AUKUS: Paul Monk praises elitism, derides Australia’s vibrant civil societyJun 24, 2023
In an opinion piece published in The Weekend Australian (10 June 2023), Paul Monk offers his response to critics of the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine agreement. A central focus of his critique is this open letter signed by more than 100 academics. As two of the principal co-authors of the letter, we requested a right of reply, but received no response from The Australian’s Opinion Editor. The following is our rebuttal to Monk’s criticisms of the letter.
We do not claim to represent the views of all signatories to the letter, but as two of the principal co-authors, we feel obliged to respond to some of the misrepresentations Monk presents in his some 2000-word response.
Before offering our rebuttal, however, we should begin by establishing some basic facts about AUKUS.
If the agreement is delivered as advertised – and it is a big if – it will constitute the most expensive defence procurement in Australian history by a wide margin.
According to official proclamations, AUKUS will produce the most significant economic transformation of the country since the Snowy Hydro Scheme, and the most profound strategic transformation of the Australia-US alliance since the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.
Even accounting for hyperbole, it seems incredible that such a momentous decision was undertaken by the then Morrison government in secret, endorsed by the then Labor shadow ministry a day before it was announced and without due consideration by caucus, and presented to the Australian people as a fait accompli with no accompanying cost-effectiveness study, documented strategic rationale or parliamentary debate.
Monk, however, finds no issue with any of this, seeing fit only to deride opposition to AUKUS by those ‘critics outside government’.
‘Of course’, he concedes, it is ‘entirely appropriate that the government be asked to clarify the thinking behind these momentous decisions’.
But why should Australians resign themselves to asking polite questions of clarification in retrospect of such a significant decision?
This is a typical elitist attitude to democracy, where the public is expected to observe, not participate, in the important decisions that impact them, even when those decisions hold potentially profound implications for the future direction of the nation.
It is partly this contempt for public participation in policymaking that elicited the open letter by concerned scholars, the purpose of which rests on the following three points, and not those Monk asserts are ‘central to its case’.
First, the letter argues that the government has failed dismally to provide an adequate justification for AUKUS that answers the fundamental question of how it will make Australia safer, particularly when considering the significant risks and costs involved.
Monk doesn’t seem to understand this, falsely claiming that the letter both opposes nuclear-powered submarines ‘simply because they are nuclear-powered’ and rejects outright ‘the idea of buttressing our military capabilities as provocative militarism’.
In fact, the importance of a submarine capability for Australia’s defence is explicitly acknowledged in the letter. And while legitimate questions are raised about the defence benefits of a nuclear-powered submarine capability when compared to a conventional one, the risks and costs are canvassed within the specific context of acquiring such a capability via the AUKUS pathway.
It’s true that Defence has long maintained the requirement for a long-range submarine capability given Australia’s vast geography. Whatever the merits of this argument, the letter does not attempt to dispute this, contrary to Monk’s assertion.
Rather, it makes a narrower point, questioning the apparent need, and highlighting the significant strategic risks, as well as constraints on Australia’s defence autonomy, of acquiring a submarine capability uniquely suited to, and with the expectation of, playing a frontline role in any future US war with China, potentially and mostly worryingly with respect to nuclear warfare.
Monk mischaracterises the letter further when he claims it advocates Australia ‘should’ buy a much larger number of cheaper conventionally powered submarines.
The letter does no such thing.
Instead, it argues that such a momentous and consequential decision demands ‘a proper and forensic public discussion about other options’, borrowing the wise words of Peter Varghese, former head of the Office of National Assessments and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
This is, in fact, the second point of the letter.
That the government has not adequately explained why the prior French-designed diesel-electric powered submarine deal, promised to be ‘regionally superior’, is suddenly so gravely inadequate. Or why AUKUS confers greater defence advantages in comparison to a much larger number of cheaper conventional submarines, as publicly broached by several strategic experts.
Monk is also baffled at the letter’s absence of any ‘scrutiny or criticism’ of China’s actions as ‘the core concerns driving the geopolitical changes’ in Australia and the region. But this is beside the point of the matter that the letter is seeking to address.
There are many legitimate criticisms of China’s behaviour internally and externally, none of which translate into a sound strategic rationale for AUKUS.
This is precisely why the government has resorted to offering vague potential threats to shipping routes and undersea communications infrastructure as retrospective justifications for AUKUS, which the letter explicitly points out are flawed.
Monk adds nothing substantive in his attempt to make a ‘crystal clear’ case for AUKUS.
Instead, he seeks to dismiss and deflect concerns raised in the letter about the potential risk to Australia of creeping illiberalism in our American ally by conjuring an image of Xi’s China as ‘comparable to Nazi Germany’, supposedly destined by the ‘programmatic attitude’ of the CCP to seek to overturn the liberal international order sustained by ‘Pax Americana’.
Monk must suppose enough time has passed to safely resurrect the same hysterical nonsense used to make the case for invading Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was depicted as ‘the new Hitler’ threatening the West with his non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Yes, there are deplorable things about the government of China (along with many other governments Australia officially supports), but that doesn’t necessarily make China a threat to Australia, much less a threat that is addressed by AUKUS.
This brings us to the third and final point of the open letter.
That the government should not proceed with AUKUS until and unless it adequately addresses the questions and issues raised by committing to a robust national debate.
How that debate proceeds, and where it leads, is not for national security elites to determine, or 100 academics for that matter.
It is the responsibility of that same vibrant civil society that Monk sees only fit to deride, and for each Australian to contemplate whether AUKUS is a judicious use of $368 billion of public money.