Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:18 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:18 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: White-isms


Graeme Dobell

20 April 2009 10:38

This is the seventh contribution to our debate on Australia's defence policy which started here. Here are parts two, three, four, five and six.  

‘White-isms’ used to obsess and intrigue members of the military hierarchy when Hugh White was a deputy secretary of Defence. Hugh’s pronouncements were carefully collected, collated and analysed. The aim was to track his thinking and try to discern the future.

Particularly for the Army, this was not always a labour of love. Indeed, Army acolytes had a tendency to relate the latest White-ism and then spit three times or make the Army equivalent of the sign to ward-off the evil eye. Hugh was seen as a dreadful DoA-ite. That is, a Defence of Australia man. The 2000 Defence White Paper was also the H. White paper. It was a statement of government policy and intent, channelled through Hugh’s pen.

The fact that the H. White paper expressed the view that Army would not need tanks in the future was the moment when Army’s distrust of Hugh rose to a much stronger level of emotion. All this is the background for Hugh’s fascinating Lowy Paper. Part of the fun, as various comments have already noted, is to compare the 2000 version with today’s effort.

The Lowy Paper matters because Hugh is one of Australia’s outstanding strategists and defence policy wonks. Not only can he think deeply, he can communicate elegantly.

Hugh's background tells part of the reason why he often puzzled the residents of Russell Hill. After starting with the Office of National Assessments, he moved to journalism, working as defence correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald; then into the office of the Defence Minister, Kim Beazley and later serving as Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s foreign policy adviser. From there it was off into the Defence Department (deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence from 1995 to 2000) before moving back into the ranks of the wonk commentariat.

The H. White personal history means he evades the easy categorisation expressed by the Washington line: where you stand depends on where you sit (what you say, even believe, is coloured, contoured and controlled by the bureaucracy you come from).

Hugh spent enough years in Parliament House to know how the political wheels turn. Thus, I read his Lowy paper as not just a wonk prescription.

Don’t see the paper as a faux Defence White Paper. Consider it, instead, as a particularly well written and explicit Cabinet submission. It is the sort of policy paper that goes to Ministers as the White Paper is prepared. And in the final White Paper, much of the meaty stuff — such as the tough discussion of China — gets watered down or cut out.

This brings us to the headline stuff — 18 subs and 200 fifth generation fighters. Those figures are quite explicitly out at the far edges of the wish list. In dealing with submissions, Cabinet usually reaches for the axe before it starts signing cheques. Ask for 18 subs and you might emerge with 12.

The fight over the strategic future Hugh paints will be as nothing compared to the battle over the dollars. Cabinet can fudge (and glide past) the differences between the China optimists and the pessimists. As always, the tough bit is to put ticks against the Defence list — how much kit and how much cash?