The Community Consultation Panel on the Rudd Government’s forthcoming Defence White Paper has just completed an extensive series of public meetings around Australia. This process is welcome because it is important that defence, like all other policies, reflect community preferences.
A recent survey of public opinion published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute concludes that "support for more defence spending has dropped to its lowest level since the end of the Cold War". The reason is that "the proportion of voters seeing a security threat to Australia has declined consistently since the late 1960s".
When respondents were asked after the 2007 election which issue was most important to them, the environment (including global warming and management of water) was identified as most important at 21.7 per cent. Next were health and Medicare at 20.5 per cent; industrial relations at 16.3 per cent; taxation at 11 per cent; education at 10.5 per cent; interest rates at 7 per cent and immigration at 2.9 per cent. Defence and national security came in at 2.7 per cent, closely followed by the war in Iraq, at 2.4 per cent.
Terrorism was the greatest concern of only 1.8 per cent of those surveyed. The Medicare card is of greater importance to the security of most Australians than increased military spending.
Yet those who argue shrilly for the necessity of increased military spending receive much more publicity than those who argue for a rigorous reassessment of it.
Australian defence is usually discussed as though Australia faces a threat of invasion, yet there is no interest anywhere in attacking this country nor has there been for several decades. Australia’s future security and prosperity is more seriously threatened by climate change and potential disease pandemics than by hypothetical military action. As a parliamentary committee concluded some years ago, there is only one country with the capacity to invade Australia – the United States – and it has no reason to do so.
The effect of exaggerating military threats to Australia has been to justify increases in defence expenditure larger than are necessary, to the level of over $60 million a day. Does Australia really need far higher military spending per person than Japan or Germany and two-thirds more than Canada?
What external threat justifies spending over $50 billion on expensive purchases of sophisticated weapons?
Past defence doctrine has focused on interoperability with US forces anywhere in the world rather than on air and naval control of the sea-air gap between the Australian and Asian land masses. Invasion from the north with conventional weapons is among the least likely military contingencies Australia might face, and as Brian Toohey has written, "Even a super power would have trouble protecting its commercial sea lanes in the manner envisaged by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd."
Is this a focus that the majority of Australians really want, especially when the choice is between spending $22 billion a year on the military and improving the quality of health and education?
The IMF and World Bank have repeatedly emphasised the importance of minimising military spending so as to maximise outlays which do most to stimulate economic and social development. United Nations summits and global conferences have repeatedly come to the same conclusion.
Increases in military spending contribute little to the campaign against terrorism. In fact, they may add to the dangers. Collaboration with the United States in the illegal and misjudged invasion of Iraq increased the motivation for terrorist interest in Australia. There are many far more cost-effective ways of reducing such risks by contributing to reducing despair, alienation and poverty by assisting with equitable development. Restraint of military expenditure would release funds for desperately needed increases in aid as well as for high priority Australian economic and social programs.
Restraining military spending also has the benefit of avoiding provoking retaliatory increases by countries in the region.
The forthcoming Defence White Paper is the ideal opportunity to rigorously review current defence strategy, starting with a thorough assessment of external threats. This might lead to identification of ways of cutting military outlays, making way for more cost-effective means of defending ourselves, reducing international conflict and releasing resources for constraining greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in higher priority health and education services.
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