DEFENCE: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Labor's defence cuts will take years to remedy
, June 9, 2012
The big loser in Treasurer Wayne Swan’s fifth budget is Australia’s defence capability. Not that this is surprising given that defence has been the big loser under both the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard Labor governments since 2007.
The man who has summed this up best is Mark Thomson, the defence budget specialist at the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
He has warned that the defence outlays, as a proportion of GDP, have now slumped to levels not seen since the time of the Munich peace marches before World War II. Australia was soon to find how woefully unprepared it was to meet the challenge of the most destructive war endured by mankind, World War II.
National affairs commentator for The Australian, Paul Kelly, writes: “Dr Thomson’s calculations show that defence outlays in 2013-14 are only 1.5 per cent of GDP, and in the final forward estimates year — 2015-16 — they are 1.6 per cent of GDP.
“Comparable figures for other nations on 2010 numbers are: the US spends 4.77 per cent of GDP on defence, Britain spends 2.57 per cent, Germany 1.34 per cent and Spain 1.05 per cent.
“Labor’s decision is the biggest decline in defence spending for several decades.” (The Australian, May 11, 2012).
In 1938, the year before war broke out, Australia outlaid 1.55 per cent of GDP on defence. This year, thanks to Swan and Gillard, it will be an identical proportion.
Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that across Australia’s defence horizon regions — south, south-east and East Asia — governments are increasing defence spending.
According to Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, research manager for the Perth-based Future Directions International think-tank’s South and West Asia Program, India is pursuing an ambitiously assertive defence policy.
He writes: “India has embarked on an unprecedented naval expansion programme, which, according to some forecasts, will see naval expenditure … exceed that of the Chinese Navy over the next two decades.
“The Indian Navy is presently ranked as the world’s fifth-largest.
“The modernisation of the Indian Navy is principally aimed to strengthen India’s international prestige and influence, and is also motivated by its growing dependence on energy imports and the need for secure sea lanes.
“The hallmark of India’s naval modernisation is centred on the acquisition of conventional aircraft-carriers, including conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.” (Future Directions International, May 3, 2012).
According to Western Australian federal Liberal MP, Dr Dennis Jensen, countries that Australia in the past has tended to ignore, such as Malaysia and nuclear-armed Pakistan, are also increasing their military strength.
Dr Jensen says: “China has launched huge military expansionist programs not merely to boost defence of its homeland but actually to project power well beyond its shores, into areas of prime concern to Australia.”
Dr Jensen, who was educated at three Victorian universities, Melbourne, Monash and RMIT, holds a doctorate in materials engineering. He was a CSIRO research scientist and defence analyst before entering politics.
Jensen says that the Rudd-Gillard weakening of Australia’s defence capabilities will take many years to remedy. (WA Business News, May 23, 2012).
What makes these cutbacks particularly galling is that in 2009 Kevin Rudd assured voters that he would boost defence spending by three per cent over the coming decade in real terms.
Unfortunately, that undertaking was as binding as Julia Gillard’s promise at the last election not to impose a tax on Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions.
When Rudd was prime minister and Gillard his deputy, the pair took a major share of responsibility for diverting $18 billion of scarce public funds into two extravagant spending programs. One was the installation of subsidised pink batts in peoples’ roofs (at a cost of over $2 billion) in a futile bid to combat global warming; the other was the building of school halls (at a massive cost of a further $16 billion).
The $18 billion lavished on these two programs exceeds the amount the Rudd and Gillard governments have stripped from Australia’s defence spending since Labor came to power federally in December 2007.
These figures were confirmed by The Australian’s defence editor, Brendan Nicholson, on the eve of the last federal Budget, in a report headlined “Defence battles $17 billion in cuts since Kevin Rudd grand plan”.
He wrote: “The latest budget cuts bring to a staggering $17 billion the amount slashed from defence spending in the three years since Kevin Rudd’s ‘grandiose’ 2009 defence white paper, according to analysts.
“The Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence budget specialist Mark Thomson said about $8.5 billion was deferred in the budget that followed the release of the white paper. ‘And in the last budget  there were savings methods across the decade of $2.9 billion in increased efficiencies, and efficiency dividend of $400 million, and that bring us to $12 billion.’
“On top of that comes close to $5 billion in cuts and deferred defence spending expected in Tuesday’s budget.
“It has been estimated that the warships, submarines, aircraft and other equipment promised in the white paper would cost at least $130 billion. Dr Thomson said that money was being eroded fast.” (The Australian, May 5, 2012).
Labor’s priority of pink batts and school halls over maintaining the country’s defence capability in an uncertain world is an ominous re-enactment of Australia’s woeful lack of defence preparedness between the wars.
American military historian, Augustine Meaher IV, in his recently released groundbreaking book, The Road to Singapore: The Myth of British Betrayal (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010), has told how in 1919 Britain’s First Sea Lord, Admiral John Jellicoe of Battle of Jutland fame, visited Britain’s Dominions to assess their naval needs.
When he was in Australia, he was asked by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, William Watt, to devise an imperial strategy.
Jellicoe responded by proposing the creation of a joint British Empire Pacific Fleet stationed in Singapore and Sydney. Under his plan, Britain would meet 75 per cent, Australia 20 per cent, and New Zealand 5 per cent of all costs.
What did Australia do? It declined to participate.
Then came the infamous 1922 Five Power Washington Naval Treaty that slashed naval forces — something Japan cunningly circumvented — prompting Britain to move to building the Singapore and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) naval bases instead of acquiring a Pacific Fleet.
London sought contributions; the Kiwis agreed. But Australia? It declined.
London thereupon proposed that Australia instead supply troops. What did Australia do? Once again, it declined.
Interestingly, half a century after Singapore fell to the Japanese, the then Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, accused the British of betraying Australia during the critical years of 1941-42, when Japan had reached Australia’s doorstep. This was at a time in the war when the British were fighting in North Africa, not to mention being engaged in a life-and-death struggle in the Battle of the Atlantic.
However, Victorian educator, Nigel Davies, who wrote his masters thesis on the Singapore strategy, has corrected this Keating cheap anti-British jibe.
Mr Davies says: “The myth of British betrayal insinuated itself into public consciousness when the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, needed a distraction from domestic political problems. He latched onto the idea of a republic, promoted it with rabid Anglophobia, and justified it by turning to appallingly parochial historians.” (Quadrant, October 2010).
It should never be forgotten how thousands of captured British troops perished in murderous hell holes like Singapore’s Changi, Kwai and Sandakan, alongside thousands of similarly heroic Australians and Americans.
Nor should the sacrifice of British seamen who served in the naval fleet led by Admiral Sir James Somerville. This consisted of “five battleships, three aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and 16 destroyers — the biggest Allied fleet anywhere in the world”, according to Davies. It encountered in waters off Ceylon, during April 1942, Japan’s marauding “Pearl Harbour” flotilla not long after its aircraft had destroyed Darwin.
It would be interesting to know if Mr Keating, Ms Gillard and our latest defence minister, Stephen Smith, would be prepared to tell us how many ships in Somerville’s 31-strong fleet were from the Royal Australian Navy.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a published historian, based in Perth, and has taught at three Australian universities.
Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, “Potent and capable: India’s transformational 21st century navy”, Future Directions International (Perth, WA), May 3, 2012.
Brendan Nicholson, “Defence battles $17bn in cuts since Kevin Rudd grand plan”, The Australian, May 5, 2012.
Paul Kelly, “Military spending slumps to 1930s level”, The Australian, May 11, 2012.
Joseph Poprzeczny, “Lucky country lagging on defence spend”, WA Business News (Perth), May 23, 2012.
Augustine Meaher IV, The Road to Singapore: the Myth of British Betrayal (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010). ISBN: 9781921509957
Nigel Davies, “The great myth of Britain’s ‘Great Betrayal’”, Quadrant, Vol. 54, No. 10, October 2010. A review of Augustine Meaher IV’s book, The Road to Singapore: the Myth of British Betrayal.