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Scott Morrison lost Australia’s trust. Why then should we trust his secret $170bn submarine deal?

Crikey logo Crikey 14/09/2022 David Hardaker
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This is part one of an ongoing investigative series by David Hardaker.

It was a year ago this week that Scott Morrison appeared alongside Boris Johnson and Joe Biden to unveil the AUKUS security pact which would bind Australia, the UK and the US for decades. After years of work in the background, Morrison’s secret weapon was finally ready.

Game-changing doesn’t quite capture it.

AUKUS is the largest commitment to defence spending Australia has ever made — about $170 billion, according to the latest estimate from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. At a single stroke Morrison boxed Australia into a “forever” pact with the Anglosphere powers, blindsided France, and ambushed the Labor opposition.

Until that moment Australia had only one nuclear reactor, at Lucas Heights in Sydney. Suddenly it was signing up for eight more in the form of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. For this there was no consultation. No white papers. No parliamentary debate. 

It was just Morrison, apparently acting alone and in secret — a modus operandi which has defined his career stretching all the way back to his time as CEO of Tourism Australia. 

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The results of that have been disastrous before. Might it be different this time?

Twelve months on Crikey is taking a look inside the AUKUS deal, how it began and where it is going. It is for the moment a partial picture because so little detail has been released. We will report more over the coming months. But one thing is sure. Whatever the strategic value of AUKUS it bears the indelible mark of Liberal politics.

From Morrison in Canberra to former attorney-general George Brandis in London and former senator Arthur Sinodinos in Washington, the deal — enormous as it is — has been a one-party affair. How fortuitous for Morrison that Australia’s London and Washington diplomatic posts were occupied by former Liberal politicians given his determination to keep AUKUS secret from the Labor opposition.

Whether or not it is all in the national interest is almost impossible to know yet.

The moment of creation

So when and why did Morrison decide to overturn the applecart?

We have only one AUKUS creation story to go on: the one brought to us by two journalists from The Australian, Simon Benson and Geoff Chambers, who were given special access to Morrison for their book Plagued.

According to Benson and Chambers, Morrison’s lightbulb moment occurred around September 2019 in the weeks after he attended the G7 summit in the French coastal hamlet of Biarritz. It was then he began “turning his mind to submarines”.

“Poring over the defence contracts that Australia had signed up to, the prime minister wanted to assure himself that there would be no regrets in the $90bn French deal for 12 Attack-class subs signed in 2016,” they wrote.

As prime minister, Morrison liked to be photographed as the lonely leader, carrying the weight of office and the nation’s future on his shoulders. Here was a word picture to match his Churchillian self-image.

The problem is: how to trust the story? Morrison’s propensity for myth-making invites speculation as to what really happened. Did a crow perch on the balcony thus reminding the prime minister of a biblical exhortation to act? Was it one of his (many) undeclared conversations with former US secretary of state, the ever-belligerent-towards-China Mike Pompeo?

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A long-time Canberra Defence strategist put it politely to Crikey that our imaginings were off the mark. Morrison, he said, was very aware of the growing China threat from his years in cabinet. And the idea of nuclear submarines had been kicking around Canberra for years, as a dream made impossible due to the US refusal to share its nuclear secrets with anyone beyond the UK.

An idea made in conservative circles

So who was Morrison’s first confidant? According to Benson and Chambers, Morrison brought in his senior defence adviser, Jimmy Kiploks, to make discreet enquiries with senior Defence officials as to the possibility of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

And who is Kiploks? It will surprise approximately no one to learn that he was a Liberal Party member, with records from 2010 showing him atop the ACT branch of the Liberal Party, where he was aligned with the conservative Zed Seselja (later a Morrison government minister).

But Crikey has found more buried deep in the archives of Adelaide University’s On Dit student newspaper. Back in his student days the young Kiploks ran for election on a stridently pro-gambling platform. Declaring himself a member of the Skycity Adelaide casino action club, Kiploks vowed to “fight for pokies, Keno, TAB and a casino on campus”. 

Maybe it was all just student hijinks (Kiploks hasn’t responded to our attempts to contact him) but the pro-gambling, conservative Liberal branch politician must have been pinching himself when he was later in the presence of POTUS himself as part of Morrison’s delegation at a meeting of the Quad powers at the Biden White House.

The circle expands

Perhaps the key player in Morrison’s inner circle, though, has been Andrew Shearer, the head of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), whose rise in Canberra has been closely tied to conservative Liberal governments. 

Shearer’s Canberra career has seen him on the staff of former Liberal defence minister Robert Hill, as well as adviser to prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott — though not Malcolm Turnbull. (Shearer was opposed to Australia’s decision to contract with France’s Naval Group over Japan.)

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Shearer’s conservative pedigree includes time as a CD Kemp Fellow at the conservative Melbourne policy group the Institute of Public Affairs. Morrison appointed him as cabinet secretary in August 2019, just weeks before his lightbulb moment on the AUKUS subs deal. 

A year later Morrison appointed Shearer to run the ONI, a role which gave him almost daily access to the prime minister for security briefings. Morrison made the appointment over Labor’s objections that Shearer was a “partisan operative” who reportedly did not have their confidence. 

Too bad. The ONI job is a statutory appointment, so there’s nothing the Albanese government can do about it until Shearer’s term expires in 2025. It has to live with it — or work around it — like the other partisan appointments in the federal government.

Shearer declined Crikey’s request for comment.

The word spreads to Defence

Evidence given to parliamentary committees late last year began to fill in the gaps on who knew what and when of the emerging plan to dump the French deal and move to the new US and UK one. 

Senate committee evidence shows that the circle widened first to secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty and Defence Force chief Angus Campbell, who scoped out possibilities from around March-April 2020. This was around the time that Morrison had “begun the process of abandoning” the French subs deal, according to the version Morrison gave to The Australian Financial Review.

By December 2020 Defence had reported its findings to Morrison. It was only then that Morrison’s department head, Phil Gaetjens, was brought into the loop. It was to be a further six months, in June 2021, before a select group of other Prime Minister and Cabinet officials was introduced to the plan.

Former finance minister Senator Simon Birmingham recalled having a discussion with Morrison in about March 2021, around the time he believed when members of the cabinet’s national security committee were also informed. 

It meant that for at least 18 months Morrison’s secret was shared with a narrow group, most of whom were khaki-clad — or wearing navy whites — and who were used to operating in the shadows. (One exception was former chief scientist Alan Finkel.) 

Commentators would later marvel at how tightly the AUKUS secret was kept. But now we know that keeping plans secret is no great achievement for Scott Morrison: it is second nature to him and key to how he operates, for better or (as is often the case) worse.

Next: All the prime minister’s men.

If you have any information about this story you would like to pass on please contact David Hardaker via dhardaker@protonmail.com.

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