Defence: the view from outside government

Senator David Johnston, the Shadow Minister for Defence, spoke at an ASPI lunch yesterday. His speech was titled ‘The politics of defence’, but its main theme was why defence shouldn’t be political. Along the way, he made some telling observations about the difficulty of trying to formulate sensible defence policy in opposition, with the twin handicaps of many fewer people and limited access to departmental advice.

That’s true for every portfolio of course. But he argued that Defence has some singular characteristics that make it even more difficult. First among them was the sheer impenetrability of the language that surrounds defence issues, making for a very steep learning curve for newcomers. There are some mitigating strategies that help, such as the parliamentary engagement program that allows MPs to spend time with uniformed personnel to gain a firsthand understanding of their motivations and their work. Another resource Senator Johnston identified is the work of think tanks and the media in trying to make sense of the inner workings of Defence and its advice to government and in providing valuable facts, figures and analysis. Especially for those in Opposition, without the kind of information accessible to Government, independent analysis is a ‘must-have’.

In one way that was a ‘warm and fuzzy’ moment for ASPI, and the Senator was kind enough to direct some gratitude our way. But it’s also an uncomfortable moment, reminding us that we face many of the same challenges as the opposition, in that our access to ‘inside information’ is extremely limited (often nil), leaving us to work with the usually incomplete public information and whatever we can deduce from experience or the odd snippet that comes our way. We’re glad we can sometimes help to inform the public discussion (and we’d put the chairs on the table and turn the lights out if we couldn’t) but, like the opposition, we’d benefit greatly in our work from greater transparency in the system and more information in the public domain.

Ultimately what the Senator was getting at was that without a deep and shared understanding of Defence issues on both sides of the Parliament, we get ‘politics running policy’. And there are several good reasons to avoid that. The first is a matter of deep principle. As Senator Johnston noted, the Department of Defence is the vehicle through which the state sanctions the use of violence and in the process frequently puts its representatives in the form of the ADF at risk of violent death—a unique responsibility for the Portfolio.

The second reason is a more pragmatic one. Most defence major acquisitions have lifetimes measured in decades—ten full-term governments or more in the case of warships or combat aircraft. It isn’t sensible or efficient for politics or expediency to drive those decisions. Johnston’s priorities for the opposition Defence portfolio should they take government illustrated the point:

  • Force protection for deployed troops
  • The long term financial viability of defence plans as laid out in Defence White Papers and the long term funding envelope for defence
  • The state of health of the Navy’s fleets, especially the amphibious and submarine arms
  • The possible extension of the life of the Collins submarine to allow a measured approach to its replacement
  • The future of Australia’s air combat capability
  • Broad area maritime surveillance for border protection purposes
  • The future uses of the Canberra class LHD amphibious ships

On some of those topics there’s already a consensus and bi-partisan view. On some of them the opposition has a different approach to propose. But there isn’t a topic on that list that won’t be of deep interest to any future government. It would be in everyone’s interest to have as robust and informed a discussion as possible on each of them. In a later post we’ll come back and look at the nature of information provided to the Australian public on defence, how it differs from some other western countries, and what changes would be useful without prejudicing security.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist.