The recent federal election was not only another wasted opportunity to discuss defence issues effectively. It was also another tragic reminder of a deeply institutionalised and worsening national problem underlying our perennial under-investment in national defence capabilities.
The fundamental problem in planning and managing Australia’s defence is a continual clash of perspectives between perception and process cycles of quite different lengths.
Our political process is primarily driven by a three-year federal electoral cycle and a budgetary cycle of four years (including the forward estimates).
The cycles to deliver and sustain defence capabilities, however, are much longer and require adequate and sustained investment to be undertaken efficiently in both financial and operational terms over the long run.
The cycle to develop and field new defence capabilities is generally a 5-15 year one depending on the complexity of the capability.
Even longer is the operational lifecycle of the weapons, weapon platforms and equipment involved. This is generally 25-45 years, again depending on several factors such as technology, rust, metal fatigue, usage, sea-states, environmental damage, new threats, economies of scale, economies of replacement, etc.
Investing in defence capabilities is just as much national infrastructure investment as investment in roads, ports, airports. The relationship to national productivity is more indirect, but no productivity anywhere in the economy is ultimately possible without underlying strategic stability and security.
The intellectual horizon of most Australian politicians is focused on winning the next election and maximising short-term party political advantage in office or out.
Actual governance, especially concerning long-term responsibilities such as defence, is sorely neglected.
Few Australians change their vote on a defence issue alone and, in general, the electorate blindly trusts governments to be properly responsible for national security.
This lack of votes in defence is disastrous in a political culture so obsessed with short-term issues, party politics and winning elections at all costs.
No party is really prepared to commit to the amount and continuity of defence investrment required.
Defence investment continues to decline relative to general expenditure and economic growth.
It is declining steeply compared to the ever-burgeoning funds increasingly diverted to vote-buying areas such as social security, health and education.
Many Australians do not think much about defence until a crisis jolts them from their ‘land of the long weekend’ complacency and the government of the day is forced into crisis management mode.
The electorate needs to hold governments more accountable for the lamentable lack of diplomatic or military options rediscovered by each strategic crisis.
One day our luck will run out and with little warning.
Reliance on “defence on the cheap”, muddling through, ADF professionalism, and the financial and strategic subsidies of the US alliance, will not be enough to stave off strategic humiliation or worse.
In the October 2004 election the Australian people were again offered similarly inadequate defence policies from the Coalition and Labor.
Despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, both intended to continue their sustained under-investment.
While they postured about supposed differences in strategic policy, the two main parties differed little on fundamental defence issues.
Their continued deceptions regarding their inability to make proper provision for defence constitute a gross failure of national leadership.
At least with the current government the National Security Committee of Cabinet has functioned at its best for a generation.
Sadly, this is indeed faint praise as, overall, the decades of worsening defence neglect have been only slowed somewhat temporarily and certainly not reversed.
If Labor had won, we would have had a prime minister (in Mr Latham) who has so far demonstrated little understanding and, more worryingly, little interest in complex strategic issues. His poor and distorted knowledge of Australian military history is also a major concern.
He would have been heavily dependent on his experienced defence minister (since resigned from the frontbench) and energetic foreign minister — and the teamwork required would itself have presented formidable challenges.
That the majority of our politicians see no need to genuinely interest themselves in defence matters is increasingly dangerous.
Their ostentatious appearances at defence force farewell and welcome home parades do not replace real understanding and commitment.
Our defence force members and their families bear the brunt of this neglect on a day-to-day basis.
The effects include high operational tempos, old or inadequate numbers of equipment, low personnel numbers and conditions of service lagging behind community norms.
The desire of our leaders for “defence on the cheap” makes it especially wrong to expect ADF members to put their lives on the line on our behalf.
We should instead back our defence force with real leadership, adequate investment and national honesty.