Newsletter 408

Published September 27, 2021
20,000 Leagues under the sea with Captain Scummo

I often feel I should use this newsletter to talk about art and cinema rather than politics but then I’d have nowhere to blow off steam about the things in the news that drive me to distraction. The etiquette of publishing articles in the newspapers requires a certain level of restraint. If I’m too outspoken the  lawyers will quietly remove that bit from the piece before it’s released – which is why I encourage readers to read the versions that appear on my own website: unexpurgated and free from the tabloid headlines the ‘Herald now uses as clickbait.

This week it’s hard to get beyond the yellow submarine scandal Scummo has masterminded. Yellow, not  because he’s done it to antagonise the Chinese, but because he’s been so cowardly in the way he has dealt with the French.

Maybe I’m naive in the ways of defence policy but I could never see point of spending 40-50, later 90 billion dollars on 12 submarines that we wouldn’t be seeing for about 12 years anyway. As China already has 66 subs, with 10 more coming on line by 2030, this is a race we simply can’t win, no matter how much money is spent. The most obvious aspect of technology is that it is always advancing, and with each new advance last year’s cutting-edge is rendered obsolete. Given the current progress in AI and Quantum computing how could we even consider something that takes 20 years to make?

Last week, a smirking Scummo triumphantly announced that instead of 12 subs by 2030, we’re going to get 8 subs by 2040. We’ll be paying even more for them, and there are no guarantees that Australian companies will get any of the work. (An inquiry is not due to report until after the next federal election). We will also have to write off the billions already spent on the French contract, as well as whatever it will cost to break that contract.

In achieving this triumph we have infuriated China, giving our biggest and most belligerent trading partner another reason to do something diabolical to us and say we started it. We have also insulted the French, who reputedly only learned they were being dumped the night before the announcement. It’s no small thing for Macron to recall the French ambassador and threaten to derail Australian trade negotiations with the EU. He could argue with some justification that Australia simply can’t be trusted. If he needs another argument, climate policy would do nicely.

Along the way we’ve also alarmed the Indonesians and Malaysians, who have expressed concern about the submarine deal, and one imagines these worries are shared by other Asian nations. New Zealand has said they won’t permit our nuclear-powered subs in their waters. Having spent the past few decades consolidating our relations and partnerships in the region we have now gone back to the future with a treaty between Australia, the USA and the UK – our all Anglophone pals. Yes, it’s back to the glorious 1950s!

This has given Scummo an unlovely new acronym to bandy about – AUKUS. Imagine if the French had a similar alliance with the UK and US!

I’m prepared to accept that China’s increasingly aggressive attitude is a source of concern for everyone, but going out of our way to ‘name and shame’ China is the very worst thing we could be doing. What can one expect when we face the world with The Boiled Egg rattling his sabres, and Marise Payne – a fine example of the kind of “quiet Australian” Scummo prefers (especially among the female of the species)? And then there’s Drone Teehan, that prating, dreary automaton, who learns a few catchphrases before every interview and repeats them like a stuck record. Drone is Scummo’s secret weapon, soon to be unleashed in the French. His mission is to quickly bore them into submission.

One of his lines is that the French are “disappointed”, although it might be more accurate to say they are incandescent with rage. Another is to harp on about our “national sovereign interest”, which is a bit of a joke considering we’ve just invited the Americans to do whatever they like on Australian territory. More troops, more bases, more military equpment, more ships, more missiles? Remember the uproar over the American base at Pine Gap? All that seems to have been forgotten at a moment when the US is more politically unstable than at any time since the Civil War. If the increasingly rabid Republicans take back the Congress or Senate in 2022 our willingness to roll over will have even greater consequences. If Trump were to return to power in 2024 it sets up an unthinkable scenario. Even without the GOP, one could hardly say Biden’s actions in Afghanistan suggest the USA would honour any foreign commitment that might be unpopular at home.

Perhaps the worst part of this shambles is that Scummo has charged into a historical agreement that stamps us as toadies of the USA and UK once again. He has double-crossed the French in the most despicable manner, thinking he could get away with it, put all our Asian allies on guard, and given the Chinese yet another reason to despise us. Even if it were absolutely necessary to do what he’s done, his approach has been mind-boggingly stupid. He did no groundwork with the French, being completely focussed on making a big public announcement, positioning the Coalition as our great protectors going into the next election. Labor didn’t take the bait, preferring to go along with this ‘deal’ rather than be blitzed with the usual “soft on defence” claptrap. If the ALP returns to power next year they’ll have a lot of bridges to mend.

To score points at home Scummo has made us look like US sycophants who would betray anybody when it suited us. It won’t be long before we will feel the consequences economically and diplomatically. Having gone so far down the submarine path with the French – and as money seems to be no object – surely we should have continued with the contract. This would have given us some sort of submarine capacity a lot sooner. Instead, we have turned a friend into a powerful enemy and tied ourselves to a contract that won’t be fulfilled for at least 20 years! One only hopes China is prepared to wait that long if they have any aggressive territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Perhaps Drone Teehan should be sent post-haste to Beijing to persuade them to take it easy. On the other hand, maybe we should see if the Chinese could build us a few subs for a better price.

One final political blast: the Christian Porter saga has gone from bad to worse now that the errant minister has decided to take the money and step down from the job. This sets an appalling precedent for the intrusion of outside money into politics, and it makes a mockery of the already ludicrous process whereby Scummo seeks “advice” from the reliable Phil Gaetjens before making a decision. What it means is that there will be no further need for “advice”, or for Scummo to show any sign of leadership on this matter.

The party line, as broadcast on Radio National this week, by Drone and his repellent colleague, Stuart Robert, is that whatever Mr Porter has done has been perfectly within the letter of the law, and now because of this “perceived” conflict of interest, he has taken the “heart-breaking” step of heading to the back bench for the next five minutes. We are all being urged to respect the privacy of Christian Porter and his family.

In other words, we’re expected to act as if there has been a death in the family rather than a million dollar cash grab by an irresponsible minister who should have known better than to launch a petulant lawsuit against the ABC (surely he could have just allowed the Murdoch Press to handle the attacks on his behalf?), and then grab at a supposedly anonymous cash handout from a “blind trust”, although that term doesn’t correspond to a general understanding of what a blind trust means to most politicians, where it refers to their own stocks and investments. Furthermore he’s able to assure us that the money is not coming from any foreign sources or lobbyists, so it seems this trust suffers from only partial blindness. Perhaps a short-sighted trust would be a better term.

Finally the emphasis on Mr Porter’s family is a bit rich, as he is separated from his second wife and mother of his two children, and at last report was dating a criminal lawyer – which shows some degree of forethought. So to which family are we expected to offer our sympathies for the tragic demise of a political career?

Arrrgh! That’s enough politics. The art column this week is devoted to Melancholy – not just a romantic name for depression, but a mysterious condition that has had a huge impact on great art, literature and music throughout the ages. Once again it’s a book in waiting, but Ill have to make do with an article.

The film column looks at the Netflix documentary on Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher, who survived the dangers of high speed racing, only to suffer a skiiing accident in 2013 that has rendered him invisible ever after. The documentary examines Schumacher’s career and personality, taking us way beyond the realm of motor sport and deep into the psychology of the high achiever in any field. As we contemplate a week of historic low achievement in international diplomacy it’s nice to be reminded of someone who never believed that success could be simulated by smoke and mirrors.


As a last-minute extra this week I’m adding a brief opinion piece for the Blog, after the NGA announced they’d be spending $14 million on a public sculpture by Lindy Lee. In brief: it might be aesthetically pleasing but I’m not sure it’s a good time to be splashing extravagantly on works of art.