The Defence White Paper’s Parliamentary no-show
15 Jul 2013|

The Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith presents the details of the 2013 Defence White Paper at Fairbairn Defence Establishment Canberra, on May 3, 2013.The Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, made a telling mistake in Singapore recently when proclaiming the strategic openness displayed by the publication of Australia’s Defence White Paper. At the Shangri-La dialogue, Smith began his speech by saying the new White Paper had been ‘tabled for transparency purposes’.

But in using the word ‘tabled’, Smith was adopting Parliamentary language and nodding to Parliamentary customs that have been ignored by his Government. The Defence White Paper is a public document (here), but it was never tabled in Parliament. So it’s a public document but only in the sense that it was released and published by the executive. It isn’t a paper of the Parliament because it was never presented or tabled in Parliament by the Defence Minister.

When I mentioned to someone from Defence that Smith hadn’t tabled the White Paper, the response was a pithy expressions of the acid washing around Russell Hill about their now departing Minister: “He obviously treats Parliament with the same contempt he treats the Defence Department’.

Blame a Government ethos as much as Smith for this act of contempt. At issue is more than the mere symbolism of presenting the White Paper to Parliament and giving a tabling speech. The habit of mind is what matters. Note that this failure to table does rank as a break with Parliamentary custom and Defence tradition. Every previous Defence White Paper (1976, 1987, 1994, 2000 and 2009) has been presented to Parliament.

The Rudd and Gillard Governments developed a worrying habit of not bothering to give policy documents to Parliament in a range of areas, not just defence and national security. I’ve previously written two columns (here and here) on the Gillard Government’s failure to table the National Security Strategy, arguing that this disrespect for Parliament is a symptom of the Presidential Pretensions and the Minder Mentality that pervades the executive wing of the Parliamentary building.

Increasingly, the executive works in the building but does not work through the Parliament. There are a whole range of reasons why this is bad for Australia and its democracy; it makes for bad policy and a politics that shrinks rather than grows the national conversation.

The Minder Mentality holds that any debate within the Party or Government looks like division and disunity. Minders always mark that as ‘Bad’. Further, debating with the Opposition puts the other side on an equal footing. Rate that ‘Extra Bad’. Extensive or extended debate risks losing control of the agenda and subverting the message-of-the-day. In the Minder universe this is ‘Extra, Extra Bad’. And—horror of horrors—having big public arguments, internally or externally, runs the risk of losing the debate. In Minder land (where control ranks just below winning) this goes beyond bad to become ‘Disastrous’. Ignoring Parliament is merely a means to close down all sorts of bad stuff that gets in the way of winning.

So when releasing a Defence White Paper, the proper setting is for the PM to give a speech in a hangar in front of military kit and lots of people in uniform (at a cost to the taxpayer of $284,000). The point is to produce good pictures, not measure the policy content nor count the cost. The House of Reps can’t compete when the aim is to dominate and control every moment of the political cycle and to win the argument without having to argue. No wonder Minders and Presidents find Parliament so taxing.

But, rather than doing Civics 101, let’s focus on arguments of utility and effectiveness in attacking the Minder Mentality (while conceding that the Presidential Pretensions are now so important in Oz politics that they’re permanently grafted into the system). By shutting out the Parliament on defence and national security, the executive undermines an important element in the Canberra consensus on national policy. Recall that, when challenged on the failure to table the National Security Strategy, part of the response from the Prime Minister’s office was that the document had been discussed in Senate Estimates. On that feeble reading, the Australian Parliament debates national security when Opposition Senators are questioning senior public servants in Estimates hearings. The Estimates process is valuable and one of the great Parliamentary innovations of recent decades, but it’s not where the politics of the Canberra consensus on defence and national security can be debated and tested.

When the White Paper came out, I wrote on the tacit consensus between Labor and the Coalition on many areas of Defence. The two sides argue about wars but have large areas of quiet agreement on Australia’s strategic setting and military kit. Whether we’re in the Asian Century or the Indo Pacific Age, the Canberra consensus on Defence policy is in for some testing times. One of the many things that Parliament helps develop and deliver through its debates and processes is the shape of a declared rather than tacit consensus.

A host of Civics 101 texts could be used to illustrate the point. Rather than summoning up political theory, however, turn instead to a completely different field and a set of arguments about the fundamental function of criticism in the arts. This is from an essay William Boyd wrote 20 years ago about the Australian critic Robert Hughes. Boyd is setting out the role of the critic in establishing rankings, in saying what is good and mediocre, and explaining and justifying judgements. His point as is important for running a Parliamentary democracy as it is in understanding art:

Of course all criticism is subjective, and of course it is just an expression of opinion, but in any argument, the best arguer wins, other opinions are altered thereby and a consensus emerges. It is not set in cement, true, but broadly speaking, as a result of informed and intelligent critical discourse, standards are laid down and ideals are established which, if they are to be overturned by alternative criteria, have to be equally convincingly propounded and defended in their own right.

This is the essence of the critical dance, just as it is in understanding the better rhythms of the Parliamentary polka. The conclusion I offer on the failure to table the Defence White Paper is the same as that for the failure to table the National Security Strategy.

Labor and the Coalition should pledge at the next election that future White Papers and National Security Strategies will be presented and debated in Parliament. It should be an easy pledge, given that’s the way the system is supposed to work. Add this Parliamentary element to the existing promise that future White Papers and National Security Strategies will be synchronised and issued in a five year cycle.

To augment this process, the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade should hold an inquiry and a series of public consultations every five years to assess the White Paper and Strategy. A political pledge that makes for good process and improves policy without costing a dollar—what President or Minder could object?

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Minister for Defence.