“The goal posts weren’t just moved, they were cut down and used for firewood”. This is how Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson characterised the impact of Defence budget cuts—made as the three-year political cycle drove the government of the day to chase a budget surplus after the GFC.
The better part of a decade later and the world is a very different place. The rules-based international order—taken for granted despite underpinning seven decades of unprecedented prosperity growth—faces existential challenge. Destabilising influences abound in our own region. A nuclear-armed North Korea, Islamic State fighters returning to South East Asia, and concern over trade routes through the South China Sea are but three examples.
In these uncertain times, the Turnbull Government has articulated a clear vision for a secure and resilient Australia. The 2016 Defence White Paper maps out our contribution to the maintenance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, and for the first time, is backed by a credible, decade-long funding plan.
Ensuring Defence equipment is more effective and affordable over its operational life has led to consideration of industry impacts being more prominent in government decision making. The subsequent policy and funding certainty is giving local industry the confidence to invest in new technology, take on more employees, and commit to training the next generation of Australian scientists, engineers and tradespeople.
But the progress achieved over the last 18 months can easily be reversed. Opposition parties are wont to commit to policies that differentiate themselves from Government, or a future incumbent may seek to rebalance political priorities, meaning that the stability needed to make efficient and effective long-term investments in national security will be undermined again. Defence has historically proven to be a soft target for budget savings through force restructures, outright cuts or, more subtly, through widespread deferral of procurement decisions.
Think that won’t happen again? The 2009 Defence White Paper was lauded by many as a credible strategic direction for the nation’s defence. Despite this, our short election cycle led to decisions which prompted respected commentators to observe that the “plans set out in 2009 are in disarray; investment is badly stalled, and the Defence budget is an unsustainable mess”.
Whilst there’s no substitute for good leadership, there is a better way to manage any government’s first and most fundamental responsibility: a bipartisan agreement setting out Defence’s priorities and the funding needed to support these across the forward estimates.
There is an international precedent. Since 1988, Danish Defence budgets and policy have been set by multi-year agreements between the Government and Opposition. Recent agreements, supported by seven of the eight parties represented in the Danish parliament, cover strategic policy, major acquisitions, Defence force structure and even the general scope of overseas deployments.
This would create a new strategic and political paradigm, allowing sensible dialogue around security interests to underpin the making of the agreement and the politics to focus on how well it is implemented. Such a bipartisan approach is the only way that the large and growing expenditure on Defence will effectively bring both security in uncertain times and economic benefit to the nation.
The parties of government in Australia’s parliament must put the national interest first if the momentum achieved by the current Turnbull government—against budgetary and political headwinds—is to provide the lasting, secure future the next generation of Australians need and deserve.
Senator David Fawcett is the Chair of the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Prior to politics he served as an experimental test pilot in the Defence Force and was the Commanding Officer of Australia’s flight test organisation.