GREG Sheridan yesterday published the most intelligent analysis of the AUKUS submarine deal in an overcrowded market. Executive summary: there is virtually no chance this nation will ever take possession of any nuclear boats. Even if decisions were made in rapid time about which submarine chassis Australia will use – British, American or bespoke and entire – an optimistic timeline won’t see a bottle of champagne swung against a hull until the 2040s. Sheridan says a fleet of eight boats could not be completed earlier than the 2060s. Most so-called experts who rushed to hold forth on the ‘game-changer’ arrangement made the error of conflating the geo-political imperatives of 2021 with the mystery realpolitik of the middle twenty-first century. Even if forward planning is no less necessary for being inherently inexact, there are several good reasons to judge the AUKUS plan as impetuous, dubious and suspicious.
The stupendously silly delivery schedule has already been mentioned. Sheridan is not in the habit of resorting to the blue in his columns but “batshit crazy” is right. Then there is past form as guide to future performance. When it comes to large-scale defence acquisition and construction projects, Australian governments are traditionally so mesmerised by what Sheridan calls the “dialectics” of procurement – he means the retail politics and pork-barrelling – that gamesmanship trumps the endgame every time. The result under Scott Morrison: “incompetent, lazy and inexplicable failure to champion its own defence programs” and the appointment by him – and Malcolm Turnbull – of hopelessly inept ministers. What Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds know about submarines could fit on an A4 page. Let’s be generous: single-line spaced.
There is always a cheer squad for ‘ruthless’ pragmatism in Australian politics; as regards national security most of all. Whereas I too would have applauded a nice blokes finish last worldview, say, ten or even five years ago, now I regard the arrogant two-timing of France as a sovereign risk to the country’s reputation. The mendacity and anti-democratic lurch of the Anglophone world’s defence and national security establishment has become a bigger threat to our ‘way of life’ than Beijing has ever been. And for what? Imaginary submarines. The AUKUS stakeholders just lost a twenty-year war in Afghanistan and America hasn’t even bothered to rescue its own citizens from the daggers and cranes of the Taliban. Plus, we’re told AUKUS is not a one-in/all-in pact. Is this thing – even the acronym is bereft of mission – is it not an odd tautology? Are we not already allies? Why not a sober memorandum of understanding between Washington and Canberra on nuclear propulsion technologies? Speak quietly, then see if you can build the big stick.
Like Robert Johnson after he went down to the crossroads, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the Defence Minister reappeared after their AUKUS intersection as prodigies. Not of blues riffs but of Net Zero by 2050. Quite the coincidence that the green Boris Johnson and the yellow Joe Biden gifted the beige Scott Morrison nuclear beads and mirrors weeks before the Glasgow climate fair. All they ask in return, apparently, is a functioning electricity grid. The government will therefore go to the next election promising to build nuclear submarines in a wind-powered shipyard.
On the broader ‘debate’ about AUKUS, like everything these days it has become a dumb proxy war between disgruntled egomaniacs. It is not that Messrs Turnbull, Rudd and Keating have nothing useful to say about AUKUS. On some technicalities, Turnbull has been right. On transparency and international relations, Rudd is not entirely wrong. Keating is correct on one thing: an Australian submarine fleet will only ever unleash a payload in a US-led conflict or serve Kennedy-esque ends in a quarantine. Sheridan himself has a philosophically puzzling record on the contest between the call of high principle and the bellow of alleged inevitability. His misuse of Thomas Aquinas (who didn’t believe prostitution should be illegal) to argue states should no longer mandate exclusively heterosexual nuptials was one of the sillier pieces of casuistry introduced to a national discussion. On the increasingly dodgy AUKUS, by contrast, he scores a direct hit.