Freedom belongs to nations willing to fund it
In the latter part of 2011 previously unpublished data from the ANU’s 2010 Australian Election Study produced some fascinating reading on the subject of trust.
The study revealed that the public trusted police more than the banks and the public service more than trade unions. Unsurprisingly the most trusted group was the Australian Defence Force (ADF) with a staggering 91 per cent of Australians having a high degree of confidence in them.
This result is not unexpected given Australia operates arguably the most effective small military in the world. A military capable of conducting high level military operations in Afghanistan while simultaneously continuing our force protection and monitoring roles in Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands whilst also providing personnel to numerous other international peace related missions.
Let us not forget the ADF also provides aid to the civil community in the form of flood relief and in response to natural disasters at home and abroad. To think that such a capability does not come without a cost would be naive. Indeed, if freedom belongs to those alone with the courage to defend it, it also belongs to those willing to fund it.
The Howard Government knew this and over its last six years in office truly revolutionised the ADF. It established two extra infantry battalions, approved the purchase of two 27,000 tonne Landing Helicopter Docks, each bigger than our last aircraft carrier, three Air Warfare Destroyers and commenced the hardening and networking of our military to meet expected contingencies.
Over the period 2001-02 to 2006-07, the Howard Government provided an average per annum real increase in the Defence Budget of 3.8 per cent. The results of this investment are self evident right across the military.
In 2007 the new Labor Government promised to follow the example set by the Howard Government when it committed to maintaining defence spending at a minimum annual 3 per cent real growth until 2016.
However, by the time the 2009-10 Federal Budget had been announced Labor had softened its commitment to one that provided an average 3 per cent real growth to 2017-18 and 2.2 per cent average real growth from 2018-19 to 2029-30.
The softening of Labor’s original promise is concerning, yet the numbers in isolation do not reveal the true extent of Labor’s lack of commitment to the ADF and to national security more generally.
The true extent of the problem was revealed when an audit undertaken by McKinsey & Co., at the request of the Labor Government, revealed the Defence budget would need to grow by 3.5 per cent per annum just to replace today’s equipment. This figure increases to 4.2 per cent if Labor is to attain the capability it laid out in its own Defence White Paper.
But it gets worse. Not only does Labor’s rhetoric fall short of expectations, its actual fiscal commitment falls even further shy of the required funding to achieve its own policy objectives. Over the period since Labor came to office, the average real increase in the Defence budget over the period 2007-08 to 2012-13 is a measly 1.3 per cent.
This lack of funding is compounded by a faltering Strategic Reform Program that is supposed to save $20b over 10 years but has so far only managed to achieve savings by targeting low hanging fruit, in one case removing dessert from ADF mess menus.
Additionally, $2b of the Defence budget was recently handed back to treasury, supposedly because Defence couldn’t spent it quickly enough on equipment.
Yet over the last three years Labor has pushed $14b worth of capital equipment acquisitions to the out years of the Defence Capability Program so they do not show up in the current budget estimates. Furthermore the 2011 MYEFO statements placed an additional 2.5 per cent efficiency dividend on the Defence Department that reduced the Defence budget even further.
Labor’s border protection disaster has also consumed hundreds of millions in Defence expenditure by using half the Navy’s Armidale class patrol boats, two AP-3C surveillance aircraft and significant elements of Headquarters Northern Command to facilitate irregular maritime arrivals coming to Australia.
Not even Labor’s finest spin doctors can conceal what the figures so blatantly reveal. That you fund what you value and the extent of this value is measured in your cheque stubs not your rhetoric. Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard, famous for never attending meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, or sending their body guard in their place, have now demonstrated through their budgets that Defence and national security is not a priority.
Labor have broken yet another promise, this time in failing to meet a real increase in the Defence budget of 3 per cent, leading to the unavoidable conclusion that the 2009 Defence White Paper is now universally considered unachievable.
Of all of our nation’s institutions, the Australian people have the highest confidence in our military. That confidence is based in large part on our military’s great people, its effective equipment and its capacity to get things done. Much of this is due to the previous Howard Coalition Government’s decision to make Defence a priority and to fund it.
Be under no doubt that the next Coalition Government will also make Defence a priority and will fund it. Until such time, I fear our nation will suffer a Government whose priorities appear anywhere else other than the defence of the realm, so sayeth the budget.
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