Canberra Observed: Defence: opportunity beckons for Howard Governmentby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, July 15, 2000
Not much has been going right for Prime Minister John Howard on the political front lately, but he may be able to pull off something of a political coup in the vital policy area of defence.
On the eve of the launch of the GST, the Howard Government announced that Australia would have to boost defence spending massively over the next few years if the nation wanted to play its role in an increasingly turbulent region.
The Government estimates it will need at least $110 billion in high technology weaponry alone to adequately equip the three forces, and declared that it wants to give a major boost to its current $11 billion annual defence budget.
Australia spends just 1.9 per cent of its GDP on defence — half what was spent in the 1950s.
A radical big spend approach to defence would require a rethink on other areas of spending as defence expands to take a much bigger slice of the budget pie.
As the hyperbolic GST debate has shown, victim-outrage is alive and flourishing in Australia and the art of the aggrieved group has been raised to new heights.
Mr Howard has appointed his old foe, Andrew Peacock, to head a kind of “town hall” public consultation process over the next few months.
Affable and experienced, Mr Peacock was considered just the person to “listen” to views of the community as it engages in widespread debate about the need for increased defence spending.
Mr Peacock will visit capital cities over the next two months to gather public opinion, and his team’s report will be taken into account as security planners prepare a White Paper on defence for release late in the year.
But in essence, this public debate will be a phoney one.
Firstly, while Defence Minister John Moore has been in the headlines over battles with his own department, which has appeared insubordinate, verging on mutinous at times, the internal problems are clearly more than just a political tussle over who is boss.
The ADF is riddled with serious problems, chronic mismanagement and in dire need of both reform and cash — a situtation no responsible government can allow to continue.
Secondly, recent events to our north and in the Pacific have hammered home once and for all the necessity of Australia having a modern, well-equipped and highly-trained defence force.
Even the old left — once constant campaigners against the US alliance and defence spending — were among the loudest voices clamoring for Australia to do “something” against the Indonesians in the lead-up to Australia’s peacekeeping force being sent into East Timor.
Thirdly, both at home and abroad, Australia is being called upon to play a leadership role in our region.
While Mr Howard caused consternation over his “deputy sheriff” line during the East Timor crisis — particularly among foreign affairs élites locked into the mindset which says we must never offend our Asian neighbours — it is clearly the type of role our regional neighbours want us to play.
It is also the role the United States expects from Australia.
According to several reports, the US has been dismayed at Australia’s poor intelligence gathering and confused response on what is, or should be “our patch” including Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Fiji and the Solomons.
Fourthly, the constant stream of illegal immigrants fleeing and sometimes reaching Australia is an issue which alarms the general public and reveals our security vulnerabilities.
So far the outlook is good with Mr Howard having managed to achieve a high degree of bi-partisan support for a vast increase in defence.
Whatever other disagreement there is between the two major parties over tax and other trivial political issues, it is apparent that Opposition Leader Kim Beazley has been brought inside the tent on defence policy.
This is no small feat for Mr Howard considering the political divide that has occurred in New Zealand over defence, and which has resulted in our closest ally being woefully incapable of pulling its weight in the region.
The Collins Class submarine debacle revealed how poor political decision making can come back to haunt governments (and sometimes governments of different political colours) years down the track.
However, the upcoming defence White Paper will have far greater long-term strategic ramifications than merely blowing a few billion on some dud subs.
Among the questions posed by the discussion paper are whether the Australian Defence Force should be concentrating on defence of Australia or taking part in operations overseas, as well as the level of commitment to humanitarian, peacekeeping and other non-combat duties.
By garnering bi-partisan and hopefully community support, Mr Howard has a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to set Australia’s defence strategy on the right course.