The announcement by the Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, of the outline process for writing the next Defence White Paper is tentatively welcomed. Although disappointingly expressed in much Department of Defence jargon, and with much detail unclear or unexplained, it is encouraging to see Minister Fitzgibbon’s announcement avoid some of the major pitfalls that so beset the development of previous defence white papers. Most importantly the Minister acknowledges that our defence capabilities are needed to defend Australia and promote our national interests. The ill-defined and unrealistic concentration on just the former has caused numerous problems with the development and implementation of previous white papers.
But by what process?
The Minister’s announcement was oddly short of much detail about the process to be used.
It is also somewhat puzzling to see any public servant described as the principal author of a government white paper. Surely any such individual is no more or no less than the leader of a team drafting such a paper at the direction of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC).
It is hoped the NSCC will be actively engaged in directing the paper’s development, checking its analyses and examining its recommendations, not just act as a passive recipient of bureaucratic conclusions and wishes.
Even the best white paper, of course, can only provide guidance. The NSCC also needs to remain aware that white papers should not be drafted, approved, promulgated or implemented as rigid or doctrinaire statements that brook no review in light of subsequent events.
It is also hoped that the team assisting Mr Michael Pezzullo in preparing the white paper will be broadly drawn to ensure adequate consultations occur across the defence force and the Department of Defence, and indeed across the whole of the government.
Not doing this enough was a significant contributor to the failure in intellectual coherence of previous white papers and their inability to predict or assess many future strategic trends accurately.
Although absent from the announcement, and only hinted at in other remarks, it is further hoped that the steerage of the white paper within the Department of Defence will be actively led by the Minister with the full, active and continuous involvement of the CDF, Service Chiefs and Secretary.
This has not occurred with previous white papers – to the marked detriment of the country's long-term defence preparedness and to the range of strategic options available to various governments when eventually needed.
The poor or insufficient direction, or unthinking acceptance of flawed or biased, white papers in the past has often resulted in considerable professional frustration throughout the ADF, not least because it has meant needlessly increased operational risks to the men and women serving in it.
This has occurred when Australian governments have committed the ADF to crises, ill-equipped, under-gunned, under strength or otherwise unprepared, because white paper "guidance" has been very rigidly or narrowly interpreted, or such crises were not even foreseen or acknowledged in white paper "guidance".
As a direct consequence the defence force has been too often not resourced, structured, equipped, trained or focused appropriately for the operational tasks it eventually has had to undertake at the government's direction and on the nation's behalf.
Finally, the announcement that a formal community consultation process will again be used is an encouraging sign. This type of inclusive and educative activity was one of the few enduring successes of the 2000 white paper process and well worth repeating in 2008.
Ministerial advisory panel
The three external appointments to the Ministerial Advisory Panel are welcome from several points of view.
Although it remains unclear what their responsibilities and involvement will be, Major General Peter Abigail (Retd), Dr Mark Thomson and Dr Ross Babbage all bring widely acknowledged expertise to the task of reviewing Australia’s defence policy.
Furthermore, just as important as the individual knowledge and objectivity they bring, is their shared experiences of policy development failures within the Department of Defence in the past.
It is also refreshing to see that the new Labor government appears to be continuing its intellectual renewal in the arena of defence policy since the election of Kevin Rudd as leader at the end of 2006.
Just as important as the breadth in expertise of the three external experts, is the fact that the government appears to have continued to move on from the grip of those controversial strategic theorists who have unfortunately held many Labor figures in such thrall throughout the 1986-2006 period – even after the clearly demonstrated failures of their strategic nostrums over the last decade or so.
It would, of course, disappoint many in the defence force and wider Australian society if such failed theorists had more influence in the preparation of this white paper than any other Australian should have.
We cannot afford to ever be mugged by strategic reality again as Australia was during and after the 1999 East Timor crisis. A crisis these theorists not only did not predict but said was a type of crisis that would never occur and so did not need preparing for.
The only minor note of concern is that all three external experts are not entirely independent of the wider government apparatus, being employed by think-tanks largely dependent on federal government funding. This is perhaps somewhat inevitable in the Australian setting, but we hope appropriate steps will be taken to prevent any real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Finally, preparing the next Defence White Paper is only the first step of a journey well into the future and one well beyond the day-to-day perceptions or future thinking of most current politicians and virtually all electors.
In particular, it is worth noting that the 1976, 1987 and 1994 white papers were never followed by the levels of defence investment they assessed as necessary to fulfil the strategies and defence capability programs they envisaged as needed.
Indeed, the increases in defence investment of the last seven years or so have been necessary in part to cancel out the sustained under-investment over nearly three decades by both Coalition and Labor governments.
These recent increases in defence investment have also been necessary to cope with a strategic situation not envisaged, or in some cases openly rejected as likely or even possible, by flawed or rigid thinking in previous defence white papers.
There are obvious lessons here for the development and implementation of the new Defence White Paper.