Licking catastrophes
7 Jan 2015|

At the time of the 1993 federal election I was shirt-fronted by an ardent South Australian conservationist appalled at bipartisan political support for defence spending when there was, apparently, an enormous feral cat problem attriting the wildlife in the Adelaide hills. To be clear, my petitioner thought it was the problem that was enormous rather than the cats themselves, but the solution was to put the ADF onto a feline search and destroy mission. This would surely be a good use for all those expensive weapons. Army’s 16th Air Land Regiment based at Inverbrackie SA would no doubt turn the moggie tide with their RBS-70 short-range missiles.

Kym Bergmann’s piece belling the cat on Tony Abbott’s surprise visit to Iraq is reminiscent of my 1993 experience. He ‘wonders what the people in affected areas such as the Mt Lofty Ranges consider the greater danger: an immediate roaring wall of flame and smoke, or the barbarians of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq.’

Victims of bushfires are right to ask if governments have done everything appropriate to reduce the dangers of fires. My guess though is that Australians also expect governments—particularly the federal government—to do everything to counter terrorism. Only the obdurate would deny a link between the heightened risk of domestic terrorism and the current situation in Iraq and Syria. As a savvy and not-in-any-way obdurate journalist, Kym would realise that governments never face binary ‘guns or butter’ choices when it comes to spending. They must spend on national security and on domestic policy problems. Although bushfire response is initially a state government responsibility we know that natural disasters involve federal intervention when states request it, or local responses are insufficient.

There are two distinct parts to Kym’s catalogue of claims. Each should be treated on its own merits because there is no inherent link between them. First, there’s the question about whether Australia should play a role in the Middle East. There’s a respectable case to be made that Australia should limit its defence interests to a narrower swathe of territory, primarily focussed on South East Asia and the Pacific. My own view is that Australia can’t afford to take such a narrow approach. Although prospects for stability in the Middle East are poor, there’s a compelling argument for activist middle powers to do what they can to prevent that instability spreading in the form of terrorism and perhaps as large-scale WMD proliferation.

Those who’d argue that we have no interest in the Middle East need to explain how Australia can accept only the benefits of globalisation but play no role in policing the downsides of global interconnection. Hiding from the threat doesn’t mean it’s not there. Equally, those supporting Australian involvement need to make the strategic case for engagement. It’s true that ISIL presents a humanitarian crisis but that’s far from being the only reason why an international counter is necessary.

Second, and more core to Kym’s blog post, is the case for giving the ADF more direct responsibility for responding to bushfires and other disasters. My assessment is that Government’s should be wary about going too far down that path. In the Australian domestic context it’s important to understand that Defence is already a substantial early responder to any large-scale disaster. That support can range from providing imagery information about fires, to providing troops for prevention and clean-up tasks and, in recent years, senior planning teams to bolster state-based capabilities.

As much as Defence already provides in responding to domestic crises, the fact is that State Police and Emergency Service personnel are usually better trained and prepared to deal with local contingencies. They’re also significantly lower-cost than the ADF. The right strategy is to ensure state and local agencies are best placed to handle disasters and that federal assistance is drawn upon only when those capabilities are at risk of being overwhelmed.

Internationally, Defence is increasingly being called on to respond to regional disasters and to provide humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of earthquakes and other natural phenomena. While that may become an increasingly large part of international ADF engagement, it’s not likely to lead to big changes in force structure. Without question, providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is a good thing. But a cautionary note is appropriate: for years HADR has been touted in the Asia–Pacific as a ‘soft’ way of encouraging regional military forces to cooperate more closely. The reality is that tangible results are few. One of the biggest threats to regional stability is the absence of effective communication and strategic understanding between states. Handing out blankets and ration packs won’t help much if misunderstanding leads to conflict.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ulrich Kersting.