Politics dictates the timing of defence white papers
25 Jan 2019|

In a recent Strategist post, Mike Kalms and Adam Lockyer made the case for defence white papers (DWPs) to be produced on a fixed cycle. A set schedule would, they argue, provide certainty for both the Department of Defence and defence industry. However, the reality is that the timing of DWPs is driven, first and foremost, by political considerations.

Arguments for imposing regularity on DWP releases overstate the role that DWPs play in providing policy direction on defence strategy, and disregard the political considerations that inevitably feed into the government’s policymaking.

As ASPI’s Peter Jennings has written, ‘All Defence White Papers are inherently political documents’ and ‘Governments make policy aiming to stay in power’. Thus, DWPs are underpinned by domestic party-political considerations, as Kim Beazley has noted. ‘A defence white paper’, he wrote, ‘is not simply a product of a dispassionate view by defence officials of the nation’s defence needs. It is a document approved by a political cabinet and reflects at least in part the ideological perspectives and internal political settlement of the party in power.’

So, given that governments set policy and that DWPs provide an overarching policy framework for defence, it follows that DWPs won’t last if they don’t have the governing political party’s approval and support. As Jennings put it, ‘[A] White Paper without a Prime Minister actively claiming to “own” it does not survive for long.’

And because DWPs are the primary policy documents for addressing national security matters—and play a role in supporting the significant expenditure associated with implementing defence policy—it’s reasonable to expect that a change of government will be followed by a new DWP at some point during the new party’s term of office (unless there’s overwhelming support in the party for the policy positions outlined in the existing DWP).

It’s not just changes of government that can prompt a new DWP. History shows that leadership changes in the governing Labor Party twice prompted new DWP releases: in 1994, with the shift from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating as prime minister; and in 2013, with the shift from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard (see the table below). These two examples highlight the imperative for alignment of DWPs with the foreign and defence policy positions of the incumbent leadership.

Australian defence white paper releases, 1975 to 2018

Governing yearsGoverning parties and prime ministersYear of releaseTitle
1975–1983Liberal–Country: Fraser1976Australian defence
1983–1991Labor: Hawke1987The defence of Australia
1991–1996Labor: Keating1994Defending Australia
1996–2007Liberal–National: Howard2000Defence 2000: Our future defence force
2007–2010Labor: Rudd2009Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century: Force 2030
2010–2013Labor: Gillard, Rudd2013Defending Australia and its national interests
2013–2018Liberal–National: Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison20162016 defence white paper

Notably, in Gillard’s case, the differences between her and Rudd’s positions were stark and substantive. She refused to support the sizeable defence expenditure outlined in Rudd’s 2009 DWP, which she saw as excessive and unnecessary. And she viewed Rudd’s policy position on China as diplomatically unwise and not aligned with the foreign policy positions set out in her 2012 Australia in the Asian century white paper and 2013 National Security Strategy, both of which evinced a more optimistic view of Australia’s position within Asia and of China’s importance to a growing Australian economy.

The reverse also applies. When a change in party leadership isn’t accompanied by a new DWP, it can reasonably be assumed that the current white paper has the implied support of the new PM. This is best illustrated by the Coalition government that’s been in power since 2013. The 2016 DWP was released early in Malcolm Turnbull’s tenure as PM, but the groundwork was laid during Tony Abbott’s time in the job. The defence policy positions it outlined had (and continue to have) broad party support. The projected future expenditure was fully costed and accompanied by two new and significant policy documents aimed at more closely integrating defence industry with future defence expenditure: the 2016 Integrated Investment Program and the 2016 Defence Industry Policy Statement.

The claims that changes in Australia’s strategic environment are primarily driving the recent pattern of more frequent DWPs are not supported by the evidence. Certainly mechanisms exist within Defence to provide strategic guidance to government between white paper cycles. These include Defence’s defence planning guidance, quarterly and annual strategic reviews, and strategic policy statements. All of these are high-level, classified strategic documents that provide government with up-to-date advice on a range of defence issues (including force posture, force design and operational planning) and potential proximate and longer term changes in Australia’s strategic environment that might affect the policy direction and options covered by the existing DWP.

While the calls for regularity in the release of DWPs are understandable—particularly from the point of view of providing greater certainty for defence industry—the evidence shows that political concerns overwhelmingly dictate the timing of DWP releases. All other influences are subordinate to those considerations.

And while the number of years between DWPs has been shrinking recently, as Kalms and Lockyer note, that’s probably a reflection more of the increasing instability in Australian politics over the past decade (of which changes in party leadership have been the defining characteristic) than of the influence of external factors.

If instability and the associated changes in leadership continue, the frequency of DWPs won’t decrease. Introducing fixed terms of government might enable white paper cycles to be regularised. However, even though both major parties have introduced rules to raise the bar for successful leadership challenges, a change in prime minister could still happen during the course of a fixed term—and that could still result in a new DWP. In any case, if Australia did shift to fixed terms of government, it’s unlikely that bringing cyclical regularity to DWP releases would be the primary driving factor.