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Defence White Papers at 40

Posted By on December 13, 2016 @ 11:00

Minister for Defence the Hon Marise Payne, MP, speaking at the launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra. *** Local Caption *** On 25 February 2016, the Prime Minister, The Hon Malcolm Turnbull, MP, and the Minister for Defence, Senator The Hon Marise Payne released the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Integrated Investment Program and the Defence Industry Policy Statement. Together, these three documents set out the Government's direction to Defence to guide our strategy, capability, and organisational and budget planning.

While Australia, like the rest of the world, has been trying to assess the implications of the election of Donald J. Trump, we’ve missed some other events or anniversaries that would normally have drawn our attention. November marked the 40th anniversary of the first Defence White Paper, presented to Parliament in November 1976 by James (later Sir James) Killen, Defence Minister in Malcolm Fraser’s coalition government.

Today ASPI releases its latest Strategy paper in which I look at the history of Defence White Papers [1]. It addresses questions such as: How is it that Australia managed for the first 75 years after Federation without a Defence White Paper and then produced seven in 40 years, the last three within seven years? How have the White Papers evolved over this time? What do they now achieve, and for which constituencies? Are they still a worthwhile tool for good governance, or might there be better ways of achieving their purpose that are more appropriate to the demands of the 21st century?

After looking in some detail at the circumstances in which the first two DWPs were produced and more briefly at the next five, I suggest that it’s now time to draw breath on the practice. The first two, in 1976 and 1987, arose from the perception that Australia needed a fundamental revolution in virtually every aspect of Defence policy, policy-making and organisation. They were presented by stable governments—one coalition, one Labor—who decided that, given the likely state of global geopolitics for the foreseeable future, Australia needed a new framework of strategic and capability planning, as well as a major reorganisation of the Defence organisation. Those White Papers were presented to, and debated in, Parliament, as well as being discussed widely in the media and the small but growing constituency of academic specialists in strategic and defence studies.

Since then Defence White Papers have been devalued by their frequency. Some have been updates rather than major policy statements that deserved the status of a White Paper. In every case except DWP 2000, the funding subsequently provided by governments hasn’t lived up to the expectations raised by the White Papers, creating a credibility gap. In some cases, especially DWP 1994 and DWP 2013, they have given the impression that the strategic assessment was heavily influenced by the government’s fiscal position. Too often, a major motivation for a Defence White Paper has seemed to emerge from domestic party politics or leadership tensions within the governing party, rather than from a genuine need to reassess the nation’s long-term strategy. The rapid turnover of defence ministers in the past 25 years, and of prime ministers in the past six, has reinforced that impression. Producing a Defence White Paper has sometimes been used to delay or to avoid difficult decisions, to shape a strategic outlook in the interests of domestic politics, or simply to give the impression that the government is in control of a major policy area. The presentation of the last three White Papers in orchestrated media events, rather than to parliament, has undermined the fundamental concept that a White Paper, on defence or anything else, is first and foremost a parliamentary paper intended to set out the government’s policy and to be the subject of a major parliamentary debate, as well as the focus of public discourse.

DWP 2016 has made the most comprehensive effort for many years to assess the strategic situation, to formulate the appropriate Australian defence response and to set out a capability program with a detailed funding commitment. Fulfilling this program will stretch Australian resources for many years to come. The need now is to give the new approach time. The electorate clearly wants a greater degree of bipartisanship between the major parties and an emphasis on long-term policymaking, especially on budget repair. DWP 2016 has set out a comprehensive, long-term program: those implementing it should be given time to settle in and to overcome the inevitable obstacles. The ability of two senior ministers to collaborate effectively in directing the implementation of the program will clearly be an important challenge.

Furthermore, the strategic context is both less benign and less predictable than that of the 1970s and 1980s. There have already been a number of major changes in the strategic outlook since DWP 2016 was launched. Even before the election of Donald Trump, commentators were stressing the need for nimbleness and flexibility. Now more than ever, in both defence and foreign policy, we don’t need grand sweeping statements that are likely to prove obsolete within weeks or days. What we need are more frequent statements to parliament, and references to parliamentary committees, by both the Defence and Defence Industry ministers, showing how DWP 2016, the most comprehensive and thorough Defence White Paper for many years, is being implemented and, when necessary, adjusted to meet changing circumstances.



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[1] I look at the history of Defence White Papers: https://www.aspi.org.au/publications/defence-white-papers-at-40

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