantly increases tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and has been labelled another escalation in what is becoming an Asian Cold War. Malaysia and Indonesia have already voiced their displeasure, but China holds the power to really punish Australia.

China has a population 55-times that of Australia and the largest army in the world (around 74-times that of Australia’s), as well as between 250-350 ballistic nuclear missiles. These could be rehoused in the new silos China appears to be digging, and trained on Australian capitals if the communist government really wishes to remind us who’s strongest. China is also, ahem, our biggest trading partner, accounting for almost one third of our trade with the world. This gives China the power to do more damage to Australia’s economy than any other nation.

It should also be noted that China hasn’t involved itself in a single war since 1945, when instead we have thrown in our lot with the belligerence of the UK and America, which has invaded fifteen countries in the last 40 years. The deal also greatly enhances the chances of America’s ‘rotation’ troop bases in Australia becoming permanent and larger, something Peter Dutton has already discussed. American fighter jets on Australian soil would (correctly) be viewed as a dramatic escalation by China and other Asia-Pacific nations. On current trajectories, this appears inevitable.

Second is the paper-thin, theatrical lack of strategy. As Peter Hartcher laid out on ABC’s The Drum, we’re getting less subs for more money, with a much longer lead time (and no current contract for any of this at all). It is possible to hold the belief that China is a vital trading partner whilst at the same time harbouring concerns about Chinese military and territorial expansion, but at best these submarines will be arriving in twenty years. Destabilising a region while hoping things hold together for two decades until the cavalry arrives is not generally noted as sound military strategy.

The insanity of this decision is best exposed when you consider the climate change disasters that are already ravaging the world with terrifying regularity. $90 billion would offer so many opportunities for climate risk mitigation it boggles the mind. The science world is united in warning that without urgent action we face a climate crisis as early as 2040, which is just when those submarines might be arriving. Given the world’s major economies are spectacularly failing to meet the necessary targets, shiny new subs won’t be Australia’s most pressing concern as we face catastrophic and damaging storms, floods and days over 50C.

Fortunately, nuclear submarines can travel long distances, as Australia may also struggle to bring them to shore at Darwin, given we have leased the port to the Chinese for the next 93 years.

At the heart of this, however, could be appalling electoral cynicism. Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton may have decided that the current playing field of Covid, vaccines, lockdowns, unemployment and moribund economic performance isn’t to their liking, and with an election deadline approaching they perhaps have judged – correctly, in the view of this writer – that a campaign fought on national security concerns will be much more successful in motivating a fearful public to vote to the right on the spectrum. So try to remember this enormous sum the next time an LNP politician questions how to fund increases in unemployment benefits, healthcare, housing, tertiary education funding or pretty much anything which the country is crying out for right now.

Right-wing governments consistently prioritise military spending on expensive phantoms over the lives of their actual citizens, but the damage caused to Australia’s reputation abroad by this debacle, the lost billions and the opportunity cost of spending almost $100 billion on submarines instead of a very real climate crisis is incalculable. In the same week that the big submarine announcement was made, Australia’s (don’t laugh) Environment Minister Sussan Ley approved yet another coalmining project, her second in as many weeks. Scott Morrison’s corrupt, inept and dishonest government is inflicting generations of debt and damage on this country. Spending $90 billion or more on submarines with a 20-year lead time, at a moment of climate inflection is wrong-headed, nonsensical and deeply immoral.

In fact, it’s quite completely insane.