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Terrorism, US alliance and Defence Force admin: Issues for Election 2004

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 18 August 2004

With a federal election looming, it's worthwhile considering what roles Australia's national security might have and should have, in the upcoming campaign.

This is not a column about the policies of the various political parties as much as it is about the ways in which they might opt to present security issues to the electorate.

Traditionally it is the conservatives who make most of the security running. Security is usually considered as much their "territory" as health, education or social welfare are the territories of less conservative parties. I am old enough to recall the "red menace" propaganda peddled in 1966 to justify not only the Vietnam war and conscription, but to create an atmosphere of fear and concern in the electorate about Australia's physical security from armed attack.


Most readers will likewise recall the use of the September 11 2001 outrages in the United States, and of xenophobia - liberally laced with false claims about "children overboard" - to foster an analogous attitude during the last campaign. Such unscrupulous devices, when later exposed for what they are, tend to throw into disrepute any serious discussion of security issues during an election.

In the present environment this trend is only accentuated by the abject collapse of the "weapons of mass destruction" case mounted to justify the invasion and conquest of Iraq. It is now clear to all but the incurably closed-minded that Australia, like the rest of the "coalition of the willing", was led into war on bad evidence and in all probability, by the deliberate political manipulation of otherwise weak and scanty intelligence. This has placed us, like it or not, as a perpetrator of unjustified military aggression: A most uncomfortable position for any liberal democracy to find itself in.

Security's disrepute is most regrettable, because there are important issues which are, or ought to be, the subject of voter scrutiny in a campaign.

There can be no doubt that terrorism - specifically, the threat to Australians at home and abroad - is one such issue. Our ability to counter this threat depends critically on intelligence capabilities and on sharing information with others in a similar situation. One issue voters need to consider is the extent to which our intelligence output has been compromised, as shown by Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins some months ago, by the culture of telling governments only what they want to hear. Without good (meaning "frank and fearless") intelligence output and advice to government, we face the terrorist threat with one arm tied behind our collective back.

Another is the nature of our alliance with the United States, especially if it continues to be governed by the neoconservative cabal around George W. Bush. I was for a long time an outright opponent of the Australian-American alliance, but September 11 2001 changed all that: Transnational threats like terrorism require transnational responses and for all its deficiencies, the US is a key player in the global anti-terror effort. Our alliance (as presently mismanaged) does increase our risk, but the hatred of the religious fundamentalists is directed at all things, places and values western, and we are at risk anyway for that reason. Thus intelligent cooperation with the Americans is necessary.

This does not, of course, excuse the reflexive subservience of John Howard, the willingness to back Washington's ditching of an important nuclear arms control agreement (the ABM Treaty), or our active participation in the dangerous "missile defense" delusion so beloved of US Republicans. Nor does it excuse the costly fitting-out of our Defence Force as a force designed to fit into "niches" in larger American operations. Finally, it does not excuse our sad complicity in the attack on Iraq or our adoption of pre-emption as state policy.


There is need for careful consideration of just how the US relationship can be managed more in our national interest.The structure of our military forces is an issue in its own right. The "US niche" philosophy is hideously expensive and distorts our capabilities. What real need has Australia for Abrams tanks or so-called "air warfare destroyers"? What, given that we do not face threats of conventional armed attack, is the relevance of such things? Meanwhile, because resources are consumed by these costly irrelevancies, we are short on practical maritime and air patrol and surveillance of our approaches, and of adequate numbers of deployable infantry capable both for combat and for peace support tasks.

Finally, the internal efficiency of our defence administration is an issue. The ever-lengthening list of major project cost blowouts and time overruns continues to chew up scarce resources. Aside from the brief tenure of John Moore as Defence Minister, neither major party has shown any real will to hold accountable an organisation whose record of failures is both long and spectacular.

In considering security issues in an electoral context, Australians could profitably inquire of office-seekers just what their approaches to these real security issues will be. They should give short shrift to those who seek to exploit security for cheap political point scoring or electoral advantage. We do face security issues today and should give support to those who address real questions, rather than those who recite tired political rhetoric as a kind of mantra to divert attention away from the issues which actually affect our ongoing national security.

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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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