The clearest indication of what the federal government thinks about Australia’s defence was highlighted in the recent budget.
The government announced that the defence budget over the next four years would be slashed by $5.5 billion, at the same time that the government is putting $10 billion into the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to subsidise alternative energy projects, and a further $5 billion into the Energy Security Fund.
If this were the limit of the cutbacks, it could be argued that defence has to bear some of the pain needed to bring the budget back into a nominal surplus. But it is not.
Since the Rudd Government adopted the recommendations of the 2009 Defence White Paper, successive Labor governments have cut or deferred about $17 billion in defence expenditures over successive budgets.
The savings come not only from high-profile projects such as the submarine replacement project and the acquisition of a successor to the Super Hornet fighters, but from a range of other projects, including self-propelled artillery and Australia’s peace-keeping contributions to East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan, which are being reduced.
Other cuts include the forced retirement of the RAAF Hercules aircraft, which have played a crucial role in supplying Australian forces operating overseas.
The cutbacks will not only affect Australia’s international credibility, which depends on a capacity to commit to international military and peace-keeping operations at short notice, but equally importantly to the capacity of Australian industry to maintain a level of technical expertise to contribute to the defence of the nation.
The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group said that the Budget measures “would have significant impacts on the defence industry’s ability to deliver equipment to the defence force” (Australian Financial Review, May 10, 2012).
Maintaining a credible defence force is one of the most effective means of preventing the outbreak of war.
The global political situation gives no reason to believe that the era of international conflict has ended. To Australia’s north, there is ongoing conflict between China, Vietnam and the Philippines over control of the South China Sea, and the resources which lie beneath it.
Apart from containing some important fisheries, the South China Sea is highly prospective for oil and gas, and no country is willing to abandon its historical claims in the area.
Separately, Malaysia, a long-time ally of Australia’s, faces a volatile period in the run-up to the next election, which must be held by the end of 2013.
And the island-states of the South-West Pacific remain potentially unstable, as we have seen over recent years in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and others.
The situation in East Timor has improved considerably, in no small measure due to the continued security presence of Australian and New Zealand defence forces on the ground.
Further afield, the future of Pakistan is uncertain, with deep political and ethnic divisions aggravating the conflict between civilians and the military forces. Parts of equatorial Africa remain in a state of war, leading to problems such as mass starvation and piracy, while the effects of the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East are still to work themselves out.
The scale of defence cuts announced in the Budget, on top of those announced previously, raises the question as to whether we will have any capacity to intervene overseas, in any circumstances.
In a related field, the government has budgeted for a reduction in the cost of border protection, from $1.2 billion this year to $800 million in three years’ time.
How the government can rationalise this figure is hard to understand. The number of asylum-seekers arriving off the north-west coast of Australia has continued to soar, as a result of the failure of the Gillard Government’s East Timor and Malaysia “solutions”, and the absence of any effective plan to deal with the influx.
As things stand at the moment, Australia’s coastal border protection amounts to little more than the provision of naval craft in the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea escorting asylum-seekers who have set sail from Indonesia for Australia.
The consequences of defence cutbacks may not be felt for years, or even for decades.
Yet Australia’s long-term security — the protection of its borders, its trade routes and its offshore oil and gas facilities — depends on maintaining a credible army, navy and air force, capable of being deployed quickly, over long distances.
Despite the deployment of US marines in Australia, it would be naïve to rely on the United States protecting Australian interests, or even being willing to deploy its air and naval forces, or ground troops, in regional emergencies.
As the largest regional power, these are responsibilities which Australia must shoulder.
The defence cutbacks put this at risk.