A soap opera typically has a number of common features: forced characters, somewhat unbelievable; a plot in which dramatic events occur frequently but the story itself doesn’t reach any sort of conclusion; a familiar setting with only the occasional foray outside to refresh interest; and a devoted and fixated viewing audience.
Australia’s ongoing attempt to procure a follow-on submarine to the Collins class seems to fit this description. The main characters endlessly circle one another, uttering somewhat meaningless phrases whilst simultaneously professing their devotion to the project and each other. Occasionally one of the cast is sacrificed in order to rebuild the ratings. Dramatic events come and go, but the plot hardly moves. There’s nothing to distinguish today’s viewing from that of two or three years ago, other than a feeble attempt to relate to the concerns of everyday people and the challenges of everyday life.
The setting is limited to two main locations, Canberra and South Australia, although in recent times a promise of an additional foreign setting has been added. Sadly there’s no vision of that set, no understanding whether culture or language will be a barrier, no investigation of whether the show is viable in this new location, and seemingly little will to investigate associated issues such as whether a re-design will be required to accommodate the new location.
Irrespective of those challenges the show continues. Clearly, there’s a devoted audience, but it’s one transfixed by watching a slow-motion train wreck. The end point seems obvious without a dramatic change in plot; and that seems unlikely.
In spite of many years’ effort, and the ready availability of a sensible path to address the contenders and move forward, we seem to be stuck in a no-man’s land of non-decision and obfuscation. The latest development around ‘competitive evaluation’ has added a twist to the plot but essentially nothing’s changed. There’s no guarantee that any Australian option will be considered for the submarine-build. We’ve been assured that all options will be evaluated competitively. Whether the various companies involved will be given the opportunity to provide relevant information, or even whether relevant questions will be asked of them, remain unknown in this evaluative but competitive environment.
How have we arrived at this point? Surely Australia is the laughing stock of the submarine-building and submarine-operating world. We’ve successfully built submarines here, and now (post-Coles) we can successfully maintain them and keep them operational in the numbers that we want. We know that the Collins is an effective conventional submarine. We’ve done the hard yards in establishing the basis of a submarine industry, but we’re on the verge of casting that to the four winds. For what? For lack of vision regarding Australia’s strategic future and the part that naval shipbuilding and submarine building will play in the mitigation of strategic risk? For a fixation on a balanced budget that puts today’s dollars ahead of the long-term national interest? For a backroom deal to cement an international relationship?
The submarine debate is not about jobs—although jobs are important. The debate is about the mitigation of strategic risk, about developing the industrial base that we need to have in-country to address those risks, about maximising the effect of the dollars that are expended on Australia’s defence for Australia, about innovation and about building the skills that we need to have for the future.
We can’t do everything associated with defence, but we can and should do this. Moreover we can do it at a price that should be acceptable. To do otherwise is to perpetuate the soap opera nature of the future submarine project and to continue the current absurdity.
Maybe we could just change the channel!
Graeme Dunk is manager of Australian Business Defence Industry, a national defence industry association. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Horacio Agostini.