Reader response: what the Secretary is really saying
31 Aug 2012|
Secretary of Defence Duncan Lewis

In his post on Duncan Lewis’ speech to ASPI, Peter Jennings gave us a good round up of the Secretary’s intent. Peter outlines three messages: match aspirations to the government-allocated funds; save and be efficient; and the inadequacy of our current structure and posture given future strategic circumstances. The first two are daily fare for Defence secretaries, and are what you would expect. The third might be the soldier-bureaucrat talking and I would like to offer my own interpretation to balance Peter’s.

Perhaps the Secretary is saying, of course the Department will get on with fitting the ADF and other defence programs into the funding provided, and all the while achieving savings and efficiencies. That is a given, and no one denies any government the right to set defence’s expenditure levels.

The Secretary’s third message, ‘As things stand I don’t think that we are structured or postured appropriately to meet our likely strategic circumstances in the future’ was picked by Peter as very important, and I can only agree. But having stated how important it is for the Secretary to give a not so subtle message against ‘a more worrying set of strategic trends’, Peter then stresses the Secretary’s comments on the Defence Cooperation Program and on some vague statement about reducing ‘… risk by doing business differently’.

This, in my view, is actually the key to what the Secretary is saying: make savings, be efficient, meet Government set funding levels, but be aware that the ability of the ADF supported by the Department to meet the strategic circumstances is ‘inadequate’. Let’s not beat around the bush—the Secretary is saying that the ADF in particular cannot do its job in relation to what is demanded by the worrying set of strategic trends. It then becomes plain silly to say that to overcome such inadequacy we are going to cooperate regionally. It smacks of a level of governmental desperation to say that we have no bullets for the ADF, therefore we are going to be nice to the neighbours, give them a bit of training, do more with less, and so on.

We all know that the best relations with our neighbours are built on a solid basis of national credibility, an important part of which is military credibility.

It is dangerous to take this bloodless policy politeness too far. This government has set the ADF on a path of terminal decline. You can be as clever as you like and make as many saving as you like and be very polite to your neighbours, but at 1.6%, 1.5% or 1.4% of GDP, you are pretty much New Zealand, but still with Australia’s strategic circumstances. The government’s defence plans are duplicitous because what has been pushed out to the out years cannot be achieved bureaucratically, much less with inadequate funding.

May I suggest that Peter’s benign interpretation of the Secretary’s ‘uncompromising message’ is not ‘right on the money’. My bet is that the integrity of the Secretary (and the CDF) and their ability to understand the implications of what this Government is doing to the structure and posture of the ADF by their irrational removal of funding from defence at a time of worrying strategic trends, will be put to the Minister in totally uncompromising terms.

It is even more ridiculous that Peter and I have to interpret what the Secretary means. Our current system denies the voters of Australia the knowledge of what the Secretary and the CDF really think, and we have to play this silly game. We will only ever get to see a politicised white paper from the Minister, and so we cannot judge the magnitude of the risk that the government is taking in our name. This is deeply undemocratic. The only upside for us voters is that the CDF and Secretary are more than likely to tell the Minister exactly what they think the consequences of his policies are. And we will know exactly who to blame. Of course there is no indication that this Minister cares.

Jim Molan is a retired Major General in the Australian Army and is a commentator on defence and security issues.