Gordon Campbell on Canada’s election, and the AUKUS defence pact

AUKUS inage sm

Yesterday, Canada held an election in which everyone lost, including the voters. After holding its most expensive ( $C600 million) election campaign ever, the result was Groundhog Day, with the five main parties getting almost exactly the same number of seats as they did last time around, in 2019. Same overall result too: Liberals leader and PM Justin Trudeau will once again be leading a minority government.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time. Trudeau had hoped to win an outright majority ( 170 seats in the 338 seat Parliament) after calling a snap election to capitalise on his handling of the pandemic. Instead, voters rebelled against the Covid crisis being manipulated for political gain. In the end, Trudeau and his Liberals scraped home with 158 seats on the night, three more than they started out with, and just as dependent on the centre-left NDP to govern the country.

After leading in the polls early on, the Conservatives new leader Erin O’Toole won the popular vote, by stacking up support in the rural/provincial areas. Yet thanks to Canada’s FPP electoral system, the Conservatives failed to win seats where it mattered. As for the NDP, its charismatic leader Jasmeet Singh will be the kingmaker once again, and he can hope to win some policy gains from Trudeau for continuing to prop him up in office.

Yet while Singh led the opinion polls as Canada’s most popular/trusted politician, this didn’t translate into the NDP winning significantly more seats . ( Thank FPP again.) The Greens failed entirely to get traction, winning just 2.3% of the vote and only two seats. The Bloc Quebecois trod water with 32 seats beforehand, and is being projected to have exactly the same number again in the new Parliament. The Bloc failed to hit its pre-election target of 40 seats, which would mean a majority of Quebec’s 78 seats. Instead, it will remain the third biggest party in the federal government.

It is interesting to consider what the outcome would have looked like if Canada had a proportional representation system. The Liberals got 32.5% of the vote and won 158 seats on the night, when under a simple PR system. that percentage should have given them only 108 seats. The Conservatives got 34% and 119 seats on the night, when under a proportional system, they should have got only 114. The NDP would be big winners. They got 17.7% and 25 seats when under PR, they would have got 59. The Greens got 2 sears when under PR, they would have got 8.

Add up all the likely coalition outcomes though and under PR you would still have the same result: Justin Trudeau leading a minority government, but one in which the NDP and the Greens would have had stronger voices.

The Cry of the AUKUS

An AUKUS may sound like the name (and the cry) of an extinct bird, but it is the chosen name of the new defence pact between the US, UK and Australia. And what pray, is the purpose of an AUKUS ? Well… That’s not obvious. For the US, it is part of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to put the world on notice that “ America is back” post Trump, and also to signify that post-Afghanistan, the US has some sort of defence plan for the “Indo-Pacific.” For Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, AUKUS helps to bolster the illusion that imperial Britain is back on stage as a global player, post Brexit. Dream on.

And for Australia? In concrete terms, AUKUS is mainly a mechanism for Australia getting itself a nuclear submarine fleet and pointing it at China, as part of being America’s deputy sheriff in the region. The cost of playing that thankless role? Australia has won itself the lasting enmity of France, just as Canberra is trying to negotiate a trade pact with the Europeans. Chances are, Australia will also have to pay a humiliating amount to France for breaking the submarine contract.

The contract with France involved using the Adelaide shipyards to turn a French nuclear submarine model into an Australian diesel-driven model. Thanks to the US, Australia will be joining the small club of nuclear submarine nations. The price of admission? Alienating France, enraging China and suffering the humiliation of having Biden publicly forget Morrison’s name: “That fella from Down Under, hi pal.”

All up, AUKUS looks like another display of Scott Morrison’s remarkable skill at scoring own-goals. (Aussie bush-fire tragedies: Morrison takes a family vacation in Hawaii etc.) Thankfully, New Zealand is not part of AUKUS. Although a Five Eyes member, New Zealand is now not being seen – by France, by the rest of Europe, and by China – as a front line member of the China containment force. That has to be good for us.

Just as thankfully, New Zealand has never been invited into the diplomatic equivalent of AUKUS – the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad for short ) comprised of the US, Japan, India and Australia. This is a grouping originally dreamed up by Dick Cheney and Shinzo Abe in the late 2000s, to counter China’s expanding role in the Asia-Pacific region. This region has now been carefully re-named the “Indo-Pacific” region, in order to emphasise China’s alleged threat to the oceanic choke points of maritime trade and defence manoeuvres.

When Ron Mark was Defence Minister he deliberately stuck to the term “Asia Pacific” to send a diplomatic signal to China. (There’s a useful backgrounder here by an analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation about New Zealand’s subsequent embrace of the term “Indo Pacific” and its reasons for doing so.) Of late, New Zealand has even edged slightly closer to the Quad. It was one of the handful of extra nations called into “Quad Plus” to discuss the regional security implications of the pandemic.

Yet despite all the huffing and puffing about defence and security, is China really all that much of a threat to regional security? Hardly. China has next to no forward force projection capability. It is also highly dependent on imported foreign oil. It has fourteen nations on its borders, many of them hostile and four of them nuclear armed, not counting the US military forces in the region. China’s military “threat” beyond its borders is being chronically overstated by people with a vested interest in defence spending. The alleged might of the Soviet armed forces was exaggerated by the same sort of people, for the same reasons, during the Cold War. That is, until the Soviet Army got driven out of Afghanistan by a few thousand mujahadeen equipped with US Stinger missiles.

This gap between the reality and the rhetoric ( Red Menace, meet Yellow Peril) is plain for all to see in the New Zealand defence reviews and White Papers etc and in the fine print of even the recent Aussie defence plans. Beyond the fever dreams of Aussie Defence Secretary Peter Dutton, none of these documents predict any possibility of military conflict in the Pacific region –caused by China or anyone else – during the decades to come.

Cyber threats and terrorism are cited as being the more realistic security threats, and – although I’m not an expert on this stuff – I can’t imagine it would be a good idea to try taking out a bunch of hackers or a lone wolf terrorist with a nuclear submarine.

Media madness

The practical uselessness of AUKUS has not stopped media on both sides of the Tasman from over-reacting to New Zealand’s exclusion from (and /or reluctance to join) the AUKUS club. Greg Sheridan and other knuckle-dragging members of the Aussie defence commentariat have treated AUKUS as another opportunity to ridicule Wellington for not having the same servile relationship to Canberra, as Canberra has to Washington. Should we now be regarded as “New Xi-Land” etc etc

At the same time, the New Zealand media worried itself sick over whether not being invited into AUKUS – or being told only at the last minute about its existence – might mean everyone is mad at us. Oh dear, what is Aussie Defence Minister Peter Dutton saying about us now behind closed doors ? In short, the AUKUS coverage has been something of a mirror for Australia’s national aggressions and for our own national insecurities. Bully meets bullied behind the national security bike-sheds.

Here’s a more realistic scenario. Why does Australia actually want, much less need a nuclear submarine force? Answer : they’re quieter than diesel driven subs, are therefore harder to detect, and can travel much further without needing to surface to refuel. In other words, they enhance Australia’s forward force projection capability. Meaning : they’re useful mainly as an adjunct to offensive action against China, and are no use at all in helping defend Australia or New Zealand. Even as a so-called “deterrent” force they’re counter-productively more likely to provoke a pre-emptive attack by a cornered enemy than deter it. Do we really want to be part of Peter Dutton’s fever dreams of an imminent war with China? No, we really do not. Staying out of that sort of thing is both an honourable and a sensible position for us to take.

Paying our way

In any case – even if for argument’s sake, we adopted the hawks’ position – are we currently paying our way on regional defence and security? Yes, we are. New Zealand has just spent $3 billion plus on buying four new Poseidon surveillance aircraft and kitting them out for anti-submarine warfare in the Asia Pacific, alongside the Australians. (There is no other rational purpose for that expensive gear.) Later this decade, New Zealand taxpayers are also on track to fork our further billions to create jobs for Australian workers by refitting our Anzac frigates in the Adelaide shipyards. This is despite the fact that in modern warfare, frigates can be taken out by a guy with a missile mounted on a truck. Once again, the Australians have no reason to complain about us not paying our way in the latest rounds of military folly.

Besides… Our own military still get to dress up and do cosplay with their uniformed mates everywhere around the region. More to the point… Where is the evidence that China is projecting any of its military forces into the Pacific? We have just spent $3 billion to detect Chinese submarines that seem nowhere to be seen in our neck of the woods. In all likelihood, China regards its current muscle flexing around its borders as defensive in nature, and with respect to territories that it regards – on shaky grounds at times – as its own turf.

In the circumstances, the AUKUS pact is counter-productively likely to give China even more reasons to feel paranoid.

Footnote: The notion that New Zealand was somehow snubbed by being informed of the AUKUS pact only at the last minute, seems pretty bizarre. Think about it. Australia has chosen to breach a major defence contract with France, and can expect to be sued for billions for doing so. New Zealand knows first-hand – after what happened to us in the wake of our jailing of the French agents who sunk the Rainbow Warrior – about how France uses trade as a blackmail weapon.

Eventually, we sorted things out with France. These days, Emmanuel Macron and Jacinda Ardern get along fine, have co-operated on the Christchurch Call, and are finessing an EU/NZ trade deal in which France will have a significant voice. Why on earth would we want to join Australia in gratuitously alienating France at this point? Similarly, if you were an Australian about to scrap a major contract with France, would you choose to alert New Zealand any earlier than was absolutely necessary? Of course not.

Point being: there was no snub involved to New Zealand. Not alerting us sooner was an attempt at risk minimisation by Australia, as it embarked on what many observers – including the New York Times– regard as being a foolhardy strategy. From some vantage points, AUKUS looks like a team of journeymen – Biden, Boris Johnson and ScoMo – trying to tell each other that they’re winners. We should maintain our distance from them.

And here once again in case you missed it, is yesterday’s music playlist :