Apr 25, 2023
World flags,little flags of different countries, Australia flag.

‘I’m proud of what we did in less than 24 hours.’ That was Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s 4 March comment this year on the time he took back in 2021 to decide on supporting the then Liberal government’s startling AUKUS agreement. 

‘Incompetent’, exclaimed former Prime Minister Paul Keating at the National Press Club the day after the plan was finally announced on 14 March this year. Australia would buy six to eight US nuclear powered submarines for the colossal cost of $368 billion. In view of the magnitude of the deal’s very arguable array of political, strategic, technical, and other deficiencies, you’d have to say that, as Keating reminded us, the greatest of these was the time it took Labor to decide: almost nil.

Why raise this issue on ANZAC Day?

Because, as incompetent as a ‘less than 24-hour’ AUKUS submarine decision is from the perspective of public administration, the executive decisions that trigger our long-range overseas expeditions — as nuclear-powered submarines are now designed to go on — have always been made impulsively in the ANZAC tradition.

In 1914, the conservative Joseph Cook government’s offer to send an Australian division to support Britain in the First World War reached the British Cabinet on 3 August, the day before it decided Britain would be in that conflict.

In 1939, arch-Anglo-phile Robert Menzies was not so fast. Still, he followed Britain’s 3 September 1939 declaration of war on Germany the same day (AEST), declaring his ‘melancholy duty’ to inform the nation that ‘Britain is at war therefore Australia is at war’ — with Germany. Thirty years later, Menzies boasted that, on 17 December 1964, his Cabinet took no longer than ‘five minutes’ to decide on sending troops to Vietnam.

On 10 August 1990, Bob Hawke apparently received no US request for the three frigates he committed to US Operation Desert Shield, as early reports suggested he had. He rather acted on an impulse.

9/11, 2001: John Howard, who was in Washington when the terrorist attacks occurred, decided instantly that Australia would support the US — as he went on reflexively to involve us in Afghanistan (with arguable success until 2005) and make his ‘captain’s choice’ on Iraq.

Albanese’s 24-hour determination does not immediately or necessarily launch us into a far-flung war. It does, however, represent the automatic acceptance of preparations for war that could involve us in a nuclear one with China.

What, then, in the expeditionary tradition, does the speed of decisions, which can’t possibly resolve the great issues at stake, represent?

The speed represents what it has since 1914: the imperial political context for the announcement. In theory, the context has a national component; the expeditionary reflex presumes reciprocal support from the British or American empires when the need for future protection of the Commonwealth arises. But since no country has ever intended to invade Australia, even in 1942, (although there are reasons why I think we had to fight the Japanese then), the political context has almost never privileged national interests.

The rapid decisions have, indeed, tended habitually to represent the ordained imperial, or neo-imperial interests of a dependent sub-imperial elite. Or the decision represents the expeditious ratification of elite interests in secret conclave by a prime minister with one or two others who have little regard for substantive issues of national interest, strategic relevance, or technical capacity.

Such, indeed, is the autocratic decision-making process, which the Australian War Powers Reform Group has been attempting to reform since the prime minister of the day decided on Australia’s support for the great crime against humanity that was the illegal US invasion of Iraq.

Australians for War Powers Reform (AWPR) sensibly assumes that sympathy for the devil can influence top-down one-man or small group decisions in many ways. As well as ignorance and error, these include political bias, bloody mindedness, and the automatic unreflective identification by the decision maker/s with a foreign great white Anglo-sphere of power and its interests which are bound to be different from Australia’s. The determined blocking out of information or penetrating criticism (such as Keating’s) that might be contrary to official affinities and desires may also be involved. Today, the security state’s secret enmeshment with the immensely influential arms companies certainly is.

To minimise the destructive effects of the self-serving process, AWPR wants more democracy. It wants to cultivate national decision-making wherein MPs debate and vote in Parliament on whether Australia should join ‘overseas wars.’ Yet the tenacity of elite interests has recently been reasserted. In mid-March, AWPR’s carefully constructed agenda was formally rejected by the Labor dominated Parliamentary Inquiry set up to enquire into it.

Then, of course, around the same time, we had the AUKUS submarine deal. The two shadow ministers with whom Opposition Leader Albanese made his almost instant AUKUS call in 2021, were in fact the two influential ministers who had ominously opposed AWPR’s agenda for some time before the Parliamentary Inquiry’s rejection of it last month. These were Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles.

So, what about the Albanese government’s ‘incompetence’? Keating’s trenchant criticisms undoubtedly raise questions — soon sifted by expert analysts, Gareth Evans, Hugh White, and James Curran — about deficiencies in the AUKUS deal from the national perspective.

Recall only three questions that Labor could not have thought through ‘in less than 24 hours’. Is not the design of the US Virginia class nuclear powered submarines, which will be ageing by the time we (might) get them in a decade or two, technically suitable for encircling China and attacking its navy, but relatively unsuitable for the close defence of Australia? If the deal collapses under the weight of its complexity, elongation over decades, and blow outs in already incredible costs, as Hugh White thinks it very likely will, won’t we be without a submarine force in the allegedly dangerous decades to come? And if the deal doesn’t collapse, won’t it tie us into a US strategy to contain China and lock our navy into US command systems, which will strip away our sovereignty, thus involving us dependently in a potential nuclear war with China, which has not only never threatened us, but depends on our minerals for its growth, while our prosperity depends on the same two-way Australia-China trade?

Still, when rapid executive decisions traditionally trigger our wars — and large arms purchases, a subject David Bradbury’s recent film deals with well — questions like that are what you’d expect. From Keating’s national perspective, the ‘incompetence’ of taking on AUKUS submarines without time for due consideration, forces us to remember the tragic consequences of the expeditionary reflex.

Lest we forget, the over 100,000 Australians killed and well over 200,000 wounded in all overseas wars from the First World War (1914-1918) to Afghanistan (2002-2021).

Lest we forget what history then shows: only in the fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific in 1941-45 were the casualties — some 8000 killed and 20,000 wounded — justified in what can reasonably be described in unambiguous strategic terms as being fought in the defence of Australia.

Since we were mired in mud and body parts on the Western front, the imperial protection we were said to be fighting for has never come through. Except in relation to the Pacific War (1941-45), when the US fought in its own interests against the Japanese and were always going to do that, an historic series of Commonwealth calamities has brought us down from the Somme through the falls of Singapore, Saigon, and Kabul.

We are in a privileged position of geographical remoteness from the reality of that history of Anglo-imperial decline. This has enabled us to withdraw from it and overlook the catastrophic incompetence it has encompassed. With China’s risen economic and military eminence in the region, however, we will not necessarily be able so easily to go on doing that.

Former Prime Minister Keating’s questioning of the AUKUS submarine deal thus cuts to the chase. His questions assume the fundamental weakness of the short sharp executive decision that, in its wider anglosphere rather than national identification, has impulsively triggered the expeditionary tradition.

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