Tony Abbott’s speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last week had some messages for Canberra policymakers to help shape next year’s ‘blue’ Incoming Government Brief. The speech was oddly constructed as some commentators have said, but there were four interesting themes: one announced a new bipartisan approach with government and three pointed to emerging differences.
Abbott’s bipartisan point was about defence spending. The one line on spending in the prepared speech said: ‘we will seek efficiencies in defence spending but never at the expense of defence capability.’ In the Q&A, Abbott criticised the cumulative effect of spending cuts but stressed savings could be made as long as they didn’t damage military capability. He said ‘the last thing we want to do is dismay our friends and allies.’ He did not say that a Coalition government would reverse spending cuts.
This is a new element of bipartisanship—to cut defence spending in the four-year period of budget forward estimates. Some Coalition Speaker’s Notes obtained by Crikey ‘commit to restoring the funding of Defence to 3% real growth out to 2017–18 as soon as we can afford it.’ But 3% growth won’t restore what has been cut and Abbott’s comments suggest the Coalition prefers the government’s approach. No one in Defence should imagine they will get an easy ride under a Coalition government. Nor should the Coalition think that cutting Defence will be easy. If they do form government they will get a shock when the Incoming Government Brief advises that cutting future capability is the only way to stay within the new spending guidelines.
So, to the emerging differences. The first was on values. Abbott said, ‘Australia’s foreign policy should be driven as much by our values as our interests.’ How that translates into diplomacy remains to be seen. But it points to a close US alliance relationship even though Abbott used a lot of his speech to tell the Americans to toughen up. Abbott also claimed ‘a vindication’ of Western values that underpin economic and political reform in the Asia–Pacific. While some have said this sounds old fashioned, one of the quiet successes of the last decade has been the revitalisation of the Five Eyes community of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Five Eyes concept has a pedigree in intelligence but beyond that the grouping is one of the most effective multilateral security institutions in the world. More could be done to strengthen strategic engagement between the five.
Abbott’s take on the ‘Asian Century’ amounts to a second difference with government. It will be an Indian and Japanese century, he said, as well as a Chinese one. It will also be an American century: Abbott talked-up the continuing relevance of the US in Asia and also dwelt on Indonesia’s rising significance. The theme of an Asia-focussed Labor policy versus a more internationalist Coalition approach could shape into an interesting debate. Much will depend on how—or if—Ken Henry resolves his treatment of the US in his Asian Century White Paper.
A third theme in the paper was how to manage the risk of conflict. Abbott rather bluntly said that alliances in the Asia–Pacific have ‘the potential to draw in America and its partners’ into ‘serious military conflict.’ The solution, he claimed was political reform and economic growth: ‘A China that was freer as well as richer would be the best guarantee of peace and stability in the Asia–Pacific.’ Not surprisingly Abbott lowered the volume on that during his China visit, although he still commented in his Beijing speech that the Chinese ‘still can’t choose their government’—a long way from the pragmatic Howard approach on China.
Abbott’s Heritage Foundation audience did not bite at the line that alliances might draw the US and Australia into conflict. Indeed in the rest of the speech Abbott made clear his commitment to the defence relationship. Some clarity is needed here. While the domestic defence debate fixates on the cost of military force, government and opposition should acknowledge that the defence organisation is not just a cost-overhead: it helps build stability in the region. Stability is the platform for growth, not the other way around.
‘We’re more than allies, we’re family’ Abbott said, but expectations of what we can and should deliver have been raised by a decade of difficult military operations. For all the talk of family the US will push Australia hard on defence spending regardless of who wins their Presidential election, or who wins our federal poll.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.