When Prime Minister Gillard announced the National Security Strategy in January this year, she said: ‘national security is the most fundamental task of government’. Indeed Section 51 of the Constitution provides the Commonwealth with powers that leaders of both major political parties over the years have (in their own words) referred to as ‘the first and most important task of Government’—the defence of the nation.
Given bipartisan support for the importance of this task, how has it come to pass that respected analysts and commentators are now saying that Defence ‘is an incoherent mess, to mix the metaphors, an approaching train wreck of colossal proportions’ and that ‘plans set out in 2009 are in disarray; investment is badly stalled, and the defence budget is an unsustainable mess’.
Who should the Australian taxpayer hold to account for this mess and importantly, what can be done about it? The usual whipping boy when things go wrong in Defence is the Department itself and I’m the first to agree (PDF) that some serious change is required there if Australia is going to have an effective and sustainable defence capability.
Holding the Department to account alone for the outcomes is problematic, however, when it’s the Government that keeps changing the strategic goalposts. The large budgets cuts over the past three years have demolished the credibility of the direction provided by the 2009 White Paper. The Government’s decision to bring the next White Paper forward from 2014 to 2013 has undermined the efficiencies planned for by Defence when assuming a ‘firm’ five-year planning cycle. The arbitrary cancellation or deferral by Government of major capability projects has caused significant waste and disruption to both Defence and defence industry. Disruption on this scale has a large price tag and if Defence were a publically listed company, the shareholders would be sacking the Board.
It will be no surprise that as a member of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, I believe there’s a clear case to be made that the poor priorities, indecision and mismanagement of the Gillard Government has turned a difficult job into a disaster. To avoid focussing on partisan debate, however, I simply note that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in their analysis of the last budget stated: ‘The government has manifestly placed a higher priority on delivering a surplus than on delivering a stronger defence force’.
Why would the Government have done that if Ms Gillard meant what she said about security being ‘the most fundamental task of government’? The answer lies in one word—politics. Australia’s three-year electoral cycle can very easily lead to short term decision making by elected members. The consequences for a Department which is characterised by programs with long lead times and large capital expenditure are obvious. From the Departments perspective, the uncertainty doesn’t stop with decisions by the Government of the day. There’s a distinct possibility that the Australian people will vote in a new Government later this year and, if so, Defence could expect yet another White Paper in 2014—the third strategic guidance document within the original five-year planning horizon.
There has to be a better way to manage the ‘first and most important task of Government’. For an issue of such national significance, it would seem sensible if there were an agreement covering at least the period of the forward estimates that represented the bipartisan expectations of Parliament with respect to the scope and nature of Defence capability and the funding which would be made available to enable those expectations to be met.
Could bipartisan support for such an agreement ever be reached? After the failed experiment of this minority Government, the very idea sounds like a fairy tale. But Denmark—the land of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales—provides an example that indicates what can actually be achieved. In a Parliament with eight democratically-elected parties, an agreement about national security is struck every five years between the seven main parties.
The Danish Defence Agreement is probably not perfect but it makes a pretty reasonable attempt to clarify the strategic intent for their Defence Force, their role within the chosen alliance framework, the force structure, readiness levels for different elements of capability, notional duration of sustained operations and the level of concurrency as well as the funding that will be provided. The agreement binds whichever coalition of parties form Government but also provides for amendment when the need requires.
Despite all seven parties having the right of veto, the Danes have just approved their third five-year agreement as well as a two-year plan for the Danish engagement in Afghanistan 2013–2014. The agreement enables the Danish Parliament and Defence Department to tackle issues such as major acquisitions, consolidation of Defence bases and conditions of employment without them being dominated by political considerations. The Defence and Finance Departments can plan in the expectation that there will be stability in guidance from the Government and the Parliament can hold Defence to account to achieve a set of agreed capability and organisational outcomes.
Nothing can take the place of competent leadership, but a long-term, binding bipartisan agreement as the basis for setting expectations and funding of our national Defence capability would go a long way to increasing the capital productivity of money the Government invests in Defence on behalf of the Australian tax payer. If we are truly to put the long-term national-interest above party politics, taking the time to consider what we can learn from the Danes may not be such a fanciful idea.
Senator David Fawcett is a Liberal Party representative for South Australia. He was a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade enquiry into Defence Acquisition.