Defence and expectation management
27 Jul 2012|

There has already been some debate about the insurance analogy on this blog. I personally like the theme as it makes it easy to explain Defence funding to those not familiar with what our defence forces actually do.

There was a time when almost every family in the land knew someone who was in the Defence forces, either past or present. Anecdotally, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. All they see are mainstream media headlines that Defence costs a bucketload, can’t handle money very well and stuff keeps breaking/is delivered late/doesn’t work properly. And oh, look—another review.

There is no rational, informed public debate outside the community that has an interest in the field. This can be the same for many fields though. Do you know the difference between AMA and Medicare scheduled fees for services? Why have many Masters programs at universities dropped from 12 unit points to 10? If you’re in the field that cares, you know. If it doesn’t directly affect your life, you don’t tend to know.

How defence is funded matters insomuch to the average person as it relates to opportunity cost in their lives; how many university places/hospital beds/roads built could that money have been used for. This is not to say that the average voter doesn’t care about defence but there is a lack of understanding about the political and economic nature of white papers in the wider community.

What the public sees of Defence work is truly a mixed bag. Working against the Taliban in Afghanistan: over it. Working in Afghanistan for counter terrorism: sure. Support to Australians after natural disasters in floods in Queensland and fires in Victoria: send them faster!

According to the Lowy Institute Poll 2012 on Public Opinion and Foreign Policy, two-thirds of Australians (65%) now oppose Australian military involvement, with opposition increasing with age—from 58% opposition among 18 to 29 year olds to 74% among those 60 years and older. Women are also more likely to oppose Australian military involvement than men (69% compared with 60%).

However, the issue may be more about perceptions. Asked if they are ‘in favour or against Australian Special Forces staying on in Afghanistan to work alongside US Special Forces in more limited counter-terrorism operations’ after major combat operations are scheduled to end in 2014, most Australians (55%) are in favour. The results suggest that the public seems to make a quite striking distinction between the more traditional deployment of Australian ‘soldiers’ and Special Forces.

Australians generally support their armed forces but not necessarily the political reasons behind their deployment. They are much happier deploying their insurance policy at home than they are abroad for other people’s wars in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. Timor and other regional peacekeeping efforts can be seen as our own backyard. But the Middle East deployment reasoning is tied up with our relationship to the US and the intangible threat that is international terrorist organisations, with many unceremoniously lumped under the recognisable al-Qaeda brand name.

Australians expect that their defence force insurance policy can handle anything that their government of the day asks of them. Given the chance, enough money and time, they probably could. But at the moment, they are being given none of these things in politics or mainstream public debate. The expectations in the community, in politics and in the Defence community need to be managed realistically.

Katherine Ziesing is the editor of Australian Defence Magazine, an independently published magazine on Defence capability and procurement. She is also a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, an air power think tank.