ASPI’s decades
Dark globe.

The final in the series on ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

‘With a certain youthful precocity, ASPI has injected new ideas and vigour into our national security debate.’

— Prime Minister John Howard, June 2004

The prime minister’s judgement on the verve of the institute that his government created was delivered near ASPI’s third birthday.

The political parent expressed measured pride in the early promise of the progeny.

From John Howard (a leader always careful with his words), ‘precocity’ was a warmer label than the synonyms others in Canberra were using—‘pushy’ and ‘presumptuous’—as the knives came out. Initially, elements in the Department of Defence were shocked at this new creation with sharp teeth. And they were paying for this!

Over two decades, ASPI has taken much of the mystery out of Defence for the rest of Canberra—and done some of the same magic for Defence itself.

On the institute’s 20th anniversary, a trace of ‘precocity’ lingers in the appetite for challenge. The institute has grown up and gone in many directions. Yet it still pushes; it’s still eager to question and weigh, judge and speak.

ASPI has lived the ideals that Howard described.

The appetite for new ideas is core business for a now experienced Canberra player that brings constant energy to the work of Australia’s strategy and national security. ASPI has gone in search of the best strategies for Australia and the broadest understandings of security. In the arguments over guns and butter, the institute has delved deeply into the details of the guns, and the policy butter has been widely spread.

The institute’s structure has delivered as ordered. In the Canberra contest, rely on ASPI for contestability—a constant testing of what’s working and what might work better.

ASPI has the freedom of a think tank. The role—by definition—is to think about policy. This is a tank able to roam across many battlefields, not required to line up in marching order with the big battalions. So ASPI doesn’t carry the weighty load of the great departments that live around it in the parliamentary triangle, setting and administering policy.

The institute has the liberty no public service bureaucracy can know, in the way it can think about the needs of the day or the demands of the decade.

Having no bureaucratic interests but being close to the bureaucracy offers the chance to be creative, even cooperative, rather than merely carping and critical.

As a charming disruptor, ASPI is near enough to know the size and pain of the problems facing the great departments and their political masters. Close critiques can hit hard. The compensation is that the suggestions proffered and answers offered are based on deep understanding.

Among Canberra’s big fish, ASPI is a tiddler. The minnow, though, has moxie. The job of the nimble think tank is to find the new and help the renewal. An institute with only 60 staff has shown the nerve and determination to take on big ideas and to play in the biggest policy spaces, in Australia and beyond.

The complaint about ASPI by China’s embassy in Canberra was a backhanded compliment—an acknowledgement delivered as an attack. The facts and force of ASPI’s work were having effect. To be cited as a source for legislation by other Western democracies is a tribute to those facts and the quality of the institute’s work.

Turn from ASPI’s intimate relationship with the Defence Department and the other great beasts of the bureaucracy to the larger canvas of politics and policy that’s Canberra.

Widening the picture underscores the two great strengths of ASPI’s structure: its independence and its expertise, the ability to pursue the policy but not to play the politics.

What was intended in ASPI’s creation has been realised. The design of the think tank has worked as intended, as shown by the recollections of those who’ve known it from the start.

Howard said that, in establishing the institute, cabinet expressed a ‘strong view that an independent body providing policy advice on defence and related matters was highly desirable’, yet he reflected:

Sensibly ASPI hasn’t sought in any way to distance itself from the professionals of the Defence Department and security agencies. From my experience of participating in ASPI events, I’m conscious of a respectful relationship between the institute and those other bodies.

As ASPI’s first chairman, Robert O’Neill, recalled:

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 …

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.

The Australian Labor Party’s Stephen Loosley served as a council member of ASPI for 15 years from its inception and was chairman from 2008 to 2016. ASPI’s design meant that the federal government and opposition both nominated board members. Loosley represented the Labor leaders Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Beazley (again), Mark Latham, prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and, finally, Bill Shorten: ‘The standing joke at ASPI became that I’d survived more purges in the ALP leadership than a member of Stalin’s Politburo in Moscow in 1937.’

Present at the creation, Loosley wrote, he’d seen astounding growth and extraordinary success:

The creation of ASPI in 2001 by the Howard government, with the support of Kim Beazley’s Labor Opposition, represents a rare Canberra decision.

Not only has ASPI met expectations, it has consistently exceeded them. Centring the policy debate in defence and national security, crafting intelligent and effective policy options, and reaching out to Australians interested in strategic policy, ASPI has achieved a record of influential contributions while not losing its understood need for objectivity and balance.

ASPI may occasionally have annoyed defence ministers, on both sides of the aisle. But that reflects an essential core of the institute’s brief: to contest advice to government and to promote active debate on the issues.

Even the most aggrieved defence minister over the years would stop well short of accusing ASPI of partisan positions. …

It wasn’t always a rose garden. There were elements in the Defence Department bureaucracy who wanted ASPI shut down and for a while this appeared probable. [Executive Director] Peter Abigail was outstanding in adversity and eventually we emerged intact.

This isn’t to claim that ASPI hasn’t made mistakes. The institute has been guilty of speculative commentary in earlier days, for example. But those days are long gone and the current crop of ASPI researchers and analysts are among the most able found anywhere. This statement is validated by ASPI repeatedly being numbered among the best ‘think tanks’ in the world.

As usual, O’Neill and Loosley offer nuance with sharps mixed in. Their descriptions offer the essence of what ASPI’s informed and independent voice has done over two decades:

  •   to know Canberra but to reach out to all Australians
  •   to give both ideas and angst to defence ministers while not straying into the politics
  •   to break the Defence monopoly on advice
  •   to raise major issues and give new perspectives
  •   to bring objectivity and balance to the vital contests of strategic debate
  •   to get smart people to follow the facts—and allow them the fullest freedom to report on what they find (in Canberra, a rare freedom, indeed).

A powerful formula has delivered exactly what the circular logo proclaims: ‘Twenty years of ASPI strategy’.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has lived its name to help deliver what Australia needs in imagining ends, shaping ways and selecting means.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.