Demographic insecurity. Australian submarine tender. By Hamish McDonald.

First stop, Iowa, as primaries get started

A protester holding an anti-racism sign is removed from a Donald Trump campaign rally in Iowa this week.
A protester holding an anti-racism sign is removed from a Donald Trump campaign rally in Iowa this week.

It’s on at last. Party faithful turn out in the first primaries of this United States presidential election year in Iowa on Monday, followed eight days later by those in New Hampshire.

And if the opinion polls are a guide, the result will be a kick in the ribs for the “mainstream” candidates in both parties, with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz way ahead of the field for the Republicans, and Bernie Sanders several points ahead of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.

The ballot count may be a little more subdued than that. Those who actually turn out to vote on a winter’s day are likely to be the more committed party supporters, inclined to back candidates closer to the political centre, than the wider spectrum of the public picked up in polling phone calls who would include more of the angry, white working class inclined to support the populism of Trump and Cruz, or the socialism of Sanders.

Then in March come a string of primaries in conservative southern states, where the more mainstream Republicans and Clinton are likely to do better. Relatively few states have winner-takes-all rules for selection of delegates to the party conventions. But it looks like a long slog through to the big Californian primary in June.

Meanwhile, look upon America with wonderment. Trump thinks he can get away with anything. As he says himself: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”

A high point of political kitsch came with his endorsement by Sarah Palin this month, who after summing up the Middle East situation as an endless set of “squirmishes” asked, “What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism?” She knows who the real conservatives are: “Right-wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God and our religions, and our constitution.” But who is listening just now to the eminent Republicans who’ve lined up in the conservative bible, The National Review, this month to spray Trump variously as a “con man”, “charlatan” and “tapeworm”?

Sanders has meanwhile thrown the switch to nostalgia with an evocative, wordless campaign ad featuring images of the best of America soundtracked by the eponymous Simon & Garfunkel song. That’s okay with Art Garfunkel. “I believe the monied interests have gone too far and have rigged the system,” was one reason he gave Variety magazine for authorising the use.

Not that Sanders seems to be short of donations. Not many Democrats seem to like Hillary Clinton, even though their heads tell them she is their best chance of retaining the White House when Barack Obama steps down next January. But seasoned analysts think she will gradually build up the numbers over the primaries, as long as she resists any thought of going after the grandfatherly Sanders in a nasty way.

1 . End nigh for white male dominance  

The angry white male will be a feature of US politics this year. As foreign policy editor David Rothkopf writes in a current essay, demographics, immigration and gender equality are steadily eroding their centuries-old dominance of things.

“By 2050 white men will be the ones checking the ‘other’ box on census forms,” he writes.“…the politicians in America and Europe who spew nationalist bile and fan the flames of anti-immigrant furore are tapping into a growing if unconscious cultural recognition that time is running out on what has been the world’s most privileged ethnic class.”

Rothkopf didn’t get into that other threat: homosexuality. But perhaps our Tony Abbott will have batted it back with his speech this week on “The Importance of Family” at a dinner in New York of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an ultra-conservative Christian group against abortion and same-sex marriage founded by Alan Sears, co-author of The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. Thank heavens Abbott announced his intention to stay on as a simple backbencher before boarding the plane.

2 . Surface tension in bidding process

Interesting politics are happening around the “competitive bidding process” for the Royal Australian Navy’s future submarine, with torpedo-salvos of leaks and anonymous commentary from alleged “officials” and “experts” hitting the media.

Three bidders put in their proposals at the end of November: Japan’s Mitsubishi and Kawasaki shipbuilders for a version of their Sōryū class, DCNS of France for a conventional version of its Barracuda class, and ThyssenKrupp of Germany for a new design called the Type 216.

All involve considerable modification of their existing production models to meet the RAN specs of a 4000-tonne submarine with diesel-electric power, very long range, and the latest US combat systems and weaponry (not standard in Japanese, French and German subs).

The US government says it is neutral about which sub is chosen. However, last week we were told in a blog for The National Interest, a “realist” US foreign policy journal, that “senior US officials and military officers are in no doubt both as to the superior capability of the Japanese Sōryū class and to the long-term strategic benefits to the United States and the region of an interoperable fleet of Australian and Japanese conventional submarines equipped with US combat systems – particularly in an increasingly contested maritime environment in which undersea warfare will be critical.”

The authors were Michael Green and former Abbott national security adviser Andrew Shearer, both at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies and both keen on enhancing Japan’s role in the US-led Pacific order.

This was picked up as an “exclusive” by The Australian’s Cameron Stewart on January 22, and then again as another “exclusive” by the paper’s Greg Sheridan on January 25, with more trills about the strategic importance for the US of tightening defence ties between Australia and Japan and of Japan not losing face in its first big attempt to export arms. Sheridan was not put off by Cameron’s intervening report that both the French and German bidders had been reassured of US neutrality.

Reuters then got into the action with a report, based on information from “multiple sources”, that the German bid was fading from the competition, as the plan to scale up a new submarine from an existing sub half the size was too “risky”.

We will wait and see as the midyear target for narrowing the field approaches. Meanwhile, see the “Pearls and Irritations” blog of former Canberra mandarin and ambassador John Menadue for some cutting analysis. Former senior Defence Department official Jon Stanford rips into the RAN’s record of trying to create unique mix-and-match vessels, with resulting capability and cost tangles. Stanford makes an argument (probably forlorn at this stage) for the RAN either to curtail its wider ambitions and settle on a smaller existing conventional model or go for a nuclear submarine (from the US, France or Britain) if distant power projection is the goal. Either would be cheaper, he says.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 30, 2016 as "First stop, Iowa, as primaries get started".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.