ASPI at 15: reflections of a former defence minister
24 Aug 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Downey

This is an era of intense political news management by governments. It’s an extraordinary thing that one of the governments that has been most effective at it, the Howard Government, put in place an organisation whose purpose would inevitably be to shine a light on the dark corners of the largely arcane functions of a critical government agency. That wasn’t ASPI’s main purpose of course. That was to provide informed discussion of the defence of the nation to better shape public debate.

It’s possible some in governing circles hoped they were creating a propaganda arm for the broader function and the government’s handling of it. That was never going to happen. Credibility is based on integrity. The types of academic and public official finding their way onto ASPI’s staff would always comprehend that. To their credit, successive governments have accepted that, though sometimes through clenched teeth.

Australia is think tank starved. Those we have are very good. However, insofar as they encompass the subject matter of the ASPI programs, they broadly stop at the point of intersection between foreign policy and strategy. Historically, only SDSC at the ANU has crossed into the more granular aspects of national security policy. SDSC’s work in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated the capacity for public discussion of national security issues, both to influence policy and shape public debate.

I’ve written elsewhere of how vital that work was for the policies adopted by the Hawke and Keating governments. That was an era when the national security debate dominated politics. Domestic issues were important but national security aroused the passions. Since planning for the defence of the continent was one of the major reasons the Australian colonies federated, that was only appropriate. The reality has been, absent hot or cold war, that defence is a distant electoral concern.

Des Ball described the 1970s and 80s as the ‘golden era’ of defence policy. But the influential figures on defence policy external to government fitted into one of the committee rooms of ANU’s University House. The addition of ASPI to the defence think tank ranks meant that we could at least fill the major meeting room. Indeed ASPI now provides a bigger one.

The Cold War narrowed and focussed the defence debate and function. The post-Cold War era has seen a surge in the complexity of the national security issues confronting defence planners. They’ve been taken well beyond the confines of the policy territory handled by the defence agencies. Interestingly, that’s reflected in ASPI’s research programs. In 2001, there were three: Strategy and International, Operations and Capability, and Budget and Management. Now there are seven: Defence and Strategy, International, Cyber Policy, Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement, Border Security, Counter-Terrorism, and Risk and Resilience.

ASPI came along not a moment too soon. One month after its creation, the events of 9/11 took us out of the sunny uplands of the post-Cold War glow into the abyss of seemingly insoluble issues of confessional disputes, centred in the Middle East but of global reach. As they’ve evolved, one consequence has been the creation of a crisis of people movement as catastrophic as the aftermath of World War II.

Climate change has added new security challenges to the mix, as well as exacerbating old ones. And, to complicate things, the rise of new powers is not entirely peaceful. Technological change likewise produces new opportunities and challenges for old states, new powers and able non-state actors. ASPI’s staffing numbers for its first 10 years hovered between the original nine and 15—useful but rather small. The last five years has seen that grow to 37.

For me, the original group of programs remains critical, though the others are essential. The Cost of Defence is the seminal document. Mark Thomson has led the process, and Janice Johnson its production, from the very beginning. The product is unequalled globally in its accessibility to a non-specialist but interested member of the general public. Mark’s writing on the funding of defence stamps reality on the broader debate.

ASPI’s analysis exposes the consequences of the peace dividend we’ve taken since the early 1990s. Even with recent spending increases, our defence budget doesn’t go beyond 7% of government budget outlays and 2% of GDP. In the ‘golden era’, we were above 8% and 2.3% respectively. Defence would be operating with $5 billion more per annum were we still there.

That makes obtaining value for money significant. ASPI analyses of defence acquisitions are invaluable in illuminating that task. The addition of The Strategist, created coincidently with the staffing surge, has ensured regular exposure of the best thinking in this area. It has also provided a forum for the broader issues debate. Over a thousand pieces were published on The Strategist in 2015. ASPI’s events—over 100 of various types in 2015-16— greatly add to the public strength of the Institute’s contribution.

Generally, but not always, this contribution would be viewed as an asset to the defence function in official circles. Among other government agencies competing for the taxpayer dollar, that wouldn’t be seen as being of unalloyed merit. But it’s hard to see how we could have an effective public discussion and for defence to receive the saliency it needs otherwise. A combination of rising costs and falling revenue due to the diffusion of public focus to social media are driving down the capacity of conventional media to sustain informed attention. Happy birthday and many long years to you, ASPI.