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A revolving door of Pacific deployments

By Robert McClelland - posted Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Events in Tonga, following on from unrest in East Timor show Australia has particular risks and responsibilities in the Asia Pacific region and we need to rebalance our national security priorities to take account of that reality. Ultimately it is within our own region where we can maximise the effectiveness of our contribution to the global fight against terrorism.

Reconstruction expert James Quinlivan’s thesis argues that for a stabilisation force to be effective - “to create an environment orderly enough that most routine civil functions could be carried out” - it is necessary to make a calculation whereby “the number of troops required is determined by size of population”.

The model that Quinlivan put forward for an effective ratio was 20 stabilisation personnel per 1,000 population. This has rung true for operations as diverse as the Malayan Emergency and, from 1995-2000, the Balkan crises.


While Labor has consistently opposed the invasion of Iraq, the basic truth is that if those who planned the invasion had intended to pursue regime change, they should have been aware of that research and experience. There has never been a stabilisation force ratio of 20 to 1,000 of population in Iraq. As a result of this inadequate planning, the seeds of failure were effectively sown at the point of invasion.

I recently embarked on a detailed critique of the stabilisation process in Iraq in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. However, the events of past weeks have reinforced the even more critical lesson that we must draw from Iraq’s failures in regards to our own region.

Labor’s Iraq policy has been accused of setting a moral precedent for withdrawal of US and UK forces. However, the US and UK are not confronted by an arc-of instability on their doorstep. We should not forget that Australia was forced to re-deploy hundreds of troops to East Timor and the Solomon Islands earlier this year. Unless we get our act in order in our region we will inevitably be looking at a revolving door of deployments in these and other regional states under pressure.

Refusing to confront the issue of failing nation states in our region could have a domino effect. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute notes that the violence in the Solomon Islands was nurtured in part by the example of disturbances elsewhere in the South Pacific including Bougainville, PNG and the coups in Fiji.

Moreover, the international community expects us to discharge our responsibilities in our region. Indeed, as the Government’s 2000 Defence White Paper noted, the development of political vacuums created by failed states can make those states vulnerable to the positioning of foreign assets and possible foreign forces in close proximity to Australia

If we recall Quinlivan’s research regarding the number of troops to population ratio required in order to restore stability in a failed state there are potentially ominous clouds on Australia’s national security horizon. This is made clear by noting current populations. The population of East Timor is estimated to be roughly 1,000,000, PNG is 5,670,000, Fiji is 905,000, and the Solomon Islands is 550,000.


If our military is required to undertake stabilisation operations in one of the larger countries in our region it would be an enormous task. Australia therefore needs to create and fabricate long term policy which will minimise the prospect of having to make such a military commitment in the future. Research shows that without long term stabilisation through institutional reform, 39 per cent of countries revert to lawlessness within five years of a force’s withdrawal and a further 32 per cent within 10 years. East Timor and the Solomon Islands are dramatic examples of that occurring.

There is a need for both military and policing operations to be supported and supplemented by other government and non-government agencies. The development of a whole of government approach to prevent and if necessary assist failing states is essential.

We must be creative in forging better mechanisms to ensure that our planning for complex operations is capable of focusing the efforts of all the agencies to achieve the complete result that we are looking for. The military needs to better understand the broader picture, the aid and development players need to have better planning discipline. Fundamentally both sectors need to work in unison.

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About the Author

Robert McClelland MP is Shadow Minister for Defence and Federal Member for Barton (NSW). Previous ministerial positions include Shadow Attorney-General, Shadow Minister for Justice and Community Security and Shadow Minister for Homeland Security.

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