Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:27 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: Don't overlook non-military threats

29 April 2009 14:10

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.  

Bill Bowtell raises a quite fundamental issue of Australian budget policy when he says that 'it is axiomatic to defence debate insiders that that Australian taxpayers should accept that (expenditure on national defence) programs will consume somewhere between 2% and 3% of GDP stretching into the indefinite future.'

He is surely right to challenge the notion that this is the appropriate amount of money to spend on defence, and to place the topic firmly on the table for debate. After all, we are talking about something between roughly $20 billion and $30 billion per annum. It's obvious to ask, 'What are we getting for this money? Is the money well-spent?'

At the broadest level, the Australian taxpayer is presumably buying something called 'national security' through the defence vote. But it has become increasingly obvious in recent years that the idea of 'national security' needs to extend well beyond the traditional idea of military security alone.

As just one example, recently American intelligence agencies prepared a report on what the world might look like in 2025. The report canvassed all sorts of non-military threats to security – global demographic pressures, the challenges of climate change on one hand and rising competition for resources (energy, food, water) on the other, the risks of fragile states (North Korea, Myanmar, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands), and global health issues.

National security issues of this kind (refugee boatloads, and swine flu) are already headline issues in the daily media. But non-military expenditures on these issues are often trivial compared to the $20-30 billion that the Australian Government is considering for defence. 

The World Health Organization for example, is currently expected to play a key role in responding to the perceived threats from swine flu. Yet the WHO is hopelessly underfunded. The WHO planned budget for 2009 at around $3 billion is just over one-tenth that of possible spending on Australian defence – and this modest amount is expected to cover dozens of global programs (HIV/AIDs, SARs, avian flu, and numerous other health issues) as well as responding immediately to the threats from swine flu.

Thus threats to 'national security' need to be considered within a much broader scope than military threats alone. And we need to consider military spending within the wider envelope of total spending on threats to Australian external security.

Photo by Flickr user EadaoinFlynn, used under a Creative Commons license.