My third theme, in this series on the underlying issues that will face us in September, is defence, or, perhaps, national security. Most of the discussion that goes on about it is at levels of vagueness and rhetoric that would not be accepted in any other domain. Why? Because we aren’t told much about it, partly through common consent in the Parliament, and partly because no government will go into detail about almost anything in the defence and national security world.
It is probably true that most Australians have a vague but comfortable feeling that we have well-trained and brave troops, excellent aircraft and the pilots to fly them, and ships that seem to serve overseas and do well. They’re a bit like national sporting teams, and punch above their weight. There’s probably a vague feeling also that we need to be able to protect our foreign trade. Oh, and that we have a great and powerful friend, who has some Marines here in Darwin. The complications of crafting a coherent and consistent foreign policy are not ever matters for the television news. By far the biggest news story about anything military is the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, coming in less than two years. It is, of course, the celebration of a defeat.
It’s been like this as long as I can remember. Fifty years ago, when I began to take an interest, serious discussions of foreign policy and defence were reserved for meetings of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and seminars in a few universities, especially at the ANU. Today, when a third of the whole electorate has some experience of post-secondary education, things have hardly changed. Quadrant’s current issue has an article entitled ‘Why Defence Will Not Be an Eelection Issue’, and it is well worth reading. The author, Michael O’Connor, used to be head of the Australia Defence Association, a lobby group concerned about what it would call the inadequate state of Australia’s defence capacity. It is not a professional ex-service organisation, and is not funded by the Government.
The title of the article points to its content and message. And I agree with both. There are two major problems at the moment, and they have hardly seen any air time. The first is that money has been taken from defence to fund other activities, which the Greens and others might see as a positive sign. Various purchases have been postponed, and expenses have been trimmed. The Federal Budget is in deficit, and will remain there for some years. This is not a time when there is abundant public funds to do anything with, let alone in defence.
Second, the world theatre is moving towards a long period in which China will be the dominant force on our stage, and it is becoming more assertive about its role there, notably (at the moment) about the ownership of islands in the South China Sea. Australia has a hugely important trade with China, and a longstanding relationship with the USA, the other major power in the region. What should we be doing, in terms both of foreign policy and defence? Shouldn’t this be a matter for debate in an election context?
There’s no sign of its becoming one. Michael O’Connor points out that in Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines there is, ironically, not a single reference to national defence. The Prime Minister says little about it, and Stephen Smith, her Minister, is articulate and sensible, but rarely on the news about anything, unless it’s sexual misbehaviour in the armed forces academy. The electorate probably thinks that these matters are all too hard, and isn’t that what governments are for? And indeed they are. But it doesn’t hurt to think about the issues from time to time, and this time is as good as any.
There have been five Defence White Papers in the recent past, three of them in the last thirteen years. None of them has ever been implemented, because the necessary funding did not appear. Kim Beazley apparently once said that there were no votes in defence, though he greatly enjoyed being the Defence Minister. And it seems universally agreed that Defence sits on vats of cash, and spends it wastefully. Yet O’Connor says that governments won’t spend money on personnel, by making the services attractive, and it seems to be true that there is a general mean-ness about looking after those who once served, especially if it seems that they might have suffered from disease as a consequence.
The Coalition will campaign on fiscal rectitude, and the ALP on Gonski. The only war it wants to talk about is the ludicrous gender war we are having at the moment. Maybe it will all turn out for the best. Maybe China and the US will sort out their differences. Maybe China and Japan will settle old scores amicably. Maybe there is no need to worry about an under-manned and under-funded defence force, strained because we keep sending troops overseas.
People felt like that when Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Hitler proclaiming ‘Peace for our time!’. I’m not so confident, and wish there was a real debate about it. Like O’Connor, I don’t see it happening at all.