Beyond the once-over analysis and partisan waffle
9 May 2013|
Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Julia Gillard MP launches the Defence White Paper at No. 34 Squadron, Fairbairn

Defence White Paper 2013 is well written and largely internally coherent, except for the absence of an investment plan to execute its policy and strategy objectives. It often tries making virtues out of necessities politically, particularly with convenient international schedule delays such as the troubled JSF program.

Much commentary has inevitably concentrated on its recent fiscal and current party-political contexts or, superficially, on major equipment proposals. There is really little substantial change to the major ADF capabilities originally planned in the 2003 Defence Capability Review that updated and corrected the 2000 White Paper.

More tactful and ostensibly optimistic about China than its predecessor, this paper has unfortunately dropped mention of China’s lack of strategic transparency as a cause of instability globally and regionally. It also logically continues the post-Indonesia focus of its 2009 predecessor.

While admirably discussing the general risk of strategic coercion, a capacity to handle such coercion (and not just ‘armed attack’) is, strangely, not prescribed as a principal ADF task. This will cause endless argument among strategic theologians.

Much important contextual background is, however, being missed in discussion of the paper. Strategic security policy is always about minimising general strategic risk, over an often unpredictable future, through various shaping, hedging, deterrence and war-fighting capability measures.

It’s therefore profoundly disappointing to again see so much commentary purporting to explain away reduced defence investment because of a supposed absence of specific military ‘threats’ as the commentator perceives the situation now.

Moreover, beginning with the first White Paper in 1976, none have been subsequently funded as planned. Few commentators have noted that the gap between the investment cited as necessary, and that subsequently delivered, now totals around 6–7 years’ worth of annual budgetary allocations to defence.

Empirical tests are also being ignored. After the 1999 East Timor crisis revealed just how badly our defence capabilities had deteriorated over preceding decades, there was genuine bipartisan agreement that real increases were needed as catch-up investment to rebuild our defence force. But now, only a decade or so later, this lesson has been readily forgotten as politically or intellectually inconvenient. Particularly by many economists when trying to justify the large cuts to defence investment in last year’s federal budget. And not just by economists in much of the discussion about this White Paper.

ASPI analyses continue to show that lower but sustained investment in defence would cost less over time and generally deliver better defence capability and strategic coherence. The cyclic requirement to eventually claw back defence capabilities of all types―after they’ve been hollowed out, not maintained logistically, not updated technologically or have been dispensed with because of policy fads―is needlessly expensive.

There are few or no votes in defence issues, at least until it’s too late, whereas electoral advantage is continually tempting where social security, health, education and law & order issues are concerned. Much White Paper commentary is consequently prone to assuming that defence investment is somehow ‘discretionary’, when this is often a politically expedient rather than an objective decision.

Defence remains the only major governmental responsibility not shared with the states and territories. It’s also essentially a long-term, above politics, national interest responsibility. As Australians increasingly expect the federal government to solve all their problems, defence investment is increasingly squeezed structurally. It’s now just often simply assumed, wrongly, that defence investment can be cut year by year with no resulting long-term cost. Yet proposals such as Gonski and the NDIS are never expected to face the same fiscal realities or implementation scrutiny.

Little of the discussion about Defence White Paper 2013 has acknowledged that the future Australians affected by prolonged lower defence investment now―through greatly heightened strategic risk or worse over the long term―don’t get to vote now to prevent or mitigate it. Some aren’t even born yet. This temporal accountability deficit means short-term political expediency continually wins out over responsible long-term governance in the national interest.

Despite the hoopla when each White Paper emerges, they remain a fundamentally flawed process for developing policy, strategy and capability. Not least because they’re declaratory policy rather than what Australia really thinks and does. A return to formal intelligence estimates and strategic appreciations which procedurally exclude politically-driven subjectivity would produce much better results.

The out-of-schedule publication of this White Paper in an election year also greatly limits its strategic utility and credibility internationally. Foreign customers will surely tend to wait for the next one following what they expect will be a change of government this September.

Only the 1987 White Paper was published (early March) in an election year (mid July). But this was essentially a governance decision rather than driven by party-political considerations. It came 13-years after the previous White Paper, amid unusually bitter infighting within the Department of Defence that needed resolution, and occurred in the middle of a long period of government by one side of politics.

This White Paper hasn’t been tabled in Parliament (as were all its predecessors bar 2009). The worth of the document is intrinsically diminished by avoiding the discipline inherent in immediate and longer-term parliamentary scrutiny. Especially as there’s been no bipartisan team-led community consultation process as occurred with the 2000 and 2009 papers.

If after all this you still doubted that Defence White Paper 2013 is a politically-motivated document, its public launch surely proved otherwise—especially the considerable disregard shown for the conventions preserving the necessary apolitical role of our defence force. Misusing ADF personnel as a television backdrop for ministerial speeches was particularly inexcusable.

Finally, prominent Labor defence experts, across all factions and all leadership support groups, privately express deep frustration that two generations of effort is being thrown away so senselessly. Particularly the long rebuilding of public confidence that Labor was sound on strategic security issues after the polarisation of the Vietnam era. Only their party loyalty, intensified even further by Labor’s minority government situation in an election year, has kept the lid on public dissent.

Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association. Image courtesy of Flickr user Julia Gillard.