Bipartisanship’s silent curse
25 Aug 2017|

This week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute turned 16. Happy birthday! Yet once more this seems a birthday in relative isolation. The institute itself remains keen to communicate, but increasingly I worry that few are listening or talking back.

As Robert O’Neill explained in a blog post last year, ‘When I began [as ASPI chairman,] Prime Minister Howard emphasised to me that he needed contestable advice … The Government also wanted another dialogue partner in the public debate.’

ASPI continues on that mission, but outside a few veritable institutions such as the Lowy Institute or my own Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, it’s not clear that dialogue and contestability exist. Even if the turmoil in world events has led to an uptick in media op-eds, the most important institution for debate, our federal parliament, remains largely silent.

Australia’s political system is deliberately adversarial. We have two chambers, both divided into halves. In each chamber, a formal position of ‘Leader of the Opposition’ exists. Yet in recent years one of the holders of that post has taken to declaring that ‘keeping our people safe is above politics. The security of our nation runs deeper than our political differences’.

The reason for the silence and desire not to argue or oppose is bipartisanship. As Stephen Conroy, Labor’s former shadow defence minister put it in a speech to an ASPI conference, ‘Labor strongly believes that the best outcomes for Australia’s national security are achieved through consensus and bipartisanship. This was our starting point when considering the 2016 Defence White Paper.’

Whatever the good intentions that sentiment derives from, the outcome has not been a ‘constructive and engaged’ discussion, but silence. Despite the strategic turmoil of our region, we have only a weak idea about what the Labor party accepted or rejected from the last white paper. And while the strictures of government require some modicum of discipline, it’s notable how little we’ve heard from government on how to update that document in light of worsening security trends. As I argue in a new report, our current desire for bipartisanship is putting our country at risk.

I don’t blame the politicians entirely for this silence. I know they take seriously the importance of defence policy decisions and the risks when sending the ADF to fight. Yet they’re rarely allowed to publicly express their concerns or differences over how to achieve strategic goals. Polling shows that two-thirds of the Australian public prefer a bipartisan approach. Equally, many former members of the ADF and expert commentators regularly call for our politicians to ‘keep the politics out of it’.

This not a new phenomenon, as Howard’s support for ASPI in 2001 indicates. Australia’s bipartisanship on national security and defence issues emerged in the early 1980s. Yet where that was a negotiated truce between the left and the right, with the former accepting the US alliance and the latter a diffused policy that prioritised Asia, today it has become a straitjacket that restricts our national ability to deal with the evolving regional order.

Ultimately, that’s bad strategy. There’s simply too much going on, too many issues to be across, too many causes and effects to link together for any one person to understand and grapple with it all. Yet that’s what our system requires. The man or woman occupying the prime minister’s office must make those choices. The inputs to their decision, resting on the Department of Defence and a few outside voices like ASPI, remain almost as narrow as they were 16 years ago.

Not only has our parliament’s silence impeded our ability to think through what needs to change, it also hurts our capacity to ensure the right ideas remain. As Andrew Shearer and Michael Green remarked a few months ago, of all the challenges facing the ANZUS alliance, ‘[p]erhaps most important of all is the need to renew the Australian public’s understanding of the essentiality of our alliance’. Under President Trump, the alliance is suffering a thousand small cuts, yet bipartisanship keeps the supporters effectively gagged.

In a quieter time and place, perhaps it wouldn’t matter. We could place our faith in the talented professionals across our civilian and military agencies to advise the prime minister and assume that was enough. But these are not quiet times. Many of the big defence and security decisions are political: how do we assess China’s intentions, would the Australian people support deployments to protect Japan or South Korea, should we rush in new defence capability, and what do we do if the US continues to be erratic and distracted?

Since 1901, the Australian prime minister has had responsibility to decide national strategy and defence policy. It has worked well and I see no reason to change it. But what’s different today from earlier periods of strategic turmoil, such as 1905–13, or 1956–76, is that today our parliament and wider society aren’t helping to inform the PM’s decisions.

ASPI can do only so much. To truly have ‘contestable advice’ and a dialogue partner for the government, we need our parliament to throw off the shackles of bipartisanship and debate freely and openly the changing world before us and our path to security. Let’s hope ASPI’s next birthday is a more crowded affair, with more voices heard around the cake.