The electric storm that rages around the Defence White Paper has big elements of ritual politics and tacit consensus, despite the intense arguments over plans, priorities and projections.
This is standard Oz politics played as a contact sport. As Churchill observed to Menzies: ‘My goodness, you Australians do seem to play your politics with a fine 18th Century flair’. The senior President George Bush made the same comment on the vigour of our pollies when he arrived in Canberra to visit his mate, Bob Hawke, only to be greeted by the new leader, Paul Keating, still wiping the blood from his toga.
The stakes are high and they play for keeps, but not all the noise is genuine. The White Paper has generated a tempest of tough tackles and verbal roundarms among the political class, but not too far beneath the uproar resides a broad measure of tacit agreement.
The bipartisan consensus covers issues of money, gear and geopolitics. A notable element of Oz politics over the past 60 years is how the Coalition and Labor wage war over wars but quietly reach fresh agreement on reframing Defence policy at the end of the conflict. As it was after Vietnam, so it is now after Iraq (with Afghanistan the exception, because the avowed consensus has stayed firm from start to the approaching finish).
Keep the history of tacit consensus on policy in mind as the two sides rip into each other over the strength or woeful state of Australian Defence. The question of money is at the centre of the storm just as it is central to the quiet consensus. The Coalition rages about the paucity of the money while quietly adopting Labor’s spending base and its blue sky aspiration to rebuild spending. The elegance of the Opposition position—denounce the cuts but take the cash—drives Labor berserk because the politics of this plays well for Tony Abbott.
Remember John Howard’s claim that interest rates would always be lower under the Coalition? Tony Abbott can do a re-run: the eventual increase in Defence spending, whenever it happens, will always be greater under the Coalition. The Howard interest rate pledge ran into the reality of Reserve Bank responsibility, whereas Abbott can summon up recent history, comparing the dozen years of Howard-era largesse with the recent Defence diet imposed by Labor. Mark it as one of those ‘Bingo’! moments that are the bliss of politics: an unenforceable promise of greater future spending with no date attached, burnished by a tinge of historical evidence. The pain for Labor is exquisite but Stephen Smith can hardly scratch the spot.
The new White Paper repeats a pattern of recent history which decrees that the Coalition sets up the aircraft purchases while Labor does the submarine announcements. Labor has followed the patched-together Coalition process on planes which will produce a mix of JSFs and Super Hornets. For all the cost blowouts and expert dogfights over planes, the political consensus stands undisturbed.
Ditto for the subs, although the timeline keeps sinking. Labor takes the off-the-shelf option off the table and embraces Adelaide again. And, almost without a murmur, the Coalition says: ‘Yep, us too’. Future reviews will build on past reviews but again the unanimity is a thing of strange beauty. The strength of the consensus Labor drives on subs is remarkable given all the pain that the Collins boats caused the Coalition throughout the Howard years.
When looking at the geopolitics rather than the politics, the twin positions soar in unison as the ticks of agreement litter the new White Paper. Post Iraq and Afghanistan, Labor and the Coalition agree that we now want to turn our eyes to the neighbourhood. The fact that the two sides love the alliance is the constant; the one contest is who can show the greatest love. The focus on partnering Indonesia is becoming a truism of Oz strategy—a democratic Indonesia means no hesitation is needed in the military embrace.
Kevin Rudd’s self-described ‘brutal realism’ on China is the ghost from the 2009 White Paper which neither Labor nor the Coalition wants at this feast. The ramping up of the defence relationship with Japan that started under Howard continues.
A Labor Defence Minister from Perth has no problem embracing the construct of the Indo-Pacific as the first element to be discussed in the chapter on the strategic outlook. And with the Opposition’s shadow Foreign and Defence Ministers also hailing from WA, that Indo-Pacific tick is happily unanimous.
The tacit consensus on cash, of course, crashes headlong into the consensus on kit. One consensus cancels the other. Pointing out this huge problem brings to mind the wry admonition of a previous Defence Secretary when his officials raised the flawed policies produced by their political masters: ‘You’re being logical again, stupid, I’ve warned you about that’.
The noise of the political biff and bang will echo around the claims of logic while obscuring much that will be undisturbed because of the strength and width of the tacit consensus.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Senator David Johnston.