With both major parties now in campaign mode and jousting over policy costings, Australians should take a long hard look at the annual expenditure on defence by Australian governments. The electorate is constantly told that spending must be cut and as always workers’ wages, health services and education are the first to be placed in the cross-hairs of the budget slashing cannon.
The estimated $6.5 billion spend on the suggested Gonski reforms to education aren’t affordable or so we are told by the miser meanies. Yet the $31.9 billion annual expenditure on defence is considered acceptable as is the $50 billion commitment to the building of twelve submarines of dubious quality and effectiveness. Furthermore the delivery of the 2016 Defence White Paper with its commitment to increasing Australian defence expenditure to two per cent of the nation’s GDP by 2021 met with nothing less than a chorus of silent approval from the major parties, both preferring to see its contents escape any public scrutiny.
Australia’s commitment to defence is out of all proportion to its defensive needs, its importance in the world pecking order and its geographic location. According to data on the Global Firepower (GFP) website Australia has the 13th largest annual defence budget in the world. That’s more than both Turkey and Israel each of which face some real security concerns. Israel spends approximately $1950US per capita on its annual defence expenditure, second only to Saudi Arabia $2100US and above the United States $1809US. Australia spends $1186 per capita which is the third highest rate per capita in the top 13 big spenders.
So why? And who are we afraid of? According to the recent white paper ‘there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future’ (p. 15). This acknowledgement means the first Strategic Defence Objective, identified in the white paper, ‘to deter, deny and defeat any attempt by a hostile country or non-state actor to attack, threaten or coerce Australia’ (p. 17) is one that requires little more than a watchful eye.
The unlikelihood of attack by a foreign power is further endorsed by the acknowledgement that ‘military modernisation in our region will not be directed against Australia, but it will mean the defence capability edge we have enjoyed in the wider region will significantly diminish’. (p.49). It would seem then that part of the rationale for continued and increased defence spending is to try and maintain that ‘capability edge’ which involves us in an arms race of sorts. Yet in this regard Australia is already behind the eight ball sitting twelfth on the GFP list in terms of its military strength and firepower of Asian/Pacific powers, with Indonesia ahead of it in eighth, it being the only country that could realistically be construed as a threat to ‘Australia’s air, sea and northern approaches’ (p.17).
The white paper mentions ‘potential’ enemies but then its discussion on Australia’s international relationships makes it obvious that there really are no potential direct threats to Australia and that Australia is actually actively engaged in defence agreements, arrangements and dialogue with just about everyone in the region. This is a victory for diplomacy and common sense and it is that coupled with the strength of regional trade partnerships that work toward greater security.
The justification for increased defence spending seems then to reside in the third Strategic Objective to ‘provide meaningful contributions to global responses to address threats to the rules-based global order which threaten Australia and its interests. Australia will work closely with our ally the United States and other international partners to play an important role in coalition operations wherever Australia’s interests are engaged’ (pp. 17-18).
This is an open invitation to engage in American led foreign interventions under the guise of the war on terror. Australians really need to question the aim of purchasing hardware such as the twelve new submarines ‘with a high degree of interoperability with the United States’ (p. 19). The Anzus Treaty is again trotted out as a justification for the US/Australian partnership with the suggestion that it invokes an obligation on the part of both countries to act against a common enemy (p. 121). In fact the treaty imposes no such obligation on either party. Even while acknowledging America as Australia’s most powerful ally such co-dependency and ‘interoperability’ strikes at the notion of Australia’s defensive independence especially if it involves the installation of specific weapons systems.
In regard to the wisdom of the purchase of these submarines the white paper provides a sage observation as to why their acquisition is not a great idea when it states, ‘Some regional countries will acquire longer-range precision-guided missiles, including ship-based missiles, over the period to 2035. Advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, including both space and high altitude capabilities, will be prevalent, reducing the effectiveness of stealth capabilities’ (p. 50). It is the stealth capacity of the submarines that is being advanced as one reason to justify their purchase!
The white paper further commits Australia to the maintenance of an Air Task Group in Syria and Iraq (p. 142). Australians really should question the legitimacy of such a commitment as being germane to Australia’s defence.
Dropping $650K bombs on ISIS insurgents may well have an effect but it also carries with it disastrous retaliatory consequences for local populations and undoubtedly contributes to the increase of refugees. Surely taxpayers’ dollars are better spent heading off the terror threat in seeking out terror cells and cyber movement and in supporting UN humanitarian programs all of which are identified as worthy areas for participation in the white paper.
The excessive spending that Australia invests in defence simply perpetuates the military industrial complex. Progressive thought and governance would seek to break the cycle in favour of more sustainable and humanistic solutions. It is true that certain regimes need to be quashed and ISIS is one but what ought to be reviewed is the extent and nature of Australian commitment particularly in light of the questionable support from neighboring Arab countries.
The white paper also highlights a major hypocrisy of the COALition in that it clearly acknowledges climate change as a fact that ‘will see higher temperatures, increased sea-level rise and will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These effects will exacerbate the challenges of population growth and environmental degradation, and will contribute to food shortages and undermine economic development’ (pp. 55-56). All of which have the potential to undermine regional stability. Yet nowhere in current government policy is there any expenditure toward renewable energy, environmental protection or emissions reduction that goes anywhere near the billions being spent on defence.