Scott Morrison did not mess up in securing a deal for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines. It was the greatest success in Australian defence policy since the ANZUS treaty was signed 70 years ago.
But he's now badly handling France's overwrought reaction. And he's doing his best to negate his achievement with his time-wasting, electorally driven plan to build the submarines in Adelaide.
The scale of the initial policy success was well expressed by the universal amazement of defence analysts and commentators after the September 15 announcement. Australia had somehow found a way to do something that had always seemed impossible: we were going to get nuclear submarines.
Now that success needs to be turned into steel in the water as soon as possible. Amid all the noise over our dealings with France, that's what we must not forget.
But let's talk about the noise, anyway.
There should be none from France about the substance of our decision to cancel the former program to build diesel subs of French design. In defence, as in the civilian economy, project cancellation is not unusual. Indeed, the former program was structured with contractual exit ramps to facilitate early termination.
And of course an Australian government must alter defence policy if changing circumstances dictate. They did dictate. The threat from China was zooming, the government felt it must seek access to the Anglo-American house of nuclear secrets, and it succeeded.
So France's complaint is mostly about procedure: that we failed to give early notice, that it wasn't told we were working on an alternative.
But it could not be told. No one could be told.
First, notification to France would have leaked, resulting in a possibly crippling debate in this country.
The anti-nuclear, anti-defence Greens would have opposed the new policy, as indeed they do oppose it. They'd have had months for stirring up anxiety over safety as negotiations with the US and Britain proceeded. We could imagine the ABC giving daily airtime to any number of anti-nuclear dial-a-quotes.
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As the debate raged, cost would have been a valid point of discussion. The contrary issue, the enormous value of nuclear submarines, would soon have been lost, since journalists, rarely good with numbers, struggle to understand defence, an essentially technical subject.
Above all, there would have been a high risk of Labor, with no shortage of anti-nuclear members, taking a stand against the policy. A Labor promise to cancel it on winning office would have finished it immediately.
This idea that the government had to move without public debate sounds undemocratic, but it's not. We call them leaders because sometimes we just need them to lead; they'll be accountable at the next election.
Notice that there's been hardly any debate about the lack of debate. Presented with a decisively advantageous policy as an accomplished fact, the public is satisfied. And Labor, to its credit, is backing the decision.
Another reason for withholding notice from France was preventing it from campaigning against the move by pulling US and British strings, points out Marcus Hellyer, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Australia had to overcome the massive inertia of Anglo-American nuclear secrecy to get this agreement; it couldn't afford to have Paris, an important ally for Washington and London, pushing in the other direction.
Australia's treatment of France since the announcement has been graceless, however, Hellyer adds.
Graceless indeed. Morrison had the right formula at first, saying he understood French disappointment and would wait for things to settle down. But Barnaby Joyce verged on vulgarity when he reminded France of the Australian soldiers who had died protecting it in the world wars.
French President Emmanuel Macron's unsubstantiated accusation that Morrison had lied to him has sent the prime minister off the diplomatic rails. The response, leaking a text message from Macron, was inexcusable. Morrison should instead have politely rejected the accusation, implicitly challenging Macron to prove it.
Morrison caused more damage when he falsely said Macron had sledged Australia generally, not just its prime minister. That's one from the Chinese Communist Party playbook.
Still, France is wrong in complaining of lack of notice. It's more wrong where it questions the decision itself.
Its ambassador in Canberra, Jean-Pierre Thebault, implied this week that we had been obliged to stick with the former program because France had placed unprecedented trust in Australia: it had shared highly sensitive technology.
No doubt it did, but any supplier in such a position knows it must (otherwise development can't proceed) and cannot imagine that in doing so it is binding its customer never to cancel.
French officials presumably judged when work began in 2016 that they could bet on project completion. What they cannot have imagined is what no one imagined: that Australia would achieve the miracle of gaining access to the most sensitive British and US technology, overthrowing the case for building diesel submarines.
Australia now has the highest responsibility to maintain security over secrets that France revealed in the past five years. They had better not leak.
France is probably angry in part because we did not consider its nuclear submarine design. But we never would if we had access to US and British technology.
The reason is not just the often cited one of French reactors needing refuelling. There's every reason to believe that British and US boats are superior in other respects, such as quietness. And if we buy off-the-shelf Virginia-class submarines, as we should, we can ride on the US Navy's thorough and dependable upgrade program.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.