Labor Misses Opportunity to Offer New Perspectives on Australia’s Defence Policy

 In Defense, Sea, Australia, FVEY

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.

As Andrew Carr has argued for some years, Australia’s default to bipar­ti­san­ship on defence mat­ters dis­cour­ages policy cre­ativ­i­ty and account­abil­i­ty.

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.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute source|articles

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