One of the things I like about Jim Molan is the relish and obvious enthusiasm with which he brandishes his lance at the many windmills that rise out of Russell Hill. However, I was dismayed by his latest contribution to The Strategist in which he proposed a way forward to address what he perceives as the inappropriate levels of defence spending by the current government. Particularly so at a time when he believes that the perceived strategic uncertainty merits a much greater contribution from the public purse.
In his words, what should determine how much Australia spends on defence should be the strategic environment. When this should be spent is the relationship between warning time and the time it takes to build defence capability. From the tenor of his contribution, the correct answer should be ‘lots’ and ‘right now’. However, I am left uneasy by two factors. First, his apparent view that the only thing to do at a time of strategic uncertainty is spend more money on defence. That to me sounds like a curative approach rather than a preventative one. One could equally argue that greater expenditure in improving our diplomatic capabilities to address the claimed uncertainties. Second, that ‘more’ equals ‘better’ or ‘more effective’. Indeed Major General Molan makes this very point when he notes that the ADF has an almost total lack of real capability, despite having lots of ‘things’.
Perhaps more worrying for me, is Jim Molan’s apparently naïve views of the political environment. In his contribution, he argues that the recommendations on defence policy by the Secretary and Chief of the Defence Force should be made public, that that the Minister could take that public advice and apply a suitable priority to it. Well, if this is good enough for Defence, then it is good enough for Health, and Education, and Innovation, and Science, and all the other aspects of public policy calling out for a greater portion of the commonwealth annual expenditure. So the Cabinet would have to prioritise—against public claims from this or that group for their own policy area. It would seem to me that the results, in that case, would be even more politicised than at present, and that those policy areas where votes are easiest to get would gain the largest portion of the pie. Instead, I would rather the arguments be made in private, among serious people, where cases are made, won or lost around the Cabinet table. That is the case today.
Alex Tewes is a Canberra bureaucrat. These are his views and do not reflect the position of his Department or of the Australian Government.