Monday, January 23, 2012


Back again.

This is actually my third column for 2012. I'll post the others over the next couple of days. I've been a bit slack in keeping up to date.

This is about the need for Australia to keep "making things" and the importance of government in ensuring it continues to do so . . .


One of the most vital political skills is the ability to set, and dominate, the agenda. Viewed from this perspective, politics is like a game of football. The critical skill is to keep possession of the ball. Eventually, if it’s held long enough, opportunities will open up to drive it through the opposition’s defence to score.

But the crowd’s focus isn’t just on the scoreboard at the end of each match. Supporters want to believe their team is in control; they want to know it hasn’t just been forced to respond to the tactics of the other side. They need to have faith in the idea that there is a game-plan, a strategy, behind the player’s movements.

Capturing and retaining people’s trust is a delicate task. It requires much more than simply winning the daily battle of the headlines. And it explains a great deal about the real reason the government is having so much difficulty getting its message to cut through. One critical factor – holding the strategic agenda – has been neglected in the unending struggle to win the tactical struggle of the moment.

This week has provided two clear demonstrations of how the government is fumbling the ball and losing control of the agenda, although the opposition is not doing much better both sides are displaying an inability to distinguish between the old-style politics that relies on a public with a short attention span and the new requirement to persuade and inspire the voters.

The decades now the car industry has enjoyed its untouchable status simply because of our intense dependence on vehicles. Participating in life without a car in the garage is, in most cities of Australia, quite literally impossible. The idea that we, as a country, can't manufacture something so vital is anathema. It was a concept Kevin Rudd put into words when he insisted, “I don't want to be Prime Minister of a country that doesn't make things".

But when taxpayers realise they're paying a baseline subsidy of $100,000 simply to keep each worker in the (self-described) ‘industry’, questions rapidly arise. You need to go back some seventeen years to 1984 before you can discern the last moment when politicians genuinely attempted to shape the business environment. It was Labor’s then Industry Minister John Button who actually managed to square the circle, finding a way to keep both consumers and manufacturers happy while creating the conditions for an economically viable car industry. Those circumstances have ceased to exist.

It’s understandable, then, why the current Minister Kim Carr thinks he’s winning the media battle. This week the headlines have all been about the way Labor’s putting together an industry assistance package (more giveaways, this time worth more than $100 million) while the opposition is arguing internally and divided about its earlier pledge to slash $500 million worth of subsidies.

The trouble is that the old simple equations are being challenged. They’re no longer accepted in the broader community. There’s absolutely no evidence that the community is prepared to abandon support for automotive manufacturing. Most voters want us to keep making cars here. The trouble is there’s no quid for the pro quo. The industry is simply waiting, expectantly, to be bankrolled.

That’s where Labor has vacated the intellectual field. Button led a debate about exactly how government support should be targeted to achieve the best result. Carr hasn’t even been able to effectively convey the idea that he’s got a long-term plan to support the industry, rather than a short-term fix. That’s why, although the opposition’s currently divided, Tony Abbott isn’t suffering the sort of polling agony that you’d expect as its internal differences are dredged up in the media.

The empty rhetoric of special pleading and weirdo interest groups rapidly emerges whenever there’s a political vacuum. It’s up to government to lead if it wants to occupy that strategic space. This has become most surprisingly apparent in the debate over a critical element of our future defence strategy.

Kevin Rudd’s Defence White Paper of 2009 identified the need for a new submarine. The proposed new fleet of twelve will represent a critical element in the new force structure. It’s meant to play a key role in deterrence.

Last year we couldn’t even send one of our existing Collins class boats to join the all-important multi-navy RIMPAC exercises being held off Hawaii. Yet Labor – even Defence Minister Stephen Smith, someone whose entire life has been consumed by following politics – is silent about the replacement vessel. It’s no wonder that the media void is being filled with ever-more outrageous proposals as each day passes. Most critically, an orderly transition to this key component of our force structure is becoming less and less likely.

It’s just a couple of weeks since the year started. In that time serious commentators (as well as others with access to the media) have proposed our Navy should buy, alternately, Japanese, German, Swedish, Spanish or US nuclear submarines. The only voice not heard is that of the government. All that’s required are a few decisions and a plan. It appears even this is beyond its capacity.

One of the more astute contributions to the debate came in a Kokoda Paper by Brice Pacey, launched this week. In an exhaustive examination of the issues he points out, simply, the limitations of buying something off-the-shelf and expecting it to meet our requirements. Follow this logic and you arrive at the inevitable conclusion that the country should be prepared to invest in the industry. Son of Collins, built in Adelaide. The payoffs are obvious: just ask the South Australian government. In February the Australian Submarine Corporation will become the largest employer of apprentices in that state.

Strategists like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Andrew Davies pose other rigourous questions, not focused on industry but instead revolving around the mission the submarines are required for. Why not buy a smaller, cheaper vessel? What's the strategic imperative to operate in the South China Sea? Is it really plausible to suggest we'd deploy boats in North Asian waters if they couldn't refit at the major US base in Guam?

Governments are elected to provide answers to these sort of questions. In a fortnight's time the Seapower Conference – the biggest fixture in the Navy year – will be held in Sydney. The Minister will make an announcement about the amphibious fleet. But indications are there will be no word about the submarine fleet.

The result is predictable. The government’s already lost control over the agenda. Issues drift. Confidence is eroded. Tragically, nothing’s likely to change.

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