It is often said that good fortune in politics comes down to timing—the same could be said of policy. Excellent policy work can be swept away by a change of government or ministerial reshuffle. Looking back on the last forty years, it’s interesting to examine both the timing of the launch of previous Defence White Papers and the impact that subsequent federal elections had on their success (see table below for dates).
Four of the last six Defence White Papers were produced a year or more in advance of a federal election, that is, in the middle of a government’s term. It’s a safe approach: it gives governments time to bed down difficult policy issues; reduces temptation for oppositions to campaign against proposals; and gives Defence time to start implementing policies. In only two of the six cases—1972 and 1987—was the release of a white paper closer than eleven months to an election.
In his memoir, Defence Policy-Making: A Close-Up View, 1950–1980 (PDF), Sir Arthur Tange recounts that the McMahon Government directed that a defence white paper be prepared in 1972. Defence shaped the review around a closer focus on what today we would call Australia’s inner arc and away from Southeast Asia. According to Tange:
…the Prime Minister threw the status of the document into confusion by deciding against presenting it as a White Paper expressing government policy, and instead declaring it to be a ‘Departmental Review’. … In effect the Department was lumbered with responsibility for a hybrid—a document that included views we knew the Government would want to include which we did not share, and an analysis of the desirable strategic posture that failed to receive government endorsement. … McMahon’s caution might well have been for fear of devil in the detail.
Seven months later McMahon started his losing election campaign against Whitlam and the 1972 Australian Defence Review largely sank from sight. Tange regretted that he had tried to pack too many new ideas into the paper in what looks to have been just a few months of preparation.
The 1987 Defence White Paper was presented even closer to an election. Its release on 19 March 1987 was less than four months before the 11 July poll. Yet this white paper is widely regarded as being a success. Why did it not disappear like the 1972 version? Two reasons stand out: first, although very late in the political cycle, the White Paper had been preceded in 1986 by Paul Dibb’s Review of Australian Defence Capability. The Dibb report carried the weight of advancing new policy ideas, and they were debated for the better part of a year. By the time the 1987 White Paper was launched a broad consensus had been built around its policies. The second reason for the 1987 White Paper’s longevity was, of course, that Labor was re-elected at the following poll, and Kim Beazley remained as Defence Minister for three years after the release of his policy statement.
We can’t be precise about either the timing of the 2013 White Paper or the next federal election, but it’s likely that the two will be close. The earliest possible date for a joint House of Representatives and half Senate election is 3 August; the latest possible is 30 November 2013. (An election for the House of Representatives only could happen on any Saturday 33 days after the House is dissolved.) As for the Defence White Paper, it’s clear that there’s nothing remotely ready to be launched soon. In 2013 it’s unlikely to be released in advance of the Budget, which will be early May, so a best guess for a launch would be in late May, three to six months before an election.
In short, the timing for the next Defence White Paper is in very high risk territory. Unlike the 1987 White Paper there’s been no preceding Dibb report to help build consensus. Both Government and Opposition will be gearing for an election and may be inclined to treat the white paper in that context rather than in the less heated ‘mid-term’ environment. It remains to be seen whether the new White Paper goes the way of the ‘lost’ defence review of 1972, or survives like Defence of Australia 1987.
|White Paper Statement||Minister||Date of release||Date of subsequent federal election||Government returned or defeated?||Time in months between WP Release and next election||Minister’s tenure in days or months after release of WP|
|Australian Defence Review||David Fairbairn||29 March 1972||2 December 1972||Defeated||8 months||8 months to change of Government|
|Australian Defence||Jim Killen||4 November 1976||10 December 1977||Returned||13 months||66 months to May 1982 reshuffle|
|Defence of Australia 1987||Kim Beazley||19 March 1987||11 July 1987||Returned||4 months||37 months to April 1990 reshuffle|
|Defending Australia||Robert Ray||30 November 1994||2 March 1996||Defeated||16 months||15 months to change of government|
|Defence 2000: Our Future Defence Force||John Moore||6 December 2000||10 November 2001||Returned||11 months||55 days to January 2001 reshuffle|
|Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030||Joel Fitzgibbon||2 May 2009||21 August 2010||Returned||15 months||33 days resigned 4 June 2009|
|White Paper 2013||Stephen Smith||First half of 2013||3 August to 30 November 2013???||n/a||3 to 6 months???||n/a|