Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 10:31 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 10:31 | SYDNEY

Defence: Let the light shine in

10 March 2010 11:30

James Brown has worked as an officer in the Australian Defence Force and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

It's been a tough week for the Australian Department of Defence – and it's only Wednesday.

On Monday night the SBS program Dateline aired a story looking at allegations from February 2009 that Australian Special Forces soldiers mistakenly killed five civilians during a night raid in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province.

Then yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald released a database it had compiled of Defence contracts stretching back for the past decade. Taking a lead from the UK Daily Telegraph's method of publishing data about MP expenses, the SMH has asked its readers to help identify anomalous spending and waste. This will be an interesting experiment in distributed investigative journalism and will no doubt yield a steady trickle of stories for the next fortnight at least.

Both events point to an increasing demand for greater transparency in the Department of Defence. The Australian public, fresh from a singeing by the opaque financial engineering of the Global Financial Crisis, is primed to better assert its right to know what the Government is doing with its taxes. This is particularly true with regard to Defence, which consumes 8% of non-GST government spending and employs over 65,000 people.

With this right to know comes a responsibility to be informed. To make defence transparency effective the Australian public needs to understand that when the Australian Army talks about cavalry, it doesn't mean horses. And it helps to have read about an Australian military campaign more recent than Gallipoli.

Outside of the commentary of a handful of experts, the current public defence debate often seems as informed as a discussion on health policy framed by watching a few episodes of House. Or a consideration of NSW state politics predicated on a few seasons of The Sopranos. Actually, scratch that last example.

The Sydney Morning Herald's drive for greater Defence accountability should be applauded. So too should be former Army Chief Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy for his willingness to engage in an intelligent discussion about funding priorities — as well as his willingness  to quote the work of the Lowy Institute.

Greater transparency in Defence spending is a good thing. It will help make the Department leaner and focus spending where it is needed most. Let's hope the Australian public welcomes it with informed criticism, rather than cheap shots at a Defence force which it doesn't fully understand.

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