ASPI at 15: conception
23 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user NASA Johnson

In mid-March 1996, about two weeks after the federal election that brought John Howard’s Coalition to power, the new defence minister Ian McLachlan set off in a RAAF VIP plane to visit some of the more out-of-the-way parts of his new portfolio. The CDF, General John Baker, and I went along, to take advantage of the long hours in the air to talk over with him some of the big issues he would be dealing with. It was an engaging task, because the new minister, though no expert on defence, was quick, tough, sometimes quirky and always a pleasure to deal with. We haven’t had a better defence minister since, and only one who was as good. McLachlan was the true father of ASPI.

Somewhere over the Gibson Desert, flying from Alice Springs to Geraldton, during a long discussion about the US alliance, McLachlan suddenly changed the subject. ‘Look, this is all fascinating, and I’m impressed by what you both have to say about it all. But I do not want to rely only on you and your colleagues for advice. I want to get expert advice from others as well—from outside Defence. Who can I talk to?’

It was an interesting question. John Baker and I replied that while lots of people talked about defence, very few outside the Defence Organisation itself really addressed the big policy choices that Governments actually face, especially about capability priorities and the alignment with strategic objectives and funding. Defence was, we explained, one of the last areas of policy where there was no sustained contest of ideas between the bureaucracy and experts outside it. ‘Well’, McLachlan said in his brisk and rather patrician way, ‘we must change that. Please put some ideas together about how that can be done’. And so the seed was sown.

Of course it took another five years for the idea to bear fruit, by which time McLachlan had left Defence and retired from politics. One might have expected his idea to die with his departure. Instead it survived and flourished because it was picked up and pursued quite vigorously by his successor, John Moore, and by John Howard himself. And it’s worth asking ‘why?’ ASPI today has an air of inevitably as an established and respected part of the defence and security landscape. But why did three politicians as different as McLachlan, Moore and Howard—and they were very different characters—all put real effort into making ASPI happen?

After all, there were always going to be risks and costs including, in particular, significant political risks. When in 2000 the Cabinet came to decide to actually establish the institute in its current form, real concerns were raised about the problems ASPI might cause when, as seemed inevitable at least occasionally, it published views contrary to the Government’s. Howard especially was never one to take such risks lightly, so why did they push ahead?

To answer that question we need to recall that in their mind ASPI’s primary purpose wasn’t to contribute to public debates about defence policy, but to provide an alternative source of policy ideas for government. This was plainly set out in the cabinet submissions and decisions, and in the public presentation of the initiative. The aim was to help government itself make better defence decisions.

Now that seems rather strange. One gets little sense that today’s governments feel much doubt about the quality of their defence decision-making, or much interest in hearing and debating alternative views. Indeed one gets little sense that politicians on either side of the aisle think much about defence policy at all. So what was different back then?

I think one can spot three factors. First, in the mid-to-late 1990s people’s approach to defence policy was still heavily influenced by the examples and standards set in the 1970s and 1980s. These were exemplified perhaps most strikingly by the Dibb Review, which was published just a decade before that conversation over the Gibson Desert. Compare the rigour, clarity and detailed argument of the Dibb Review, and the 1987 White Paper that followed it, with the sloppy rhetoric of our three more recent White Papers and you will see how different expectations were.

Second, as the ASPI seed was germinating in the mid to late-1990s Australian leaders were becoming increasingly aware that some of the assumptions underlying the policies of the 1970s and 1980s were no longer valid. Already they saw how two big trends—instability in our near neighbourhood and the shifting major-power balance in Asia—required new policy responses. Ministers like McLachlan, Moore and Howard wanted and expected those new responses to be developed and debated with the same rigour and discipline shown in the Dibb Review, and they saw the kind of contestability that ASPI could provide as central to that.

But then, third, the politics of defence and security were transformed. In the 1990s these were really politics-free zones, but that all changed within a few weeks of ASPI’s formal establishment in August 2001. After 9/11 these issues moved to the centre of national politics, and came to define John Howard’s leadership. Looking strong on national security became the key political imperative, and no one wanted to think too carefully about whether the things they were doing to look strong made any real policy sense. The quality of defence policy slumped, and demand from government for independent policy advice largely evaporated. ASPI’s focus inevitably swung round to contributing to public debates not government policy-making.

This it has done very successfully. But the imperative for a lively contest of policy ideas within government is even more urgent now than it was when McLachlan first expressed it over the Gibson Desert. To fulfil his vision, Governments need to start asking ASPI—and others—to nourish their own thinking about defence in a much more vigorous way.