Tuesday, December 2, 2014


We want to buy a new submarine.

The only question is; which one?

A French nuclear submarine - one we won't be getting

The problem is the government won't share any of its thinking about the project.

And this is not the only area where the government's failed to explain its thinking, as this column for todays Canberra Times pointed out . . .


Let’s get one thing straight – the problem is not Senator David Johnston.

Asserting this is to in no way excuse the Defence Minister’s hurtful hyperbole. Of course ASC can build a canoe. He was foolish to suggest otherwise. What Johnston might have said, far more accurately, is that when it (eventually) turned up the canoe would be late, way over budget, and with a long list of faults requiring rectification. Or that’s the experience with the three Air Warfare Destroyers we’ve purchased, anyway. 

Johnston’s comment reflected quite understandable frustration with the government shipbuilder. It is, according to the Minister, a company in need of genuine reform and expertise at the highest level. So why, then, did it put Sophie Mirabella on the board straight after she lost her seat at the last election? How exactly has her appointment sliced through the dysfunction? Or did she simply add to the problem?

This is the first point: the cabinet doesn’t understand how government businesses work. Look at the way it sought to emasculate the ABC. Inflicting punishment without bothering to recognize how the organisation would pass this spanking through and out the other side. Tony Abbott seems surprised that the corporation has turned the pain around. Of course Mark Scott was going to shut Bush Telegraph – a program speaking directly to the National Party’s core constituency. Naturally the Corporation’s hierarchy would use the cuts to make changes it wanted and sheet the blame home to Tony Abbott. He treated government like a workout at the gym. He’s heavily into pain and punishment. Well, he’s getting it.

Real change needs to be driven from within. This government is attempting to impose it from without. Does cabinet really wonder why all its own corporations seem to be so bad? Perhaps the problem lies with the owner. Of course there’s no ‘buy in’ from management. That’s because there’s been no attempt to get the organisations on board with what the government wants. Cabinet doesn’t understand it how to ‘fix’ the government businesses. Yet this is exactly why boards exist – to make sure the management is doing what the owner wants. Don’t complain to the shareholders, the voters. Fix it. Which leads to the second point: no ‘how’; no precision of objectives.

Even if cabinet itself is certain of what it expects from its own businesses – and there’s no guarantee of this – it’s failed to communicate these desires precisely and effectively. Even if this small, bizarre group of repressed men (all from a similar background, all with a similar ideological approach, all sitting around the oval cabinet table) are able to frame their inchoate, deep private longings, they’ve failed to communicate them. Perhaps they’ve been so busy hiding their inner desires for so long that they can’t express them with any precision anyway. But just insisting that things should be “better” isn’t good enough when you are the government. Nobody would pretend everything’s going brilliantly, but this doesn’t absolve cabinet from doing the work to articulate exactly what needs to be better. What it expects and how this will be achieved. The seeds of failure lie in the government’s approach. It’s outsourced all the hard work and now seems surprised nobody wants to do it.

And this is the third, and perhaps most crucial point: a failure of communication. This doesn’t simply reflect the government’s incapacity to outline objectives. Communicating is a two way street. You say something; you listen; you respond to what you’ve heard. This dialogue ensures that everyone is part of the same process and on the same journey. This is the most critical aspect of the current government’s failure. This, more than anything else, explains Abbott’s abject failure. He thinks being PM is about getting somewhere. It’s not. It’s all about the trip.

We know, despite all the promises and plans, we’re setting sail into uncharted waters each time we install a new government. We hope they’ll keep their promises, but we know things crop up unexpectedly. We know some promises are more important than others. What we expect – and need – is to be kept happy as passengers in the boat. The way this is done is through communication.

Bob Hawke was a master at this. He listened and reacted, which is why Paul Keating called him “jellyback”. Keating thought he knew better, won an election, stopped listening, and was booted out as far and fast as possible. While wearing a hearing-aid, John Howard became our second-longest Prime Minster. Kevin Rudd failed to listen to his own party and was dispatched with extreme prejudice. Julia Gillard failed to communicate with the electorate to become yet another failed leader.

What’s the common trait of our recent rush of one-term leaders? What explains why they haven’t measured-up? They knew where they wanted to go: they just couldn’t be bothered bringing us along with them.

That’s Abbott’s problem. And the submarine’s a classic example. I’m really very interested in this project – from a military, industrial, technological and political point of view. A number of sailors (thank you Commodore), companies (thank you SAAB), scientists (thank you DSTO) and politicians have kept feeding me with information on the submarine project – they must be wondering when I’m going to do an article on it.

Why haven’t I? This government’s been too busy making problems for itself. It won’t let us in on any of the complex decision trade-offs that come along with this huge decision. It thinks that all its work is focussed on what happens around the cabinet table. It’s not. This is our submarine. We want a part of it. Why is ASC supposedly so “hopeless”? Why should we buy Japanese?

A government that won’t explain can’t be trusted.


  1. We have 4 requirements.

    1) It has to be a decent sub when it gets to where it's needed.
    2) It has to have a small crew.
    3) It has to have a very long range.
    4) It cannot be nuclear -we don't have the infrastructure for that.

    None of the "off the shelf" designs meet all four criteria, and all four are essential, not "nice to have".

    Regarding Soryu boats - we have enough personnel for 2 crew complements, one ashore training, one at sea. We'd need 3 hulls, one in short-term refit, one in long-term refit to have one on ops. Talk of buying 12 is bizarre. We need 2 at sea, but the crew requirements make that impossible.

    They also only have half the range needed. As do all other non-nuke boats in service - other than the Collins. What we really need is a newer, slightly uprated Collins with far more reliable equipment. One that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

    It's a problem as ASC doesn't appear to do "reliability". Nor "not insanely expensive".

  2. Lol Nicholas, the history and process of defence procurement is a very complicated and much vexed subject and the submarine element of the RAN is one part of the problem as much as an ideological one (buy global or buy local). You could write another book on the situation and be able to fully fill the pages....and that's before going anywhere near the whole issue of RAN capacity to crew the boats (as the submarine crew complements are a hard niche to fill)