You can have submarines instead

Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

– Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’

As I write this, many Australian artists and small to medium arts organisations are waiting on tenterhooks for funding notifications from the Australia Council. Some have already heard. In the wake of multi-million dollar cuts made in the 2014 and 2015 federal budgets, there’s barely a brass razoo to go round. Artists will find out they have lost jobs; companies will be forced to close. In what has been described by former Australia Council CEO Michael Lynch and others as the worst funding environment for 40 years, state-level cuts totalling $8 million have added insult to injury for South Australian artists. For us, the busker’s hat raided by George Brandis has now been kicked over. Stoicism and camaraderie will be in abundance as the phone calls come in – my peers and friends in the industry are well practiced – but grief and anger will rightly obtrude. Set this against the highest unemployment rate in the country, and you could be forgiven for thinking there’s never been a less exciting time to be a South Australian.

But, just as when the Falklands War reinvigorated northern England’s moribund shipbuilding industry, we are now led to believe that the construction of military hardware – in this case 12 submarines built at a cost of at least $50 billion – will rescue us from a bleak, post-industrial spiral of joblessness and anomie. According to the Government, the building of these submarines, to be shared between South Australia and Western Australia, ‘will directly sustain around 1,100 Australian jobs and a further 1,700 Australian jobs through the supply chain’. For the record, that’s about $18 million per job, or a still eye-watering $4 million if calculated using the inefficiency premium as the base. Unless you count the test-firing of torpedoes sometime around 2030 – when the first of the submarines is expected to be completed – the submarine deal promises little bang for buck. And that’s to say nothing of the cost blowouts that, judging by the notoriously mismanaged Collins class build, are inevitable.

In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s nationally televised farewell address of 1961, the former general decried the growing enmeshment of the country’s manufacturing industries with its armed forces, in the process coining a lastingly useful phrase: the military-industrial complex. However, in a less celebrated speech made eight years earlier to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the President had put the case against ever-growing military spending even more potently, and with a poetics and moral conviction that seem to belong not so much to another age as another planet:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Take a moment to try to imagine any current Western democratic leader (or her opposition for that matter), let alone one belonging to a right wing party as Eisenhower did, expressing such a view. In the present, bitterly divided political landscape, news of increased defence spending scarcely elicits comment much less debate. In Australia, true bipartisanship across the major parties is rare as hen’s teeth – except where the military is concerned. With the support of Labor and the Coalition, $32 billion will be poured into defence this year, a figure that, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Mark Thomson, will rise to around $50 billion by the middle of the next decade. Compare the dearth of scrutiny such sums receive with the protracted, torturous debate over education funding.

So we will have our guns, but not our butter. The belief that we can have both – indeed, that military investment can underwrite as much butter as we want – lies beneath the submarines announcement. But this ‘military Keynesianism’, to borrow a phrase from historian Andrew J Bacevich, is a military-industrial castle in the air. To take one pertinent example, the Collins class build, awarded to South Australia in 1987, was supposed to have produced all sorts of spillover benefits from technological innovations to skills training that would guarantee the market competitiveness of future shipbuilding in the state. Instead, American expertise had to be brought to bear on near-disastrous software problems, and it is amply clear that economic sense has less to do with having the submarines built in South Australia – it would have been far cheaper to do so overseas – than it does with an impending, close-fought election.

And come 2030 – or 2040, or 2050 – when the region’s geopolitical environment will look very different than it does today, what will the submarines actually be used for? With a mere eight paragraphs devoted to this question in the 2016 Defence White Paper, and nothing more than ‘jobs and growth’ vapidities from the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the answer can only lie in the subjunctive. Writing for The Drum, Terry Barnes wryly imagined the submarines surfacing off nameless hostile coasts to drop covert landing parties, and torpedoes ripping through enemy ships just as HMS Conqueror had done to Argentina’s ARA General Belgrano in the Falklands. And there, finally, in Barnes’ mind’s eye, was a stubbly John Mills, gazing steely-eyed into a periscope like out of We Dive at Dawn (1943), the Nazi battleship Brandenburg firmly in his sights.

Who will be in ours? The Chinese? Terrorists? Nobody asks; nobody says; in truth, nobody knows. This is the basis on which billions of dollars of federal money is shovelled into the raging furnace of the military-industrial machine. Conversely, our painters, writers, editors, and directors must endlessly, and minutely, articulate everything they do in the increasingly forlorn hope of securing even a small amount of funding from an ever diminishing pool. After discussing Labor’s education policy with Bill Shorten and Kate Ellis this week, primary school principal Louise Wilkinson remarked that ‘it’s about time defence did some chook raffles and sold tea towels.’ Fat chance. That’s for our hospitals, schools, and libraries; for our small theatres, mental health support services, and low-income earners.

Eisenhower knew this when, in his farewell address, he told his viewers that the cost of a vast military establishment had a ‘total influence – economic, political, even spiritual’, one that could be ‘felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.’ Many of our finest artists are feeling the cold hand of this influence on their shoulders today; tomorrow it will be another group of dreamers, helpers, or elders. It will be more Duncan Storrars. If this is what Malcolm Turnbull’s vision of ‘innovation’, ‘agility’, and ‘excitement’ consists in, he can keep it. Not that it will make any difference come July 2, whichever way the wind happens to be blowing that day – it’ll still smell of gunpowder and fear.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great article! The guns v butter argument is totally lopsided and proponents of the former never seriously questioned when they refer to the ultimate,impenetrable rationale of ‘national security’ .
    Legal aid supporters walked around Adelaide today to raise funds to run legal services after a week in which their funding have been drastically cut back by the Feds…for the same reasons for funding cutbacks in the arts….none.

  2. This article is actually a plea for disarmsament.
    The RAN only exists for the purpose of keeping our shipping lanes open in time of war. When things came a head in 1999 over East Timor (after years of appeasement) then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer went on TV to assure the nation that “we are not about to go to war with Indonesia”: simply because it looked then as if we well might. And that was a mere 17 years ago.
    ‘Speak softly, but carry a big stick’ is not bad advice at anytime in a region like ours. One never knows what is around the next corner, particularly with Islamism on the rise in Indonesia.

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