Some things should be above politics
21 Nov 2017|

‘The goalposts weren’t just moved, they were cut down and used for firewood.’ That’s how former Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson characterised the impact of defence budget cuts as the three-year political cycle drove the government of the day to chase a surplus after the GFC. The disruption to the planning, acquisition and sustainment activities of defence and industry hollowed out many capabilities and caused significant inefficiencies in taxpayers’ investment in defence.

The better part of a decade beyond the GFC, the world is a very different place. The rules-based international order—taken for granted despite it underpinning seven decades of unprecedented prosperity and growth—faces existential challenge. Destabilising influences abound. In our own region, a nuclear-armed North Korea, attempts to establish an Islamist caliphate in Southeast Asia, and concern over trade routes through the South China Sea are but three examples.

In these uncertain times, the current government has articulated a clear vision for a secure and resilient Australia. The 2016 Defence White Paper—a blueprint for Australia’s role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region—is backed by a credible, decade-long funding plan. With the most recent federal budget confirming that defence spending will reach 2% of GDP within the decade, Defence has medium- to long-term stability for its planning. The First Principles Review has made fundamental changes to leadership and management that—properly implemented—should make the planning and delivery of defence capabilities increasingly effective.

The defence industry policy and the naval shipbuilding plan aim to provide greater certainty about long-term investments in capability. The requirement for defence industry to have sovereign elements is featuring more prominently in government decision-making to ensure that defence equipment is more effective and affordable over the whole of its operational life.

That policy and funding certainty is giving local industry the confidence to invest in new technology, take on more employees, and commit to training the next generation of Australian scientists, engineers and tradespeople. In my own state of South Australia, over 1,000 defence jobs have been created in less than 12 months. Thousands more will follow.

But progress can easily be reversed. Opposition parties are wont to commit to policies that differentiate them from the government. A future incumbent may seek to rebalance political priorities, undermining the stability needed to make efficient and effective long-term investments.

Historically, defence has proven to be a soft target for budget savings through force restructures, outright cuts or, more subtly, widespread deferral of procurement decisions. Think that won’t happen again? The 2009 Defence White Paper was also lauded by many as a credible strategic direction for the defence of the nation. Despite that, our short election cycle led to decisions which prompted respected commentators to observe that the ‘plans set out in 2009 are in disarray; investment is badly stalled, and the Defence budget is an unsustainable mess’.

While there’s no substitute for good leadership, there is a better way to manage any government’s first and most fundamental responsibility—a bipartisan agreement setting out Defence’s priorities and the funding needed to support them across the forward estimates. If that phrase sounds familiar, you may recall my previous writing on this topic in 2013.

There is an international precedent. Since 1988, Danish defence budgets and policy have been set by multiyear agreements between the government and opposition. Recent agreements, supported by seven of the eight parties represented in the Danish parliament, cover strategic policy, major acquisitions, force structure and even the general scope of overseas deployments. There are other examples of cross-party engagement in security planning and oversight, such as the US Quadrennial Defence Review or, here in Australia, the role of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

A truly bipartisan approach to defence in Australia would create a new strategic and political paradigm, allowing sensible dialogue on security interests to underpin the making of the agreement and shifting the political focus to its implementation. A bipartisan approach is the only way that our large and growing expenditure on defence will effectively bring both security in uncertain times and economic benefit to the nation.

That is why as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I have tasked the Defence Sub-Committee to conduct a formal inquiry into the benefits and risks of a bipartisan Australian defence agreement, as a basis of planning for, and funding of, Australian defence capability.

The parties of government must put the national interest first if the momentum achieved by the government—against budgetary and political headwinds—is to provide the lasting, secure future that the next generation of Australians need and deserve.