The news that the government was going back on a pre-election promise to have any submarine work done in Adelaide prompted Opposition leader Bill Shorten to address members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union outside the ASC docks on Tuesday, where he vowed that a Labor government would renege on any Japanese submarine deal, and that “This is a government with a short memory. In the Second World War, 366 merchant ships were sunk off Australia”. Aside from the fact that the figures quoted by Shorten were inaccurate, to use WWII as an excuse to refuse any attempt to have submarines built by Japan smacked of jingoism and protectionism, and was not one of Shorten’s finest moments. It took Opposition Treasury spokesman Chris Bowen to set the record straight during an address to the National Press Club on Thursday, in which Bowen confirmed that any Labor government would honour a contract with Japan should the government choose that option.
Aside from Shorten’s rhetoric, the arguments for and against Japanese involvement in the Future Submarine Project (or SEA 1000) have been outlined in detail in previous entries in this blog. While the involvement of Japan would mean that Australia and Japan would forge a much closer, much more encompassing defence relationship than heretofore experienced, it would not be without some risk, both in terms of geopolitical consequences and technical proficiency in shipbuilding in Australia. What is clear is that Australia does need a submarine replacement, as the unreliability of the Collins class and the looming threat of having no submarine capability for a decade (2020-2030) is a problem that needs to be addressed and addressed now. As Defence Minister Johnston has reiterated at length, any decision on a domestic submarine alternative needed to be made five years ago (if not earlier) but wasn’t, and now we are in the situation of having to go for a pre-existing design provided by foreign submarine manufacturers. Whether that design is then turned into manufacturing in Australia depends on how urgently the government feels Australia needs its submarine alternative, and with other states in the region in the process of acquiring greater submarine technologies of their own, it is a decision that will require some very careful consideration.
*Sources: “New Japanese submarines to cost Abbott Government $20 billion”, News.com.au, 8 September 2014, p. http://www.news.com.au/national/new-japanese-submarines-to-cost-abbott-government-20-billion/story-fncynjr2-1227050682205, “Shift to Japan risks China row”, The Australian, 9 September 14, p. 1,2 “Home-built sub fleet deemed too expensive, too risky”, Australian Financial Review, 9 September 2014, p. 1,2 “Japanese subs on the way”, Australian Financial Review, 9 September 2014, p. 1,4 “Ian Macfarlane says SA ‘still in the mix’ for subs”, Australian Financial Review, 9 September 2014, p. http://www.afr.com/p/national/ian_macfarlane_says_sa_still_in_W16nrJu3QbnUKp9Ezp0wfK, “Racist and protectionist: Shorten’s submarine speech plumbs the depths”, The Australian, 11 September 2014, p. 1,4 “Shorten’s WWII call ‘frankly ridiculous’”, The Australian, 11 September 2014, p. 4 “Tweaks could compromise new sub design”, The Australian, 11 September 2014, p. 4 “Shorten’s rhetoric on subs dangerous”, The Australian, 11 September 2014, p. 12 “Submarines for security, not industry protection”, The Australian, 11 September 2014, p. 13 “Japan submarine deal a metaphor for big picture Abenomics”, Australian Financial Review, 11 September 2014, p. 10 “Germans undercut Japan subs”, Australian Financial Review, 11 September 2014, p. 11 “At last, sensible thinking on subs”, The Canberra Times, 11 September 2014, Times2, p.2, “Labor to stand by Japanese subs contract”, The Australian, 12 September 2014, p. 6 “Saab joins bid for subs”, Australian Financial Review, 12 September 2014, p. 7 “Industry policy submerged under pragmatism”, Australian Financial Review, 12 September 2014, p. 39 “Promise must be torpedoed”, The Canberra Times, 12 September 2014, Times2, p.4, The Hon.David Johnston, ‘Address for the ASPI Conference – The Submarine Choice’, Transcript, 9 April 2014, p.8, website address: https://www.aspi.org.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/20720/Johnston-Speech.pdf, Graeme Dobell, ‘Oz submarines: 12? 9? 6?’, The Strategist, 6 April 2014, website address: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-submarines-12-9-6/, Senate Hansard Records: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Search?ind=0&st=1&sr=0&q=Japan+submarines&expand=True&drvH=0&drt=2&pnu=44&pnuH=44&f=12%2F11%2F2013&to=12%2F09%2F2014&pi=0&pv=&chi=1&coi=0&ps=10