Seven Defence White Papers by the numbers (3): themes and memes
15 Mar 2016|


Australia’s defence thinkers are ever worried about self-reliance and order.

The Rs reign: rules and self-reliance and region.

Those themes run through the 40 years from the first Defence White Paper in 1976 to the just-released seventh Defence White Paper.

On the order front, the 1976 White Paper described the demise of colonialism as producing ‘a new world order’ while the Communist victories in Indo-China made for an uncertain regional future. The White Paper said the US wanted ‘a peaceful and stable world order’ while the USSR sought ‘disruptive political change’.

The 2016 White Paper worries repeatedly that the old order is cracking. The US is still seen as central to a stable world order. One guess about the identity of the big player guilty of seeking disruptive change.

Welcome to another effort to seek strategic topography from the typography—tracking the use of words/concepts through the seven Defence White Papers in 1976, 1987, 1994, 2000, 2009, 2013 and 2016.

Previous columns counted the number of times countries were mentioned and the use of geographic constructs (from Asia–Pacific to Indo–Pacific). Now to follow themes and memes over the 40 years.

One of the great Canberra mandarins, Arthur Tange, was proud of getting Oz ‘self reliance’ into the 1976 paper. But self reliance/self reliant appeared in the text only six times (once as a heading). That was enough to make it seminal.

The number of mentions isn’t the only measure of the importance of a key idea—although the usual White Paper habit is instruction and injunction by multiple iterations. Say the same thing repeatedly so everyone gets the point.

The full rhetorical flowering of the idea that Australia could defend itself came in Labor’s 1987 White Paper. Australian ‘self-reliance’ got 43 mentions and ‘self-reliant’ defence got a further 13 goes.

By 1994, self reliance/reliant was worth 24 mentions. The Cold War was gone. Asia would ‘increasingly’ determine its own affairs and ‘a new strategic architecture will evolve.’ The new architecture was supposed to deliver order.

In John Howard’s 2000 White Paper, self-reliance was given due weight with eight mentions.

In Kevin Rudd’s 2009 Paper self-reliance was worth 15 goes, while Julia Gillard gave it seven. The 2016 White Paper salutes ‘self-reliant’ twice.

Self reliance may remain a central concept; it just doesn’t get referred to as much. By contrast, the number of times the United States gets mentioned keeps growing (from 12 times in the 1976 Paper to 129 in 2016).

John Howard is notable for delivering both process and cash.

Howard created the National Security Committee of Cabinet and it put in the hours on the 2000 Paper. Howard boasted it was ‘the most comprehensive process of ministerial-level decision making about Australia’s defence policy for many years’. And in a big difference from all previous White Papers, the promised cash arrived in the years that followed.

The Coalition budgets from 2000 to 2007 matched Howard’s words about ‘the most specific long-term defence funding commitment given by any Australian Government in over 25 years’.

As self reliance faded in usage, the need for rules rose.

Kevin Rudd’s Strategic Interests chapter had a section headed, ‘A Stable, Rules-Based Global Security Order.’ There were 11 ‘rules-based’ mentions. The 2013 Paper matched it with a dozen references to the need for rules, while its heading was ‘A Stable, Rules-Based Global Order’.

Come to 2016 and ‘rules’ is used 64 times—48 of these in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’. Rules turns up in three section headings: ‘The rules-based global order’, ‘A stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order’, and ‘Australia’s interests in a rules-based global order’.

Talk about hammering the point. And the point is fear of what is fraying.

‘Rules-based global order’ is a big phrase to cover such disparate forces as jihadism and China’s rise. Mostly, though, it’s about China.

The first of the topography-from-typography columns observed that these days when Australia talks about the US, often it’s really thinking about China. Much the same goes for ‘rules-based global order’.

As the repeated message of the 2016 White Paper, ‘rules-based’ is the meme for an Australia proclaiming a bigger defence budget, driven by a region throbbing with political nervousness, diplomatic neuralgia and strategic angst.