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Nuclear submarines surface questions of government spending

  • 28 September 2021
The Australian Government’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines has brought to the surface once again big questions around how governments should spend money, particularly during a pandemic. The Government has ditched a $90 billion plan for French submarines in favour of even more expensive boats from the United Kingdom or the United States.

Governments have a duty to provide for the defence of their people, but how they do that, and how much they spend, is a matter on which the whole community should reflect. What could this money do to combat poverty and growing inequality in Australia and globally? Will this plan make us, our country, our region and our planet, safer?

The new submarine deal comes with the additional cost of compensating the French builder Naval Group for breaking an existing contract. Australia has already spent $2.4 bn on the scrapped project. But the cost of this new arrangement is much more than money. Trust has been broken and relationships strained. The response in France, and in Europe more broadly, means we may miss out on a free trade agreement with Europe. Trust is the basis of all commerce and exchange.

Trust is also essential to real peace and security. Our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region are understandably unsettled by the AUKUS alliance. Given the history of the region, and the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, one can hardly blame them for nervousness about intensifying military cooperation between Australia and other Anglophone settler countries. They do not wish to become entangled in a new cold war.

In his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis sets out a vision for the human family, built on a culture of dialogue and encounter. He reminds us that ‘international peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power’ but rather requires mutual trust which ‘can be built only through dialogue that is truly directed to the common good’ (FT n 262). If we want to live in peace with our near neighbours, and with old and new powers, increasing our military strike capacity is not the answer.

'Previously, the government argued in favour of the diesel-electric submarines on the grounds that we did not have sovereign nuclear capabilities. What has changed?'

These submarines will be nuclear-powered rather than nuclear armed. This is an important distinction,