$368 billion on submarines: not a chance in hell!

Apr 30, 2023
Chinese and American flags in two directions on road sign. Relationships and differences in diplomacy, strategy and interests.

This week the Federal ALP Government announced a significant cutback in the number of tanks to be stationed in the north to repel whatever is expected to land there to take our beautiful country away from us. Why – because tanks just won’t do the job in future.

We are going to arm ourselves instead with a few submarines and thousands of missiles and drones. What for I can’t fathom because some fundamentals never change.

Let me revert to 1985 when I was a new junior ALP backbencher from Central Victoria with the Puckapunyal army base as part of the geography. I shared this with my (also new) colleague Peter Cleeland (who sadly passed away from acute MND in 2007) whose adjoining electorate of McEwan hosted the army base.

Under new Defence Minister Kim Beazley the Army had decided to move the Leopard tank squadron at Puckapunyal to northern Australia where the Dib Report said they were most needed. Our locals were concerned about job losses and worried that a potential invasion would see us defenceless without these tanks in the backyard.

Kim assured Peter and I that jobs would be preserved and dismissed the vulnerability question with two quick points. Firstly, the expert consensus was that it would always be just about militarily impossible to maintain a land-based invasion across the Australian continent from the north; and the job would be just as impossible by sea from the south.

While this was very reassuring the real clincher came with the advice that at the rate of destruction of Leopard tanks in the 1967 Yom Kippur battle in the Middle East “we had enough tanks to protect Puckapunyal for seven minutes!”

Knowing this I applaud Ian McPhee’s brilliant dissertation and reasoned logic on the abyss we are digging for ourselves in a re-run of “all the way with LBJ”.

The Australian community (as in America) has been totally softened up to the “anti-China” message over more than a decade. The ALP in opposition (and in Government) found itself totally squeezed on issues of national security and boat people. For 20 years it became simply politically impossible to take any meaningful alternative stance. Any questioning or wavering has been successfully and ruthlessly exploited by the Liberals and Nationals at every election since 2001 (Tampa and the boat people).

Yes, Paul Keating was right in his attack on the AUKUS plan, but he was churlish to bag Albo, Penny and Richard personally in the way he did. They are currently our heroes tasked with trying to turn around this awful mess.

Certainly the 6 years of Rudd/Gillard Government provided the opportunity to unravel the disaster that had become Defence procurement. They could have and should have set the course a little more sensibly. That opportunity was lost as a young and immature Government found it too hard to come to grips with such enormity. Now it is a different story. The players have been around a while and they should know their stuff.

A week is a long time in politics – 30 years even more! I don’t think there is a chance in hell that we will finish up spending $368 billion on a few submarines and being tied to America in a war against China in South East Asia or anywhere else. I don’t think the USA can sustain much longer its’ crazy spending on the military while the nation wallows in ever increasing poverty and inequality. Their problems are bursting at the seams in all directions; BLM being just one of them.

But we must keep up the pressure. Albo needs to know that his most fervent supporters want to see us quietly and diplomatically ease ourselves out of this arrangement. We are now just about mature enough as a nation to do so. And, of course, the politics is changing. Don’t for one minute underestimate the significance of the changing Chinese vote in electorates that matter while all this bagging of China goes on.

Pragmatism or principles? Paul Keating once urged the Caucus to understand that voters always back self-interest. “That’s the horse that will give them value for money” he said.

Where is the dollar and trade in all this for us? China and Asia by a factor of tens as we continue to position ourselves in what Julia Gillard correctly described as “the Asian Century”. Like all hard things which must be done; the stepping back from the dangers in our US alliance will be one step forward and two steps backwards – but we will get there – and it won’t be with AUKUS submarines.

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