Let Them Eat Submarines
Photo: (Supplied: British Ministry of Defence/LA Will Haigh)
Originally published in The Canberra Times on March 20, 2023

Despite electing a Labor government at the last federal election, Australia is about to spend half a trillion dollars implementing the Coalition’s economic, defence and climate policy agenda. It’s odd if you think about it.

The $368 billion nuclear submarine program will give Australia the military capability to deal with—if you believe the Nine Entertainment newspapers—war with China in the next three years by delivering us nuclear submarines in 40 years’ time. The $254 billion Stage 3 tax cuts will deliver struggling CEOs, surgeons, and federal politicians a windfall tax cut of $9075 every year, while low-income workers like aged care workers, disability careers and minimum wage employees get nothing in the middle of a cost of living crisis. While the Safeguards Mechanism will provide a figleaf for the expansion of the industry whose product causes climate change—the very problem the legislation is designed to solve—so long as gas and coal companies can purchase enough offsets.

Before the last election Labor agreed to back these poor policy ideas in order to wedge the Coalition or avoid being politically wedged by them. It certainly worked in the short term for Labor, but in the long term it could prove costly for Australia.

(L-R) Australian Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and head of the Nuclear Powered Submarine Task Force Vice Admiral Jonathan Mead speak to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) 

Former Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull have raised some concerns about AUKUS and the submarine deal this week, with Keating labelling it “the worst deal in history”. Given the deal was conceived in secret, secret even from most of Scott Morrison’s National Security Committee of Cabinet, it’s not surprising that many of these issues have not been publicly canvassed. But it’s sad that it has taken the intervention of two former Prime Ministers to kickstart serious scrutiny of the deal and its implications for Australia. Labor’s own members and voters seem to have serious reservations about the deal, but perhaps Labor can reverse-wedge the Coalition on submarines.

The Coalition’s bipartisan agreement to back the deal means the former PM and the former Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, can also be held responsible as authors of the plan should it fail. The Coalition will also be expected to help Labor find ways to pay for the subs. ‘Eye-watering’ and ‘sphincter-clenching’ are some of the colourful terms journalists used to describe the $368 billion deal. But let’s put things in a little perspective.

At $368 billion over about 30 plus years, that is about $10 billion per year. Of course, that makes the subs cheaper than the cost of fossil fuel subsidies ($11.6 billion in 2021-22), and just a fraction of the cost of the Stage 3 tax cuts, which will start at $17.7 billion in 2024. That is set to rise to over $30 billion per year by 2030. If the price of the submarines is sphincter-clenching, what does that make the Stage 3 tax cuts which are triple that?

There’s nothing Australia can’t afford to do

Here’s the good news. The sphincter-clenching cost of the nuclear submarines suddenly makes the Stage 3 tax cuts looks as wasteful and obscene as they really are. If Labor needed a better reason to break its commitment and dump the massively expensive Stage 3 tax cuts, they now have 368 billion reasons to do so, wrapped in a bipartisan national defence bow.

That might seem cynical, but if this week has revealed anything it’s that finally, we can give up the charade: there really is nothing Australia ‘cannot afford’ to do.  In the words of former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg when he learned of Scott Morrison’s secret plan to spend a quarter of trillion dollars on nuclear submarines: “Everything is affordable if it’s a priority.”

If it is a priority, Australia can make sure people in aged care aren’t suffering from malnutrition. We can afford to lift unemployment benefits above the poverty line so that people don’t have to choose between eating three meals a day and going to the doctor in the same fortnight. We can afford domestic violence services to keep women and their children safe from harm. We can even afford to tackle the climate crisis. We can afford to do anything we want, but not everything we want. The point is, we are denied serious conversations about our priorities when submarines are presented as necessary, while everyone else is supposed to fight for the Budget scraps.

Tackling climate change is apparently a priority for the government and the Gillard era showed that Labor knows how to legislate climate policy that works. Together with the Greens and crossbench, the Clean Energy package passed by the Gillard government saw tens of billions in private sector investment go into renewables, and it reduced emissions while the economy and jobs grew.

One thing Australia cannot afford is for Labor to put politics ahead of good policy on climate.  Labor’s Safeguard Mechanism is just reheated Coalition policy that will allow emissions to increase, so long as fossil fuel companies keep buying offsets.

Tackling climate change isn’t about money. It’s about power. Australia is the third biggest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. The gas industry and the coal industry have enormous political power and the best PR money can buy. For decades they have successfully delayed and watered-down policies that would reduce their profits or force them to reduce their emissions and the Safeguards Mechanism is shaping up to be no different. But, every tonne of coal and tanker of LNG we export causes our climate change, no matter where in the world it’s burned.

The fact is that climate change is a more real and present danger to the security of Australians than an over-hyped threat of war with China. The Black Summer bushfires alone burned down 3000 homes and killed 33 people. Floods have devastated towns like Lismore multiple times in the last year.

If only the major parties brought the same bipartisan dedication to protecting Australians from the impacts of climate change and inequality right now as they do to solving our shortage of nuclear submarines forty years from now.

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