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Why is Defence so little involved in the great defence debate?

6 February | Jennifer Parker

Image: Defence Images

The federal government has compared our circumstances to those in the lead-up to World War II. Australians are faced with wars in Europe and the Middle East, and tensions in the South China Sea and north-east Asia that may spill over into conflict.

Amidst these generation-defining global challenges, the Australian Defence Force is struggling to upgrade and crew its capabilities. It needs a bigger budget and it needs more people. But, more importantly, it needs to convince the public why they should care about these issues.

Protecting Australia’s strategic interests and our national way of life requires not only a capable Defence Force, but also a strong defence debate and a public that is brought along for the journey. Despite the critical importance of an informed debate, and an informed Australian public, risk aversion has largely removed the ADF from this debate. That’s different from our AUKUS partners in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Not only is it rare to see senior defence leaders speak candidly about the challenges we face in an unscripted way, but the conversation is largely stifled at all levels. Defence members seeking to publish or comment on defence-related issues are largely undermined by defence policies, or a rigid interpretation of these policies.

A direct comparison between the defence-related websites and publications in the United States and Australia shows American officers and enlisted personnel routinely engage in debates about the future of their nation’s defence. In Australia, this is rare.

The removal of ADF personnel from the national defence conversation is partially a product of the increasing restrictions placed on them by successive governments of both parties over the past few decades. But it’s also the product of self-censorship and risk aversion within the organisation.

The paralysis created by the concern with being perceived to have said the wrong thing, being perceived to have spoken before the government, or offered an opinion at odds to the government has shut down debate.

The apolitical nature of the ADF should not be interpreted as it having no voice on defence issues. It should, and it must.

A key principle of Australian society is that the ADF is subordinate to the government of the day. It is, of course, essential that defence is seen in this light and is viewed as apolitical. The current Chief of Defence Force clearly takes this seriously, by removing himself and fellow senior officers from the background of a 2019 interview with the then minister for defence, as Christopher Pyne took a series of questions on political issues. A symbolic, but important, action.

But the apolitical nature of the ADF should not be interpreted as Defence and its members having no voice on defence issues. It should, and it must.

In 2015 another former defence minister, Kevin Andrews, commissioned a report on Australian attitudes to defence by an expert panel external to the department and the ADF. A key finding was that “enhanced public awareness was needed on defence roles and missions, how it performs these tasks and the underlying policy rationale”. The panel found the Department of Defence needed to be less risk-averse in its approach to communications and agreed to work with the department to address these issues.

Since 2015, subsequent defence policies including the centralisation of communications management and the rigid implementation of that policy have further stifled defence communications – not only Department of Defence communications with the public, but also defence debates on capabilities, policies and ideas within its own ranks.

In an interview in January the prime minister highlighted that defence spending was likely to be a focus of the 2024 budget, stating “you can’t defend Australia with a press release, you need assets”.

While there is no denying the truth of this statement, it’s not a case of convincing the government or the Canberra elites that defence funding is necessary, it’s about convincing the Australian public that this should be a spending priority. The public does not want to hear this from the government, or from academia, but from Defence. This is what the 2015 panel of experts clearly told us.

Despite cynicism about defence capability overspends, the Australian public is largely trusting of our women and men in uniform. Time and time again these are the uniforms they see when they experience personal disaster in fire and flood.

The Department of Defence needs to be communicating with the public about what the threat is, and what we need to do to combat the threat. This isn’t only our senior leaders, but all levels of defence. Presumably there are senior leaders in the ADF who would welcome the ability to speak more candidly about the challenges. If this is true, maybe it’s time for the government to allow this.

Absent from this conversation, the public’s education on defence is through the “gotcha” moments of Senate Estimates or the sensational headlines designed to gain clicks on the armed forces’ capability and workforce woes.

In this environment, without engagement from Defence it will be difficult to convince the Australian public why defence matters, why they should be trusted with larger defence budgets and why they should send their children to join the Defence Force.

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1 Comment

Well said, Jennifer. My colleague, Colin Clark, and I tried to say the same thing last year in The Australian. Here's the link, though this may be paywalled.

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