The outcome of the Federal election on May 21 means that there will be a Labor government in power, albeit with the slimmest of margins.  Once again, the opinion polls were wrong.  They had predicted a uniform national swing to the ALP of 3% – enough to deliver a small majority in the House of Representatives – but to the contrary, their actual national vote declined overall and many of the seats that they gained only happened with the preferences of the minor parties.  The exception was Western Australia which saw massive swings to the former opposition.

The result for the Liberal Party is a heavy blow, not only losing at least 15 seats but in the process quite a bit of political talent, with former Treasurer and potential leadership contender Josh Frydenberg almost certainly being replaced by an Independent.  The quick summary is that many Australians wanted a change of direction but put more faith in the minor parties – particularly the Greens – than they did in Labor.

It is unlikely that there will be any meaningful changes to national security settings or the Defence budget.  Historically there is not a great deal of difference between Labor and Liberal, which was made clear during the election campaign when the former government unsuccessfully tried to argue that the Opposition would be soft on China.  Not only did this fail to resonate broadly, there are even some suggestions that it damaged the government with people feeling that cranking up the anti-Beijing rhetoric is not necessarily the best way of securing peaceful outcomes.

It seems highly likely that Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles will want the Defence portfolio.  His personal preference would probably be Foreign Minister, but that one seems earmarked for Senator Penny Wong and it probably wouldn’t be worth the internal brawl and the ill will such a move to replace her would generate.  Defence is not a bad second prize with lots of travel and uniformed people saluting the Minister and rolling out the red carpet – sometimes literally.

For a time Mr Marles was Shadow Defence Minister and as a consequence has some knowledge of the portfolio.  However, he previously distinguished himself as having something of a low energy approach and will happily take Departmental advice on just about everything rather than rock the boat and attempt reforms – which the procurement part of the organisation desperately needs with billions of dollars being wasted on various misguided acquisitions.

The best choice for Labor would be to stick with Brendan O’Connor who has performed well in recent months – particularly during the election campaign debate at the National Press Club with his counterpart Peter Dutton.  O’Connor came across as thoughtful with a detailed knowledge of the portfolio – and he refused to be baited by the frankly childish insults directed at him and his colleagues.  He also presented as a decent human being – something of a rare and valuable quality in Federal politics these days.

The most important capability shortfall that Labor needs to address is the looming crisis in submarine capability with nuclear powered vessels a distant mirage still two decades away.  There are some in the Labor Party who are not keen on nuclear power because of valid reasons connected with weapons proliferation, especially if Australia’s future fleet use bomb grade highly enriched uranium.  They will be quite happy to kick that particular can well down the road with more studies and discussions about the best way forward.

The country is crying out for an interim conventional submarine capability to bridge the gap between the final years of the Collins class and the eventual introduction of Virginia class SSNs, or whatever we end up with.  However, this is not the position of the RAN, which frankly just can’t be bothered with the large complex task of an additional submarine acquisition and instead would rather do nothing.  In this they are likely to be assisted by Mr Marles, whose instincts will be similar.

The most sensible path Australia should follow for a nuclear powered submarine is to bring France back into the picture.  French vessels now use Low Enriched Uranium reactors that – almost paradoxically – are more powerful than their HEU counterparts.  It is true that they need to be refuelled every 10 years or so, but the details of how this could be managed needs to be explored with input from the USN in particular.

Defence expenditure will remain at its present level with the possibility of an increase if strategic circumstances continue to deteriorate.  The Labor government is likely to need the support of Green Senators to have legislation passed but it seems unlikely that national security measures will be held hostage to different ideologies.  There will be plenty of other opportunities for that sort of horse trading.

Labor have committed to a Force Posture Review and that’s entirely sensible.  They also want to increase foreign aid – especially in this region – and restore the number of diplomats serving in embassies to gather intelligence and exercise a bit more soft power.  Hopefully that will make it possible to avoid debacles such as the China-Solomon Islands security pact.

APDR Newsletter


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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, we need someone driven and decisive in Defence at present. Whist the external threats are changing my greatest concern is the amount of waste we seem to be seeing within the Defence establishment. Millions are wasted on projects that startup with lots of fan fair only to disappear in the future (Submarines, UAVs etc) or are stalled for so long that nothing gets done at all (how long ago was Spike selected and how many do we have in inventory ??) Defence budgets are not endless and we want to make sure our defence personnel are supported with the best equipment possible to do their jobs.

    • I agree completely with your comment. I am also troubled by other decisions such as spending +$5 billion on Apache helicopters to replace the perfectly good Tiger ARH fleet. Also once the Hobart class AWDs start their upgrade program in 2026 – each ship will take two years to complete – this means Australia will realistically only have a single major surface combatant at sea until the mid 2030s, supplemented by Anzacs. It’s a similar situation with submarines, with the Collins Life Of Type Extension also starting in 2026. That means we will be down to 5 Collins – and at any one time because of other demands of routine maintenance, training etc we will only have 2 at sea. Not much of a force.

      • Kym, the Tiger attack helicopters are shit mate the Australian army have had problems with them and most of the time it’s mainly a mechanical problem so you expect the Australian army to operate a broken down 2nd rate attack helicopter for what reason exactly the Australian Defence Force should be equipped with the very best whether it’s from European country’s or from the US but the point is the Tiger ARH are just not up to standard and are a waste and you don’t need to lecture me on the problems the Apache they have problems but not as many as the Tiger ARH I’d choose Apache everyday of the week.

        • Thanks – but that’s not the feedback I get on the rare occasions that I speak with Tiger pilots. If they have a mechanical problem, why are the other users – France, Germany and Spain – not experiencing the same issues?

          • From what I understand The problem isn’t that the Tiger is not a good machine, its more to do with it wasn’t designed for Australian Conditions and Airbus Didn’t consider it an important factor. I must confess my info is mostly hear say but seems to be close. I believe the pilots absolutely love them but the Generals love the Apache.

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