Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY

The Defence White Paper: Owning and believing


Graeme Dobell

24 November 2008 11:49

The real problem for Australia’s Defence Department isn’t completing the first White Paper in eight years – although that is proving difficult enough.

Getting agreement within Defence and then securing Cabinet’s endorsement is clearly a massive undertaking. Yet the moment when Cabinet adopts the White Paper next year is only the start of the true battle. This is the struggle to secure the Labor Government’s belief in the document and full ownership of its future spending promises.

Whatever angst there might be that Defence has missed the original deadline – a White Paper by next month – pales against those issues of ownership and belief.

The Howard Government produced only one White Paper in its dozen years in office. The 2000 document aged quickly in the new era of terrorism. Yet Howard never wanted to revisit the White Paper process. Howard had full ownership of the Paper, and that meant all the money promises were more than met. The Howard measure of commitment may come to seem a golden age for Defence as the Rudd Government watches the budget forecasts haemorrhage $40 billion.

To see the difference between Cabinet adopting a White Paper and Cabinet owning it, consider what happened to the Labor versions under the Hawke and Keating governments. The 1987 White Paper promised to allocate between 2.6 per to 3 per cent of GDP to defence. The Defence Minister of the time, Kim Beazley, has probably already told Joel Fitzgibbon how far spending fell short of that aim, the promise blown away by tough economic times and other Labor priorities.

When Labor delivered the second White Paper of the Hawke-Keating era, in 1994, the document blithely admitted, 'the Defence budget has declined in recent years.' The new promise was that 'defence spending will be sustained at approximately 2 per cent of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product.' To promise is one thing. To actually deliver is about belief and ownership in the toughest government game – making choices about money.

There’s another form of ownership that matters. The White Paper must be a Rudd document, even though it will be issued by Fitzgibbon. The layout of the Coalition’s 2000 White Paper gave testimony to these issues of ownership. The document was published under the signature of the Defence Minister, John Moore. But the picture on the Minister’s introduction was of Moore with Prime Minister Howard. And the picture that accompanied Moore’s signature was of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, chaired by Howard.

Before Labor produces the White Paper, it must first deliver the National Security Statement. The longer the delay, the more interesting this Statement becomes. The long wait (or agonising delay) of the National Security Statement is all about Rudd. The Prime Minister will release the document when it suits him. Defence might grumble that the Statement was finished six months ago. But it is not official until Rudd ceases tinkering.

The delay does not matter as much as the issues of ownership and belief. As a born bureaucrat, Rudd knows that the national security document will express a view of the world, telling us what the Rudd Government believes. In the nature of such papers, it will create hierarchies of risk and orders of priority. To take just one example, how will Rudd rank the dangers of terrorism, compared to central emphasis given by Howard’s rhetoric?

If Labor’s national security document has had a protracted birth, imagine what that might portend for the White Paper. Fitzgibbon wants the Paper by March. His Prime Minister seems to offer more latitude: 'Our intention is to produce a White Paper in the first half of next year and at this stage we can’t see it being blown off course.'

Photo by Flickr user publik16, used under a Creative Commons license.