In his latest contribution to The Strategist, Nic Stuart continues to act as something of a catalyst for discussion on this blog. Following an eloquent reply on the benefits of regional amphibious capabilities from Peter Dean, Nic’s post partially departs the operational level and attempts to address the complexities of fiscal inputs, operational outputs, and public understanding of large government expenditures.
I believe there are several weaknesses in Nic’s post. But the most alarming comes with his rhetorical question: ‘Why should my tax dollars be spent on something unless I’m persuaded of the need’?
The answer is simple. The public elects candidates to represent their views, and in doing so cedes authority on such issues to Parliamentarians. Nic seems to channel John Locke, praising the virtues of the Law of Opinion and Reputation, while negating the Civil Law authority granted to elected officials. If his point is that we need greater public influence on government decisions, what Nic is seeking is not simply dialogue, but constitutional change.
As a government service, Defence is unique. In contrast with the health or education sectors, it’s something with which the average citizen doesn’t engage in a close or frequent way. This is why I found Nic’s suggestion that specific platforms—and their role in larger operational concepts—require public explanation so curious.
An informed and engaged public is to be encouraged. However I believe the real challenge isn’t how to engage people on the practicalities of operational assets, rather to provide a cogent analysis of interconnected national interests and an accessible policy framework which meaningfully addresses them. In relation to LHDs this would be a conversation tying together Australia’s defence, trade and foreign affairs interests.
At the risk of repeating others, I believe the LHD’s greatest strength is that it’s not conflict-dependent, and is sure to be put to good use. As a platform, it’s well-suited to our geography and the infrastructure standards of regional neighbours. It’ll be a core element of future humanitarian and peacekeeping missions and will support regional confidence building through military diplomacy. As a government acquisition I’d expect a positive cost/benefit evaluation, and while it may be true that missiles are cheaper, they lack the warmth and nuance required in a humanitarian response.
Lastly—but certainly not least—the fiscal challenge facing governments of all levels is more than a matter of simply informing the constituency. In a post which refers to the large levers of public policy, Nic’s reference to current tax rates is flippant. The macroeconomic implications of boosting funding through tax increases would be significant, with far-reaching effects on interest rates, growth and market confidence.
But if it’s dialogue Nic’s after, nothing draws an engaged public quite like the possibility of a tax hike.
Luke Maynard is a graduate of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.