Resisting the siren song to under-invest in our common defence

Columnist Ben Herscovitch advances some new lyrics but still to the usual tired music of the siren song that defence investment can somehow be safely slashed.


Monday, 21 May 2012
Letter to The Canberra Times
(partly published Thursday, 24 May 2012)

In 1918 our weary soldiers vowed that we should never again send them to fight a war so unprepared.

Most Australians agreed because their families had directly experienced the consequences.

But short-sighted politicians, idealist ideologues and the sectionally selfish soon began singing the complacent siren song that defence capabilities could be savagely run down and the funding diverted elsewhere.

In 1940, and particularly in 1942, and again at war’s end in 1945 our soldiers of the next generation made the same vow – and so did most Australian families for the same reasons.

Similar strategic conclusions were reached in 1950, 1965 and 1972.

But each time fewer and fewer Australians understood. Chiefly because they had no personal or extended family experience that enabled them to see through the siren song and its singers.

Again in 2000 many Australians, and certainly our leaders, re-learnt a serious lesson in strategic shock - after our 1999 humanitarian intervention in East Timor was such a close-run operation and could so easily have resulted in serious military defeat.

The siren song had become the national anthem of many Australians wallowing in their complacency after five decades of relative peace.

It had grown so strong throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that our hollowed-out, grossly underfunded and ill-equipped defence force struggled to mount and sustain a relatively minor operation only 800 km from Darwin.

From 2000-2008 investment in our defence capabilities was then finally boosted to cancel out the decades of chronic under-investment and resulting block obsolescence and operational risk.

But the siren song is rising again.

Ideologues and plain liars again tell the Australian people that recent defence investment was “generous” or “excessive”. But they always omit its context of reversing decades of severe neglect.

They never admit defence investment has been relatively stable as a percentage of the federal budget.

They rarely contrast it appropriately to national spending on social security, health and education, which is larger by orders of magnitude and ever-growing in both budget percentage and real terms.

Benjamin Herscovitch ("Reduced defence spending may well be sound public policy", Opinion, 21 May) massages the lyrics but still croons the same old siren song luring us towards national disaster.

Hopefully it will be spurned by objective listeners.

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