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Beazley's approach to defence is no different to the current government's

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 16 July 2004

Last December I wrote in my OLO column:

Unless Labor is able to provide a progressive, reforming alternative to the conservatism that has dominated our political and security landscape for too long it may well be condemning itself to oblivion. After all, if one must have conservatism, let it be the pure creed as preached by Howard and Costello, unalloyed by the hypocrisy of the pallid echo marketed by Beazley, Crean and others of that ilk. Where Latham will position himself and Labor remains to be seen.

Well now, in all probability we have our answer. Latham's appointment of Kim Beazley as principal Opposition Defence spokesperson, replacing the ineffectual if inoffensive Chris Evans, is widely and accurately perceived as an attempt to defuse American criticism of the Labor Party's Iraq policy. Beazley's impeccable Washington credentials have already resulted in a changed American tone, with Ambassador Tom Schieffer praising Latham's efforts to "reach out" to the US.


If one of Latham's top political priorities is the appeasement of US neoconservatives, Beazley's appointment makes sense. However, it bodes ill not just for the broad security policy of a possible future Labor government but for the future management and administration of the multi-billion dollar Defence portfolio.

I have just finished reading a report from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) on the Army's Project Bushranger, providing infantry mobility vehicles. Anyone familiar with Defence's history of major project management will find in this document the traditional litany of bad decisions, cut corners, cost blowouts, time overruns and the inevitable government bailout at taxpayer expense. This is of course but the most recent in an apparently endless series of ANAO reports on Defence project mismanagement.

Now Bushranger has been almost wholly a Howard government project, and no blame attaches to Kim Beazley for this particular mess. But he was Minister for Defence from 1984 to 1990, and in this time presided over two of the most expensive defence-project disasters of recent times: the Collins class submarines, remediation of which is still being paid for - by you and me - today, and the JINDALEE Over-the-horizon Radar Network (JORN), which cost its then prime contractor (Telstra, at the time 100 per cent publicly owned) about $600 million in losses. In fact, when the Howard government decided to sell half of Telstra the value of the corporation had to be adjusted (downwards) by that amount to cover the JORN losses. Readers will be pleased to learn that JORN finally came fully online last year, but less so that the Collins boats are still not at their originally planned level of capability.

Thus Beazley's record as Minister for Defence is, notwithstanding his excellent academic standing in the security field, not one to be envied. We now face the possibility of his once again assuming stewardship over a portfolio with an unparalleled capacity for wasting vast sums of the taxpayer's money, a tendency he was apparently unable to check during his former tenure.

But even this potentially expensive consequence of Latham's initiative must take second place to Beazley's notorious conservatism in the area of security policy. There is indeed little to distinguish him, aside from a bit of marginal rhetoric, from the self-admitted conservatives of the Howard government. Any hope that the Latham Labor Party might develop updated security policies, with the Australian national interest as a priority, has died with Beazley's return to the front bench in this portfolio. He is yesterday's man, with yesterday's policies and conservative attitudes. Peter Garret must be eating his heart out.

Accordingly, expect little new from Latham Labor in the security policy area. We will get the tired old pro-American rhetoric, the continued subordination of our interests to Washington's, the Defence Department's permanent license to print (and waste) our money yet again renewed.


There is, I suppose, one possible glimmer in this depressing development. Latham has named Beazley Defence spokesperson but, if Labor wins the election, there is no requirement that Beazley actually become Minister for Defence. It seems clear that his appointment is Latham's fright reaction to American meddling in Australian politics, an attempt (successful on the early signs) to deny the Coalition and the US neocons opportunities to discredit the present Opposition. The election won (if it is), it could be that, as Schiller had it, "the Moor has done his duty, the Moor can go". Wouldn't that go down well in Bush's Washington if Bush isn't a lame duck by that time?

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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