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The defence portfolio is a tough assignment and Marise Payne takes it on at an especially difficult time, writes HUGH WHITE.
Marise Payne is as well qualified for the job of defence minister as any who have taken it on for a very long time, and far better qualified than either of her most recent predecessors.
Her appointment has sent the clearest possible signal that Malcolm Turnbull intends his government to fix the mess in defence created by previous governments over many years, by doing things differently.
That is not because of her gender, but because she is an unusually intelligent, articulate, practical no-nonsense person with a real interest in good policy, a healthy scepticism about received wisdom, and a degree of intellectual and political courage and toughness. These are all important qualities in a defence minister, and they have been sadly missed of late.
But Payne will need all these qualities, and more, if she is to make a go of it, because defence is a tough job. There have been 22 defence ministers in the past 50 years and only two of them went on to hold another ministerial office – Malcolm Fraser and Kim Beazley. For the rest, defence marked the end of the road.
And Payne takes it on at an especially difficult time. She inherits a portfolio weakened by more than a decade of policy muddle, political opportunism, pointless reform programs and poor leadership. And she takes responsibility for fixing all this just as Australia faces the biggest and most challenging shifts in our strategic circumstances since the 1960s, driven by the rise of China and the implications for the United States' role in our region.
Turnbull understands this challenge and the need for major changes to defence policy. Some years ago, he warned against complacently assuming "the strategic and diplomatic posture that served us in the past can and will serve us unchanged in the future". We need something very different, and much better, from defence than we have had for a very long time.
So how should Payne proceed? Two immediate choices give her a chance to start turning defence around. They concern the submarines and the Defence White Paper.
Start with submarines. Within a few weeks, Payne will receive the results of the competitive evaluation process (CEP) launched by her predecessor, Kevin Andrews earlier this year. This was supposed to provide the information needed to decide who should build our new submarines. But she will find it does no such thing.
The CEP has been far too rushed to allow the bidders to develop their designs, plan how to build them, or calculate how much they will cost. So she will be asked to take to cabinet a decision on which submarine to buy without knowing whether the design is feasible, the build strategy is practicable, or the cost estimates are remotely credible. It's a recipe for a disaster on the scale of the Air Warfare Destroyer fiasco, and she should refuse to agree. Instead, she should order a full-scale project definition study, which would fund the contenders to develop their designs and project plans, and calculate a price they are prepared to commit to under contract. This would take time, of course, so she should also act now to cover the gap that looms between paying off the old submarines and commissioning new ones.
In doing that, she should ask very searching questions about what kind of submarine we are trying to buy, to make sure we really need the features that most drive the costs and risks of the project. That includes the size: she needs to really satisfy herself that the big boats being sought by the navy are really the most cost-effective option.
This means that, in turn, she will have to satisfy herself that the submarines' operational roles have been properly thought through, and fit with Australia's strategic needs over coming decades. She should not for one moment assume this has all been properly considered already by her predecessors, or by her advisers at the Defence Force headquarters. On the contrary, she will find that none of her predecessors have asked these questions, and her advisers will not have ready answers.
That brings us to the Defence White Paper. Payne will soon be presented with a draft developed under her predecessors and, we may be sure, very heavily influenced by the often idiosyncratic views of Tony Abbott. Before the leadership change, it was scheduled for release in mid-October. One of Payne's first decisions must be whether to go ahead with the draft as its stands, or produce a new document that bears her own stamp and that of the Prime Minister.
Turnbull suggested soon after he took over that the white paper would proceed on the original timetable, but one hopes he will wait until he and Payne have studied the draft they have inherited before making a final decision on that. It is much more important to get the white paper right than to get it out before Christmas.
Getting it right will not be easy. This is the third attempt in only six years to decide and explain how Australia's defence policy needs to adapt to the fundamental changes in our strategic setting. The earlier efforts in 2009 and 2013 both failed in three ways.
First, they did not address squarely what Australia needs its armed forces to be able to do in Asia's new strategic order over coming decades. Can we afford to rely more on the US than we have in the past, for example, or do our forces need to be able to do more, against more capable adversaries, independently?
Second, they did not analyse what kinds of operations our forces should be able to undertake to cost-effectively achieve the objectives set for them. That means they had no robust basis for deciding what kinds of capabilities Australia needs. Without that it becomes all too easy to make major decisions – like Abbott's naval shipbuilding program – on political grounds with no strategic rationale.
Third, they provided no clear basis for deciding how much we need to spend on defence. Instead, they proclaimed meaningless targets like 2 per cent of gross domestic product, which bears no relation to the strategic risks we might face or the most cost-effective way to address them.
All the evidence suggests Abbott's draft white paper has all these faults and more. If so, Payne and Turnbull should not hesitate to bin it and write a new one that does what's needed. If they mean to make a fresh start in defence, they need to start right now.
Hugh White is an Age columnist and professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.
This article was first published by Fairfax Media.