Remember who controls the purse strings
4 Sep 2012|

Duncan LewisJim Molan ends his latest post on defence policy with the cutting line ‘The only upside for us voters is that the CDF and Secretary are more than likely to tell the Minister exactly what they think the consequences of his policies are. And we will know exactly who to blame. Of course there is no indication that this Minister cares.’ I’d wager that Molan has it backwards, no Minister likes having their budgets cut. But more importantly, it’s the public that doesn’t seem to care that Defence has been cut.

While the tightening of the defence budget was announced as part of the overall 2012-13 budget changes, a look at the polls suggests no strong public reaction. Newspoll (PDF) found voters were split on whether this year’s budget was good or not (37-37). This was down on the number of voters who thought the budget would negatively affect their personal finances (41%), but it seems the issue of defence cuts does not seem to have even registered. Equally, the Federal Opposition’s initial reaction to the cuts was muted. Leaving any return to higher spending as an aspiration, the Coalition’s priority is instead to fast-track small combat ships to help turn back asylum seekers. If the Coalition’s internal polling was showing great voter anger or concern over the defence budget cuts, we could expect to see it in their policies. Their reticence to reverse or even strongly criticise the government’s cuts is therefore telling.

Why does this matter? Well, like Jim, I too am concerned about the level of the cuts, but democratically elected governments can only stray so far from public concerns if they are to keep their seats. Indeed, we are partly in this situation because the former government tried to spend money on Defence which the public wasn’t keen to support. The 2009 Defence White Paper mapped out significant new investments but, not wanting to increase general taxes or reduce other spending, pledged to meet many of them through an absurdly optimistic ‘program of reform, efficiencies and savings’. As expected, when this program couldn’t generate the significant extra funds required, the plans had to be changed. Hence the new White Paper.

Any path back to significantly higher spending on defence therefore has to come via the public. Just as the shocking images of 9/11 and Bali provided a clear justification for the public to support higher defence spending, the task of those now concerned about the cuts should be to provide the public with an explicit and detailed understanding of what threatsAustraliafaces and what resources it requires. Warnings about changing strategic trends will not be enough, nor will the public buy the argument that moving defence spending to a specific percentage of GDP will ensure security. Only with a clear understanding about the actual risks and the specific resources required will the public then be willing (with the politicians in tow) to forego domestic spending, or accept higher taxation in order to strengthen the ADF.

Lewis was right to quote Tange, that ‘If you haven’t talked dollars, you haven’t talked strategy’. Well, in a democratic society, it’s the public who control the dollars, and right now, they seem pretty happy with what we’re spending. Given the expectation of tight financial conditions for the next few years, any change in Defence spending will require not a new Minister, but a new public attitude.

Andrew Carr is an associate lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.