Everything but the punchline: what “Utopia” got right about Australian defence policy

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen wrote a fun post on this endlessly shared clip from the sitcom Utopia:

One of the episode’s sub-plots revolves around a fictional new Australian Defence White Paper. In the clip, Rob Sitch’s character Tony frustratedly seeks to get Defence officials to plainly answer why it’s necessary to spend close to $400 billion dollars as the paper promises.

The scene is sometimes widely shared on social media, and surged in popularity after the government announced that a similar sum of money (up to $368 billion) would be spent on nuclear-powered submarines under Pillar One of AUKUS.

Roggeveen’s post enjoyably dissects the clip. He starts with the weakness of the clip’s punchline, when Tony says:

So under this scenario we’re spending close to 30 billion dollars a year to protect our trade with China…

from China…

and that doesn’t strike anyone at this table as odd?

The punchline is fine as a sitcom line, but people sharing it on Twitter as if it is a compelling critique of defence policy has always bothered me. It’s as if people in the late 1930s were to say: “why do these stupid generals think we could ever face a threat from Japan, don’t they know Japan buys our pig iron?”

As Roggeveen notes:

There is nothing at all inconsistent about Australia defending itself against a country it trades with. In fact, it’s common for countries that trade together to also fight one another. Europe was highly economically integrated before the First World War, yet that didn’t prevent the war.

However, for this post I want to make a different point, one largely in support of the scene. To me, it’s all the parts of clip before the punchline that ring true.

I know this is all treating a sitcom scene far too seriously, but please indulge me.

The salient part of the clip is not the punchline, but the jargon and the vagueness throughout in how the Defence officials describe potential future threats, including steadfastly avoiding saying the word “China” until forced:

Genera: I wouldn’t want to raise tensions.

Tony: Where?

General: In this room.

Tony: You know what I’ll just name one and you nod… China

This highlights a real issue. Australian governments have generally sought to avoid inflaming tensions with China by saying anything too explicit about a potential future conflict with them. The Morrison government sometimes deviated from this approach, particularly the then Defence Minister Peter Dutton, but the Albanese government has been particularly firm on this. As Brendan Taylor notes:

Three distinct positions have emerged as to how Canberra should respond to the growing risk of war. One camp calls for Australia to make clear its commitment to joining with the United States and others in defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack, with a view to deterring Beijing from ever taking this path. A second perspective maintains that Taiwan’s defense is not a vital Australian interest, and that Canberra should be candid with Washington and Taipei regarding this reality well in advance of hostilities erupting. A third school, and one associated most closely with Australia’s new Anthony Albanese-led Labor government, holds that talking up even the chances of conflict is ill-advised. Instead, this camp argues, Canberra should adhere to the tried-and-true approach of its American ally, maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding how it would respond in the event of a Taiwan conflict. [emphasis added]

But it will be harder to avoid mentioning conflict with China if the public want clearer answers on why we need nuclear-powered submarines, which may increasingly happen in the years ahead as the budgetary impact hits.

This tension is clear in a recent interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles (an interview discussed in Roggeveen’s post but to make a separate point). Marles seeks to justify the submarine decision without saying anything too inflammatory about China:

Marles has a tricky task, because if the public is told these submarines are necessary for defence they want to know who we need to be defended from. This was foreshadowed in the Utopia clip when Tony said, “At some point the PM is going to be asked a very simple question: in order to protect us from which enemy?”

Moreover, due to the lack of a strong “maritime consciousness” in Australia, for much of the public “defence” tends to mean defence from an invasion rather than defence through shaping distant events out in the oceans. Marles therefore seeks (in the interview and elsewhere) to shift the conversation away from a purported threat to Australian territory to a potential threat to Australian trade, but it is clearly hard for him to convey exactly how the submarines help with this. When he talks about defending Australia’s trade routes, it sounds like he is talking about using the submarines as escorts for trading vessels. Roggeveen responds to this by saying:

The distance between Singapore and Sydney is more than 6000 kilometres in a straight line and even further by sea. How are eight nuclear-powered submarines, only two or three of which will be available for operations at any one time, supposed to defend every ship traversing that vast stretch of ocean? Even the US Navy, with all its resources, would struggle to do it.

That probably isn’t what Marles was suggesting.

A few weeks ago, I was wondering what Marles may have actually meant and asked on Twitter whether maritime security experts could explain how the nuclear-powered submarines would protect trade routes. A bunch of maritime security experts were extremely generous with their time (see responses from Richard Dunley among others) and explained that the trade-protection idea would not at all be to use the submarines as escorts. Instead, if I have understood their responses correctly, the idea would be (in the context of a broader conflict, if deterrence failed) for the submarines to assist allied efforts to damage the enemy’s fleet and hem them in at bottlenecks between islands, to hopefully avoid a situation where escorts for allied merchant shipping were even necessary.

I personally can’t speak to how compelling that argument is. It depends on assumptions that not everyone will share (such as whether to maintain the US alliance for the decades ahead, to the extent of actively participating in a global war). The point is that the precise purpose of the submarines is not at all easy for the government to convey.

To tie this all together, when the government tries to explain why it is committed to such an expensive and ambitious submarine plan, they do indeed end up sounding like the military officials in the Utopia clip above.

This is due to a real dilemma. The government is caught between three competing imperatives that Richard Marles would be contending with throughout all his public statements on the topic:

  1. The diplomatic imperative to talk softly, where our defence policies are increasingly geared to concerns over China but political leaders are understandably wary of escalating tensions, so they seek to say “China” (or discuss specific threat scenarios) as little as possible.
  2. The parochial incentive to frame the international security situation in Australia-centric terms. Political leaders feel compelled to justify defence spending decisions by emphasising their direct benefits to Australia (many references to jobs and allusions to hypothetical future attacks on Australia by unnamed adversaries) rather than openly engage with the difficult questions of collective defence such as “should we help to defend the people of Taiwan if China goes to war and, if so, what risks should we bear?”
  3. The inherent complexity of the international security situation itself, where its likely impact on Australia is more indirect and long-term than can be conveyed through media-friendly comments. Marles’s arguments make the most sense when he addresses this indirect nature of the threat (“the maintenance of the rules-based order as we understand it, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, is completely in Australia’s interest”) rather than when he talks about directly defending Australian shipping. But this international security situation does not easily lend itself to concise statements. Hence the abstractions like rules-based order, which in my view are valid but likely don’t resonate with much of the public. And however valid they are, these abstractions do not in themselves amount to an argument for why spending hundreds of billions on this specific defence capability is the best way to deal with the international security situation.

These three competing imperatives will become more prominent in the years ahead. Arguments will need to be made as to why the submarines are so important that Australia can’t afford whatever has to be cut out of future budgets, but these contradictory imperatives work against making such arguments directly.

So the government is in the same position as the Defence officials in the Utopia clip: adamantly insisting that the money needs to be spent in this way, but awkwardly struggling to clearly or concisely explain why.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s