Submarines decision ultimately shows the merits of partisan debate on defence

If Tony Abbott is disappointed by the failure to choose Japan to build Australia’s new submarines, the only one he can blame is himself. AAP/Ben Macmahon

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the announcement that French firm DCNS will build Australia’s next fleet of submarines came sooner – and in a better fashion – because of partisan politics.

This hugely technical, expensive and highly secret military capability has been the subject of major public debate, partisan divides and international media campaigns. It has been handled by four prime ministers and six defence ministers.

Like oil and water, party politics and good defence policy are presumed not to mix. And this process has been all about party politics.

The role of party politics

The Coalition came into office in 2013 distrusting government support for local industry, and wanting value for money. However, dire polling – particularly in South Australia – would lead the Abbott government to completely reverse course and insist on a large local build.

Labor has been more consistent, though no less partisan. It prefers domestic construction; it is happy to spend government money inefficiently to sustain local industry; and it saw a real opportunity to attack the Abbott and Turnbull governments in vulnerable electorates.

Meanwhile, federal senator Nick Xenophon and his new party seem to have decided that the foremost purpose of Australian defence policy is to protect the jobs of South Australians.

The net cost to Australia? We’re paying potentially as much as 30-40% more for these already hugely expensive machines.

So no party can claim, hand on heart, that their decisions were made purely on the basis of the national interest. But nor should we expect them to do so.

The notion of isolating policy from politics is a myth. Authoritarian leaders pay attention to politics just as much as democratic populists. And contrary to the usual norm of bipartisanship, the partisan debate over Australia’s submarines has largely been to the country’s benefit.

Time and again during this process, partisan politics has improved – not weakened – the government’s choice. Party politics brought the issue before the public. Party politics helped create a real debate about where the submarines would be built.

Internal party politics helped lead to the competitive evaluation process, which switched the leverage from the supplier to the buyer. This potentially alleviated some of the costs of a local build. And party politics helped ensure a decision was made early in 2016, before the election.

No doubt many who supported the Japanese bid will publicly rue the decision’s political nature. But if former prime minister Tony Abbott in particular is disappointed by the failure to choose Japan, he can only blame himself.

Abbott chose to initiate a competitive evaluation process with multiple bidders. It was his decision to mandate that much of the build had to occur in South Australia. And it was ultimately his failure to sell the public and national security community on the wisdom of tighter security links with Japan via a submarine deal.

Lessons for next time?

The submarine decision could have been better handled in many ways.

Australians never received a sensible explanation from the Rudd government about why 12 was the right number for the size of the fleet. It was never clear why the Gillard government couldn’t make a decision in its term.

The competitive evaluation process was an obvious political fix for Abbott to keep his promise that South Australian companies could be involved in the final build. And it was often uncomfortable watching Bill Shorten demean the Japanese and friendly foreign nations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne have much work to do to convince the public that this is the right choice, within the right time frame, and for the right price.

Many are still uncomfortable with the notion that defence is like any other area of national policy and open for rambunctious debate in the Australian fashion. But given the worsening strategic environment of today’s Asia-Pacific, getting the public informed, and hopefully supportive of this significant decision, is vital.

Australia’s security is aided most not by choosing one particular submarine over the other, but rather by having a public willing to support and fund the military we need, and comfortable with the roles we want them to play. If that means a bit more bickering, or slightly less cost-efficient purchases, it is worth the cost.