On democracy and defence planning
6 Sep 2012|

If I go to a public hospital and it is inadequate to my needs, I have immediate feedback that there’s a policy failure. I express my dissatisfaction immediately and if there is no improvement I hold government to account politically at the next election. I’m able to fully understand the risk that the government has decided to take in relation my health if it underfunds hospitals. In the meantime, I may use my own money and buy hospital services from the private sector. The result of this is that governments have an incentive to act as the people want, and even if the government decides to underfund, the total impact on the service is always less than the total amount of funding loss because we use our own money. Health is a ‘private good’ in this sense. In this situation, the democratic system works relatively well, and we can rely on the impact of the peoples’ will on governments to influence policy. It applies to almost all other areas of government policy such as education and welfare.

Andrew Carr hopes that the Australian people will lead the government to spend an appropriate amount on defence. But whether we like it or not, as the above comparison with other government policy areas illustrates, defence in Australia at present is different. As Mark Thomson pointed out recently, it’s a ‘public good’—we can’t buy extra defence for ourselves if the government doesn’t provide what we want. This creates special government responsibility.

The Australian people don’t at the moment see the need to spend on defence but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t. Popular demand may only appear when the wolf is at the proverbial door, and that’s probably too late to start building submarines. As I’ve said previously, what should determine how much Australia spends on defence is the strategic environment. What should decide when we spend it is the relationship between the amount of warning time we expect, and how long it takes to create defence capability.

We all know that defence is about risk. The problem with Andrew’s suggestion of relying on the will of the people to demand defence expenditure at the right time and to the right level is that ‘we, the people’ don’t understand the risk that the government is taking in relation to our defence. Defence is a very esoteric policy area. There’s very little understanding amongst voters of military ways, the consequences of war or conflict, or the international situation and what represents a threat, and government defence policy is almost incomprehensible in its language and anti-democratic in its reliance on contrived secrecy.

You just have to look at the willingness of the population to applaud the 2009 Defence White Paper, and now only three years later, to not question the reversal of that policy. The same individuals in government that told us we ‘needed’ Force 2030 in 2009, will tell us the opposite in 2013. One of the two has to be wrong. The people rely on the leadership of governments to a greater extent in defence than in any other policy area I can think of, and governments consistently fail them.

There’s another way to do defence, and it’s to make defence planning more open, more understandable and therefore more democratic. It doesn’t necessarily mean more money spent on defence, nor would it remove the responsibility from government. It would mean that voters have a greater understanding of the risk that is being taken in their name. In the past I have referred to this as a ‘charter of defence honesty‘ but I’m a little disenchanted with the model of budget honesty at the moment.

Two policies ought to be implemented to make defence more democratic, and allow Andrew’s reliance on the people to work.

The first is that the only two professionals really capable of doing so and the two most informed, the Secretary of the Department of Defence and the CDF, must give their recommendation on defence policy (structure, funding, timing, strategy, threat assessment) in public. At present they give them in private to the Minister; we only ever hear policy after it has gone through the political machine. We only know what the government considers it can afford, not what the experts have assessed as necessary. This is ‘supply side’ defence.

The Minister could then take that public advice and still apply his political priority to it, and produce government policy at whatever funding level he/she wants. But under this system, voters could at least compare what the experts openly say against what the politicians say, and so have an assessment of risk. We could then do exactly what Andrew is demanding, and hold government to account through the people. We can’t do this now.

The second policy change is to move defence policy discussions away from inputs to defence (the number of tanks, planes, ships and personnel) to defence outputs, in the form of a public operational concept which says not what the ADF has, but what the ADF can do. This is very simple, but doesn’t occur at the moment because it would reveal in stark terms the almost total lack of real capability that the ADF has, despite having lots of ‘things’.

The aim is to make defence planning more democratic. I’ve suggested one way to achieve what Andrew wishes for. There are likely to be improvements to that model. But the aim must be democratic defence decisionmaking that puts the people on at least an equal footing to politics. Courageous policy indeed!

Jim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues.