AUKUS: transformations and losses

Sep 8, 2023
Statue of Giordano Bruno erected at Campo de' Fiori in Rome Image:iStock

In matters of defence and national security strategy Australia has entered a period of great transformations. The AUKUS submarine project is the proximate cause: a vanity project born of fantasies so dense that, strategically speaking, it has created gravitational waves of a magnitude that warps everything it encounters. More precisely, it warps in ways that are above and beyond the almost normalized disfigurements within the conversations on national security which already existed.

Consider the transformations that attend what passes for the national security and defence debate in Australia since the inception of AUKUS post-September 15, 2021, and the subsequent steady release of related agreements and statements:

  • From being an autonomous nation state within an alliance with the US (vassal) to the reduced status of semi-autonomy within the same arrangement (satrap). In Washington and Canberra this transit to a greater degree of subordination was heralded as an exemplary and unprecedented recognition of services rendered and anticipated.
  • From captious or fallacious reasoning (casuistry) to deliberately invalid arguments – some seemingly ingenious for the purposes of justifying questionable ends (sophistry). And despite this the rationale for the government’s decisions and actions remain radically incomplete.
  • From an understanding that the world is complex and challenges the diplomatic imagination with its paradoxes to the adoption of technophilia – the single-minded search for, and love of an ultimate weapon – which, in its technological efficiency, necessarily subordinates and substitutes the search for negotiation and compromise.
  • From published assessments and reviews of the world which at least had real world referents to assertions and claims seemingly inspired by the Book of Revelation or the Sibyl at Delphi. Taken together they are unintelligible.
  • Where possible and convenient, the identifiable shift is from the begrudged provision of minimal and inadequate justifications for government policies and actions to avoiding the process altogether. The pantomime of the faux debate at the recent Australian Labor Party conference was both a refusal to accede to the demands of the party faithful and, by extension, the engaged citizens of Australia at large, both of whom are seeking reasons for national security strategies that are mystifying to say the least.
  • Rumor has it that even the alliance hymn has changed – from the Unitarian Cold War standard, “Nearer My God to Thee,” to the Anglican “Abide with Me.” [There is reason to believe, however, that these 19th Century compositions are being usurped by the more modern and up-tempo supplication by Sarah Brightman, Jose Cura, and the London Symphony Orchestra].

Wistfully, and without any wish to lose the gravitas of this, there is a sense in all of it that, in the refusal to provide comprehensive reasons, to stifle debate, and to not even consider the need for the social license required for such a massively expensive project which will, in a real sense “colonise the future,” the ALP is conforming to habits of mind, and practices which historically marked imperial religion.

This should not surprise: the literature on alliances – including NATO, and the Australia-US relationship – increasingly refers to them as being usefully understood as secular religions.

Just recently, and in an article on this site, James Curran made a passing reference to this precisely in relation to the antics of closure at the ALP conference. The sad fact is that these antics are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

By now it has become obvious that so many of the narratives relating to AUKUS are implausible, and yet at the same time are held to be true, the implication being that they have been accepted based on faith.

Consider the Party’s executive and its response to demands from certain sectors of the membership to debate the implications of the AUKUS agreement. Prima facie, this was a front-on challenge to the hierarchy and the creeping culture of government secrecy. Specifically, it was a demand to exercise what John Milton described as, “the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience.” A Right born of adversity, struggle, and revolution. Hardly exceptional. Declared to be essential and normal in all democratic societies.

The first response, however, was an outright refusal to countenance a debate. When that seemed impolitic the turn was to an event which not only parodied the original intention of the petitioners but left them, and the wider body of citizens frustrated without any closer understanding of it all.

Worse, the overall outcome was determined by the ALP’s elite adopting prerogatives inimical to a democratic party and more closely identified with the worst excesses of the romanita -the confessional imperialism of Rome – most notably by admonition, and – sustained throughout by magisterium, auctoritas, potestas – the office, the authority, and the power to use both.

In terms of a broader political and social understanding, however, it is a form of atavism, a return to rule by a form of political absolutism, and a denial of the Enlightenment tradition of institutionalised scepticism.  Accordingly, it raises questions of the most serious nature for contemporary and future Australian political dynamics.

Under its aegis the edict is this: some questions are not for now even if that requires ignoring the nature and necessities of the present.

This is the essence of the Pontificate which the great Australian shannachie, Morris West, concerned himself with in so much of his writing – government and rule by regulation beyond effective appeal on the grounds of either: non expedit (it is not expedient); non e opportune (it is not timely), or (simply) fiat (let it be done thus).

Engagement with critical thinking and realistic alternatives has definite and foreshortened limits in such a milieu. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, when forced to face the absurdities of such a regime, the conclusion is that the engaged citizenry are being reduced to an organism capable only of reflexive obedience – which is to say a community of shared humiliation.

Those who rule, therefore, become a genus indifferent to listening or seeing what is not approved and, thereby, learning. For now, this Richard Marles-led spectacle is a preposterous exercise in solipsism; over time, and this is becoming evident in the absence of comprehensive justifications for the AUKUS decisions, this elite becomes capable only of primal utterances, both dogmatic and catechistic. In other words, a neurotically inarticulate elite sodality wholly deserving of a description found in Ulysses: “tongue-tied sons of bastards’ ghosts.”

Sadly, the sense of loss is yet to be realised. The histories of both imperial religion and religious imperialism are sordid as are their fusions with political absolutism but there was a time when those who resisted them were seen as exemplars of free and conscience-led speech. This is to say that before political parties move to silence dissent in the ranks they should recall the fate of – a person of extraordinary independence in the search for knowledge and understanding. As he testified:

. . . . . I claim
No private lien on the truth, only
A liberty to seek it, prove it in debate,
And to be wrong a thousand times to reach
A single rightness.

When asked by the Inquisition to recant his views, he refused. He was then tortured and burned at the stake in 1600 for his outspoken beliefs.

Since 1889 memory of his heroic stand has been honoured in the form of a statue in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. Images of it, and his last sayings should be prominently displayed in all political quarters as a reminder of what could be lost eventually.

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