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In Soviet Australia defence is welfare

Simon Cowan | 23 November 2012

Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is famous for starting the ‘in Soviet Russia’ meme, where he joked about how backward things were in Russia (for example, in the United States you can drive a tank, but in Soviet Russia the tank drives you).

I’m not sure whether Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare is a fan of ‘in Soviet Russia’ jokes, but I’m hoping there is a punch line somewhere in his recent speech at a Submarine Institute of Australia conference.

Talking about the $40 billion Future Submarine project (which will replace our six ailing Collins Class subs with 12 Future subs) the Minister noted, ‘We are not just building 12 submarines – we are building an industry … that could potentially last for a century or more.’ The Future Submarine project is billed as the ‘biggest and most complex defence project’ ever undertaken in Australia. Yet apparently that level of complexity is not sufficient – it now also needs to create and support an entire industry for a century.

In the rest of the world, defence safeguards the welfare of citizens. In Soviet Australia, it seems defence is welfare for some groups (companies in politically sensitive industries and regions).

Unless you are a Bond villain, grand schemes should be a last resort, not the first choice. How can one justify starting an extremely risky nation-building project ‘potentially the same size as the national broadband network’ without examining all options?

In my recent paper I made it clear that I believe Australia should investigate leasing US nuclear submarines. This position has received a great deal of support – and a fair bit of criticism, particularly from those who want to see the submarines built in Australia.

Debate on the relative complexities and capabilities of submarine options is fine, as is consideration of issues such as safety and strategic objectives. However, what should not be acceptable is blindly supporting local jobs, especially not with this price tag.

Australians need to start asking hard questions on government spending. Do we need home-built subs more than we need the National Disability Insurance Scheme? Call it the ‘NDIS test’ – is this cause more worthy than wheelchairs for kids with disabilities?

When seen in that light, corporate welfare doesn’t look like such a good idea, does it?

Simon Cowan is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of Future Submarine Project Should Raise Periscope for Another Look.