Losing to win

Commentators are already calling it a chance for Scott Morrison to reframe his leadership. The Age says the decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States or Britain, “elevates Scott Morrison from harried, strife-beset leader … to the position of Prime Minister taking charge of his nation’s defence in an emerging regional Cold War”.

Nothing real is reframed, however. Morrison is the same flat-footed leader, governing only in his self-interest. Decades of subtle diplomacy, balancing the interests of China and the US, have been trampled by a man whose eyes have never lifted further than the next election.

Morrison’s decision to enter a trilateral pact built around nuclear hardware is a horrifying miscalculation. It places Australia on the front line of any future war with China. It drags us into a conflict that very likely will not serve our interests. And it says very clearly, between now and then: we have chosen America.

Whatever leverage Australia might have had between the two powers is gone. Morrison will agree to pay billions getting rid of it, for a submarine fleet that will be America’s and not ours. On Thursday morning he looked like Jack coming home with his magic beans and no cow, only he lacks the wit and courage to climb any beanstalks or kill any giants.

In May this year, Hugh White wrote a front-page story for The Saturday Paper. The former deputy-secretary of the Department of Defence, who wrote Australia’s Defence White Paper in 2000, warned that in its approach to China the Morrison government seemed “to have no idea how serious, and dangerous, our situation has become, and has no viable plan to fix it”.

White wrote that Morrison seemed to have no concept of the cost and risks involved in the escalating conflict with China. He warned that any war would place us in the greatest conflict since World War II.

“It would be a war the US and its allies would have no clear chance of winning,” White wrote. “Indeed, it is not even clear what winning a war with a country such as China means. And it would very likely become a nuclear war.”

This week has made that likelihood even greater. Morrison says he remains committed to nonproliferation, but he is now flirting with nuclear capabilities. Others will, too. Thursday’s grim, clumsy announcement will likely be remembered as the pivot that drew the region into future nuclear conflict.

Joe Biden may not have remembered Morrison’s name, but war histories will be forced to. He will be remembered as a smirking opportunist, eager to sign deals he did not understand, untroubled by the future because he was unable to comprehend it.

Labor, if it had any courage, would campaign to tear up this deal. It would refuse to take the country to war in exchange for a photo opportunity. It would continue a policy of balance, weighing relations between the two powers and governing in the interests of the country.

Morrison has given up on that route. The work it requires is beyond him. He has a handful of magic beans and an election to win.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Losing to win".

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