It’s not often that I send my Commentaries on successive days. But it seemed necessary to follow up yesterday’s given that the credibility of Turnbull and his ministers appears now to be at stake because he and his Defence Minister have failed to indicate that there has been a change of policy in delaying the acquisition of new submarines until the early 2030s and failed to explain coherently the reasons for that decision (and whether it was a decision that was confirmed with Cabinet’s six member National Security Committee).
In yesterday’s Commentary I suggested that it “seemed highly unlikely that a new sub could not be available well before the early 2030s”. I based this not only on my experience in dealing with defence issues when in the public service (and after) but as a matter of commonsense. That is now unequivocally clear from the expanded treatment of the issue in the article below by Greg Sheridan.
Turnbull appears to have talked himself into a corner from which he must surely try to vacate by, at the very least, acknowledging that there has been a change in policy. It also seems essential that he indicate why that change has occurred and explain coherently that the proposed resort to an upgraded version of the Collins sub would not detract from Australia’s defence capability.
It would also seem appropriate for Turnbull to now indicate that he accepts Abbott’s assurance that he did not leak the draft of the White Paper and that he qualify yesterday’s remarks that the advice on which defence decisions are made comes exclusively from defence officials and chiefs, viz
“I respect Tony’s right to speak his mind and he should continue to do so, but it’s very important that as prime minister I set the record straight,” he said. “We rely exclusively on the expert advice of the Defence Department and, of course, the defence forces and their two leaders have made the facts very, very clear.”
Note that Parliament does not resume until 17 March.
Note also that Sheridan points out that the policy of starting to get new subs in the mid 2020s was accepted policy well before the leak of the unpublished draft White Paper revealed it. In short, the attempt in some quarters to connect the leak with Abbott’s public questioning of the shift in policy is irrelevant. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that I have been advised that, at the 20th anniversary of Howard’s Prime Ministership in Parliament House on last Wednesday eve, Abbott’s entrance was cheered to the echo whereas Turnbull’s applause on entry was much more formal. This was taken up a night later on the 2GB evening radio program run by Steve Price, who played and re-played, over and over, the two (contrasting) sound-bites.