Why, when and how was the Australia Defence Association founded?

Founding of the Association

The ADA was founded in Perth in mid 1975 by three war veterans determined to prevent further wars, or minimise their effects on Australia if they were unavoidable, by improving public debate on strategic security and defence issues:

  • Air Marshal Sir Valston Hancock, KBE, CB, DFC, a World War II veteran and professional air force officer who had ended his Service career commanding the RAAF from May 1961 to May 1965;
  • Jim Harding, a leading Western Australian trade unionist, civil libertarian and Army veteran from World War II; and
  • Peter Firkins, the director of the Perth Chamber of Commerce, a well-known military historian and a RAAF veteran from World War II.

Colonel Lawrie Clark, MC, a former commanding officer of the Special Air Service Regiment and a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, joined soon afterwards and was the foundation president in both Western Australia and subsequently the national body. The distinguished defence and foreign correspondent (and World War II, Korea and Vietnam veteran), Denis Warner, CMG, OBE, and World War II, Korea and Vietnam veteran (and noted artist), Commodore Dacre Smyth, AO, RAN, became patrons soon after.

Our founders were from otherwise disparate backgrounds, interests and political inclinations, and had met through their common membership of the Royal United Service Institute.

They were men well versed in Australian history. Even more importantly most came from backgrounds of active involvement in apolitical community service organisations and/or local government councils at the grass-roots.

 Although they may have approached it to some extent from different political, professional and social perspectives, they were all individuals very experienced in defence issues in particular, and the problems of Australian society and politics generally — and of the benefit at times to the public interest of separating discussion of important issues from party politics.


The ten principles of Australian national security

Their forming of the Australia Defence Association in mid 1975 resulted from the founders coming to ten fundamental conclusions and consequent principles about defence and wider national security issues in Australia, public debate about them, and the need for fresh thinking without abandoning hard-won historical and enduring lessons:

  • Australia's national wealth, standard of living and whole way of life generally have always depended heavily on our ability to import and export goods and commodities respectively via seaborne international trade over secure lines of communication in a stable strategic environment regionally and globally. Australia has therefore long had enduring national interests beyond our shores and indeed the "bush-focused", continentally-minded cultural perspectives of many Australians traditionally. We rely fundamentally on an international system that allows such trade and associated intercourse to occur securely, efficiently, freely and according to the rule-of-law internationally. Over 99 per cent of our exports by volume, and over 75 per cent by value, travel in ships. Without the ability to sustain maritime trade Australia would be a very different country.The fall of Saigon in May 1975 to a major North Vietnamese conventional invasion was a strategic watershed for Australia. This development followed the strategic withdrawal of the US from the South East Asian mainland over the 1972-75 period, the earlier British strategic withdrawal from 'east of Suez' by 1971 and, in 1969, the USA's declaration of the Guam Doctrine concerning allied responsibilities for defence self-reliance in intra-State (and to some extent inter-State) conflicts. New and integrated thinking on how to defend and otherwise protect Australia's sovereignty and strategic freedom of action was needed.
  • Australia's conceptualisation and practice of national security therefore need to encompass the protection and advancement of our national sovereignty and strategic freedom of action in the fullest sense. This means protecting and furthering our national interests as well as just defending our physical territory, territorial seas, territorial airspace, extended economic zones and offshore resources. Our national interests are primarily of an economic and strategic nature, but traditionally Australia has also had other national interests concerning the moral and legal basis, and effective operation, of the international system. These latter interests include our collective security responsibilities as a (founding) United Nations member under the UN Charter, our collective defence responsibilities under several mutual defence treaties and guarantees in our region, and Australia's longstanding membership of — and political and cultural affinity with — the informal coalition of older and newer liberal democracies generally known as the Western Alliance.
  • Public argument over Australian participation in the Vietnam War during the 1962-1975 period had become very politically polarised, often simplistic and frequently subjective (either way). Objective and informed debate for or against the commitment had tended to be increasingly swamped by extreme, violently expressed and often highly emotional and uninformed opinion. These high degrees of polarisation and subjectivity had crossed over to wider debate on strategic security, defence and broader national security issues. This trend continued after Australia's active participation in the Vietnam War had ended in late 1972. It has unfortunately lingered to the present day among many Australians, particularly those whose thinking remains trapped in the outmoded cultural and ideological paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s rather than acknowledging or understanding Australia's current and future strategic challenges.
  • Public interest in strategic security, defence and wider national security issues in Australia is also often marred by widespread lack of interest, limited knowledge and even outright ignorance. It tends to cycle between apathy (the opinion that Australia cannot be defended so why try) on the one extreme, through isolationist myths that ignore the pervasive inter-connectiveness of the modern world, to irrational fears or ideological fixations on the other extreme. Such fears include phenomena such as 'Yellow peril' invasion scares and irrational suspicions and misunderstandings about our near neighbour, Indonesia. The ideological fixations have included the belief during the Cold War that there was absolutely not any threat from communism or that some form of strategic or moral neutrality was and remains a serious or even viable option for Australia's modern strategic posture.
  • Even among those Australians who take some interest in strategic security, defence and wider national security matters, there is often a pervasive but unrealistic belief that our defence planning in particular should be based solely on the perceived absence or presence of threats that might be readily identified and agreed upon at any one time. This belief runs counter to historical experience and commonsense because it disregards:
    • the intrinsic unpredictability of the future, especially in detail;

    • the speed at which unforseen or new strategic challenges tend to emerge;

    • the difficulty in actually identifying threats early enough to respond to them effectively anyway;

    • the perpetual difficulty of securing agreement by our government (and the wider Australian community) that a threat or risk now exists; and

    • constant and usually irreconcilable background arguments about what is, and is not, a potential threat and what its perceived likelihood or seriousness might be.

Entirely threat-based paradigms are therefore an ineffective means on which to base Australian strategic policy and defence capability development (not least because of the very long time scales and considered efforts involved with the latter). It would be better instead to cater for general strategic risks. Particularly by developing and maintaining a balanced and versatile defence force, that can be reasonably capable of coping with or adapting to the types of future strategic challenge that usually cannot be predicted with much accuracy – if indeed all or even any of them can be forecast or assessed in detail effectively at all.

  • Often allied to narrow or inappropriate dependence on threat-based, rather than risk-based, paradigms is a politically convenient but historically disproven belief. This is that Australian strategic policy, and consequently prudent levels of investment in our defence, should be based on the funding thought to be available politically at any one time, rather than what is actually needed by strategic reality or proper risk management in the short term and over the long run. Again it would be better instead to base Australian strategic policy on intellectually objective and robust assessments of future risks and, only then, decide the level of investment that can be afforded accordingly – and the risk management strategies that would need to be implemented where levels of possible investment alone are or might become insufficient. The strategies and defence capabilities we need should drive national investment in our defence and foreign policy. Not, as usually happens in Australia under governments of both political persuasions, the dollars thought to be available politically driving politically convenient but inadequate strategic policy and defence capability development.
  • Effective defence capability development programs require decades to implement. They need to be sustained by a robust and consistent approach to strategic policy development and force structuring, and by consistent and adequate funding over lengthy periods. This is also far more economic and efficient over the long run than the fluctuating levels of investment that Australian governments  have tended to allocate to national defence responsibilities. Proper consideration of defence and wider national security matters in Australia has instead tended to bog down continually in a mix of party-political rivalries, ideological constructs, bureaucratic processes, insufficient investment, narrowly-defined academic theories and fads concerning potential threats and their perceived likelihood or absence, and the endemic short-term perspectives engendered by Australia’s three-year federal electoral cycle and its attendant party-political, media and public debate cultures.
  • Australia therefore needs an independent public ‘ginger group’ in a permanent public-interest watchdog role to:
    • help stimulate, nurture, inform and monitor effective public debate on strategic security, defence and wider national security issues;
    • provide an independent, long-term and authorative perspective to such debate;
    • help keep the national political process honest in regard to defence and wider national security issues;
    • help keep public debate genuinely informed rather than subject to political, ideological or academic fads and biases; and
    • help educate the Australian public in such matters.
    • To enable the informed, balanced and longer-term perspectives required such a public-interest watchdog organisation must:
      • incorporate both public-interest guardianship and 'think-tank' functions in order to provide reasoned advocacy based on sound and objective research, a long-term view and long-term corporate knowledge;
      • be credible by being truly independent, scrupulously non-partisan and determinedly apolitical;
      • be particularly independent from sectional interests and biases such as political parties, the various bureaucratic elements involved with defence or national security policy, defence industry and other commercial interests, and the defence force or the intelligence services as both institutions and professions; and
      • embody the principle that defence is a universal civic responsibility of all Australians by being broadly community-based, rather than Association membership and support relying on participation by only those Australians with, say, defence force, intelligence agency or similar service at some time in their lives.

Development of the Association

From its founding in June 1975 the Association spread progressively to all states and mainland territories over the next few years and a full federal structure was adopted at the first national council meeting in Melbourne on 04 March 1981.

On 16 June 1998 the state branches were integrated into a unified national body. Our corporate administrative structure was re-organised as a not-for-profit public company limited by guarantee (as are most other national public-interest watchdog organisations).

This reorganisation resulted from the continued growth, organisational maturity and growing public profile of the ADA, the increasing operational and transparency demands on us as an independent 'think-tank', and the effects of new federal and state legislation governing not-for-profit public organisations. We remain, however, a broadly-based national organisation comprising, and run by, our broad community-based membership. Our constitution was updated on 22 November 2009 to further reinforce our independence and non-partisanship.

Our first major public activity was co-hosting a conference in co-operation with the 48th Annual Summer School conducted by the Extension Service of the University of Western Australia in January 1976. Chaired by ADA co-founder, Peter Firkins, the speakers included Sir Arthur Tange (Secretary of the Department of Defence), Rear Admiral Anthony Synnot (Director Joint Staff and later CDF), Dr Robert O'Neill (then Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) at ANU) , Dr Max Teichmann, Dr Kevin Foley, Mr Geoffrey Jukes and Brigadier Ted Serong (Retd). The proceedings were published by the University as Australia's Defence in August 1976.

As we developed outside our original Western Australia base further conferences, seminars and publications followed. In late June 1978 we conducted a major academic seminar in Melbourne on the topic Is Australia Defensible? The speakers included Dr Robert O'Neill (Head of the SDSC 1971-82), a retired senior diplomat, Malcolm Booker, and Bomber Command veteran and Chairman of Hawker de Havilland, Wing Commander Rollo Kingsford-Smyth (Retd). The proceedings of the seminar were published under the same title as the first of the ADA's Melbourne Paper series. Further early papers in this series were ANZUS in the 'Eighties (1979) and Resources for Australia's Defence (1980) which resulted from ADA public seminars conducted throughout 1978-1980.

In 1980 we began publishing our policy and discussion booklet, The Defence of Australia, with updated editions being published as Defending Australia in 1985, 1990, 1995 and 2000. Since 2000 our primary policy and discussion documents and commentary have been published on the ADA website instead. In 1985 Melbourne University Press published then ADA Executive Director Michael O'Connor's well-received and detailed study of Australian defence issues To Live in Peace: Australia's Defence Policy.

Our first quarterly publication was the ADA Quarterly Journal which was first published in Autumn 1979 with eighteen issues in five volumes appearing until Winter 1983. From the Spring 1983 issue the quarterly became Defender: National Journal of the Australia Defence Association, with issues continuing to be published quarterly until mid 2012. 

Beginning in 1990, the ADA's widely read electronic bulletin, Defence Brief, is published to cover major public issues arise. Originally between issues of the journal and subsequently more frequently.

Following consolidation of the ADA as a national body, from 1983 the Association also became the organiser of Australia's participation in the biennial Pacific Rim Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) Conferences co-ordinated by various Australian, US, Singaporean, Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese think-tanks. In 1988 the ADA hosted the 6th conference in the series in Melbourne with the proceedings published as Safely by Sea (Dr M.J. Kennedy and M.J. O'Connor, University Press of America, 1990). The RAN took over responsibility for Australian participation in the conferences in the early 1990s.

In the 2002/03 New Year Honours list our retiring executive director, Michael O'Connor, was invested as a Member of the Order of Australia for his long-standing services to Australia's defence, informed public debate and the development and operations of the Australia Defence Association. In his letter of congratulation then prime-minister, John Howard, noted "I know you value your independence and I respect the fact that from time to time you disagree with the policies of my Government. That is as it should be when serious issues are being debated". In a letter of congratulation the then Chief of Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, noted "on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, thank you for your service to the community through raising public awareness of defence, security and strategic issues".


National Office

The national office of the Association was located in Perth until March 1981 when it moved to Melbourne. The subsequent move of the office to Canberra in April 2003 was chiefly a result of four interdependent factors:

  • the Navy, Army and Air Force think-tanks, both university-based academic think-tanks then covering national security issues and the sole government-sponsored strategic policy research institute are all based in Canberra;
  • the Association’s general growth and substantial national profile, and the increasing requests for consultation or co-operative research, required a permanent presence and profile in the nation’s capital;
  • media reporting on defence and national security issues is now increasingly carried out centrally by generalist political correspondents in the Parliamentary Press Gallery rather than by dedicated and specialist defence correspondents dispersed in the state capital cities; and
  • a Canberra base strengthens the ADA's ability for liaison with the Service and academic ‘think-tanks’ interested in strategic security, defence and wider national security issues, the research elements of the main political parties, senior ADF members and government officials, and ministers and parliamentarians in general.

The Australia Defence Association is conscious, however, of the importance of retaining its broad community base and geographic spread throughout Australia and of avoiding capture by institutional and 'Canberra' perspectives.

The move of our national office to Canberra was carefully considered by the ADA’s Board of Directors (who are themselves located across Australia). The decision was made only because the Board considered it in the best interests of the Association and its work.

The ADA's hard-won reputation for informed commentary, and independence of thought and action, remains under continual observation by the Board and our membership.



The national presidents of the Australia Defence Association have been:

March 1981 - June 1989 – Colonel Lawrie Clark, MC, (Retd)

June 1989 - June 2001 – Commodore John Robertson, RAN (Retd)

July 2001 - August 2008 – Dr Brian Ridge

August 2008 - March 2013 – Dr Alan Collier

March 2013 - Present — Dr Michael Easson, AM

The national executive directors of the ADA have been:

04 March 1981 - 30 April 2003 (full-time from 1989) – Michael O'Connor, AM

01 May 2003 - Present – Neil James

The current members of the Association's board of directors may be found here

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