The adjectives applied by the government to describe the forthcoming Defence White Paper and its accompanying plan for the ADF include ‘fully costed’, ‘externally assured’, ‘achievable’, ‘affordable’, ‘credible’, ‘realistic’, ‘properly funded’ and ‘enduring’. This is all well and good. But if the new White Paper is to ‘restore the compact that should rightly exist between the Government and its Defence Force’—as the Minister has said—there’ll need to be another adjective put on the list: ‘transparent.’ If the government wants to be taken seriously when it claims that its plan is ‘credible, affordable and properly funded’, it’ll have to show us the money.
To varying extents, past White Papers have tried to do so. Without doubt, the Howard government’s 2000 effort is the gold standard. It provided a decade’s worth of overall funding guidance in the document, and backed it up with a detailed breakdown of new funding over the decade in the subsequent budget. The 2009 White Paper provided far less information and the 2013 document did even less. All we got was a single figure in the budget for the six years of funding following the four-year forward estimates period. The difference between the 2000 White Paper and its successors is easy to understand. The 2000 document had an important story to tell, whereas its successors had a lot to hide.
The argument within official circles (that I’ve been regaled with many times over the years) will be that funding transparency is undesirable because it limits the government’s flexibility. Flexibility, in this context, is the ability to claim to be doing something while not actually doing it. But if the Abbott government is fair-dinkum about having an ‘affordable and long-term plan that aligns strategy, capability, and resources’, it’s time to put the money on the table.
There are two reasons why the government should be eager to be transparent about its defence funding plans. First, transparency would allow them to put the ‘2% of GDP’ issue back in the box once and for all. Disclose a funding envelope today that hits 2% of GDP in 2023-24 and be done with it. Otherwise, they could find themselves chasing their tails trying to adjust to the vagaries of the movable feast that’s nominal GDP as the economy waxes and wanes. Second, it would provide political momentum to defence funding that a future non-Coalition government would find more difficult than otherwise to overcome.
So when the government releases its ‘vision for Australia’s defence strategy over the next two decades in the new Defence White Paper’, here’s what it needs to do to justify the growing list of adjectives being applied to the document:
- The White Paper should include a two-decade long funding envelope (see page 122 of the 2000 White Paper to see a decade-long version), divided between personnel, capital and operating costs. The division between the three costs will allow a back of the envelope assessment of the internal feasibility of the plan.
- Update the funding envelope each year in the Budget for changes to foreign exchange, inflation, new budget measures and funding shifts between years.
- Provide a decade-long Defence Capability Plan (DCP) with dates for first- and second-pass approval and funding bands for each project. And I don’t mean the ridiculously fuzzy information we’ve been served up in recent times, but something more like the crisp transparency that the Howard government delivered back in its 2001 DCP.
Nothing I’ve suggested would compromise national security or the Commonwealth’s commercial position, but it would allow the government to be held accountable for its promises.
The Howard government wasn’t afraid of being held to account, let’s hope the Abbott government isn’t either.