Why has there been no credible media narrative justifying AUKUS?

May 7, 2024
US Australia and Great Britain flags paint over on chess king. AUKUS defence pact.

Many members of the Albanese Government, including Anthony Albanese himself, recall the problem that presented itself when Julia Gillard took the reins as Prime Minister in 2010 without a credible narrative as to why she accepted the job, other than to say the government under Kevin Rudd had lost its way. It was well known in government circles that Rudd was micromanaging key departments and doing it badly, but Gillard was reluctant to call that spade a spade. Accordingly, NewsCorp filled the vacuum with poison, helped along by James Ashby and a few associated shysters.

What the Albanese Government faces now is another situation without a credible narrative, but this time no one is calling it out, other than a few outliers such as former Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull, and the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University Hugh White. The issue is AUKUS, initially a Morrison Government blank cheque deal with Britain and the US, obliging Australia to purchase eight nuclear-powered submarines by around 2040 to assist in containing an allegedly aggressive China and to keep open our sea-lane trade routes in and around the South China Sea … in order to trade with our largest trading partner, China.

Expertise in strategic studies or defence is not necessary to know that AUKUS was announced with fanfare by the Morrison Government in September 2021. It was a well-kept secret until then and announced at a time when the Labor Opposition was given less than a day to come on board with a bipartisan position or risk opposing a colossal defence policy pivot with an election six months away, and realising that opposition to it would be characterised as being weak on national security.

Labor was playing a small target strategy at the time (and arguably still is) and Morrison was acutely aware of that. So without any discussion other than marketing palaver on the merits of the pivot, Labor swiftly agreed to say Yes to AUKUS while meekly mentioning a diplomatic problem entailed in cancelling a major procurement contract with France’s Naval Group.

The New York Times was puzzled that Australia was ‘betting the house’ on a gamble that involved ‘throwing its lot in with the United States for generations to come’. The Times quoted Morrison happily saying the deal was a “forever relationship” with a major power that could at any time be led by the likes of Donald Trump. Morrison and the then Defence Minister Peter Dutton are Trump enthusiasts so that was not an issue for them, but it might have occurred to Albanese that if a Trump presidency came to pass he would not be able to credibly argue anything like alignment between Australia’s values and a hard-line ‘America First’ isolationist position. Defence Minister Richard Marles stepped aside from that quandary, stating recently that Kevin Rudd could deliver AUKUS under a Trump presidency, without even acknowledging values misalignment as an issue.

In London, The Times ran a story citing criticism of the deal by Turnbull and Keating which drew attention to Morrison’s trademark obsession with secrecy, so much so that it involved keeping Australia’s own Navy in the dark. It noted that “a French Ministry of Defence spokesman said that Naval Group had received an official letter from the Australian Navy saying it was ‘extremely satisfied that performance of the French submarine was excellent’ on the same day the cancellation was announced”.

But the Australian media was uniformly gleeful about AUKUS and on board with the China phobia position advocated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), with virtually no dissenting voices at NewsCorp, Nine, Seven, Ten or ABC News.

Despite that, it was widely thought in Labor circles that if the Party won the 2022 election Albanese would quietly abandon Morrison’s AUKUS frolic, especially when it calculated a cost on the proposal at around $368 billion. AUKUS had not been an election issue, so there was no voter mandate for it and the politics would always ensure that credit was given to Morrison rather than Albanese were it to prove workable, especially if NewsCorp led the reporting angle.

It was also widely hoped among Labor people that certain department secretaries and agency heads perceived as partisan, might be replaced by more neutral appointees after the election. Prominent names for the chop included Phil Gaetjens, Mike Pezzullo, Kathryn Campbell, Greg Moriarty, Ita Buttrose, Stephanie Foster, Reece Kershaw and Mike Burgess. With the exception of Gaetjens, who walked, that didn’t happen because Albanese gallantly promised not to sack public servants, and he foolishly kept the promise.

Predictably, the Morrison mandarins were largely free to continue implementing the agendas on which they had been working for the previous five years. It seems from the outside, for example, that Secretary Pezzullo continued to press the China war stance from Home Affairs which he had openly pushed since his “drums of war” speech in 2021, and to which he returned as a discredited public servant in a soft ABC 7.30 interview during April 2024 when he talked about the need for a war book.

The ABC under Buttrose was in lockstep with NewsCorp in its enthusiastic backing of AUKUS. Its Sunday morning flagship Insiders having dedicated a March 2023 program entirely to the topic, with Peter Hartcher from Nine offering his usual persuasive take and Greg Sheridan from NewsCorp bending over backwards to debunk anything negative said on the matter by White or Keating. They had contested Sheridan’s mantra of China’s “radical militarism and extreme aggression”, a fixation Sheridan has obsessed about since the days of ‘reds under the beds’ during the 1950s and 60s.

Sheridan projected himself on Insiders as an AUKUS sceptic until it supposedly dawned on him that the Virginia class submarines would fill the gap before delivery of the nuclear-powered subs promise, and so he claimed to see for the first time that that extra element would ensure the wonderful strategy worked by “complicating the thinking of any aggressor”.

Complicating the thinking of an aggressor is the thinking behind a porcupine defence strategy which Keating, among others, has supported and which relies on a defence around our own maritime borders bolstered by the strategic advantage of distance. It stands in contrast to a forward strategy which involves taking an aggressive stance in China’s own region with US-made submarines. A defensive strategy of “patrol, defend, strike” doesn’t sound so defensive when “strike” is a key element from within striking distance of China’s mainland.

Hartcher and Keating might agree that the AUKUS subs could end up being “fantasy subs” like those of the past, a point which White underlines by simply calling AUKUS a charade. He argued in the February edition of Australian Foreign Affairs that regarding nuclear powered subs as the answer is flawed on both a technical and strategic rationale, and that it’s highly likely the AUKUS plan is undeliverable anyway.

The “Second Pillar” of AUKUS involves the promise of unprecedented research cooperation and Australian participation in contracts that will send a “flood of work our way”, said White. But, with $368 billion of Australian taxpayer money to spend, he envisages a less naive assessment that would see our US and UK partners intent to ensure that work on their projects will be done at home, and contracted work on Australian projects will flow their way. And while Perth is being proposed as an AUKUS port, its location in the Indian Ocean does not readily fit within the idea of defending our region from China.

It’s not surprising that neither Morrison nor Albanese made any attempt to put a credible narrative to the Australian people about AUKUS because any narrative would raise more troubling questions than provide sensible answers. That said, because it’s a bi-partisan policy most of the electorate have never been asked to think about AUKUS. It’s an issue on which the major parties agree and the mainstream media either cheer it on or steer away from it, so why would it ever come up for discussion in the public realm?

What is surprising is that Albanese’s Labor Party is pursuing a ridiculously expensive AUKUS that is putting many of its most loyal supporters offside as it sucks hundreds of billions of dollars away from programs they care about such as education, health, infrastructure, housing, gender equity and the cost of living. And all for a problematic policy position that keeps the vested interests of its political opponent happy for the time being.

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