Australians expect their Prime Minister to be resolute and determined when pursuing our interests on the world stage. We might consider affability part of our national character, but we need strategy rather than niceties when generational decisions such as submarines are before us.
Our government’s decision not to proceed with the French Attack-class submarines and to pursue nuclear submarines as part of the historic AUKUS deal has aggrieved the French political class, and understandably so. But we deal in hard strategic realities, and the truth is that the French conventionally powered submarines were no longer fit for Australia’s needs in the years ahead.
Our national security must take priority over the emotions of close friends and allies. The reaction from President Emmanuel Macron, who is campaigning for his own re-election in France, is a small price to pay for world-class nuclear submarines.
Besides, Scott Morrison is not the first Australian leader to face an upset ally at a summit of world leaders. Billy Hughes set the precedent at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, when he verbally sparred with US president Woodrow Wilson over Australia’s claim to German New Guinea and its chain of islands. Wilson threw his weight around and reminded Hughes Australia was only a small nation of several million people. Hughes, quick on his feet like a boxer, counterpunched: “I speak for 60,000 dead. How many do you speak for?”
It was a powerful retort, as many of our fallen lay buried nearby in the fields of France. Wilson later spoke of Hughes privately as a “pestiferous varmint”.
I often recall the Hughes-Wilson interchange with pride as it reminds me our national interests are not served by passive leadership. Others might lecture us on climate targets, mineral exports and submarines but we will always defend our sovereignty and prosperity, even as we remain a friendly neighbour to many nations in the region and beyond.
Which brings us back to AUKUS. This is the biggest development to our national security since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty 70 years ago. The nuclear submarines will be crucial to Australian naval power in the 21st century, maintaining stability across the region and keeping us secure. But AUKUS is much bigger than just submarines and will stretch across society.
There are immediate implications for our parliament, industry and education sector.
First, AUKUS will span decades with multiple commonwealth governments stewarding its development. Our members and senators will need to work together on this nation-building project, while allowing space for difference of political opinion on the details. We cannot turn an important strategic endeavour into a contested political issue.
Our parliamentarians will need to establish closer working relationships with their UK and US counterparts. This will also bring political stability to the trilateral agreement, as we are bound to have our disagreements with both Britain and America in the years to come. The submarine project must be able to survive domestic and international political turbulence.
Second, our defence industry must grow to support a nuclear submarine capability in Australia. Labour and energy security are vital. We must recruit, grow and retain the finest minds in nuclear technology and related sciences.
Our industrial base must also be supported by reliable and affordable energy, drawing on our strengths like natural gas-fired power. That is why the Prime Minister won’t trade away our energy sovereignty at Glasgow, even as we commit to further reductions of our national emissions. Our immediate strategic challenges are more pressing than the dictates of the international climate lobby. We will reach net zero by 2050 on our own terms, in the Australian way.
Finally, we need to educate the next generation of Australians for employment across the nuclear submarine capability. The Australian Defence Force Academy is leading the way with the introduction of a nuclear engineering program.
But we also need to engage children in primary and secondary schools. To make them aware of the opportunities ahead, and to grow their minds and hearts so they can continue the work of AUKUS, long after many of us are gone. This is truly an inter-generational endeavour and we must plan like stewards accordingly.
In the end, AUKUS will be realised only with strong, decisive leadership across the trilateral network. Our Prime Minister’s difficult decision to cancel the French diesel submarines will be the first of many as we work together to build Australia’s first nuclear submarines. From those charged with protecting our sovereignty, the Australian people demand nothing less.