Releasing the Defence White Paper, the Turnbull government followed the unfortunate precedent set by the Rudd and Gillard governments and ignored Parliament.
The snub would perplex and provoke powerful Parliamentarians from Oliver Cromwell to John Howard.
Cromwell’s 17th Century New Model Army was built on the central understanding that Parliament funded and controlled the Army, so the Army would be loyal to Parliament, not the King.
John Howard was a powerful PM who adhered to the 20th Century Oz consensus about the central role of Parliament.
Malcolm Turnbull announced his version of the New Model Defence Force but saw no need of Parliament. His performance was more King’s Cavalier than Parliamentary Roundhead.
Parliament was sitting, yet the Prime Minister didn’t present this defining defence policy to the House.
Instead, he headed down Kings Avenue, skirted Defence’s Russell HQ, and did the release/announcement/unveiling/media moment in the auditorium of the Australian Defence Force Academy. The cadets were gratified.
Any Oz citizen can take a seat in the public gallery of the House of Representatives to hear the Prime Minister. If Oz citizens attempted this at the invitation-only event at ADFA’s auditorium they’d risk arrest.
The symbolism was lousy, ignoring Parliament’s role as the essential link between the Australian people and the Australian Defence Force.
Media management and message control trumped the proper relationship between the Cabinet and the Parliament and the people and the New Model ADF.
Throughout the 20th Century, the way Australian governments did big policy announcements was established. Parliament was where it happened. Any other venue was unthinkable.
The document was tabled in the House and Senate by the government. It became a paper of the Parliament as well as a policy statement. So it was with the Defence White Papers produced by the governments of Malcolm Fraser (1976), Bob Hawke (1987), Paul Keating (1994) and John Howard (2000).
Turnbull is the third 21st Century PM to break with Parliamentary tradition. Kevin Rudd set the trend by presenting his Defence White Paper in 2009 on the deck of a Navy ship in Sydney harbour. The TV pictures were grand.
Julia Gillard had her White Paper moment in 2013 in an RAAF hangar with a Hornet fighter as a prop. The pictures looked cold—a freezing Canberra hangar in mid-winter with the PM in a thick coat and scarf.
The snubbing of Parliament isn’t confined to Defence statements. Julia Gillard released her Asia Century White Paper at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
And Gillard’s 2013 National Security Statement/Strategy, launched at the Australian National University, was never tabled in Parliament. Tabling in Parliament, apparently, is so last century. You have to make a tabling statement and then—horror—there’s a debate.
Tony Abbott did his National Security statement at Federal Police HQ, amid a grove of Oz flags. The tide turned towards tradition with Malcolm Turnbull’s National Security speech in the House of Representatives. A false dawn.
The White Paper’s existence was announced in the House of Representatives on Thursday by a series of Dorothy Dixers to government ministers in the kabuki bear pit that is question time. As the government played politics with its White Paper announcement, Labor played politics by not asking a question about it. Sigh.
Turnbull mocked Labor for not asking a White Paper question. Yet the government didn’t present the paper to Parliament, made no formal statement and thus didn’t set up future debate. In delivering substance, Dorothy Dix rates near nix.
Because both the Defence Minister and Shadow Defence Minister sit in the Senate, the upper house was livelier. No statement or tabling, but question time had plenty of White Paper push from Labor and the Greens as well as government Dorothy Dixers.
Defence Minister Payne gave Labor a pre-launch look at the White Paper and invited her Labor shadow to the launch (he didn’t get there).
The serious lifting on the White Paper is to happen in Senate Estimates hearings. Estimates are ever valuable. But the Oz defence debate is narrowly based if its main Parliamentary expression is to be Senators questioning senior public servants and officers using the budget framework.
Channelling Cromwell: Why, prithee, do Oz leaders so snub the people’s place, wherein all their power resides?
The shallow answer is that the Minders seek an ‘event’ with good TV pictures.
A more disreputable motive is playing politics-as-usual by staging an event where the Opposition has no place on the stage: deny the other side oxygen, give them no role in the yarn.
On the floor of Parliament, the Opposition can speak. Minders and Ministers seem to think the best government announcement is where only the government strides the stage. So shift the stage beyond the Parliament.
The banality is pathetic. It doesn’t even match the TV reality.
The ‘boring’ pictures in the TV packages are still when the politician speaks. That’s why the grabs are getting ever shorter.
The exciting pictures in defence stories are the overlay shots of people shooting weapons, planes zooming, ships sailing and things going ka-boom. The Opposition get into White Paper action merely by doing a doorstop, so their equally ‘boring’ grab makes it into the TV package. And the three second Labor grab gave broad support to the Paper.
Beyond the banality, important issues throb. The habit of Prime Ministers ignoring Parliament and speaking ‘directly to the people’ is symptomatic of the presidential pretensions of our PMs.
Unfortunately for our recent leaders, the pretension isn’t delivering. The Parliamentary system keeps asserting its prerogatives, with parties beheading three prime ministers in five years. Cromwell would understand the Parliamentary capacity for regicide.
The Lowy polls have found a striking ambivalence among Australians about the value of democracy. Part of the problem is the way our leaders treat the forms and forums of our democracy.
Those four White Papers of the 20th Century and three of the 21st Century have one common feature. Inside the front cover are the words, ‘Commonwealth of Australia.’
Not the Prime Minister. Commonwealth of Australia.
Australia’s founders channelled Cromwell as a great parliamentarian (not dictatorial Protector) and understood what the Commonwealth said about the basis of Australia’s parliamentary democracy. Pity it eludes many in today’s Parliament.