Bipartisanship must not stifle crucial defence debate
31 Aug 2017|

Andrew Carr calls for a more active debate on defence in Australia, claiming that bipartisanship will not serve us well in the current uncertain strategic environment.

I agree with Andrew and I see it this way: ‘bipartisanship’ doesn’t necessarily mean that one side agrees with the other. Both sides may be too scared to rock the political boat because it either annoys their base or makes them vulnerable to political attack. There isn’t sufficient understanding of the need to rock the boat, because defence is too hard and the voters are unlikely to hold parties or members to account. Even though both sides may claim ‘bipartisanship’, when it needs to be abandoned, each will use defence as a discriminator for political reasons.

Bipartisanship isn’t good if the parties use agreement on defence to remove it as a political issue when it should be an issue for the government. Bipartisanship is only good if both parties get it right. The questions should be: How much bipartisanship should there be, where might political competition be valuable for voters, and what is the right defence policy?

In considering bipartisanship, both planning and policy are important. Defence policy is the statement of what a nation’s elected representatives determine defence to be now and what it will become in the future. That must remain a political activity.

Comprehensive planning should occur before defence policy is derived. The planning stage can and should be bipartisan and should involve elected representatives and voters in a process that forces discussion.

Competition between political parties is better when it focuses on how to manage risks in defence policy rather than on the fundamentals, such as the current capability of the defence forces, the readiness of the nation to support a defence effort, and the need for defence capability derived from the strategic environment.

Political competition that leads to more thorough management of the risks in defence policy should be encouraged. But such competition can only occur if the fundamentals are bipartisan.

The problem applies to all Australian post–World War II governments. Most voters and MPs don’t have any idea whether we are adequately defended by our government—and we currently have no way of finding that out or of making an assessment against which we can judge the government. We tend to naively assume that because we’re spending a lot of money on defence, we must be well defended.

The inability to assess the adequacy of our own defence occurs because defence policy over the years has been all about the inputs (lists of ships, planes and tanks to be acquired) and has nothing to do with outputs. Winning wars is the most important defence output, but that’s only partially about weapons and mainly about military operations. As Andrew says, not having a coherent defence policy hasn’t really mattered for the last 70 years. Now, in the current strategic circumstances, it has become critical.

In this strategic environment, governments must be prepared to commit to defence outputs—to being able to win wars, not just having the weapons that are inputs. They must specify what they think the next war will be like, at least generically, and set out the most dangerous operational scenario Australia is likely to face and how the government and opposition in turn will confront it.

And governments must be prepared to say this publicly so that voters can hold governments accountable for defence. Then we will get parliamentarians talking. The claim that a general operational statement of the object of defence policy should be classified is simply false. Our specific contingency plans against specific countries or eventualities should be classified, but not the general standard to which we should build our defences before a specific threat develops.

The problem for voters is that almost the only thing we can judge is expenditure: we said we would spend 2% by 2019 and we achieved that or we didn’t. But does that equal success? Defence is about winning, not spending. Risk in defence policy is all about how much is not spent on defence.

A methodological framework may be needed to encourage the kind of discussion that Andrew and I want. The steps might be as follows:

  1. Defence states the maximum sophisticated joint warfighting force that can be deployed and sustained by Australia and how long it would take to be ready for combat. That would clarify, as a defence output, what is being bought in operational terms.
  2. The strategic and intelligence communities describe the most dangerous but likely generic threat in operational terms.
  3. Defence then assesses the force needed to counter the generic threat, compares that to the actual force from step 1, and states and costs the deficiencies using ‘defence warning time’ and ‘defence preparation time’.

Such a process would provide voters and MPs with the information they need to understand the risk that’s being taken and conduct an open and profitable debate. Each political party can then explain how it would manage risk given the agreed costs. Instead of focusing on what defence has or needs, the political argument would be about how each party proposed to manage risk.

It’s not just our parliament that needs to throw off the shackles of bipartisanship; every voter needs to be involved. Once the voters have the knowledge and the will to vote in terms of how well each party is likely to manage defence risk, then parliamentarians will be counted in the debate.