A new sandpit for long side discussions, idees fixes and so on. Discussions about climate policy and related issues can be posted here, along with the usual things.

Refighting World War II

In keeping with his commitment to do exactly what Tony Abbott would have done, but with more style, Malcolm Turnbull has just announced that we are to spend a trillion dollars on fighter plans and submarines. Apparently, there are lots of problems with the hugely expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Australia has on order. Rather than look at the details, it’s worth asking we are, yet again, arming ourselves to refight World War II.

World War II was fought on land, sea and air. Submarines and fighter planes played a crucial role. But since 1945, things have changed. The 70 years since 1945 have been marked by near-continuous land warfare in various parts of the world [1]. On the other hand, there has been essentially no naval warfare, in the sense of battles between ships or carrier based aircraft, with the exception of the absurd and unnecessary Falklands conflict. Air combat between fighter planes lasted a bit longer after 1945, playing a big role in the Korean War, but has been pretty much non-existent since the 1980s. All warplanes, these days, are effectively bombers, usually hitting targets that have previously been rendered defenceless by missile attack. Yet the problems of the F-35 stem, in large measure, from its capacity to engage in hypothetical dogfights.

Fighter planes and their pilots still attract most of the attention, and nearly all the glory, in air warfare. But the real work is increasingly done by drone operators, commuting from the suburbs to undertake their task of destruction in air conditioned offices: since they see exactly what they have done, the job is apparently much more stressful than that of a fighter pilot. So far, only the US is using military drones on a large scale, but it’s obvious that this is the way of future wars. The specific problems of the F-35 are irrelevant in this context: it will in any case be obsolete by the time it’s delivered.

As for submarines, Wikipedia gives a list of submarine actions since 1945. There have been six of them, three involving the sinking of surface ships, and three involving the firing of cruise missiles, something that can be done from craft as small as corvettes.

Submarines have been much more notable for sinking themselves. Wikipedia lists four US submarines sunk at sea since 1945, two with all hands. The Russians have done far worse, losing 18 subs, most notably the Kursk, lost with all hands in 2000.

Submarines aren’t obsolete in all their possible uses. If the world ends in a nuclear holocaust, the final missiles will probably be fired from nuclear-armed submarines. But the revival of old-style submarine warfare, using our subs to sink (say) Chinese naval vessels seems remote: the increasing power and range land based anti-ship missiles will soon make naval power obsolete. Even more remote (thankfully) is the use of submarines to attack merchant ships without warning, as was done in both World Wars.

Of course, no one can be certain that seemingly obsolete modes of warfare won’t be revived: For example, there was a cavalry charge during the Afghan war. But spending a trillion dollars on weapons systems that haven’t been used anywhere in the world for decades does not seem like a sensible use of public money.

Having posted this, I’m fully prepared to get a hammering from military buffs who will point out that I have got this or that detail of air and naval warfare wrong. But the idea that detailed knowledge of tech specs or the minor points of military history constitutes expertise is, in this context, quite wrong. In the absence of any significant air or naval warfare within living memory, supposed expertise is about as useful as Scott Morrison’s knowledge of unicorns. The only important thing to know is that, like nearly all military expenditure and nearly all wars, these proposed purchases haven’t been subject to a cost-benefit test and would fail it if they were.

fn1. There’s a case that land warfare has become less frequent, or at least less bloody over time. But it’s hard to tell.

Turnbull opposes affordable housing

Responding to Labor’s proposals on negative gearing and capital gains tax, Malcolm Turnbull has warned that property values will fall as a result. He is surely correct. To put the same point in different words, Turnbull agrees that Labor policy will make housing more affordable and thinks that this is a bad thing.

There are some obvious electoral advantages in Turnbull’s scare campaign. As I observed when this topic came up during Abbott’s Prime Ministership, most voters own houses and therefore benefit from making housing less affordable. For this reason, Australian public policy has long been to make housing as unaffordable as possible.

The difficulty for Turnbull arises from precisely this point. He has more or less promised to do something about the tax treatment of property. But, from our current starting point, almost any change must make existing owners worse off. So, when and if he does anything, he will be hoist on his own petard.

Labor’s response to Turnbull has been interesting and, I suspect, effective. The line has been to accuse him of a dishonest scare campaign, without explicitly denying that property values will decline with the removal of unjustified tax concessions.

While this is an example of a non-denial denial, it is I think, defensible. Turnbull is mounting a scare campaign, and doing so dishonestly, attacking policies he might otherwise embrace. This is a much fairer use of the term than when it was used to apply to Labor’s reiteration of its longstanding opposition to expansion of the GST at a time when the government was clearly floating the idea. Pointing out that it was never formal government policy is a silly evasion – it wasn’t as though Labor was inventing the idea.

Another fearless prediction

As longterm readers know, my record on political and other predictions is mixed, not as bad as some have made out, but by no means uniformly accurate. Still, I’m going to venture my most fearless prediction in some time.

Bill Shorten will be Prime Minister after the next election.

Like most Australian voters, I have no great enthusiasm for Shorten. But, I’ve come to the view that Turnbull is, as the Fin remarked recently, “all hat and no cattle”, and the same can be said of most of his ministry. In particular, Scott Morrison is the most striking instance of the Peter Principle I’ve seen in some time. Brutally effective as Immigration Minister, he handled the Social Services portfolio quite deftly, but has floundered as Treasurer.

Turning from personality to policy, Labor certainly deserves a win. They have stuck to their guns on issues like carbon pricing, and advanced serious and credible policies on tax and public expenditure, something that hasn’t been attempted since John Hewson’s Fightback! disaster in 1993.

By contrast, the Turnbull government is an enigma. Will it go to the election with the policies Turnbull inherited from Abbott? Or will be asked to “let Malcolm be Malcolm”? Or will we see a continuation of the studied ambiguity of the last five months? No one seems to know.

For the moment, Turnbull’s popularity looks like the trump card. The experience of his last stint as leader suggests that this is a fairly weak reed.

The best hope for the government is that the post-Turnbull surge was not so much driven by support for Turnbull as by an underlying LNP majority, submerged by Abbott’s absurdities.

Something doesn’t add up here

The papers are abuzz with speculation about an early election. This is one of the favorite games of the political punditariat, and it usually comes to nothing, but the story this time seems to make even less sense than usual. Part of the problem is that there are three different ways an early election could be held, and the proponents seem to be assuming a “unicorn” or “Pixie horse” (to use Scott Morrison’s evocative terminology) that combines the best of all three from the government’s position.

First, we could have an immediate dissolution of the House of Representatives. This would have a chance of achieving the biggest selling point of the early election idea, cashing in on Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity while it lasts. But such obviously cynical moves have failed in the past, as Campbell Newman could tell you. Also, it would (as I understand it) necessitate a separate half-Senate election in the second half of the year. The political class, with the exception of minority and micro-parties, really hates this idea.

Second, we could have a double dissolution, based on the Senate’s failure to pass anti-union laws, and held under the existing rules. Apparently, the election would have to be called the day after Budget Day (11 May), and couldn’t be held until July. So, it would only be a few months early, invalidating the whole idea. And, of course, it would guarantee a Senate with lots of micro and minor party members.

The third idea, is the second, plus a deal with the Greens to reform the Senate voting rules to allow preferential above the line voting. This would kill off the “preference whisperer” deals that have allowed the election of candidates with almost no votes. The reform makes sense, but why on earth would the Greens rush it through to make life easy for the government? All they have to do is hold off until the Budget session and they can get the reform with no possibility of a double dissolution.

Also, the idea that the reform will kill micro parties seems to be oversold. Automatic preference exchange might be gone, but there will still be “how to vote” cards. With a DD quota of about 7.5 per cent, a candidate with a 4 per cent primary vote, or even less, could easily get in on preferences.

However, no one seems to be making any of these points. Have I misunderstood the arcana of our system, or just got the strategy wrong? Over to you.

Update In comments, Lt Fred makes a convincing case that the Greens want and would benefit from a Double Dissolution. They did much better in 2010 than in 2013, so a DD would be good for them.