The Toughest Kids on the Block


If you’ve lived through a State election in Australia, you’ll have heard the phrase ‘law and order’ more than a couple of times.

In the  1990s, the issue of law and order proved a crucial battleground in a series of Australian State elections (and indeed elections all over the Western world including the one that swept Tony Blair to power in 1997). Incumbent governments and hopeful oppositions engaged in desperate bidding wars to build more prisons and pass ever-tougher sentencing provisions to prove to voters that they were ‘tough on crime.’

With the Federal election rapidly approaching, Australian defence policy now seems to be  beholden to  the same dynamic as both Labor and the Coalition compete to appear ‘tough’ on the issue of ‘national security.’

If health and education are, to use the flawed logic and even sillier gender-reductionism of the political classes, ‘mummy’ issues, then national security is the quintessential ‘daddy issue.’ (For a history of the mummy/daddy debate, Club Troppo’s Don Arthur has a great post here.) This makes it an issue that left-of-centre parties simply can’t afford to appear ‘weak’ on or so the conventional logic runs.

The result has been a defence and national security debate where rhetoric has consistently trumped common sense.

Just ask Brendan Nelson. Earlier this month on ABC Radio he was foolish enough to mention that odious word ‘oil’ in connection with Australia’s continuing involvement in the unfolding folly of Iraq. The resulting debate  was as explosive as the payload of a fully-laden F-111.

It didn’t help that Nelson made his provocative comments immediately before hopping on a plane for pre-arranged defence talks with Indonesia, China and India but more on that later.

In his absence, both the Prime Minister and Treasurer were forced to step swiftly into the breach to defend the Government’s reasons for being in Iraq. When asked by Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders  whether there was any point in denying ‘that oil is part of the equation in Iraq, surely?’ Costello mounted a defence every bit as heroic as Horatio on the bridge or the diggers at Kokoda.

‘No connection whatsoever,’ he bristled. ‘And it’s not the reason why Australia is staying in Iraq. The reason we are staying in Iraq is that the Iraqis have voted for a democratic government.’ (Of course the very same Iraqis also voted for a Parliament that’s about to dump Prime Minster al-Maliki, but that’s the problem with democratic politics isn’t, it they’re always so messy). Howard was just as strident, declaring in resolute tones that ‘we are not there because of oil and we didn’t go there because of oil.’

The war-for-oil blow-up must have been intensely irritating to the PM, as it happened the very same week he gave a major speech to a defence industry conference (sponsored by our old friends the Australian Strategic Policy Institute) outlining his commitment to expanding the defence budget, and launching a major new document entitled ‘Australia’s National Security: Defence Update 2007.’

This document, which purports to explain Australia’s ‘national security environment’, talks at great length about terrorism, WMD, Al Qaeda and ‘the use of force in the 21st century.’

It also attempts to explain just why Australia is embarking on our biggest increase in defence spending since the Vietnam era, including a projected $41 billion in this year’s budget.

Indeed, when it comes to big spending on planes, tanks and warships, John Howard has delivered. While the major parties bicker over the cost of functions at Kirribilli House, Defence is throwing money at weapons platforms like Paris Hilton at a Jimmy Choo closing-down sale.

In fact, Australia an island continent with no known conventional military enemies is now the eleventh largest defence spender in the world. Last Month’s decision on new warships alone is a breath-taking $11 billion commitment for just five ships.

So what are we getting for our money? And why do we need these new ships? They’re questions that cut to the heart of  the Howard-Nelson defence doctrine.

Although the Air Warfare Destroyers have received most of the publicity, the core of the new purchase is actually the big new troop ships. These troop ships of the Spanish Buque de Proyección Estratégica class can carry up to 1000 troops each, plus associated heavy equipment like the Army’s new Abrahms tanks, and have a flight deck from which they can operate a small squadron of helicopters. They’ll also have an on-board hospital with an operating theatre and wards.

The troop ships are essentially smaller versions of the aircraft carriers used by the US Marines, and they allow Australia to project power well into the Pacific. One or two of these ships will form the core of any future Australian deployments in the Solomon Islands, PNG or further afield. The Air Warfare Destroyers will protect the troop ships against air attack, but they also have the ability to range and strike widely into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

According to the Defence Update, the chief reason Australia is acquiring these big new ships is so we can secure an un-named ‘archipelago’ against ‘an aggressor that could destabilise the wider region.’

We’ll leave you to work out who that might be, but the Chinese seem to have twigged. Perhaps that’s why Nelson emerged from ‘longer than expected’ talks last Monday with his Chinese counterpart, General Cao Gangchuan, stating that ‘We think it [is]perfectly appropriate for a country like China to increase its military capabilities.’

This amazing statement,  issued immediately before Nelson jetted off to India for talks with their military, is just one of the many inconsistencies in the diplomatic balancing act that is defence policy.

But it’s not just the Government who can say perfectly inconsistent things with a straight face. Labor’s Defence spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, is possibly the worst offender of them all. On June 22 he gave a speech to (you guessed it) the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where he pilloried Nelson’s record on defence acquisitions.

The ‘hasty’ Super Hornets purchase, he argued, appeared to be ‘in the Government’s interests rather than the national interest.’ Going further, he called for the Australian National Audit Office to automatically review Defence’s top 30 projects on an annual basis, and flagged a new Defence White Paper if Labor is elected.

But des
pite all this, Fitzgibbon told the audience that Labor is not going to cancel any of these ‘hasty’ purchases if elected. On the contrary, he continued, ‘if elected, a Rudd Labor Government will commit to all current Defence equipment acquisition projects. Despite what some may tell you, Labor will not be cancelling the Air Warfare Destroyers, killing off the amphibious ships or revisiting the Super Hornet purchase.’

That’s how it is an election year. The Super Hornets might well be $6 billion worth of planes Australia doesn’t need; but don’t ask Labor to cancel them. That would make them a bunch of mummy’s boys.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.