When bad politics can lead to good policy

26 February 2015

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We're often told good policy is good politics. Sometimes however what seems like terrible politics can create good policy. So it is with Australia's submarines, writes ANDREW CARR.

Ever since the last Collins Class submarine rolled off the production line, a closed door discussion has occurred within government over how to replace them. The public was excluded on the basis that these issues are too sensitive and technical for open debate. But far from keeping the politics out, this allowed many base political and sectional interests to find a way in.

The Australian Labor Party during its time in office seems to have decided that, on the basis of supporting domestic industry and some notional reassurance from still being able to "make things", the submarines had to be built at home.

During the Rudd years we also saw a doubling of the intended submarine fleet without any public discussion of why this was necessary. Unfortunately after six years in power Labor had a large scoping study but no final decision.

The Liberal Party of Australia on the other hand have viewed any government supported manufacturing as deeply suspect. And again, without bringing the public into their confidence, seem to have decided that getting close to Japan is worth the risks. These include not only the chance of entanglement in North Asia, but also that Tokyo might not be able to deliver a vessel that fits Australia's needs.

Both parties have treated the issue seriously, but precisely because this was a private discussion they have been able to shoehorn their own political interests into the process, at the cost of rigorous policy. In February 2015 however fate intervened. Paradoxically as the politics of submarines has become more public and more partisan a better policy process has actually emerged.

Facing the fight of his life to keep the Prime Ministership, Tony Abbott clearly made some form of promise to South Australian Liberals that he would let Australia's industry compete for or participate in some of the work. Identifying just what he had promised quickly turned into a media game, with the Prime Minister and Defence Minister Kevin Andrews unable to explain what they had proposed and how it was different from a traditional "tender" process.

This looked a mess to observers, but suddenly Australia's leaders could no longer declare the submarine decision a closed door affair. Over the next few weeks the Australian government was forced to move to a much more open approach, via international proposals, parliamentary debates over eligibility and competition over the design and development of the submarines.

Even more importantly, they've had to try and gain public support for their approach, requiring some – albeit still too limited – explanation of why our leaders think they have the right choice.

The past few weeks might look like a textbook case of that common political sin of conducting "policy on the run" but this time, good policy has been the outcome.

Australia's submarine fleet is a $100 billion dollar question that requires us to make decisions today that will directly affect our security in 2030 and beyond. Normally, we think issues of such magnitude ought to be discussed by serious people behind closed doors and with politics and the media kept as far away as possible.

The experience of the past month however should give pause to those who hold that assumption. Noisy debate about submarines might not look efficient but it has forced the government to publicly explain, moderate and begin to justify its choice.

That doesn't guarantee we will ultimately get the right choice, and the ALP is not yet showing similar flexibility to that forced on the government. But at least the public now has a sense of participation and ownership in the outcome. This is vital when ultimately they will have to foot the bill.

We don't know who will be the prime minister when the international review is done and the final design selected. But at least the benefits and risks will have been seriously and publicly discussed.

Heated political debates, which Australian politics today seems fond of, might seem a world away from the refined ideal of strategic planning. But in policy terms, we're unquestionably the better off for it.

Dr Andrew Carr is a research fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in The Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

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