Saturday 30 May 2020 | 05:45 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 05:45 | SYDNEY

Defence fails the laugh test


Graeme Dobell

17 November 2009 16:49

Here's a question for Australia's defence community. Hands up anyone who thinks Defence can deliver on the promise it made in the White Paper to find $20 billion in cost savings over 10 years.

Don't worry about nominating where the cuts will be made. In your answer, consider only the issues of culture, history and habit. How will Defence change its way of thinking and doing to find and then lock in those savings, year after year, to scale that $20 billion mountain? Before attempting an answer, consider this wonderful anecdote from Peter Hartcher about the Parliament House 'wake' in June after the Defence Minister resigned.

Joel Fitzgibbon and his staff were commiserating over drinks in their final moments in his ministerial suite. During a lull in the conversation, Fitzgibbon asked his staff a vital question that he had not dared ask while he was still minister…Fitzgibbon wanted to know of his staff, most of whom were Defence department officials: "Does anybody think they'll get the $20 billion of savings?" The reaction was a gale of laughter all round, according to people who were present. Fitzgibbon joined in. The idea was plainly comical. And it was no longer his problem.

On this evidence, the Defence White Paper fails a key indicator used by Professor Ross Garnaut in judging any government document: does it pass the laugh test?

Six months after it was issued, the White Paper stands accused of causing grim laughter as both a budget and a strategic document. The harshest criticism of the White Paper is that it is not rigorous enough in its strategic guidance. This goes to the heart of such a policy statement. Its purpose is to tell Defence exactly what it must do and where exactly it must be able to do it.

But the cunning in the $20 billion demand from Government is that it introduces a new 'show us' element into the way the rest of Canberra deals with Defence. Over the next decade, there will be one immediate measure available each year of the level of budget discipline in Defence.

The 'show us' demand is not just a Labor sentiment. It reflects the deep frustrations at Defence's ability to ignore budgets that built up in the breast of Peter Costello during his record term as Treasurer. The 'show us' imperative explains why the new secretary of Defence comes from the Finance Department.

This is the reverse of the cliché about making the poacher a game keeper. Putting Ian Watt in charge is more like promoting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to princely rank and ordering him to control the Lords and Barons spread across the Defence kingdom.

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