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Defence - not top of Howard's agenda

By Michael O'Connor - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

The newly re-elected government is at it again. It admits that the current wars on terrorism and asylum seekers are costing more than expected and that the defence budget is hurting. The so-called options open are to increase the defence budget or cut back on some approved defence programs. At the same time, the Treasurer has said that spending cuts will be necessary, presumably so that the government can pay for the bribes it offered for the election without affecting its Budget surplus.

It seems extraordinary that in the centenary of Federation, an Australian government is seeking to economise even further on defence although this was one of the primary reasons for establishing the Commonwealth in the first place. Ever since World War II but even more since the unlamented Whitlam years, the national government has intervened more and more in what were considered to be State responsibilities. That may be considered desirable but not, surely, at the expense of its primary functions.

The preamble to the 1976 defence White Paper stated that: The first responsibility of government is to provide the nation with security from armed attack and from the constraints on independent national decisions imposed by the threat of such attack. That White Paper went on to set out a five year spending program that was never met.


The next defence White Paper - in 1987 - committed the government to spending an affordable average 2.8 per cent of GDP on defence. That target has never been met and the current level is about 1.8 per cent. The shortfall over the 14 years since 1987 now tops $110 billion in today’s dollars.

In 1994, the new White Paper promised among other things that the Army would get new armed helicopters to replace its Vietnam-era aircraft by 2000. At the end of 2001, the contract is yet to be let and this is one project likely to fall by the wayside under the current pressures.

Last year’s White Paper which followed but largely ignored a widespread community consultation made some useful but still inadequate funding commitments but, despite almost a decade of continuing operational deployments overseas, failed to factor in the heavy cost of these or future commitments such as the ones that are now crippling the defence budget.

It’s a sorry history of government neglect by all political parties. Equally, it is also understandable given Kim Beazley’s famous statement that "there are no votes in defence". Looking over the stated interests of candidates at this year’s federal election, most managed to include issues like health, education and some aspect of social welfare even though, under the Constitution, these are primarily State responsibilities. The fact is that our Parliament is peopled largely by populists whose interest lies, so they say, in representing their voters. The ideal that they have a responsibility to the nation as a whole seems absurd and they would not be able to understand, much less emulate, the famous British statesman, Edmund Burke, who once told a meeting of his electors that he would do what he thought necessary for the country rather than represent their individual interests.

The result over recent years has been a sharp reduction in the proportion of national resources devoted to national security. At the same time, populist pressures have driven most of the operational commitments of the defence force. These include not just the current commitments to intercepting asylum seekers or the war on terrorism but also the continuing involvement in East Timor and past deployments to Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda among others.

Over the past two decades, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia’s Gross Domestic Product has grown by 96.7 per cent in real terms. Over the same period, spending by all three levels of government grew by 121.8 per cent. Virtually every major item of government spending more than doubled in real costs but outlays on defence grew by less than half the growth in national wealth and by about one-third of the growth in government spending. It did not even keep pace with the growth in wages so that defence force numbers were cut by more than a quarter to allow governments to buy votes with handouts to special interest groups. If that sounds harsh, I would be interested in a rational justification for the 184 per cent real growth in taxpayer-funded outlays on recreation and culture over the past 20 years.


The difficulty the government faces now is a product of years of neglect, of a failure to take a long view of providing for national security and a comfortable belief that we can solve growing and complex security problems by making token commitments to international coalitions. But even that policy is not working as the government is forced to face several security challenges simultaneously with barely sufficient resources for one.

At this moment, around three quarters of the Australian navy is committed to operations in one sphere or another. This is a navy kept short of ships by successive penny-pinching governments. The navy is supposed to have fourteen frigates. Currently it has nine and seven of these are committed to a range of continuing tasks including intercepting asylum seekers, the war on terrorism and peacekeeping. Over-committing this diminutive fleet threatens the navy’s ability to meet its commitments for the next decade. Maintenance and modernisation programs will be delayed, crew training will be set back and training for our submarine force will also be crippled.

The army is currently committed to three separate peacekeeping tasks plus the war on terrorism. While the deployed numbers are small - a little over 2000 - these understate the need for increased logistic and training support as well as the demand for rotations to meet what are likely to be open-ended commitments. Economising in the army means not only setting aside overdue modernisation programs but also cutting back training for units which are not required at the moment but could be needed at short notice. Given that many of those units are also short of personnel, the accusation that the army is ‘hollow’ has considerable substance.

If the army and navy are in poor condition, the air force is possibly in worse state. While its equipment looks ‘flash’ and modern, much of its systems are incomplete for modern air combat but that failing pales in the face of so desperate a shortage of pilots that the force cannot even meet its ordinary peacetime commitments.

The problem the government and the community don’t want to face at present is neither temporary nor insignificant. It is a manifestation of a fundamental fault in the way we as a nation provide for national security. All the glad-handing public relations and fulsome political rhetoric cannot change the reality that the government does not even recognise that it faces a real defence crisis.

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About the Author

Michael O'Connor is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

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