LET’S acknowledge two things before coming to the essence of Malcolm Turnbull’s latest tantrum. First, Scott Morrison’s AUKUS ‘deal’ was – and is – an impetuous shambles that makes little sense. It will probably never deliver a nuclear submarine to this country. By the time a touted fleet of such boats is deployable – no earlier than the 2050s or 60s – subs may be passé.
Second, in Australia’s defence, you don’t have to be a hard-boiled devotee of Niccolò Machiavelli to appreciate that states pursuing their own national interests sometimes fib even to friends. Nor do they regard themselves as strictly bound to military accords that turn out to be inadequate to their strategic needs. This pragmatism is not exactly news to the French diplomatic corps. The master of international relations in the age of democracies is entitled to make hay at home during a dust-up but never to the extent of jeopardising a valuable alliance. That means Emmanuel Macron and Mr Morrison have taken the theatre of this debacle to the outer limit. If the author of The Prince were still around, he’d counsel them both to pull their heads in.
As for Mr Turnbull, everyone knows his motivation is personal spite. It seems longer ago but it was only from 24 August 2018 that he ceased being Prime Minister, having technically ousted himself by quitting rather than standing as a candidate in a second party-room vote. As I’ve argued before, it’s not that he’s entirely wrong about the secretly negotiated arrangement with the US and the UK that scuppered his own submarine deal with the French. The pro-AUKUS fraternity can fling out as many variations of there-there diddums as it likes; the fact remains that Australia damaged itself – in a serious sovereign sense – by not transitioning away from the older contract with more aplomb. What makes it even worse is that the sloppiness seems to have been born of a harrying demand for a lay-buy deposit: an Australian net zero declaration prior to COP26. Nobody is an innocent in this dispute – except France.
That’s where the worth of the Turnbull critique ends: his claim that French low-enriched uranium was a viable alternative – having our yellowcake and eating it too – is a concession that the Prime Minister was correct on the biggest issue of all: nuclearisation. Who the Americans prefer to build with and why is above his pay grade. Looked at as a single chapter, the story of Australia’s military and political elites trying to order the right submarines is embarrassing to everyone concerned – three Prime Ministers included. We really don’t seem ready for long pants.