Defence bipartisanship: holy grail or poisoned chalice?

The Australian parliament is investigating a new way to surrender its prerogatives, along with an abdication of basic democratic principles, in favour of the military chiefs and bureaucrats on Russell Hill.

On 14 June 2017, the chair of the Defence Sub-Committee of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Senator Linda Reynolds, announced that she would lead an inquiry into the possibility of a bipartisan Australian defence agreement. Such an agreement would bind the major parties to a joint ticket on planning and funding for multibillion-dollar projects such as the future frigate and submarine fleets.

Senator Reynolds says (PDF) that an inquiry is needed to look for ways to ensure stability of defence planning because ‘the nature of Australia’s three-year electoral cycle has demonstrated that this stability cannot be assumed, or guaranteed’.

According to Senator Reynolds, the aim in pursuing bipartisanship is to ensure the ‘efficiency and effectiveness on the part of both Defence and Defence Industry’. She says the main vehicle for achieving this will be ‘stability in strategic guidance’ and that this characteristic ‘generates’ efficiency.

The political class itself is a barrier to stable planning. Recent white papers show that as governments change, each seeks to leave its mark on long-term policy. That can be disruptive as political slogans jump from ‘national security’ to ‘Australia in the Asian century’, and now to ‘innovative defence industries’. Leaders of the ADF, or at least many in senior ranks, seek relief from this burdensome reality. They rightly say that defending Australia is a long-term job and as such it requires committed long-term planning and funding. The ADF wants to be ready (financed and equipped) to meet any challenge and to combat Australia’s enemies unburdened by the potential for a change in government priorities every third year.

With a bipartisan agreement, the argument goes, Russell Hill would be able to get on with the job of defending Australia without having to worry about politicisation, voters changing their minds, or the media-driven circus that flourishes on Capital Hill.

Bipartisanship is, as the senator puts it, something of a holy grail for the ADF. If only the gallant knights could, as Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend, find the cup of the last supper and sip from it. Unknown forms of healing and beneficence would surely arise from that act. But the assumed restorative powers of the ‘holy grail’ of bipartisanship are almost certainly more in the realm of myth than reality, more legend than logic.

There’s little evidence that disagreement between the two political parties (the Coalition and the Labor Party) is the main cause of disruptions to major defence strategies, force structure planning and funding. The last major examples were possibly in the 1970s as Australia transitioned through the Whitlam Labor government, but even the drawdown of forces from Vietnam began before he took office.

As previous contributors to The Strategist have observed—for example, in May and November 2015 and February 2016—Defence itself has been one of the main obstacles to effective and efficient force procurement. Reviews such as the Kinnaird, Mortimer and Coles reviews, as well as yearly major projects reports produced by the ANAO, suggest that those management issues are historic and systematic. In 2009, Patrick Walters reported on the Rudd government’s decision to cancel the Howard-era Super Seasprite helicopter procurement. But it’s likely even a Coalition government would have axed it given the epic weaknesses in Defence’s handling of the project. It had been criticised sharply and publicly as early as 2002 by the Coalition’s defence minister, Robert Hill.

Defence admitted its own internal management flaws in its 2015 First Principles Review (PDF), acknowledging that capability development was hampered by its inefficient organisational structures as well as complicated, slow and impracticable work processes. A recent audit by the ANAO suggests that, in the 18 months since, the department has made ‘limited progress’ on addressing those areas.

None of these reports suggests that a lack of bipartisanship was to blame for procurement and availability problems. Instead, when things go wrong they often appear to be failures of government, rather than the result of changes of government between one party and the other.

Meanwhile, the political and ethical dangers of the proposed new convention on bipartisanship are abundant and troubling.

The claim for bipartisanship as a defence against changing choices is simply illogical. Governments and military forces need to be able to adapt rapidly to geopolitical, technological and economic changes, not chain themselves to funding and capability decisions made years before. The Coalition’s 2016 Defence White Paper provided for a timely shift in policies, funding and priorities. That would never have been possible if the Liberal–National Coalition had locked itself into bipartisanship on the 2009 ALP Defence White Paper’s funding and priorities.

In addition, there’s no conceivable mechanism for bipartisanship that would insert the Opposition into the deliberative processes of Cabinet decision-making on major defence equipment. Senator Reynolds’ proposal can therefore only be about asking the Opposition to rubber-stamp decisions on which it has had almost zero critical input.

More importantly, the quest for bipartisanship, if implemented, would further erode the low levels of scrutiny of national security policy by Australian voters and deny citizens public contestability of how governments invest billions of taxpayer dollars in local defence skills and jobs. Less partisan debate in the parliament would also mean less media coverage.

If adopted, this proposal would also send a dangerous message to future governments—that they can continue to harbour prerogatives of secrecy and backroom deals on national security that owe more to the 1920s than to the emerging demand of citizens for a more transparent and participatory democracy in the 2020s.

What will the government next declare to be so important that it be left to the professional politicians and bureaucrats in a way that will deny voters the chance for any meaningful repudiation? Any opposition party, regardless of its political complexion, should reject this proposal as profoundly undemocratic.