Beyond Anzac Day’s commemoration, the government must grapple with an increasingly difficult defence picture. By James Brown.

James Brown
After the Last Post

His royal highness Prince William, who led Canberra’s Anzac Day service, is part of an increasingly elite club of leaders in the democratic world: those with direct experience of military service. Unlike many political leaders, when Prince William meets the families of fallen Australian soldiers he can directly empathise with their loss and suffering. After all, this time six years ago the Duke of Cambridge was part of the flight crew on a military transport plane that brought the body of a fallen British soldier home from Afghanistan. Prince William knows firsthand what it means to go through the years of gruelling training to become a military professional, and has deeper insight than most into the complexities of modern war. But though his empathy is direct and his concern for Australian veterans is serious, this Anzac Day will occupy only a small place in his heart. He now returns to his home in London and to the responsibilities of the many other British causes and charities for which he is patron. The prince’s connection with the Australian military, deep though it might be on April 25, will be entirely transient.

The royal visit to the Australian War Memorial is an apt metaphor for the place our nation’s military holds in the heart of our own parliament, too. This week politicians fanned out across the country attending dawn services and Anzac marches, bowing heads before the solemnity of a century of military service and war-wrought suffering. Many of these commemorations started a fortnight early this year, to sidestep the inconvenience of a national day of commemoration falling in between two long weekends – an awkward interruption to Easter school holiday travel plans. On Friday, streets filled with marching veterans, and public hearts opened to the challenges our soldiers face in quietly going about their professional duty. Saturday the 26th, just one day later, minds have closed to the difficulties of military service and Australians have ceased thinking about the grim possibility of war for another year. The transient political gaze on our soldiers has lifted, and shifted, to the more pressing concerns of everyday political life. 

A little less than 4 per cent of the 2013 parliamentary class has direct experience with military service. Although more than 30,000 Australians served on deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade, just one of them can speak to their experience in the House of Representatives. You don’t need to have had a career in the Australian Defence Force to effectively grapple with the complexities of defence policy, but it does help. After all, unlike health or education policy, few parliamentarians come into contact with the issues of the defence force in their everyday life. And because Australia has been relatively untroubled by the scourge of war in recent years, there’s no pressing demand from constituents to grapple with military strategy either. In the latest federal election, less than 6 per cent of voters saw defence policy as an important, vote-deciding issue. Clive Palmer felt free to invoke “the ghosts of Anzac” in his maiden speech, but was untroubled by the need for his party to have an actual defence policy.

A number of MPs I’ve spoken to say their offices get more phone calls about live cattle than dead soldiers. Most representatives only interact with the military in its ceremonial role, on Anzac Day. All of this adds up to a deep and bipartisan political neglect of both how to use military force and how to prepare the Australian Defence Force for the dark but likely possibility of future conflict.

In the previous parliament, the government mostly only delved deeply into defence policy when there was a scandal of some sort, an international crisis to react to, or when money needed to be found to prop up an ailing federal budget. Before the 2013 election, the Gillard government raided the defence budget with broad and arbitrary cuts of more than 10 per cent. On one occasion, military planners were given less than five hours to cut more than a billion dollars from defence procurement – funds previously earmarked to replace aging military hardware. Yet expectations on the ADF to protect Australia’s interests weren’t lowered at the same time; instead they were expanded. Asked how to reconcile a dwindling budget with wider aspirations for a modernised defence force, then defence minister Stephen Smith reportedly replied that defence planners would need to make a “climber’s reach”. Then defence secretary Duncan Lewis resigned shortly afterwards.

Now the Abbott government faces its own exquisite defence dilemmas, for which a climber’s reach cannot be the answer. A promise to boost yearly defence funding by 0.4 per cent of gross domestic product sits uncomfortably alongside growing health costs (expected to account for an additional 2 per cent of GDP by decade’s end), a promised 1 per cent of GDP budget surplus, and an expensive paid parental leave scheme. The cost-scale alone of projects to modernise the ADF should command greater political attention and public scrutiny – $45 billion for new warships, $36 billion for new submarines, at least $12 billion for advanced fighter aircraft, and $10 billion to replace the army’s vintage armoured vehicles. And they are the best-case estimates.

The problem of finding the right military strategy for Australia is growing more vexing. We are a small country with big global interests. Traditionally we have relied on superior defence technology and out-spending our neighbours to maintain a strategic edge. Now cheap, disruptive technology is everywhere and our neighbours are growing richer – and spending up big on their own militaries. In recent history, political leaders have only thought about military strategy when disaster or conflict has arrived in their in-tray, now they will need to be much more deeply engaged. The right military strategy, crafted this year in the forthcoming defence white paper, will shape a defence force structure that plays to Australia’s comparative strengths and leverages our good strategic relationships with those in the region. The wrong strategy will retain a defence force structure essentially unchanged since the 1960s, and leave us with an expensive military that tries to do a little bit of everything.

This month, the prime minister set a weekend aside to do what the military calls “a deep dive” on military capability – essentially a detailed seminar with the chief of the defence force on how defence planners are thinking about and preparing for the future. Beyond budgetary pressures and a heightened awareness of the security tensions in Asia, there seems a growing realisation in Canberra that a step-change in thinking on defence policy and military strategy is required. That means now that Anzac Day has passed, our political leaders are learning anew the challenges the Australian military might face, and thinking harder about how the right military strategy could save soldiers’ lives in the future. The ghosts of Anzac might find some small comfort in that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "After the Last Post".

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James Brown is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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