Paul Bongiorno
Morrison, the jaded emperor

Scott Morrison’s plans to make the looming election as much about keeping Australia safe from a Chinese threat as anything else have begun to take serious water.

The centrepiece, his new pact with the United States and Britain, has become every bit as awkward as its acronym: AUKUS. And if you need any convincing about that, it was the name neither Morrison nor President Joe Biden dared mention at their first bilateral meeting in New York.

The anger of France at the dumping of the $90 billion contract to build 12 conventionally powered submarines has forced both leaders into urgent damage control. The blowback was coming not only from the French but from European partners and significant countries in Asia.

The problem for Morrison is the way this “triumph” was conceived and announced has done more to reinforce perceptions that you can’t take what he says at face value. When it suits him, he will set out to deceive.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s description of Australia’s actions – “lying, duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt” – feeds into perceptions already in play about Morrison. And AUKUS, rather than being a distraction from the undelivered promises on vaccination and an integrity commission or the multibillion-dollar mismanagement of the JobKeeper scheme and unfettered pork-barrelling, is a stark reminder of how the government goes about its business.

The prime minister defended this betrayal of France’s trust and the sneaky way he did it in terms of the national interest. Eighteen months ago, so we are told, the Defence Department concluded nuclear-powered submarines were required for the defence of Australia rather than the conventional French submarines that had already been ordered. Peter Dutton, with the help of well-placed people, secretly set about ingratiating himself in Washington and London at the expense of Paris.

As late as June, Morrison was personally assuring the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that the contract was still on track despite problems. There was much backslapping in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace. In the same month, Le Drian says he called his counterpart, Marise Payne, and specifically put to her the option of converting the contract to the nuclear-powered Barracuda-class submarines that France manufactures. He says he received no reply.

On arrival in New York this week, Morrison conceded it would “be naive” to think that dumping the enormous deal “was not going to cause disappointment”. He dared not tell it as it really is: blind fury from a humiliated Macron, who faces a presidential election next year.

Clearly the prime minister, like the Americans and the British, underestimated the ramifications of such a duplicitous rejection for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The French are joined by the Germans in feeling that Biden is following in Donald Trump’s footsteps, denigrating European allies. But Morrison says, “It was not possible for us to be able to discuss such secure issues in relation to our dealings with other countries at that time.”

White lies in the name of security are surely no substitute for more active and competent diplomacy, let alone the “relentless diplomacy” that Biden told the United Nations General Assembly was needed to avoid a new cold war.

Christopher Pyne, the minister who sealed the French submarine contract during the Turnbull era, was also blindsided. In March this year he wrote an opinion piece that was scathing of critics of the conventional submarines, saying they knew nothing about their lethal capabilities. He ridiculed suggestions Australia would walk away from the contract and explained that nuclear subs would require a domestic nuclear industry.

Pyne wrote that getting the legislative framework for such an industry to sustain the submarines “has zero chance of passing any upper house in any jurisdiction in Australia”.

Last week, to the bemusement of the South Australian opposition, he defended the unravelling of his handiwork. In another opinion piece he said the ability of American nuclear technology that enabled a reactor to be placed in a submarine and not touched for 30 years was the game-changer. That, along with America’s newfound willingness to share it with Australia.

Pyne, who now works as a weapons lobbyist, waxed lyrical about the jobs and opportunity AUKUS would herald for his home state. But the Australian Industry & Defence Network, representing hundreds of suppliers and subcontractors to the French project, cannot see it. Certainly not for years, and maybe never. Still, there are gilded claims of a jobs bonanza from the Liberal state government facing an election next March, probably about the same time as Morrison calls one.

The South Australian federal Labor team under Penny Wong says Morrison must be transparent about what this proposal means for local jobs and businesses. The submarine program is starting from scratch. “Thousands of jobs in South Australia have been placed in limbo,” Wong says, “and billions of dollars of investment has been lost.”

Beyond South Australian jobs worries, Morrison could have a greater problem if his nuclear-propelled arrangement is seen not so much as bolstering our security but rather creating a threat to it. Not surprisingly, that’s China’s reaction.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, warns AUKUS will make Australia a nuclear target. This line was repeated by Professor Victor Gao of Soochow University on ABC TV. Gao was a translator for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He says it’s logical that if Australia is nuclear-armed, then it invites nuclear retaliation in the event of war. If we get to that stage, of course, we would already be in the midst of a nuclear holocaust as the US and China embark on mutually assured destruction. Unfortunately, no one can rule out the sort of miscalculation that could lead to that.

Former prime minister Paul Keating accuses Morrison of unnecessarily making an enemy of China. Keating is seen as a China dove and regarded by China hawks in the defence and security establishment as being nostalgic for the China that existed before Xi Jinping’s assertiveness. But he surely has a point that instead of sabre rattling we should be spending a lot more effort in diplomatic rapprochement. After all, China is our major trading partner.

The Labor elder statesman says the party under Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese has been complicit with the Liberals in selling out Australia’s strategic autonomy to the US. Keating says Labor has gone along with Morrison as Australia “turns its back on the 21st century” for the “jaded and faded Anglosphere”.

One of the reasons Keating pushed the Australian republic was to assure Asian nations that we no longer owed first allegiance to our colonial past. That was when Australia was looking to security in Asia rather than security from Asia. The former prime minister nails it when he says this strategy is a “massive bet on the United States and its staying power in Asia”.

The US’s clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of bloodshed, only to hand the country back to the Taliban, is one compelling argument against relying on their power. So too is the frightening instability of the American democracy itself. Donald Trump and his supporters still do not accept the legitimacy of the most recent presidential election and continue with impunity to foster insurrection. Nobody can rule out a return of Trump or an equally disruptive clone.

Albanese is well aware that the Keating view would resonate with a significant part of Labor’s base. However, the opposition leader is confident he has the support of another of the party’s elder statesmen, former Defence minister and ambassador to Washington Kim Beazley. Beazley, now the governor of Western Australia, is constrained by his vice-regal status from publicly engaging Keating in the debate.

In many ways Beazley embodies the message Albanese wants to send to voters ahead of the election. He is no threat to the US alliance and wants to emulate the Hawke government, of which Beazley was a key part. He believes a strong ally who has the trust of Washington can beg to differ in Australia’s national interest, as Hawke did. The most famous example was the 1985 MX missile crisis, when the US planned to carry out nuclear-capable missile tests off the coast of Tasmania and was ultimately refused.

Albanese did not have a murmur of dissent when he pushed for backing of the AUKUS pact in shadow cabinet and the party room. One senior Labor figure says all the factions are committed to winning the election. No one wanted Morrison to have the luxury of framing the campaign in terms of Labor being pro-China and anti-America.

But Morrison’s absence in the United States has allowed the acting prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, to grab the limelight. Having fumbled through a statement on ministerial integrity and Christian Porter, Joyce did little to assuage French hurt. He seemed to argue that because thousands of Australians died defending France in the world wars, we have a right to dud them now. In an uncharacteristic display of erudition, Joyce quoted the Roman soldier Vegetius in Latin: “Si vis pacem para bellum” – If you want peace, prepare for war.

Bomber Beazley, as his colleagues nicknamed him, wouldn’t argue with that. It’s just a matter of war with whom. We certainly weren’t prepared for the battles we have embarked on to be with the French. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 25, 2021 as "The jaded emperor".

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