Labor Misses Opportunity to Offer New Perspectives on Australia’s Defence Policy
In a major address at the National Press Club on Tuesday, shadow defence minister Richard Marles doubled down on the Australian Labor Party’s criticisms of Australia’s troubled future submarine program.
The address was teasingly billed as a rare moment of departure from the conventional bipartisanship of Australian defence policy. In comments widely picked up by the media before the address, Marles argued that the government’s handling of the submarines project has ‘profoundly compromised’ Australia’s national security.
Those were strong words, clearly intended to pack a political punch. This was Marles’s first major speech as Labor’s deputy leader, and opposition leader Anthony Albanese watched on from the socially distanced audience. A Victorian, Marles had obtained a one-night-only health exemption to be in Canberra, a Covid-related hurdle he noted was important to jump since opposition engagement on defence issues is vital to our democracy.
Given this political investment, the speech was a lost opportunity to challenge or offer new perspectives on Australia’s strategic environment and defence policy settings.
Marles noted that Australia faces its most complex strategic circumstances since World War II, echoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s talking points at the July launch of the defence strategic update. But he did not use the Press Club platform to provide further reflections on the assumptions, policy shifts or future force structure outlined in that significant report.
Like the prime minister, Marles sees the Covid-19 pandemic as an ‘accelerant’ for regional instability and indeed reflected that ‘Covid has created questions to which there are no answers’. But he chose not to give guidance on what these known unknowns might be.
Instead, in the long tradition of defence policy debate by opposition politicians of all stripes, Marles chose to narrow his take on Australia’s future national security to the economics of capability acquisition (how much will it cost, when will it be built, and by whom).
Even then, he constrained his critique mainly to historical issues. A ‘negligent’ contracting process with French shipbuilder Naval Group plus cost blowouts and time delays has put Australia’s national security ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Rather than canvassing options, risks and trade-offs for charting a course through the horns of this dilemma, the address echoed the seemingly bipartisan assumption that the submarine build should continue — just over-budget, and late.
We also have a national obsession with defence budgets and military kit — a focus that sees discussion about strategic means overshadow dialogue about our strategic ends and potential ways for achieving them.
Thousands of pages of reports and Hansard records examine the ins and outs of the army’s Land 400 acquisition, the tortured air force F‑35 process, and the navy’s submarine and future frigate programs — to take some recent examples. But debate about the merits of these particular capabilities relative to others, and how they contribute to Defence’s mission, or indeed Australia’s broader national interests, is comparatively feeble.
The other widely reported aspect of Marles’s address was his criticism of ‘muscular language’ on China by some government MPs. This, he said, has ‘done nothing to improve Australia’s strategic circumstances’. In later clarifying that he was referring to commentary by backbenchers, rather than official statements, Marles again fell into a common pattern in Australian defence debates: playing the fringe, rather than the substance. There was no real engagement with last week’s Australia–United States ministerial consultations.
Marles’s comments on backbencher commentary also raise an important question about the role of diversity and contestability in Australian defence debates. He suggested that MPs and senators under a Labor government would sing from the same songbook on defence and foreign policy, a practice he thought previous governments of all persuasions had been better at enforcing.
But do we want public debate about defence matters to be framed only by ministerial talking points? Whatever one’s views of the ‘wolverines’ (the self-styled cross-party group Marles was critiquing), there are broader principles at stake here. At its best, parliamentary government is not a game between homogenous blocks of blue, red and green, but a genuine contest of ideas.
Indeed, particularly in complex and uncertain strategic circumstances — where adaptation, creativity and courage are important — leadership often comes from below and behind, and politicians outside the executive can lead needed change. For example, opposition politicians and backbenchers played a role in UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s U-turn on allowing Huawei equipment in the country’s 5G infrastructure. In both the UK and the US, bipartisan committee reports have powerfully called out the government of the day for failing to recognise and respond to Russian interference in democratic elections.
In the 21st century, defence policy issues, unlike submarines, cannot be submerged or silenced. Strategic competition between countries increasingly affects citizens, and Australians will need to be engaged in important national conversations about what we are prepared to defend, how and at what cost.
A more open and robust — if at times messy — democratic dialogue about Australia’s strategic circumstances and policy options can bring Australians along as we make choices which will have generational significance and — importantly — help ensure we get these tough decisions right.