Sadly, there’s nothing subtle about the raging bin fire that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison submarine program has become. The reality is that right now Australia does not have a Future Submarine program. All we know for sure from the recent announcement is as follows: while our existing submarine capability is reaching the end of its operational life, there is no arrangement in place to address that looming capability gap.
Mr Wilson (7:50pm) – If the Morrison government’s single-minded focus on obfuscation could be turned into an antidetection technology, our Future Submarine program might be in better shape, rather than in a smouldering heap. Sadly, there’s nothing subtle about the raging bin fire that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison submarine program has become. The reality is that right now Australia does not have a Future Submarine program. All we know for sure from the recent announcement is as follows: while our existing submarine capability is reaching the end of its operational life, there is no arrangement in place to address that looming capability gap. We know that huge damage has been done to our relationship with France, which needs to it be a key and trusted partner in our region, and we know that significant damage has been done to our international reputation more generally. That damage is likely to harm Australia’s pursuit of its national interest in a range of areas, including trade, and it will persist as long as the current government is in place.
An absence of credibility and trustworthiness is a hallmark of this government. People in my state, Western Australia, have learnt that these past few years. They’re not likely to be convinced when the Prime Minister claims he can be trusted not to meddle with WA’s hard-won GST arrangements simply because he’s the one who did the deal. Someone should tell that to the French! If Western Australians could trust this Liberal government to keep its word, we wouldn’t have been dudded in relation to submarine maintenance. True to their tricky form with all the hullabaloo involved in junking the French sub deal, the Morrison government decided to sneak out the announcement that it was snubbing WA when it came to full-cycle docking of the Collins class submarines. After promising a decision by Christmas 2019, running full-page ads in the West Australian newspaper promising a fifty-fifty split on defence shipbuilding, and saying they’d decide in the national interest, the Morrison government have ignored all that and made a decision in their own self-interest. People in WA won’t forget being dudded on shipbuilding; being lumped with twice as much of the worst NBN copper technology as any other state; being threatened by Clive Palmer, with the financial support of this Liberal government; and being criticised as cave-dwellers, when really it is WA’s excellent pandemic management that has kept the Australian economy on two feet. People in WA will not forget.
To come back to the AUKUS arrangement, the critical thing now is for a careful and rigorous conversation to occur about how to deal with the submarine mess created by the coalition. No-one should feel railroaded into whatever the government say is their new plan. No-one should feel obliged to go along with their version of what might occur in 20 or 30 years time. They’ve presided over a defence procurement nightmare. They’ve wasted years and billions of dollars and have severely compromised our submarine capability. When we asked questions in the past, we were told: ‘It’s all fine. The French submarines will be excellent. There’s no need for concern about the level of Australian industry participation, the timeline or the cost.’ That all turned out to be complete rubbish.
So the most important thing is that we ask questions and we expect answers, and that includes a number of questions that remain in relation to nuclear propulsion. Yes, nuclear submarines go faster and can remain submerged indefinitely from a propulsion point of view, but they’re also noisier, with a more detectable heat signature because their cooling systems can never switch off. They’re also larger and less effective in coastal or littoral environments, which are characteristic of our region. They also cost more, with a larger crew complement, so inevitably you operate fewer submarines, and numbers do matter. There are defence strategists who for some time have called for the US to acquire the specific capability of diesel-electric submarines, and it’s always been the view that our submarines operate in a complementary fashion to the larger, less manoeuvrable American boats. Even if the main game is ensuring that we have submarines that can go further and faster underwater for extended periods, the Australian public shouldn’t think the choice is only between our existing diesel-electric-propelled submarines and some yet to be determined nuclear option. A number of countries, including Japan and Germany, operate air-independent propulsion-based platforms, and the capability of these submarines is improving all the time. It’s also a form of technology that much better suits our broader energy tech interests in future, and it will be more likely to be based on a genuine sovereign capability. Of course, it would avoid relying on the use of weapons-grade nuclear material, with the regional non-proliferation consequences of going down that path.
In any case, it’s critical, in the aftermath of this government’s submarine procurement disaster, that we don’t get rushed down a particular path and that we don’t allow the people who’ve made such a mess to dictate what happens next without proper scrutiny.