The $368 billion deal is a marketer’s dream, hatched in secret with no accountability and to hell with the cost.
AUKUS is now officially born and one day it will deliver eight nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. When that day comes no one can be sure. It will be three decades away. In the meantime Australia will meet its “capability gap” with slightly used nuclear-powered submarines from the US. Money, though, is no object.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave the political leader’s speech in San Diego today but let’s cut to the chase, do the right thing and christen these for what they are: Morrison-class submarines. It was the much maligned former prime minister who got the ball rolling, as he was happy to tell everyone last week via the pages of his old mates at The Australian.
It is also marvellously appropriate because whatever else it is, AUKUS is a marketer’s dream. It is quintessential Morrison. It has been hatched in secret and will continue that way. There will be no day of accountability. Most of us will be long gone before the promised product ever materialises. It will be prohibitively expensive. It is set to be some $368 billion over three decades — but we all know that’s a low-ball estimate, done for early sales purposes, and that it will at least double if not treble. It always does.
In the months preceding today’s announcement we’ve been treated to some outstanding marketing. The nuclear-powered sub is the “apex predator” of the sea, a descriptor which is somehow meant to say it all, and perhaps does for those who get a chubby from military hardware.
We have also learnt that AUKUS represents a “new dawn” for Australia, that it is the most significant defence initiative since World War II and that it will lead to a “seamless integration of industrial capacity” between the three nations.
Morrison called it “the forever relationship”. It is intended to bring “stability to the region”, of course. Naturally there is the jobs bonanza that 30 years of production will lead to. It is said to be 20,000 jobs in Australia — but again, who knows? It feels like a back of the envelope number. Take the first guess, double it and double it again. Who will ever check? And who will ever know?
In Canberra this morning Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said AUKUS would surpass the Snowy Mountains scheme and rival the establishment of the car industry. Six billion dollars will be spent in the next four years on industry, skills and workforce development, including training and apprenticeships. Australia will spend an estimated $30 billion on lifting the skills and capacity of the Australian industry and workforce.
There is set to be a construction yard built in Adelaide. Hundreds — maybe thousands — of Australian workers will be sent to train in shipyards overseas.
It is hard to avoid the strong whiff of opportunism from the British government in particular. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is said to have been unable to contain his excitement that the project will breathe new life into Barrow-in-Furness shipyards in the north of the country, providing at least the promise of jobs for a government up against it. That other great marketing man, Boris Johnson, had also seized on the political sales possibilities.
As AUKUS became public last year, Johnson delightedly described the shipyards as the “vast maternity ward of these steel leviathans” and hailed the “massive” AUKUS deal as a development that would represent “the UK’s influence and values — the things we love and believe in — around the world”.
By sharing in the US’s nuclear secrets Australia has become irrevocably tied to the US alliance for its defence. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull alleges the deal means Australia sacrifices its sovereignty. It is a sensitive point. Albanese underlined today that the nuclear submarines would be “an Australian sovereign capability”.
Whatever the case, the deal has had the effect of placing Australia’s major political parties on a unity ticket with respect to nuclear submarines and the US alliance. If AUKUS is a forever deal, as Morrison put it, then Labor and the Coalition will also need to support it forever.
For Labor it is a long way from the days of Gough Whitlam and an era when the Labor left held an automatic suspicion of the US. Albanese started his career in the left wing of the Labor Party. Now he has signed on to a deal that means, among other things, that Australia will fund building new shipyards in the US to create the capacity to build more nuclear-powered subs.
Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles comes from the right wing of Victorian Labor. He is a staunch supporter of the US alliance. In many ways he is Tweedledum to the Tweedledee of former Coalition defence minister Christopher Pyne. Spot the difference.
Marles’ former staffer Anthony Hodges is a partner in Pyne’s lobbying firm which has an impressive list of defence firms among its clients.
Marles is aware that the $368 billion is surprising and breathtaking. But he is good with numbers and arguments in favour of the US/UK alliance and this is what he said today: “Now the cost is significant. But I would be quick to add that the sort of numbers that you have seen are capability of government out to the mid-2050s.
“You can look at a number of capabilities of governments beyond Defence which, if you cost it out to the mid-2050s, way have similarly large numbers.
“But this is a significant cost. The best estimate of the cost — to be honest the most transparent and honest estimate of this cost — is 0.15% of GDP through the life of the program. And that needs to be seen against a Defence budget which is currently running at 2% of GDP and is expected to grow to 2.2% of GDP.”
It was “an investment in our nation’s security” and “an investment that we cannot afford not to make”.
The politics fashioned around the China threat are such that the Greens is the only major party that departs from the US alliance script — and the party has decried the spending announced today.
“Today’s $368-plus billion nuclear submarine announcement will not only make Australia less safe, it will force deep cuts in critical spending on health, education, housing and First Nations justice for decades to come,” Greens Senator David Shoebridge said.
Shoebridge’s press release claimed that Australia’s push to join the nuclear submarine club was “already causing unrest” with key regional allies and added fire to a growing regional arms race. These objections would only grow with the purchase of second-hand Virginia-class submarines, leaving Australia entirely reliant on US crews, docks, leadership and support to operate what are meant to be sovereign defence assets, he said.
AUKUS has already shifted shape since the idea was unveiled by Morrison, US President Joe Biden and Johnson in 2021. Its supporters have been at pains to point out that it is not just about building submarines but also represents a cooperative agreement covering a range of defence technologies. Call that expectation management should things not work out.
The immediate winners include defence manufacturers, of course, for whom AUKUS is also a “forever” arrangement — or at least stretches out for enough years to make handsome careers for a raft of defence executives.
And what of Morrison? Will his AUKUS legacy mean he is remembered as a visionary? Or will it prove to be yet another Morrison mirage?
It’s impossible to know. But it is hard to get past the fact of where Morrison has now landed: as a member of the hard-right-wing US policy centre, the Hudson Institute, where he sits alongside his old Pentecostal buddy and extreme China hawk Mike Pompeo.
David Hardaker 14, March 2023
Investigations Editor @D_HARDAKER