Crowds gather on the Sydney Harbour foreshore for the 2013 Naval Review fireworks display. Photo: James Alcock
Weren't the fireworks marvellous? Nobody can say our navy's good for nothing now! Watching the flares shoot up and across the bows of the fleet was truly inspirational. Kevin Rudd can forget about moving the fleet base to Queensland. There's no way Sydney would allow stunning displays like Saturday's to leave the panting embrace of the harbour city …
And yet, if the fleet looked wonderful in the rocket's red glare on the night, it's probably worth noting that our feel-good pride shouldn't have outlasted the weekend. Normally, at this point, you might expect your columnist to begin a tirade including the requisite long litany of problems with the navy's ''culture''. You know the sort of thing: rampant sexism, challenging ships, and work habits and modes of thinking far from the cutting-edge of best practice.
There's truth in all such critiques. If ordinary Aussies really believed the navy was a great institution, people would be rushing to join up - but they're not. And this is the quintessential argument demonstrating problems still reside inside the fleet. Yes, it's got rid of flogging, and no one has ever been keelhauled under an Australian warship.
Like any institution involving men and women working together for long periods under pressure, the navy's had its share of scandal. That's what happens when you put a structure originally designed for square-riggers in the 18th century into a 20th-century work environment. It would probably be more sensible to be amazed that the number of incidents ''to the detriment of the service'' isn't far larger.
The point here is that the navy is actively involved and fully committed to a process of internal change. It may not quite be a ''new generation navy'' yet, but it's well on its way. This is the point at which the script suddenly becomes murky, because to achieve what the government wants you to achieve, you need the support of society. And a dramatic mismatch between resources we're prepared to devote to funding the navy and our expectations is now becoming dramatically apparent.
Just obtaining ships is expensive; building them even more so. Arguments for spending money shift depending on the perspective of particular lobby groups and the navy is being used as a cash cow, ready for milking.
Take the Air Warfare Destroyers. Built to a Spanish design, part of the difficulty experienced by the Australian Submarine Corporation in manufacturing the ships can rightly be attributed to difficulties in translation. Yet this work is now two years late. It's outrageous. There may be valid excuses or explanations for all of the successive issues that have bedevilled this project, but that doesn't excuse the fact that manufacturing the AWDs has now become a textbook example of how not to do things.
Yet the ASC now wants the government to cough up the money for a fourth destroyer. The corporation's argument pretends, naturally enough, to be based around the requirements of the navy. Ships require extended periods of deep maintenance in dry-dock. You require four hulls if you want to be certain that three are available at any one time and, in a perfect world, this looks like a no-brainer. But that doesn't mean it's what the navy wants or requires. Indeed, it smacks more of the shipbuilding industry wagging the dog than the real requirements of the fleet.
Because the warship has taken so long to make, there have been extensive developments with its key reason for existence - the Aegis combat system. This provides an incredible capability and the ability to shoot missiles at targets more than 150 kilometres away. Although the vessels aren't assembled, the Aegis system is sitting in packing boxes waiting to be installed. But developments in electronic warfare mean an extra ship would require what is now effectively a new combat system (an orphan). This would complicate training and place extra demands on the navy. It would require more sailors and, critically, more money. The real problem is there isn't enough money to both have and operate the fleet effectively. Resources are stretched bare. It doesn't make financial sense to deploy the frigates on operations combating people smugglers - yet this has become the navy's defining mission. The amphibious fleet is now belatedly realising that its key task is not going to be staging a reinvasion of Tarawa. Assisting communities after disasters, or providing command and control facilities now offer far more plausible roles than opposed D-Day-style landings across enemy shores.
The navy's advantage (and its curse) is that the new global environment actually makes its capabilities far more relevant than they were in the past. However, if the fleet is going to be able to provide all the sorts of capacity that we expect of it, the RAN will need to be funded appropriately. Which is as good a point as any to return to the spectacular display on Sydney Harbour.
Just add a glass of champagne, the touch of a lover, and lapping water under the night sky: the romance of the city and ships will do the rest. The key thing is to get away before the next morning. By then, paper and detritus litter the foreshore and there's oil on the water. The remnants of the glorious night before look pretty bloody ordinary. Let's hope the navy fares better.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.