The consequences of capricious decision-making

Kym Bergmann

The outrage generated by the Prime Minister’s extraordinarily inept decision to award an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip shows what happens when politicians make decisions based on personal whim rather than as a consequence of thought, analysis and consultation. It is not as if this decision has profound effects on the economy or the daily lives of people, yet has generated a huge negative response. Imagine how much worse the reaction would be if a similar decision had a major adverse impact on the future of national security and caused the demolition of a strategically vital industry sector.

Well, here is a scoop: such a decision has apparently been made – and it is called buying the next generation of submarines from Japan. There are strong parallels with the knighthood decision. This one appears to have been made personally by the Prime Minister without reference to his colleagues and is being implemented by a compliant bureaucracy which, in the total absence of any form of guidance that is understood and agreed by all interested parties is instead muddling forward in a secretive and confusing manner.

The mere fact to no one can explain, publicly or privately, exactly what is going on should be a major concern for all Australians. The official line – such as it is – is that no decision has yet been taken about the source of the future submarine. But this is in laughable contrast to the message being delivered to established submarine designers, which is: “if you want to waste your money, go ahead – the Government has a preferred solution in mind and it isn’t you.” To make this situation even more damaging to the national interest, companies are being told not to say that submarines could be built economically in Australia because that is not something the Government – read the Prime Minister – wants to hear.

This is a form of madness. The future submarine is absolutely vital for the defence of Australia and will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars – yet all debate is suppressed and misinformation and misdirection is rife. The Government, the Department and the Navy all appear desperate to avoid any form of media scrutiny, which of course raises the question of what they are trying to hide. Testimony by various officials to the Senate inquiry into naval shipbuilding had numerous gaps, contradictions and omissions. For example, the Head of DMO gave evidence that the Japanese option – whatever that is – is being examined because he woke up one morning and decided to fly to Tokyo to spontaneously start discussions without even informing his Minister or the Secretary of the Department about what he was doing.

There have been some previous cases of politicians short-circuiting the normal lengthy competitive process and making an early decision about what to buy – and in almost all cases the result has been satisfactory. The F-35 is one of those: in 2002 the Government decided to forego a competition and opted instead to sign up to the system design and development phase of the project – effectively deciding the outcome. This was discussed at length in Cabinet and was the subject of a great deal of documentation. But this is in no way comparable to what is happening with the submarine: the F-35 was well understood and had been under a preliminary form of evaluation for at least the previous two years. The RAAF was more than able to justify the decision on very well understood cost and capability grounds.

The opposite is the case with the political brainwave of buying submarines from Japan. It is a case of the Prime Minister apparently making some sort of handshake deal with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe – which has never been turned into a structured, detailed plan of what to do. Instead it seems that officials from Defence – with some involvement from Prime Minister and Cabinet – are thrashing around trying to turn a thought bubble into a series of decisions that make sense.

Progress on SEA 1000 was derailed for five years when a previous Prime Minister also took an arbitrary direction – that time in the form of Kevin Rudd’s re-write of the 2009 White Paper to say that Australia would acquire 12 submarines larger than the Collins Class. No justification for the number 12 was given and it was presumably derived by simply doubling the size of the present fleet. But the really damaging part was the guidance that the submarines needed to be larger than Collins. More capable – sure. But larger – why? Collins is already a very sizeable conventional submarine and the notion that the next generation needed to be even bigger caused all sorts of unintended consequences and years of delay because the rationale for an increase in size was never explained.

The present massive uncertainty about the future direction of SEA 1000 is also a consequence of Navy inaction for years – and a new unannounced doctrine that has emerged about not caring where its platforms come from. That is not a misprint: the official position of the Navy is that country of origin of a piece of equipment does not matter, as long as it works. There is no longer any formal preference for work to be done in Australia – despite the rampant success of activities such as the ANZAC Anti-Missile Defence project.

The theme that we cannot and should not manufacture ships and submarines locally seems a consequence of the same sort of cultural cringe that has seen an Australian knighthood grovelingly awarded to Prince Philip, rather than to any one of the tens of thousands of people far more deserving. To conclude on that note: the first and so far the only Cabinet Minister to shower sycophantic praise on the Prime Minister’s decision was Kevin Andrews.


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