EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gillard to cut defence as global tensions mount
, September 29, 2012
Faced with the prospect of a massive government deficit — despite promising to bring the federal Budget back into surplus this year — the Gillard government clearly intends to take an axe to the defence forces despite rising global tensions.
Basking in a surprising rise in her popularity — undoubtedly fuelled by the massive job cuts announced by Liberal governments in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland — the Prime Minister is poised to oversee further major cuts in defence spending, prompting the shock resignation of the head of the Defence Department, Duncan Lewis.
Mr Lewis had a distinguished military career, rising to the rank of major-general, before leaving the army in 2005. He was appointed secretary of the Defence Department just a year ago.
He was clearly unhappy about the 10 per cent cut in the last defence budget, and knew that more was to come, particularly with the collapse in government revenue from the fall in coal and iron ore prices, and Ms Gillard’s latest spending spree on projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the national dental scheme and education.
Mr Lewis’s thinking was set out in an address he gave to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) last month.
He quoted a maxim of his predecessor, Sir Arthur Tange, “If you haven’t talked dollars, you haven’t talked strategy” and added, “Today, we’re arguably facing one of the most challenging periods in our national security journey.
“Of particular note is that the recently released Defence Capability Plan makes clear that the ‘big ticket items’, the joint strike fighters, the air warfare destroyers, the future submarines, maritime patrol aircraft and so on, are still in the future program and will remain so.
“Indeed, of the 180-odd projects under Defence White Paper 2009, 170 are still in progress and only 10 have been discontinued because of a change of scope or because another project has taken over that capability.”
The Gillard government’s decision to cut defence spending further has clearly made Mr Lewis’s position untenable, at a time when tensions are escalating globally.
In the Middle East, Syria has become the focus of conflict between the Sunni and Shia sects, with the Shi’ites supporting the Assad regime, and predominantly Sunni nations like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, supporting the insurgents.
During the past 18 months, an estimated 30-40,000 people have been killed in battles between the Syrian armed forces and the Free Syrian Army. Although the government controls most of the country, there are significant areas near the country’s largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, which are controlled by the rebels.
Further, there are alarming reports of a major military build-up in the Persian Gulf, through which about 30 per cent of the world’s oil passes. Israel has become increasingly restless with Washington’s failure to deal with the problem of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which is clearly aimed at building nuclear weapons.
The head of Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6, has predicted that Iran will have the capacity to build nuclear weapons from 2014, and some expect that Israel could launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s enrichment facilities at any time.
Military exercises are being conducted by America and its allies at the present time, to test methods of keeping the Straits of Hormuz open, in the event that Iran tries to shut down the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.
The US military has three aircraft carrier groups on station in the gulf, along with about 12 battleships, and thousands of US Marines and special forces.
The astonishing naïvety of the Obama administration was graphically shown in the response by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya by a mob in the city of Benghazi.
Mrs Clinton said, “Today, many Americans are asking — indeed, I asked myself — how could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”
The people who have power in the streets of Benghazi owe the Americans nothing. They want to drive America out and establish Islamist regimes throughout the Middle East.
In our own region, the maritime routes which traverse the Indian and Pacific Oceans are carrying an increasing amount of the world’s energy supplies and manufactured output. Their security is vital to Australia which has particular responsibility for protecting the oil and gas platforms off our north-west coast, and for protecting our country from people-smugglers who have dumped thousands of people on Christmas Island this year.
China is doubling its defence budget every five years, and India has announced that it is increasing defence spending by 17 per cent this year.
In Australia, a decision to cut defence spending at this time could be the worst decision this government has ever made.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.