A Strategist retrospective: uses and abuses of defence white papers
25 Dec 2013|

Originally published 17 July 2012

(While looking forward to the defence white paper of 2013, this post—incidentally The Strategist‘s first—contains plenty of observations that are germane to the planned next defence white paper. Oh, and merry Christmas—Ed.)

Defence white papers are usually hailed as definitive statements of policy, and we can expect the 2013 one to be no exception. The phrase has an air of the laboratory about it—of boffins toiling to frame the unimpeachable results of evidence-based policymaking.

The idea of white papers as policy icons was never more on display than in the 2009 version. Nostalgia buffs can review the 83 media statements released on 2 May that year, where we were told the document was ‘the most comprehensive statement on defence ever produced’.

The reality is a bit different. White papers are political documents, produced for and owned (at least temporarily) by governments and designed for purposes beyond detailing high-minded policy. The impetus to produce them has often been the unwelcome arrival of a strategic shock, and they’re most commonly abandoned after a change of Prime Minister.

The 1976 white paper modestly started a journey to that elusive goal of ‘defence self-reliance’. It was a reaction to the Vietnam rout a year earlier and the knowledge that we’d need to do more to look after our own security. The paper’s spending projections were overturned in 1980 when a spooked Fraser government promised to boost spending after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—a promise that never materialised.

The 1987 white paper was spurred by a reforming Labor government’s need to design a defence policy that the ALP could support. In its early years, at the height of the anti-nuclear movement in Australia, the Hawke government faced a crisis in the defence relationship with the US. New Zealand under David Lange had defected from ANZUS in 1984. The 1987 white paper, and Paul Dibb’s 1986 report on Australia’s defence capabilities before it, built the case for an alliance relationship and a ‘defence of Australia’ focus that Labor could comfortably own. As political purposes go, this was a good one—it bought Australia a generation of bipartisan support for the key pillars of defence policy.

The 1994 white paper responded to another big strategic change—the fall of the Soviet Union—by reaffirming the 1987 policy settings. Unlike its predecessors, the 1994 edition wasn’t the result of a change of government but a change of Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Like the promised 2013 white paper, the 1994 document had a tough time trying to look fresh without changing much.

The spur for the 2000 white paper was another major strategic shock—the East Timor crisis and, behind that, the democratic transformation of Indonesia—and was suffused with the fear of a potential conflict with the Indonesians. Although John Howard was criticised in some circles for not starting a defence white paper in his first term, at least he owned the 2000 policy. He’d been through the Cabinet discussions, thought his way through the issues and didn’t feel the need to produce another defence white paper for the rest of his multiple terms of office. It’s good when governments own their policy statements.

As in 2000, the political purpose of the 2009 white paper was ownership. A new Labor government needed to develop its own brand of defence policy, show itself as a credible guardian of national security, and respond to the expected end of America’s unipolar moment. Those factors shaped much of the policy in the document, particularly the attempt to differentiate Labor’s product from the previous government’s via a major build-up of maritime capability. But there were two big problems with the 2009 paper: as in 1976 and 1987, the money turned out not to be there, and the government stopped owning it when Kevin Rudd lost the PM’s job. A white paper without an owner isn’t long for this world.

So, to the 2013 exercise. The aim with this one isn’t to meet any external challenge but to somehow rationalise the 2012 federal budget, which made it so painfully obvious that the 2009 white paper is now a remaindered book. It’s a triple challenge: the government has to distance itself from the wreckage of the last white paper at the same time as it affirms the basic continuity of key policies, it has to respond to an emerging and more difficult strategic environment, and it has to do it all with vastly less money.

The 2013 white paper mightn’t be the most comprehensive statement on Australian defence ever produced, but with delivery promised for the first half of next year it’ll be the most quickly written white paper in modern memory.

Defence and security buffs should buckle in for a wild ride.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.