Process makes perfect: easy steps to white paper happiness
11 Oct 2013|

At the Sea Power Conference in Sydney I set out a number of steps that the new Government should take in developing the promised 2015 defence white paper. In my last post, I discussed what white papers need in terms of content but here I’d like to focus on process. Let’s start with the basics: government should emphasise a strong commitment to what could be called the ‘five Cs’: base work on classified assessments; use Cabinet as a direction-setting forum; make choices; consult widely within official circles; and finally, engage the broader community.

Using classified assessments as the basis for decision-making is a critical way to focus government on the difficult and hard-edged judgements about strategic developments. Equally, governments need access to realistic assessments about the strengths and weaknesses of ADF capabilities. The unclassified white paper statement explains policy to a wide audience, but it should only be the final stage of a more through-going process. Likewise, Cabinet’s deep involvement is important, to make sure that key minsters have the opportunity to talk issues through and decide on outcomes they’re prepared to commit to.

The third ‘C’ is for choices: the real policy purpose of white papers is to force choices on decision-makers about defence priorities. The 2013 white paper failed this test because it didn’t acknowledge the cumulative impact of spending cuts and deferrals. That situation is unlikely to be sustainable for the next white paper. When it comes to defence, Cabinet should work on the basis that a choice delayed is a choice not made.

The fourth ‘C’ is for consultation; that is within the wider group of agencies and government departments known as the national security community. One of the successes of the last decade has been to strengthen a whole-of-government approach to national security, for example in enhancing counter-terrorism strategies. While consultation can slow policymaking down, a new defence white paper would benefit from a stronger focus in this area.

The final ‘C’ in developing a good quality white paper process stands for ‘community’. White papers can play an important role in educating community thinking on defence and building support for policy by asking the community for their views. A discussion paper issued in advance of a white paper—as happened in 1999 and 2008—can help to help define the right policy areas for community debate, shape international perceptions about the purpose of the work, and lay the ground for a favourable reception of a new white paper.

A key part of consultation should also be with the business community—defence industry and beyond—who’ll be a critical part of delivering capability. This needs to be a genuine discussion, not simply one-way transmission from Canberra to the rest of the country.

In addition to the five ‘C’s, another suggestion for the new government is that they should commission an independent review of Australia’s defence capabilities in advance of releasing a new defence white paper. It wouldn’t be the first time such a study was undertaken. In 1985 Defence Minister Kim Beazley commissioned then-Dr Paul Dibb to undertake a defence capability review. The value of Dibb’s review was that it was independent and made it possible to cut through long-standing rivalries between the military and civilian parts of Defence, and between the three Services. In 2013 Defence is genuinely a much more joint organisation than in 1986, but one can’t be naïve about the fact that a study forcing difficult choices between military capabilities is almost impossible to be generated inside the agencies that have to take the cuts.

The rather narrowly cast ‘defence of Australia’ policy set out in 1986 would necessarily be altered in 2013–14 to have a stronger regional focus and an even deeper alliance connection with the US. Finally, the Dibb review gave the government of the day an arms-length assessment of what it needed to do in defence; helped shape the public debate and build a consensus around the outcomes adopted in the white paper of 1987.

On defence budgeting, a future government should commit itself early and publicly to lift the standard of commentary in the next white paper on long-term budget issues. The aim should be to return to a long-term budget projection for defence that looks ahead twenty years to cover the life of major capital equipment projects. The candour of the budget chapter in the next white paper will be a critical benchmark of how seriously the document should be taken.

A final suggestion for the next white paper is for the government to commit to launching the document by means of a statement to Parliament. Such an approach was once the norm for governments making major new policy announcements. Regrettably, the last two white papers have been launched at highly orchestrated media events. One rough rule of thumb is that the bigger the launch, the less there is to the statement.

The 2013 defence white paper demonstrated some old verities of policymaking. First, policies are unlikely to last for very long if they lose their key sponsors. Second, the policy outcomes are only as good as the processes that produced them. Third, policy without money is a weak and imperfect product. That said, the document made a contribution which will last in its use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific strategic arc’. The Coalition Government can build on the statement, keeping the language and policy initiatives it values and adding its own perspective on defence policy settings. The best approach would be for the government to be more disciplined in its policy development work over the next 18 months and also to find a realistic way to balance available funding with its strategic aspirations.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.