Why is no one debating one of the budget's biggest spends?
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BY DR ANDREW CARR
One of the largest and fastest growing expenditures in the federal budget, defence spending, will receive little or no debate, to the cost of our nation’s security.
Public debate on health funding, education or infrastructure projects is rightly seen as a good thing. So why is the normal contest of ideas and values not applied to the $36 billion dollar allocated in this year’s budget for the defence of the nation?
How Australia responds to today’s strategic challenges is not just a question of policy and spending, but also our institutions. We are 17 years into the War on Terror with little sign of it abating. Meanwhile Russia and China have the resources to provide decades of headaches for the West. Our democracy is an asset in this contest, but it in an underutilised one.
Out of a genuine concern that partisan debate could harm social cohesion, put the Australian Defence Force at risk and even look weak to outside adversaries, our parliament has embraced a need for ‘bipartisanship’. In effect they have declared that normal democratic practice is an impediment to national security. As such, the House and Senate will stay largely silent over the next few weeks rather than asking if we are spending enough or spending on the right things to ensure our security in these increasingly perilous times.
Bipartisanship on defence and security issues seems comforting – a coming together of sides against a common foe. However, its reality has been a harmful series of mistakes and costs. Our defence policy settings have stagnated, stuck in a world pre-Donald Trump and the rise of China. The ADF has laboured on our behalf across the world, yet lost its knowledge and capacity in our region. The Australian public, as an inquiry on behalf of the 2016 Defence White paper found, feels isolated and kept in the dark about what our troops do on our behalf.
Advocates of the current approach like to claim it delivers stability. Yet our current Defence Minister, Marise Payne is the 11th to hold the office since the Howard government won power in 1996. By contrast we’ve had just five treasurers in that time. The Defence Department’s budget has also swung wildly. From arbitrary cuts under Labor to raises based on neat round numbers under the Coalition. Neither change has been connected to any serious strategic rationale.
Bipartisanship also forces both the government and opposition to keep quiet out of fear our opponents might notice our disagreements. But in a world of global communication, Moscow and Beijing can be as well informed about Australian policy as the people of Melbourne and Brisbane. Politics no longer ends at the water’s edge.
In times like these, it may be tempting to think we need centralised, strongmen leaders to protect us. However, our nation’s own history and that of the West in the 20th Century is inexplicable unless we realise that the divided and argumentative nature of democracy is actually a necessity for good strategy.
Time and again, the democratic powers out-thought and out-fought their nationalist, fascist and communist opponents. Open democratic debate, even of the most partisan form, tests policy ideas for weaknesses before they are implemented. It improves accountability, replaces incompetent leaders and encourages flexibility when things are not going well.
Our current problems should logically be the Parliament’s responsibility to highlight and fix. This isn’t occurring, not because it is unable to address them, but because it has chosen not to. As a proud democratic society we should not rush to change our institutions without giving them the opportunity to work as intended. Far from declaring that security issues are ‘above politics’ - as one former leader of the opposition did recently - it is more democratic politics which we need.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about Australia’s capacity to withstand the challenges thrown at it today. We have faced much worse, for much longer on a leaner budget. Our century of foreign and defence policy success is in large part thanks to our democratic institutions. As we count up the significant new spending that is occurring in the defence realm, and as we look overseas to an increasingly dangerous world, it is vital we allow our parliament to operate as originally intended. As a centre of scrutiny, disagreement and debate that is the essence and strength of democracy.
Andrew Carr is a senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU and author of ‘I’m here for an argument: Why bipartisanship on security makes Australia less safe.’
This article originally appeared in the Fairfax Media