Albanese a pale shadow of Keating, even on subs

Mar 21, 2023
Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III greets British Prime Minister Rishi Surnak and Australian Primer Minister Anthony Albanese the AUKUS bilateral meeting San Diego, Calif, March 13, 2023. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

Paul Keating did all Australians, and all the world, an important favour over the past week.

That he has significantly enraged some people from his old party may underline the lasting service he has done for the public interest, and, perhaps for peace in our time. It was also a reminder of his capacity for invective and argument, and serious capacity to mangle those with whom he disagreed. Until the other day, a journalist had to be my age to have had one of his lacerating but free character readings. I remember mine well.

Keating produced an array of serious objections to the AUKUS deal. None was a quibble. Each separately underlined why it was bad for Australia, bad for peace, and, possibly, likely to increase the chance of war between the US and China. Each also invited real questions about the calibre of Australian politicians – current or in the previous administration – and national security officials who, as usual have put the interests of the US ahead of the quite separate national interests of Australia.

Some of his critics are already saying that the deal is now a done deal and cannot be undone. He is simply too late, unless he is advocating that Australia walk away from a binding agreement with the US and Britain, thus wrecking our position in the western alliance. They might be right, because the joint announcement of the deal made no mention of let-out clauses, or any intention that the important matters said to be agreed could be re-negotiated at the will of any of the parties.

Yet if that were so, it would be an extraordinary and deeply undemocratic result. It would be entirely at odds with the traditions of each of the nations involved. Until the agreement was signed fewer than 100 Australia officials had any idea of the broad detail of the agreement. Not many officials, nearly all in defence and intelligence, and even fewer ministers, from the US and Britain were across the details either.

No country has had any sort of debate of substance in its parliament. Until the Australian prime minister was standing alongside the American President and the British prime minister at San Diego, only bland statements had been made. Although Australians were well aware that the cost of the agreement would be in the tens of billions – since it involved the acquisition of nuclear submarines – they had no idea of the scale of the spending or what we would get, when. (The ultimate cost was, in any event, four times any sum previously mentioned.) If the deal is carried out, every dollar of the money will have to be appropriated through a parliament which was not formally consulted, on behalf of a nation and people shut out of any prior understanding of what was in contemplation.

No debate, and little detail, but astronomic cost to the nation

The two major party leaders, and a few of their ministers, knew. It was much the same in the other two countries. All agreed in short that the public did not need to know, or to be consulted or heard before any deal was signed. You could argue, in theory, that the political leaders represent us, and knew best about the need for secrecy. I don’t think so. The politicians might say that this secrecy was essential given the delicacy of any arrangements involving weapons of war, or the risks of security appreciations of the danger posed by China and other potential enemies, or the partners’ individual appreciation of their national security interest. The community, presumably, has no choice but to trust its leaders. And for the next 50 or more years, if the fundamental circumstance remained unchanged? The fundamental circumstance, of course, is that the US is determined that China will never be allowed to grow or expand to a point that America’s capacity to dominate China’s neighbourhood is in any way threatened.

Strictly, of course, no government of a particular time can bind a future government, whether in treaty or contract. Breaking a deal means there’s usually a price to pay, particularly if one is a nation of smaller size. We had to pay France billions when we repudiated a submarine purchase agreement. The French President, Macron, declared that prime minister Scott Morrison had lied to him. Some other treaties or understandings lapse by a sort of mutual neglect, and sometimes powerful nations engineer circumstances so that implementation of a contract – say over a coal or wine contract – is simply impossible. And sometimes countries – the US for example — sign treaties expressed to be subject to the assent of congress, leaving open the possibility that the executive government can neglect to put it before congress if it suddenly become politically inconvenient. This meant, for example, that America walked away, without penalty from the Trans-Pacific Partnership seven year ago.

If Australia walked away from the tripartite submarine contract, say after a revolt in Labor branches, or after a parliamentary debate exposes significant weaknesses in what had been agreed, the other parties would be likely to be demanding significant sums – in the tens of billions. They wouldn’t necessarily be subject to the similar penalties themselves, because they played the innocent Australians for patsies. As Keating pointed out, in every one of the arrangements we know about it is Australia which is paying the money or providing the facilities to the other parties.
Paul Keating thinks that Anthony Albanese made a very bad deal, even assuming (which he doesn’t) that the idea of buying American nuclear subs was a good idea. The deal is so bad, and so big and for so long, that mere partisan solidarity with a successor leader cannot keep him silent, he says. He diplomatically excuses Albanese and the fault lies with Richard Marles, the defence Minister, and the conflict-averse Penny Wong, foreign minister. Wong decided that Labor foreign policy should exactly mirror the Liberal Party’s, so that Labor could not be wedged on national security. Labor in opposition (including Albanese) signed up to the Morrison deal without reservation within 24 hours, without consulting the Labor Caucus.

Morrison told nothing to his ministers for foreign affairs and trade, and their department. Albanese did the same, as far as negotiations were concerned. This means foreign policy is being set in in a gung-ho defence department dominated by hawkish political conservatives looking to Washington and American interests for guidance. Any capacity to put a Labor touch on the deal was avoided by Albanese’s reluctance to sack or move bureaucrats who had been political partisans of the previous government – something Albanese had, in opposition, alleged of the Morrison government’s national security advisers. Albanese was taking political and strategic advice from Morrison advisers. It could hardly be said that Albanese himself had the background or experience to discount their fervour.

There’s a polite fiction that once politicians get to meet statesmen from other countries, they become statesmen (or women) in their own right, concerned only for national interest and not in any way focused on party partisan advantage. Albanese and his national security ministers have pretended from the start that Scott Morrison’s brainwave, and very early and very private discussions with the Brits and the Yanks were of that ilk. It’s hard to imagine this given his record for mendacity and relentless partisanship. Morrison never did anything, even with the pandemic, which was not calculated entirely to his own political advantage. Indeed, even our breach with China was orchestrated to create a crisis for him to solve. Not for the first time the interests of Australian farmers, miners, universities and tourism were being sacrificed for crude politics.

Morrison planned the deal to gazump Labor. It didn’t work because Labor threw out principle for tactics

Morrison intended that his nuclear subs idea would compromise Labor. He expected they would have problems going along with it, especially because it involved nuclear propulsion. He was much more interested in what would divide Labor than what would best serve our defence interests. So was Dutton, whose every action was focused on creating division rather than unity. Morrison wanted to create fake outrage at Albanese’s pusillanimity and Labor’s indecision. Then, on form, he would use taxpayer dollars to attack Labor’s patriotism and sweep back into office. On the political tactic, Albanese may have outsmarted him by abject surrender of principle. But the doing so was a cruel betrayal of Labor’s history and culture, and bad for the nation. Unlike Whitlam, Albanese failed his 1966 moment.

Keating reckons that most Labor branch members are aghast at what Labor has done and, if given the opportunity would revolt. So would a number of unions not entirely convinced that the Australian economy will ultimately benefit in the way Albanese claims. Or disputing that it is worth sacrificing improvements in health, education, welfare and disability services for increased tensions with our most important trading partner. A partner with whom we have sometimes loud commercial and political differences. But one which does not threaten our national security, even when it has a navy roughly equivalent to its domestic product, or to the American Navy. Australians see China as wanting to grow further, and to have influence and respect equivalent to its power. But they do not fear a Chinese armada on the horizon, as they once did from our ally Japan.

I expect that Albanese has no appetite for an open debate within his party. I expect he wants to shut down any controversy about his judgment. He claims that he understands better than anyone else (other than, perhaps, Peter Hartcher and Andrew Shearer) the dire threats facing the country. And that Paul Keating is of another era, and, with all due respect, doesn’t understand that a national leader must sometimes put nation before party. It must occur to him that the very same discontented ALP members would repudiate his refugee policy with just the same gusto if given a chance. And, probably, his anaemic climate-change policies. Once, for people in his faction of politics, these involved fundamental principle – like opposition to uranium mining.

Paul Keating came from an era of politics in which Labor decided to have its debates in the open, and had them boots and all before falling in behind the decision made. It was better for the party than synthetic pretences of unity. Even damaging debates involving great passions and irreconcilable arguments – coming particularly from Albanese mentors such as Tom Uren. There was no choreography of results, but a lot of logic and emotion. It was an ultimately pragmatic party, even on the left, if people felt they had been heard. And there was a lot of cynicism about people, such as Albanese now, morally certain they had done the right thing since it contradicted everything they had ever stood for. Keating took no prisoners, but nor did his opponents, particularly, oddly enough, on nuclear issues.

Albanese rose in factional politics because he had a following, people who admired his passion and his gutsiness. Then he wanted debates, not sullen silence. Now in power, he is timid and uncertain – with an instinct for doing the least controversial thing. Just such disciples are now wondering if he has any abiding principle. Whether he actually stands for anything. Albanese, of all people should remember that when just such doubts arose about Kevin Rudd in 2010, Rudd was doomed.

The Keating critique of the deal goes much further. With or without nuclear propulsion, our subs will fire only conventional weapons. No more than our diesel boats do. That’s hardly a formidable deterrent, or one which will terrify the Chinese. Our boats will usually be deployed, as part of an American team, just off the Chinese coast, rather than protecting our continent and its trade routes. The boats are enormous and will have trouble lying in ambush on our continental shelf.

Australia may have little latitude in meeting its financial commitments, but even with the best will in the world, the Brits and the Americans will struggle to meet deadlines, cost estimates, and quality promises, especially about stealth. All the more so because the early boats will be second hand, and the latest ones involve untried and untested technology. Australia may well end up with fewer torpedo tubs facing an enemy.

Does the Chinese build-up show a plan for aggression? What about America’s?

Keating simply does not agree that China has aggressive intentions towards Australia. Or that it has invasion and conquest of Australia on its agenda. Our trade and commercial disputes , and sharp words, do not prove any such plan. If China wanted to invade, it would have to go through Indonesia. And it would need an armada of landing craft obvious long before setting off, and very vulnerable to submarine attack.

China clearly wants a blue-water navy commensurate with what it sees as its status as the biggest or second biggest economy in the world. It does not want its navy to be able to be pushed around by the US Fleet. Nor does it want the Yanks to be operating just off the Chinese coast, any more than the US would like Chinese subs off San Francisco Harbour. But spending money to match the US Navy – still far more powerful – did not prove plans for war. Likewise, US and western rearmament does not show that war cannot be avoided. China has no tradition of seeking land to conquer. The areas where it has exercised or threatened or force, such as Tibet, islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, had always been land and people it claimed as its own.

Keating may be too little worried about China’s oppression of the Uighurs, about whose human rights the anti-China lobby has suddenly become very concerned. His “what-aboutism”, whether about the insecurity of Muslim people in India and Kashmir, or Aboriginal deaths in custody, is no real answer to the picture of an increasingly authoritarian China. But it does show some hypocrisy on the part of the west, and Australia itself. Australian and western concern for human rights in other nations is largely rhetorical, never consistent and rarely successful. It’s always the first objective abandoned by the politicians.

Anthony Albanese is not thinking of invading China to save the Uighurs. Nor the Tibetans or, I hope, the Taiwanese. It’s not that I don’t want them saved. But I do not think that anything we did would help them. More likely it would make their lot worse.

The anti-China lobby in the intelligence world has convinced itself, and an inexpert Albanese, of worrying signs of China’s preparation for war. Or that a build-up signals an intention to fight. If it happens in the near future, as the Sydney Morning Herald suggests, it will be well before we have any nuclear subs. And after that war, if it gets to gunfire and missiles, all bets will be off for everyone. But while there are material rewards, advancement and status for those predicting doom or demanding more money for defence, there are no secret argument-changing facts of which the public is unaware. Just interpretations of the facts, mostly from people predisposed to the conclusions they draw. Paul Keating doesn’t need a briefing from our intelligence agencies. He needs to keep reading the media and the journals. These days the international media organisations are usually more objective and less actuated by agendas.

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