What the submarine deal means for Morrison’s future

By David Crowe

All tactics, no strategy. The complaint about Scott Morrison has framed his leadership among a legion of critics who see the Prime Minister as a marketing man with a black hole in his political soul because he lacks the conviction to put his fate on the line to change the nation.

Labor has a tag for Morrison and wants it to stick: he is the “ad man” who can spin a story without building a stronger Australia or leaving a legacy when he is gone.

But the easy attack lines do not fit so neatly with a new defence pact that is meant to guarantee Australian security for another generation. Morrison has made sweeping decisions in the coronavirus pandemic, shutting borders and spending billions, but none is like the move to bolt Australia to the United States and the United Kingdom and build a new fleet of nuclear submarines.

Scott Morrison joins US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce the defence pact on Thursday.

This is not just a big call. It is a hard call. In one decision, Morrison has antagonised China, opened a rift with France, scrapped years of effort on conventional submarines, increased costs and exposed Australia to a longer capability gap by pushing back the arrival of the future fleet.

This decision is about a strategy that lasts for decades. Morrison’s pledge is to spend more on defence and have nuclear submarines in the water in the 2030s, even though defence experts think the timing is heroic after years of delay and a troubled deal with the French that has been abruptly scrapped at a cost of at least $2.4 billion.

Is it the right call? The wisest observers say it is too soon to say. The new plan comes down to the formation of a taskforce that will take 18 months to choose the class of submarine, such as the Astute from the UK or the Virginia from the US, and take years more to build some of them in Adelaide.

The toughest decisions are safely postponed until after the federal election due by May next year. Anxious about his prospects in the shipbuilding states of Western Australia and South Australia, Morrison promises more money for defence and more jobs for workers who lose from the cancellation of the French deal.

What he does not promise is that every submarine will be built in Australia. This is because the government’s immediate political objective is at odds with the country’s strategic imperative to replace today’s Collins-class submarines as soon as possible. Only after the election will voters know if the fastest way to deploy the new fleet is to have the first vessels built by the British or Americans.

So there is a tactical move embedded in the strategic shift.

Morrison announced the alliance with the powerful imagery of simultaneous televised remarks from US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and there is no doubt the nuclear deal is only possible because it has personal support from those two leaders. The executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings, calls this a “huge step-up” in the nation’s military power.

But there are real concerns the Prime Minister could lead the country into greater danger, or at least leave it exposed.

Jennings, for instance, thinks it too risky to wait for almost two decades for new submarines when China poses an existential threat to Australia and other liberal democracies. Waiting longer for eight nuclear submarines makes no difference to the urgent strategic challenges of today, he says.

This will be a defining argument for the next 18 months. If this call is so fundamental to Australian security, why is Morrison so comfortable with such a long wait for delivery? The alternatives are to buy US submarines that are already in the water as the US deploys newer vessels over time, or place orders for new submarines built overseas.

General Dynamics, which makes the Virginia-class nuclear submarine in the US, has a backlog of more than $40 billion in work at its Electric Boat division. Adding an Australian order would not be easy. But if the goal of this alliance is to strengthen Australian power in Asia alongside the US, this has to be an option.

Says Jennings: “This is a moment where absolute haste is the most important thing.”

These are the practical concerns beneath the symbolism of the new AUKUS pact, which is really only an agreement to share technology and has no treaty status like the ANZUS alliance with the US and New Zealand. What Morrison calls the “forever partnership” is a confirmation of the alliances already in place, even if his phrase made headlines. As one observer quipped, it seemed like a line the Prime Minister dreamt up while watching a Disney movie with the kids.

Is this as significant as ANZUS, as Morrison claims? “It is not,” says John McCarthy, a senior adviser to Asialink at the University of Melbourne and a former ambassador to the US, Indonesia, Japan and India. “I simply cannot see that changing the type of submarine, albeit important, makes a hell of a lot of difference. I don’t buy the hype.”

McCarthy does not take issue with the shift to nuclear or the strengthening of the US and UK alliances, but he worries about the breach with France and the message to Asia. After decades of greater engagement in Asia, the government has chosen to tighten the knot with the Anglosphere, yet France is a greater power in the Pacific than Britain. Only months ago, Morrison sought support from French President Emmanuel Macron to counter China.

While McCarthy thinks some countries in Asia will quietly welcome stronger Australian naval power, he also sees the damage from past blunders. The government talked to Japan about buying its submarines, then let it down. It signed with France and then pulled out.

“Even though contractually we are doing everything we are entitled to do, there is the question of Australian credibility,” he says.

One of the government’s claims, that the project with France was the right decision when the deal was done five years ago, is a political fig-leaf to cover an ugly policy malaise. Australia signed up for a French design, wanted it modified and then rejected it because it was not good enough. Stuck in a crevasse, it grasps the helping hands from the US and UK but will have to give up the idea of a heavily customised design.

Is this a turning point? Where is the “turn” in cementing an alliance that has been in place since 1951? Is this a hard call? Or is it the easy one?

“The easy thing is to assume that what’s worked for us in the past is going to work for us in the future,” says Hugh White, professor emeritus at the Australian National University.

“The easy thing is not to recognise that Australia has to look after itself in the new order in Asia. It is to assume that we can rely on America and, God save us, the British to look after us and all we have to do is help them. That’s the way we’ve thought about our security for 150 years.

“But that’s not true any more. We are facing the biggest shift in Australia’s strategic circumstances since European settlement because for the first time we face an Asian great power which is as powerful, and in the decades to come will be more powerful, than our great ally.

“We’ve never lived with that before, so to continue to assume that the alliances are going to work for us in future as they did in the past – the ‘forever partnerships’ – is simply not to face the reality of the fundamental shift in Australia’s strategic circumstances. Now that is scary, because the really big call is to acknowledge that now, for the first time in its history, Australia does have to start thinking for itself. How can we defend ourselves independently?”

White believes a bigger fleet of conventional submarines could be more effective and doubts the nuclear fleet can arrive before 2040, but he also questions whether this is significant for China. “If the Chinese go and push ahead anyway, and we end up in a war, I don’t think it is going to make a very big difference as to who is going to win or lose,” he says. In this view, America cannot project its power far enough across the Pacific to keep China in check.

These are the vital questions over this week’s announcement, more important than the parochial arguments about the percentage of Australian construction in every hull.

Tony Abbott, who has argued for nuclear submarines since being toppled as prime minister six years ago, believes the government should decide the design this year and start the first one next year. This is a reproof to Morrison’s more leisurely timetable, even though Abbott strongly backs the central decision to go nuclear.

In fact, one of the features of the past few days has been the support for nuclear submarines from those who did not endorse them when they held power. This includes Liberals such as former treasurer Joe Hockey and former defence minister Christopher Pyne as well as former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith, the only one in recent times to hold that portfolio for more than three years.

“Having failed over the past eight years to find a suitable replacement for the Collins, the best capability option we have in the national interest is to go nuclear,” Smith said on Thursday.

Another former Labor defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, says it was a mistake to rule out nuclear submarines when he oversaw a white paper in 2009 that set the goal of building a new fleet.

“Why did we do that? Well, we were concerned that we didn’t have the civil industry here in Australia to support it,” Fitzgibbon told Sky News on Thursday night. “But I must admit, too, I think, at the time there was some concern about the public reaction to going down that nuclear path.”

These are rare endorsements. Morrison is doing what other politicians wish they had done when they had the chance.

The most ferocious criticism, from Greens leader Adam Bandt with his warning about “floating Chernobyls” being docked in Australian ports, stands out in a political debate that has largely endorsed the nuclear option. For all the reservations about how Morrison got to this outcome, not least the years wasted over three terms of Coalition government, there have been few calls to choose a different route now.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese supports stronger ties with the US and UK and the concept of a nuclear submarine fleet. He criticises the government for its mistakes in the past but not its plan for the future. He sets three conditions on Labor support for nuclear submarines.

“Firstly, that there be no requirement of a domestic civil nuclear industry,” he said on Thursday. “Secondly, that there be no acquisition of nuclear weapons. And, thirdly, that this agreement would be compatible with the non-proliferation treaty.” Albanese knows all three can be met.

Morrison does not want to open a row over more nuclear reactors on Australian soil and is adamant that nuclear weapons are off the agenda. On the third condition, the government has told the International Atomic Energy Agency of its plans and expects to reach an arrangement, like other signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to allow its new submarines.

The sharpest criticism from Labor comes from the party’s volcano of past power, Paul Keating, who can rumble in the distance until he wants to cover his enemies with ash. The former prime minister damns the Morrison vision on the grounds it would bind Australia to the US in future conflict with China. He sees it as weakness, not strength, to rely so much on the US and UK.

This view has support within the Labor caucus, where MPs worry about the implications for an independent foreign policy, but there is no left-right divide.

So far, at least, there is no sign of a “wedge” that splits Labor and sparks an election fought on national security, nuclear submarines and the US alliance. When Morrison gave Labor a classified briefing on Wednesday, three of the four present were from the left: Albanese, foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong and defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor. The right was represented by the deputy leader, Richard Marles.

The outcome has been the swift bipartisan acceptance of a seismic shift. Morrison has tightened Australia’s alliance with the US and brought it closer to the UK with no debate in Parliament and no fight between the major parties, or so far within them, over his strategic direction.

It is a big call. Morrison has just defined the nation’s defence for another generation. Whether it is the right call is another matter. Whether voters love him or hate him, whether they will keep him or discard him at the next election, Morrison just left them a legacy. It will take years to know its value.

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