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ASPI at 15: a first Chairman’s perspective

Posted By on August 22, 2016 @ 12:30

PM & Bob Dinner [1]

My task as ASPI’s inaugural chairman was to give substance to the Australian government’s decision in the late 1990s to establish an institution to generate independent strategic policy advice, following in the steps of the US, the UK, and other NATO allies. While the Howard Government was well aware of, and respected, the existing Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, it wanted another body which could be taken into a closer, more confidential relationship with the Department of Defence, and focus on particular policy choices on which the Government needed advice.

When I began Prime Minister Howard emphasised to me that he needed contestable advice in the defence field, not simply advice from a single source such as the Department of Defence, however valuable that was. The Government also wanted another dialogue partner in the public debate, not merely to agree with its positions and support them, but also to raise major issues, giving new perspectives on the basis of expert knowledge as ASPI’s director and staff members saw fit.

When the Government’s concept was explained to me in 1998–99, two years before I was due to retire from my chair at Oxford and return to Australia, this seemed to be a venture worth supporting. My dialogue with senior defence officials strengthened and on Thursday 18 November 1999, over dinner in London, Defence Minister John Moore invited me to become the first chairman of ASPI’s board. I was pleased to accept.

From then onwards, for the next two years, the initial steps of founding the Institute took much of my spare time. We had to agree on a constitution and a basic system of working which ensured that the interests of the Government were properly served, while preserving essential freedom for ASPI’s director and staff to develop new ideas and approaches, some of which might contradict aspects of official policy.

Fortunately, in addition to having served as Director and then Chairman of the Board of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, I had served for five years as the initial chairman of the board of the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College, London, which was funded by the British Ministry of Defence while being a university body. I knew there would be problems but I felt confident that with the team of people we had in Australia working on the foundation of ASPI, we’d be successful in getting the job done.

Once we knew what we were trying to develop, and John Moore had invited a few leaders from the Commonwealth public service and the business community to join an initial advisory board, we were ready to start selecting ASPI’s first Director. We were fortunate in attracting a strong field of applicants, and particularly fortunate in late February 2000 to be able to nominate Hugh White, who not only had all the knowledge and experience of a Deputy Secretary of the Defence Department, but also possessed a sharp and powerful mind and a track record of independence of judgement. ASPI was off to a good start.

A notional budget was drawn up and we considered what could be achieved on the basis of annual funding of between $2 million and $3 million. The whole prospect for the new institute looked to be not only feasible but also attractive in terms of increasing Australia’s ability to deal with the kind of formidable policy choices of which I had experience over the past thirty years.

Until well into 2001, we had been operating essentially under the authority of the Minister for Defence. John Moore had been succeeded by Peter Reith in January 2001. Moore, then Reith, had the task of obtaining Cabinet approval for what had been decided upon thus far. That proved to be a slow and difficult process to navigate through, not because of the substance of the decisions but because of the high pressure of government business on ministers and their staff.

ASPI, housed in its re-furbished building in Barton, began its operating life in 2002. We moved into dealing with issues relating to Australia’s neighbourhood, especially the Solomon Islands, the structure of the Defence budget, defence industrial policy and the construction of major items of equipment in Australia. A strong staff was built up and the Institute began to acquire a high public profile.

It was both a pleasure and an honour to serve as the first chairman of ASPI’s board of directors. ASPI, I’m glad to be able to say, has gone on from strength to strength, with a larger staff, a better resource base and a higher profile in the public debate.

Severe challenges remain for Australian security policymakers, not only in the Middle East, but also in terms of relations with China and Russia, how to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and how to cope with the problems of climate change, population growth, food and water shortages and major outflows of refugees from troubled regions. Working at ASPI will never be dull!

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