Finding common ground on Australia’s defence policy — The importance of bipartisanship

Firstly, I welcome the government’s response. This is a topic that has come up in this Senate via a number of motions over a number of years, and I appreciate the fact that we were able to hold this inquiry through the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and take evidence from a range of people.

Recommendations 1 to 5 have been responded to by the government in a positive way, which I think continues the appropriate approach and recognises that it is the power of the executive to make those decisions. The report looks at a range of things, many of which I have covered in previous speeches.

If people want to know why I’m supporting this view, I would encourage them to look at the two or perhaps three previous speeches I have given on this topic.

I want to indicate my support for that position.

In most of my time, though, I wish to speak to recommendation 6, which goes to the government’s response to the recommendation by the committee that the government establish a joint statutory committee on defence to supersede and enhance the defence related functions currently undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

The intention here is that this should be established in a manner similar to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which was established through the Intelligence Services Act. I have been a member of that committee for some nine years as well as being a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and I noticed some remarkable differences in the outcomes for the portfolios.

With our national security agencies, what we see is a remarkable stability in the funding and direction regardless of which side of politics is in government. Why? Because there is informed debate based on the classified information that those agencies need to deal with.

We end up with the more conservative elements of the conservative side of politics and the left-wing elements of the Labor Party, but in an appropriate environment with access to the appropriate information, and so there is serious debate. I’m talking about sometimes being in contact over weekends to thrash out issues to find some common ground and reach an agreed position on the way forward.

Until very recently, I think it is fair to say, the PJCIS has never had a dissenting report, and that has delivered for the agencies and for the nation a remarkable stability.

The same cannot be said of defence.

In fact, the origins of this concept go back to a report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade called Contestability and Consensus, where an almost identical recommendation was included.

Why was that included?

Because we see independent commentators after a change of government—and I won’t say which government, so we keep the partisanship out of this, given that both sides of politics say how important defence is—and these commentators ask why it is that defence is now ‘an incoherent mess’ that is ‘approaching a train wreck of colossal proportions’, ‘investment is badly stalled’ and the defence budget is an ‘unsustainable mess’.

The reason is that bipartisanship in the defence space tends to be the government of the day saying X and often oppositions saying, ‘Oh, we agree,’ so there’s not a shard of daylight between them.

That’s not bipartisanship. That is me-too-ism.

Bipartisanship has to have informed debate to contest the ideas. If you want to see the origins of that notion, back in April 2013, on the ASPI The Strategist website, there was an article titled ‘Defence, the most fundamental task of government’ followed by one in 2017 titled ‘Some things should be above politics’.

These articles show the origins of how this occurred. When I was chair of that committee and tasked the Defence Subcommittee to look into this, Senator Linda Reynolds followed by Senator Molan took this up and released that report, which kicked off the thinking which led to the recommendation in the war powers report. The government has accepted that and brought it in. I think it will be a fundamental change for the better for the governance of Australia’s defence.

I look forward to the establishment of the committee and hopefully being able to participate in its deliberations in the national interest.