New defence white paper likely to test government appetite for radical thinking

Defence Minister David Johnston has selected a ripper team to prepare his new white paper. It brings a wide range of bureaucratic, military, industry and intellectual skills to the task. It is not lacking in expertise.

Yet, as always, a big question mark hangs over formulation of the paper, which will guide Australia’s defence for the next five years. How much real political appetite will there be to follow its prescriptions? Let’s begin with the team.

A former head of strategy (and, perhaps more importantly, senior Coalition adviser), Peter Jennings, heads the team. He is now director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; and this is where the team’s technical prowess comes from, in the form of Andrew Davies, who analyses future trends in military capability. James Goldrick, a former rear admiral, who grappled with joint operations as head of the Defence College, brings military heft to the team, while the ANU’s Dr Stephan Fruehling offers breadth, and KPMG partner Mike Kalms understands business. Rory Medcalffrom the Lowy Institute provides conventional diplomatic analysis, while Alan Dupont from the University of NSW adds real depth in understanding the new causes of war and the way these are likely to be fought. So all the traditional bases are covered.

Every interest group that usually has its say in the way defence policy is formulated has been ticked off. There’s no one from the RSL on the team, or the Greens, but otherwise it’s a representative group. So, can we expect a brilliant report; the one white paper to rule them all and in political turmoil bind them?

Perhaps we should examine a bit of history first. We have had a succession of white papers since the first in 1976, but only two have succeeded in challenging our comfortable assumptions about security. These were 1987 (Paul Dibb’s report) and 2000 (Hugh White’s paper). Dibb provided a robust, intellectual basis for defence policy – and, as a result, he felt the wrath of every lobby that felt it had not been fairly treated in the division of the spoils. But the real problem was he had been promised funding (3 per cent of GDP). It never eventuated.
White learnt from what had happened to Dibb. He forced the politicians to sit down and articulate exactly what they wanted from Defence. He also toured the country, listening to input from everyone wanting to contribute to national policy. His report was just as robust as Dibb’s, but unfortunately, once again, the promised funding (by now reduced to just 2 per cent of GDP) never eventuated.

There’s a whole book to be written about the formulation of defence policy in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd dysfunction – suffice it to say that the quick fix became the norm. Most critically, one core issue continued bedevilling policy. The country didn’t have a shared vision about how best to defend Australia and no politician – least of all Kevin Rudd – was willing to expend political capital on following through with the analysis and selling it to the electorate.

That is the real cause of Defence’s budget allocation having fallen so dramatically and why the three services, now reduced to skeletons, are incapable of adequately meeting tasks allocated to them. This is why the political backing for the investigation that is being provided by Johnston will be critical.

Although Johnston had no demonstrated defence experience when allocated this job by Malcolm Turnbull back in 2008, he is now well across the detail. The former Kalgoorlie lawyer may have begun by simply feigning interest, but nevertheless he has done it for so long now that he is genuinely across it. Perhaps more importantly he comes at the issues from a political perspective.

This will be critical, because he will be the person who needs to sell the product to the many diverse constituencies, all of which come to this issue with vastly different expectations. Johnston seems prepared for a wide-ranging review to examine how we should structure our forces to best defend the country. That would explain why he has chosen to include in his drafting team people from such wide-ranging backgrounds.

Johnson’s problem is that there is little appetite in the rest of the government (let alone the services) for the sort of radical changes that would emerge from a real, ground-up analysis of our strategic position. This is because the changes required would be so revolutionary that the broader government would not be prepared to accept them. Any paper requires guidance on two central issues: what threats do we face; and how much are we prepared to pay for insurance?

The three services will happily divvy up whatever money is allocated just as they always have; unfortunately, this just won’t cut it any more. New threats – cyber, biological and environmental – have emerged that will not respond to the deterrence embedded in a Joint Strike Fighter. Air warfare destroyers will not prevent asylum seekers from washing up on our shores. Tanks defending northern Australia are not much help if there is a crisis in the Solomons.

Rudd commissioned a number of supporting papers to accompany the 2009 white paper dealing with the wider background to strategic issues. These were all quietly dropped when some of the findings stopped backing his preferred outcome. Unfortunately, any similar attempt to continue brushing away these issues will consign the coming paper to irrelevance. The second issue is equally critical.

ASPI’s Mark Thomson has already carefully examined Tony Abbott’s commitment to increase funding to 2 per cent of GDP. That is great, but so is maternity support and keeping taxes down to stimulate the economy. At some point, though, something has to give. But if the white paper team examines the entrails of defence spending and avoids blithe generalities, someone is going to get hurt. Badly.


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