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Big Bird’s submarine choice

Political self interest threatens our national security and the safety of our submariners

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

25 July 2015

9:00 AM

Here’s a multiple-choice game. It’s from Sesame Street, and it’s for the Chief of Defence to present to the Abbott Cabinet. The ‘one of these things’ refrain is usually sung together, but we’re talking about Air Chief Marshall Binskin, not Big Bird, and we needn’t overdo the sarcasm.

One of these things is not like the others:

A- Our new submarine fleet must be designed to secure distant sea lanes of trade and communication;

B- Our new submarine fleet must be built to secure the lives of our submariners through world’s best submergence capacity and noise minimization;

C- Our new submarines must secure technological advantage against growing and projected naval capacities in the region;


D- Our new submarine fleet must secure Liberal seats in South Australia.

I’m hoping that Cabinet Ministers know which one should be excluded from that list. As Groucho would say, any 4 year old could work this out – somebody please get a four year old into the next Cabinet meeting.

Of late, there have been headlines about South Australian Liberals arguing to the Government that their political survival must be a factor in its decision making on the new submarine fleet. No doubt they will run the ‘we need to be in Government’ line to ministers. At this stage in the political cycle, ministers may have in mind the loss of ministerial jobs in a close election, so that lobbying could be effective.

I know some Liberals fear the rise of a populist Xenophon party in South Australia. Senator Xenophon is running hard on the ‘jobs for South Australia’ issue. Apparently he’s against all forms of gambling except when it comes to the survivability of submarines and submariners.

And some Coalition members actually believe their own branch-meeting hyperbole about there being nothing worse for the country than the other side – a moderate, ‘once knew what Social Democracy means’, centre party – being in Government.

But fellas (and Julie), feel free to compromise budget reform, or education reform, or industrial relations reform, to save Liberal seats and your own positions. For the ‘peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth’, though, don’t give the nation and our military personnel second best when it comes to Defence policy and spending.

Now, it may be that some tender will emerge that gives South Australians a role in building the next generation of Australian submarines. And unless Bill Shorten and the ‘progressive’ union movement resurrect their yellow peril tactic, the Japanese might even be open to incorporating South Australian workers and infrastructure in their bid. But the tender has got to be primarily about the best technology, not South Australian jobs.

The only other factor that might be considered, arguably, would be opportunity cost. We need to avoid unnecessarily expensive submarines to leave Defence funds for other needed investments in new military platforms, technologies and equipment. On past experience, and given current industrial frameworks, that consideration is not likely, however, to work in the favor of bids involving South Australian, or indeed any kind of Australian, workers.

The words ‘the first duty of Government is the peace and security of its citizens’ flow all too easily from the mouths of politicians, especially at a time of threat or of war. Of course, at the time of war, you go into battle with what you’ve got, not what you should have. And what you have reflects whether politicians over the previous years actually believed those words and, courageously perhaps, in terms of their own job security, made spending decisions that delivered the best military capacity.

What we need in the next period of Defence decision-making is the kind of courage Sir Humphrey doubted most politicians have. But it’s the only kind of courage that will properly honor the real bravery of the men and women who will go into battle relying on the equipment delivered through that very decision-making.


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