War mongers and interjections from ex PMs


Bushmaster on patrol in Iraq 2008, Australian War Museum CC

Why is the media so enthralled with the utterances of ex-Prime Ministers, namely Paul Keating, John Howard or Kevin Rudd? Keating has been critical in recent months of the current government (his lot, I remind you) about defence issues.

Keating first lashed out at the Albanese Government in March over the nuclear submarine announcement. He described the $368 billion arrangement to buy nuclear submarines through the AUKUS defence pact as “the worst international decision by a Labor government since Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription.” Strong words.

Keating used the National Press Club in Canberra to criticise Labor for its “incompetence” in backing the decision to sign up to AUKUS while in opposition. At the same time, Keating attacked policy decisions by defence minister Richard Marles and Foreign Affairs minister Penny Wong as “seriously unwise”, accusing them of allowing defence interests to trump diplomacy.

As it turned out, he was baying into an empty chamber, as veteran sleuth Brian Toohey discovered. The US (a key member of the AUKUS triumvirate) has said it cannot now sell three to five used Virginia class nuclear submarines to Australia, as Toohey related in the public policy journal, Pearls and Irritations.

Toohey wrote that the chief of US Naval operations Admiral Michael Gilday was recently reported from Washington as saying the US shipyards are only producing subs at a rate of about 1.2 a year. A minimum of two a year is needed to fill the US Navy’s own requirements. Until then, Gilday said, “We’re not going to be in a position to sell any to the Australians.”

“If Albanese were genuinely a good friend of America,” Toohey wrote, he would say ‘we don’t want to deprive you of any nuclear submarines, so we’ll buy readily available conventional subs that serve our needs’.

Toohey added, “Instead of grabbing this chance to get out of an impossible commitment, he behaves as if everything is still on track.”

The veteran journalist and author (he’s 79) broke numerous stories about national security and politics in his heyday, regularly receiving leaks that enraged and embarrassed politicians.

\The submarine deal is not the most recent example of ex-PM Keating getting stuck into his own party.

As The Guardian’s Paul Karp reported this week, Keating labelled the head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, a “supreme fool” for wanting to increase NATO’s ties with Asia. Keating’s comments coincided with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s travels to Germany and the NATO leaders’ summit in Lithuania. (NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.)

This state visit produced announcements about Australia’s material support for Ukraine via the donation of 30 Australian-made Bushmasters. Known in military parlance as Protected Mobility Vehicle or Infantry Mobility Vehicle, the Bushmaster is an Australian-built four-wheel drive armoured vehicle. ($2.45 million each).

Mr Albanese also confirmed on Monday that the German Army would buy 100 Australian-built Rheinmetall Boxer armoured vehicles. In case you did not know, this is something the Queensland government should be crowing about as the Boxers will be manufactured at Rheinmetall’s plant in Ipswich, near Brisbane. (The German company owns 64% of this joint venture – just thought you should know that.)

The Prime Minister’s announcements this week are yet another sign he and his executive team are well capable of making big decisions and acting upon them, despite criticism from the left and right. From my perspective, the Labor government seems to be a good deal more ‘hawkish’ than some of its predecessors. Then again, the top echelons of government in Canberra are no doubt privy to daily security briefings which could be prompting the escalating defence strategies.

Not the least there is China’s increasing economic and diplomatic push into the Asia Pacific, namely the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea.

Keating has been a strident critic of the Albanese government’s apparent strategy to prepare for possible aggression from China. He would prefer, I suppose, closed-door diplomacy.

Paul Keating, I’ll remind you, was infamous in his political career for an ability to deliver invective-laden tirades that inevitably drew headlines.

But who cares what Paul Keating thinks about anything? He had his day at the Despatch Box.

There’s a reason the likes of Rudd, Howard and Keating are ex-Prime Ministers. The people – that’s you and me and Freddie next door, not to mention their own party – got sick of them and voted them out. Brilliant, motivated and influential as they once were, they are not the least bit relevant now.

In tackling this topic, about which I know little, I relied on some expert research from the policy wonks who write for Pearls and Irritations (recommended), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and a defence blog which recently took a similar position on interjections by former PMs.

As Stephen Kuper wrote in DefenceConnect,

“Our world has changed significantly since the 1990s — gone are the heady days of elated optimism in the aftermath of the collapse of Lenin and Stalin’s “evil empire”,[ in its place] the global information super highway, a truly global economy responsible for lifting hundreds of millions, if not billions out of abject poverty, yet it seems, someone has forgotten to tell former prime minister Paul Keating.”

It is worth noting (from another source) that Australia’s Defence spending under the Keating government (1991-1996), was slightly above or below 2% of GDP, which is the financial benchmark for ensuring the country can be independently protected from aggression.

Defence spending was between 3% and 4% of GDP during the Vietnam war and has peaked above 2% at various times, including the 1980s when the world was in a relatively benign state.

Marcus Hellyer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote a two-part report in 2019 about the reasoning behind (and the flaws) of working on 2% of GDP. As he observed, GDP rises and falls, and any number of global crises can interfere with this way of calculating defence budgets. For example, former PM Kevin Rudd’s stimulus-spending during the Global Financial Crisis put a serious kink in the defence spending supply hose.

“As official predictions for GDP growth change, the Defence Department’s future funding changes,” Hellyer wrote. He argued that defence spending based on 2% of GDP was likely to fall short of the fixed-funding line presented in a 2016 defence white paper.

“If a future government sticks to 2% of GDP rather than the white paper line, the Defence Department would take a substantial funding cut.”

The strategic risk arises with what defence calls its ‘future force’, much of which will not be delivered until 2030. It is probably already unaffordable under the white paper’s funding model.

Australian Budget papers reveal a funding shortfall with the 2023-2024 defence budget ($54.9 billion), projected to be $5 billion short.

If I may editorialise now, that’s a serious problem for any Australian politician trying to wear big boots to a global foreign policy conference. While Albanese, Marles and Wong have been shoring up alliances with the US, UK, Japan and now, it seems, Germany, most strategic analysts agree that Australian needs to become more self-reliant (with the added financial burden that implies).

I was digging around looking for a quote about peace to finish this uneasy essay on a positive note and found one from an unlikely source.

Peace is not absence of conflict; it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” – Ronald Reagan.

Yep, he said it.

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