The 2016 Defence White Paper: politics meets strategy
11 Apr 2016|

Canberra is where strategy and politics meet.

Always to confer; occasionally to collide. Ever seeking conclusion—ever settling for compromise.

In the politics and strategy games, cooperation and clash are constant companions. And Canberra is where the strategy of politics convenes with the politics of strategy.

Canberra was thus the natural venue in February for the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to release the 2016 Defence White Paper—although this column grumped about the symbolism of the presidential PM snubbing Parliament.

The ASPI White Paper conference aced the politico–strategic symbolism last week by convening equidistant from the Parliament on Capital Hill and the Defence Department at Russell.

Beyond the symbolism, mark it a brave effort to consider policy as politics prevails. Because Canberra is plunging towards a giant black hole where all matter—policy, strategy, budget—will be consumed and turned into politics.

The pull of the black hole is immense when the most important day in Canberra’s calendar—the May Budget—shapes as no more than a brief stop for the election express.

The strategy of such politics is strange.

Canberra lore decrees that governments should:

  1. Never run a long election campaign.
  2. Never hold an election in winter.

That lore is the Canberra version of Field Marshal Montgomery’s first two rules of war:

  1. Do not march on Moscow.
  2. Do not go fighting with your land armies in China. It is a vast country, with no clearly defined objectives.

As Oz sets off on a long political march with rolling battles, Monty would reflect that the objective is clear but the route, terrain, tactics and weather are deeply problematic.

One unusual element of the trek is that on Defence, the Coalition government and Labor opposition are marching in step. Consensus is back in fashion.

ASPI’s White Paper conference showcased a Coalition government and Labor busily agreeing.

After speeches by the Defence Minister, Marise Payne, and Labor’s shadow Defence Minister, Stephen Conroy, a non-Oz participant expressed amazement at ‘the love in the room.’

One of Canberra’s wise owls, Paul Dibb, told the conference: ‘Thank God we now have a bipartisan approach’. As a man with a deep knowledge of the entrails of the seven Defence White Papers since 1976, Dibb declared: ‘This is the best Defence White Paper we have had.’

The broad agreement of the Defence ‘debate’ bears little resemblance to the no-holds hack, kick and maul of the election black hole enveloping the rest of Canberra.

Much of Payne’s speech could have been delivered by a Labor minister. Much of Conroy’s effort could have been conveyed with conviction by a Lib.

The Liberal Defence Minister boasted of a shipbuilding industry policy that would gladden any democratic socialist: ‘a new industrial landscape’, ‘a national enterprise’ and ‘a national endeavour’.

Senator Payne promised certainty for workers and industry that in the past had been ‘subject to the vagaries of elected governments.’

The government that presided over the last rites of the Oz car industry has discovered the joys of industry policy for ships and subs.

Then the Labor frontbencher returned the favour by attacking the Tories from the right wing.

Stephen Conroy launched with lashings of praise for the US. The government’s failing was to be soft and slow on the alliance.

Australia, Conroy said, should be upping its efforts in the South China Sea, following the US lead. And the government was dilatory in not finalising the cost-sharing negotiations with the US for Northern Territory military facilities.

Conroy repeated Labor’s full support for the White Paper funding decisions and 2% of GDP for Defence by 2020–21.

Showing huge chutzpah given Labor’s performance in office from 2007–13, Conroy made his key spending criticism that the White Paper is ‘fully costed not fully funded.’

The consensus restoration process is nearly complete on the future submarine.

All the matter flowing towards the election black hole shows the government is about to join Labor in committing to build all 12 subs in Adelaide.

If there’s no announcement before the federal election, SA will think the worst (Sub Dudded!) and vote accordingly. So an announcement there will be.

The proclamation will mean the sinking of the cheaper offshore-build options the Coalition entertained when taking office in 2013.

Politics drives the strategy and the looming election demands action. Now.

As an exercise in politics, South Australia has mounted a magnificent, sustained campaign. The Adelaide Advertiser newspaper has chronicled it with a dinkus headline: ‘Battle for submarines’.

No offshore option means the Advertiser can change its dinkus to ‘Submarine Victory!’ Or perhaps it could use, ‘Politics meets strategy; politics wins.’

The Adelaide announcement is set to arrive before the May budget.

Take a 50-50 bet that Malcolm Turnbull will go the whole way and announce the successful bidder as well.

The choice between Japan, France or Germany is just about made. Why not announce immediately?

Such a decision would be a big answer to all that damaging guff about Malcolm Turnbull never being able to make up his mind.

And if the Japanese have been as miserly in sharing information as it’s rumoured, wager on a French or German victory.