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A Subservient Decision

The Australian government has made the wrong decision to commit to purchasing up to eight nuclear-powered submarines as part of AUKUS, forecast to cost up to $368bn between now and the mid-2050s. Criticism against the decision can be expressed on three main points. Firstly, there's the matter of opportunity costs. This expense is far in excess of the benefits gained (or costs prevented). Secondly, the submarines are not actually designed to defend Australia, but rather they are an aggressive purchase that does not bode well for international peace and cooperation. Finally, as nuclear submarines, the purchase runs a real risk of weakening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in which Australia is a signatory.

The question of opportunity costs is something that was evocatively illustrated in Dwight D. Eisenhower in his famous 1953 speech, "A Chance for Peace". Eisenhower was no pacifist by any stretch of the imagination; during World War II, he was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe and became a five-star General. He was responsible for supervising the liberation of North Africa from Nazi and fascist control and the successful liberation of Normandy. Yet, he would also say several years later:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

An opportunity cost simply means that every dollar you spend on one item means one dollar that could have been spent elsewhere, and this works for public or private finances. The value of $368bn is perhaps not easily understood, but it is an astronomical figure. The Grattan Institutes estimates the cost to build a standard primary school at $15 million and twice that for a secondary school. That means the submarine project will cost over 3000 primary schools. The new hospital in Footscray, Victoria, will be $1.5 billion, "one of the state’s largest ever health infrastructure investments". The country could have almost 250 new hospitals of this size, but instead, we've chosen submarines. Australia could spend this money on foreign aid, renewable energy, or mental health. The Australian Bureau of Statistics informs us that the approximately 20 million people are aged 18 and older. Instead of submarines, we could distribute an additional $18400 to every person in the country, a sum which would have a dramatic effect on the welfare of so many.

It is certainly true of course that whilst there are nation-states there is a need to defend borders against those who would invade, commandeer wealth, and enslave a population. Certainly, the history of imperialism and colonialism teaches that if a country cannot defend itself claims to sovereignty and independence will soon become ethereal. Such defense does require arms, and those arms may indeed take the form of submarines. However, in the details, it is quickly clear that these specific submarines (US Virginia class, UK Astute class) are not actually designed to defend Australia, but rather they are an aggressive purchase designed to operate far from Australian shores and can act only to threaten or engage in attack capability. The Virginia-class submarines, whilst having littoral zone capacity, are attack vessels and the Astute-class submarines are designed to complement a battle fleet. It's a pity that they will be obsolete by the time they're deployed; who knew that a defensive approach would be cheaper than an aggressive one?

Against whom are these attack vessels, battle fleet, and weapon systems going to be directed against? It's hardly any secret that the target is China. They certainly aren't for "sightseeing". Of course, there is plenty of grounds for criticism against China, but a tendency to overthrow the governments of other states is not exactly high on the list. There are some long-standing border disputes with India, an ongoing issue with the province of Taiwan (with a reminder that the Republic of China claims the mainland), and there's the matter of Tibetan self-determination that has ongoing for hundreds of years. But when a comparison is made with Australia's partners in this project - the United States and the United Kingdom - it is embarrassingly pretty clear who has a more aggressive history. The bizarre situation where Australia claims to be defending its trade routes against its own trading partner is such a level of absurdity that takes comedians to speak the truth.

If Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are concerned with the increased influence that China has over the Pacific the submarines certainly aren't helping the situation: "the Pacific Islands have learned from the Second World War that when elephants fight, the small can get trampled". Across the Pacific, there are those concerned and disappointed that they, again, were not consulted about turning the Pacific into a "super region". Many of countries have experienced the trauma of nuclear testing in their environment. Whilst The Treaty of Rarotonga, only bans nuclear testing and nuclear waste disposal, other countries may follow Aotearoa New Zealand's example of that nuclear-powered vessels are prohibited in their ports. Certainly, there can be no doubt that nuclear-powered submarines are not exactly improving the commitment of Australia to nuclear non-proliferation.

Always ready to beat up the most vulnerable in society, the Tory opposition leader Peter Dutton says that the Coalition would support NDIS cuts to pay for the submarines - such is his understanding of opportunity costs and hatred of welfare. It is interesting to witness that senior Labor leaders have raised serious concerns about this submarine deal. Kim Carr, who held several ministries in his career, speaks of a rising sceptism within the Party and notes that caucus did not vote in favour of the procurement. Gareth Evans, former foreign minister, questions their fitness and Australia's independence in the purchase, and of course, the former Prime Minister Paul Keating has described it as the worst international decision by a Labor government since World War I; he's not wrong - and nor is he wrong that there is increasing rebellion within the Party and that disquiet across Australia is a whole is growing against this purchase. The quicker that people act and rise against this decision, the quicker the money can be put to better use, and the prospect of war is reduced and removed. These are the stakes - to make a world based on co-operation, peace, and justice, between and within nations, or one where we will die; choose wisely.