Crispin Hull / We Must Ask Where is the Money Coming From?

AUKUS war ships

Not far from the beautiful yachts and powered gin palaces on the Cairns Marina are a number of boat brokers’ offices. In the back room of one, away from the glazed eyes of the clientele, is a sign put up for the eyes of the staff only. It reads: We Sell Nightmares to Dreamers.

I wonder if there is such a sign, or if not, the thought behind it, at the shipbuilders yards that construct nuclear submarines in in the US and Britain.

For all the popular mythology about submarines, ships and maritime life generally, there is always grim reality: the Titanic (too big to sink); the Hunt for Red October (the Soviet Union too big to fail); Das Boot (where the submariners faced terror in the service of the Thousand Year Reich) and Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Cruel Sea (the first book to sell a million copies in its first edition).

Aside from the human cost, there is also the economic one.

For all his deliciously wicked but misplaced personal invective, there was one big grain of truth in former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s criticism of the AUKUS deal. Of the three nations, it was only Australia that had to open the chequebook.

And for all of its self-justifying undertone, there was a big grain of truth in former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s observation that the British economy and industry might not be up to the task of producing a new class of nuclear submarine.

Let’s face it, for all its past glory on the seas, Britain is now the sick man out of Europe. It has reverted to the land that designed the P76 and the Australian-built utter lemon the Morris Nomad, which wandered nowhere.

Building a nuclear submarine from scratch is a huge task. As one observer stated, for Australia it will be the biggest engineering project since the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

With any luck, the submarines will be like a very expensive fire extinguisher: something you will be happy to have if the stove goes up in flames, but something you hope to never have to use for the purpose for which it was built.

The question to ask, however, is why didn’t Australia walk into that boat broker’s office and look up on the shelf and say: “I’ll have one of the those (Virginia Class nuclear submarines) and if it works for our purposes, we will come back and buy a few more”.

Or why didn’t we say to the French: “Can we have a couple of the Barracuda Class submarines that you are using? You know, the ones with the V8 nuclear engine. And we won’t bother with the fraught task of building our own.”

We should be past buying marginal seats with the promise of a jobs boom in ship-building.

Oddly enough, the mantra “Where’s the money coming from?” has not been wheeled out much in this case, especially by the Opposition which often screams about wasting public money especially on services to the less well-off. But when it comes to public money pouring into the coffers of its mates in the arms industry it remains silent.

On this occasion, though, the question should be asked and answered.

The submarines will cost $368 billion over 30 years, or $12 billion a year. Our present total defence spend is $32 billion, so the submarines will add more than a third to this, taking our spend from 2 per cent of GDP to 2.8 per cent (or a bit less if GDP grows).

It is Australia’s biggest increase in military spending since the Vietnam War. And more is to come with other big-ticket items.

Usually, the poor bear a disproportionate cost of defence and war and industrialists take the profits.

But a Labor Government need not and should not follow that pattern. Already, AUKUS, the submarines and climate change show Labor is following Coalition policies too closely. But must it continue with the Coalition’s tax-cuts-for-the-rich policy?

Now would be an ideal time to abandon the Stage 3 tax cuts. They are estimated to cost the budget $243 billion in lost tax revenue over the next decade and are skewed to favour the rich. About half of the value of the cuts will go to the mere 3.6 percent of taxpayers who earn more than $180,000. Only 8.7 per cent of it will go to the 46.5 percent of taxpayers who earn less $45,000.

And men will get twice the benefit that women will get.

People with greater wealth and higher incomes have more to be protected against aggressors and so should pay more proportionately. If the Stage 3 tax cuts go ahead, it will mean people on the lowest incomes will be paying for the submarines because the submarine money has to come from somewhere. If it does not come from tax it will come from cuts to government services which people on lower incomes rely upon in greater portion.

A final point to be made about the submarines is not just about funding them but also their use. Parliament, of course, will have to approve the funding. As to their use Defence Minister Richard Marles made the point that the submarines will be under the sovereignty and control of the Australian Government.

He was stressing that the US Government would not determine how the Virginia Class submarines could be used, even if they are partially crewed by Americans. Marles also stressed that he had given no commitment to the US about joining the US in any defence of Taiwan against a mainland invasion. That decision would be made by the government of the day.

All very good. But he inadvertently alluded to the sad fact that the Australian Government (that is in effect the Prime Minister) decides whether Australia goes to war, without any need for the Parliament to agree.

That is profoundly undemocratic, especially in the present political climate in which the governing party gets only a third of the vote.

Whether AUKUS and the submarines are a good arrangement or a bad one, it has been entered into without any parliamentary debate or even debate within the party room of either Labor or the Coalition. That is a bad arrangement.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 21 March 2023.

Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.


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