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Cabinet’s gift of independence to ASPI

Posted By on January 18, 2021 @ 06:00

Cabinet created the Australian Strategic Policy Institute as a small body with a big brain—and, most importantly, a strongly independent voice.

Creation stories tell much. And the release of the cabinet records for 2000 by the National Archives [1] detail the genesis of ASPI, which reaches its 20th birthday this year.

Two decades ago, the Howard government knew why it needed ASPI. The Defence Department was a monopoly provider of advice and expertise. Cabinet wanted fresh perspectives on big equipment headaches like submarines and, more broadly, Oz strategy.

Taking office in 1996, the Howard government found defence one of the last policy areas without a sustained contest of ideas between the bureaucracy and outside experts [2]. ‘Well’, said John Howard’s first defence minister, Ian McLachlan, ‘we must change that’.

ASPI came to be born so the defenceniks at Russell could no longer win arguments and drive policy because they held most of the knowledge and much of the history.

Defence would pay for a body designed to make life tougher for Defence. Sharp Canberra logic drives such counterintuitive ambition. Strong design must ensure the mission can’t be mugged by bureaucratic bastardry or strangled by money.

At the general election in October 1998, the Howard government’s defence policy promised to establish an institute of strategic policy.

In April 2000, McLachlan’s successor as defence minister, John Moore, brought to cabinet a proposal for the creation of ASPI [3].

The purpose of the institute, Moore told cabinet, was to ‘provide a centre of expertise of direct value to government by providing independent policy relevant research and analysis that will enhance the quality of policymaking on defence and strategic issues’.

The need for independence was repeatedly stressed: ‘The credibility of the ASPI will be substantially determined by the reality and appearance of the independence of its operation and outputs from government.’

Moore offered cabinet two key arguments for ASPI.

First, to develop alternative sources of advice to government on strategic and defence policy:

The principles of contestability have been central to our Government’s philosophy and practice of public administration, but these principles have not yet been effectively implemented in relation to defence and strategic policy, despite the vital national interests and significant sums of money that are at stake. The Government has found in relation to the Collins Class Submarine project for instance, and more generally in relation to the [Defence] White Paper process, that there are almost no sources of alternative information or analysis on key issues in defence policy, including the critical questions of our capability needs and how they can best be satisfied. The ASPI will be charged with providing an alternative source of expertise on such issues.

The second argument was that defence policy was inhibited by a poor understanding of the choices and issues involved:

The ASPI will be tasked to contribute an informed and independent voice to public discussion on these issues. These roles will take some time to develop, but there are significant advantages to launching the ASPI now, at a time when public interest in defence issues is high. It is intended that the foundation of ASPI should be seen as a long-term investment by the government in good strategic and defence policy, and as such it fits in well with the White Paper process.

How to structure a new, nimble, noisy beast was one puzzle of a protracted birth, a five-year process from idea to election promise to cabinet debate to establishment. In April 2000, cabinet liked the idea but asked the defence minister to do more work on ‘alternative structuring arrangements’ for ASPI.

By August, the defence minister was back with seven options [4]: an internal Defence strategic policy cell; an independent board within Defence; a university-based research centre; a special research centre also based in a university; or a stand-alone centre which could be a statutory authority, an executive agency or an incorporated company.

Cabinet went with the original proposal, establishing ASPI as a wholly Commonwealth-owned company.

In the words of the defence minister, endorsed by cabinet, the institute would maintain a small staff; ‘the centre would not publish views in its own name, it would publish views of the authors of particular research without endorsement’; and ASPI ‘would be required to publish a range of views on contentious issues’.

ASPI has lived out those principles, making it a marvelous place for any analyst—or, indeed, a journalist fellow. ASPI embraces its independence by giving its people the freedom to think and write.

Those principles are the basis for the sentence I put on any submission I make to a parliamentary inquiry: ‘As ASPI does not offer institutional views, this is my personal submission.’ The day-to-day lived experience is that in eight years penning a weekly column for The Strategist I have never once been told what to write. As importantly, I’ve never been warned off by being told what not to write.

Independence, indeed. And, just quietly, a weighty freedom, depriving the writer of all excuses—the only person responsible for those words is you!

See the culture at work in this farewell piece [5] by one of the ASPI originals, Mark Thomson, as he retired after 16 years writing about defence economics. It’s classic Mark: clear-eyed judgement that’s both balanced and sharp. This, after all, was the man who revolutionised Canberra’s debate on military spending by explaining the defence budget to Canberra (and to much of the Defence Department, as well).

Handing over the torch as he departed, Mark offered a simple read of the ASPI creed: the most valuable thing you have is your independence.

Cabinet’s plan has worked. ASPI has a distinct identity, clearly separate from the Defence Department. One secretary of Defence told me ASPI could say things to the minister that he couldn’t. Another was so enraged by ASPI criticism of a Defence position that he declared hostilities and froze contacts (a difficult thing to do simultaneously).

In 2000, cabinet was told the initial cost to Defence of paying ASPI’s total budget would be $2–3 million a year. In the latest five-year funding agreement [6], running to 2023, the annual payment by Defence is $4 million; ASPI is a smaller slice of Defence’s budget than when it started. These days, though, ASPI gets only 35% of its budget [7] from Defence, and 32% from other federal government agencies. The rest of the cash comes from state and territory governments, overseas governments, defence industries and the private sector, and universities and civil society.

Such diversity is another strength of cabinet’s design, and one more element in the independence that cabinet mandated.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/cabinets-gift-of-independence-to-aspi/

URLs in this post:

[1] 2000 by the National Archives: https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/cabinet/latest-cabinet-release

[2] between the bureaucracy and outside experts: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aspi-15-conception/

[3] proposal for the creation of ASPI: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=202981504&T=PDF

[4] seven options: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=202981573&T=PDF

[5] farewell piece: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-best-of-times/

[6] five-year funding agreement: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-01/ASPI-Defence%20Funding%20Agreement_31-August-2018-redacted.pdf?qc_Il8_v_dTq14SqRNuYi5Y1KZXgjs4g=

[7] budget: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-10/ASPI%20By%20the%20numbers.pdf?N_LlogMEIny9Yia_Csr0VGDlw_xkXtof=

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